On the Brink of Contention
The Utah Jazz have been an unlikely playoff mainstay in the tough western conference over the past three years. This consistency has been largely due to the findings of some diamonds in the rough in the draft, and this was particularly the case with their praised selections of Donovan Mitchell (selected 13th overall in 2017) and Rudy Gobert (selected 27th overall in 2013). The self-grown talent in Utah, along with their highly regarded head coach Quin Snyder, has made this team relevant without having to splurge money in free agency.
However, there is a jump that needs to be made if the Jazz want to be respected as true contenders by the rest of the league. Despite their success, the team’s offense has been merely average over the past 3 years, with the Jazz’s offense ranking 15th, 16th, and 12th during this time. If Utah could take the next step on offense to complement their elite defense that has ranked in the top 3 in each of the past three seasons, then they can finally make this transition. Clearly, the basketball operations department in Utah recognized this disparity in performance, and their offseason moves thus far have suggested that the Jazz are pushing to emerge as a true threat in next season’s championship race.
The Mike Conley Trade
The first big move of the offseason for the Jazz came on June 19th, where they acquired star point guard Mike Conley from the Memphis Grizzlies, thereby giving Utah a massive upgrade at the point guard position from Ricky Rubio. Last season under Rubio, the Jazz struggled to take care of the basketball, posting a turnover percentage of 13.4% (27th in the NBA). Rubio undoubtedly played a big role here, as he had an individual turnover percentage of 17.8%, ranking him 176th among qualified players. This carelessness from the point guard position really hurt the Jazz, especially as a slower-paced team that needs to value every possession. Conley, who recorded an impressive turnover percentage of 9.1% (36th among qualified players), should immediately help them in this area.
Additionally, Conley will be able to provide additional floor spacing when coach Quin Snyder elects to put the ball in Mitchell’s hands. Last season, opposing teams were willing to leave Rubio open on the perimeter since he only made a below average 33.7% of his catch-and-shoot 3-point attempts. This strategy allowed defenses to clog the paint with an extra man in order to help stop Mitchell from getting to the rim, thus limiting the amount of room to operate for the offense. Again, Conley will alleviate this issue for Utah, as his 39.8% catch-and-shoot 3-point percentage will force the opposition to respect his range, thereby spreading the defense and opening up driving lanes.
With all of that being said, it’s important to remember that Conley is more than just a floor spacer who doesn’t turn the ball over. He’s also a guy coming off a season where he averaged a career-high 21.1 points per game while maintaining the ability to create scoring opportunities for others, as shown with his 6.4 assists per game and his 33.4 assist percentage (both of which tops any member of the Jazz last year). He also will be able to contribute to the defensive identity that Utah has built upon the last few years, as he himself was the leader of a Grizzlies defense that ranked 9th in the NBA last year. And finally, Conley will be able to bring his invaluable playoff experience from the Grizzlies six consecutive playoff berths between 2011 and 2017 in order to provide the veteran leadership this team will need in order to make the next step.
Taking Advantage of Free Agency
When the Mike Conley trade was completed, there was already noise that Utah would be a sneaky contender this upcoming season. But the Jazz weren’t done. Even though Salt Lake City doesn’t scream “free agency destination”, the Jazz took advantage of one of the more active free agencies in NBA history and came away with some quality talent to surround their already promising young core. The headlining acquisition came when they signed Bojan Bogdanovic to a four-year $73 million deal to pluck him away from the Indiana Pacers. Bogdanovic is coming of a career year this past season where he posted all-time highs in points, assists, rebounds, field goal percentage, and win shares for a Pacers team that remained competitive in the eastern conference despite losing franchise guard Victor Oladipo to a season-ending injury in January.
Snyder will assumedly use Bogdanovic in the role formally occupied by last year’s starting forward Jae Crowder, who was shipped off to Memphis in the Conley deal, previously had. In Snyder’s offense, Crowder posted a career high 3-point attempt rate of 0.655 (meaning that 65.5% of his field goal attempts were from 3-point territory), which ranked as the 13th highest rating in the entire league last season. While there were so many opportunities from beyond the arc for Crowder, he was only able to make a below-average 33.1% of them. Imagine if Bogdanovic, who made 42.5% of his 3-pointers a year ago, is able to get the same amount of opportunities that Crowder got. This poses some major upside for a system that has produced just average results over the past few years, giving the Jazz the offensive firepower that they haven’t had in a long time.
With that being said, Bogdanovic wasn’t the only valuable free agent addition that the Jazz got this offseason. They were also able to agree to terms with Ed Davis, who will presumably be utilized as Rudy Gobert’s backup center. If that’s the case, Davis will fill that role admirably, as he is an elite level rebounder as he corralled 25.2% of available rebounds when he was on the court last season for the Brooklyn Nets, one of the top rates in the league. They also utilized some additional cap space to bring on Jeff Green and Emmanuel Mudiay, two players with size for their position that will provide length on the defensive end and additional veteran depth to the overall roster.
Ready for the Next Step?
Amid all of the power shuffling throughout the league during the past few weeks, it’s hard not to recognize the Utah Jazz as one of the biggest winners of the offseason. They addressed their areas of weakness, traded for another star, and filled out their roster with the necessary depth that will get them through the grueling 82-game regular season. With that being the case, the real question is whether this team can make the jump from early playoff vanisher to championship contender, and their moves show that they are prepared to do just that. As long as they don’t lose sight of the defensive prowess that initially made them relevant, the Jazz now have the talent offensively to be elite on both sides of the court, which is necessary if they want to be able to win the western conference and play in June for the first time since 1998.