Derrick Favors in another uniform is a jarring sight for most Utah Jazz fans. His trade to New Orleans was seen as inevitable once the Jazz traded Jae Crowder, Grayson Allen, and draft picks for Mike Conley in pursuit of better spacing on offense. Upgrading the point guard position helped Utah to a certain degree, but the four spot was as culpable as the point guard position when it came to limiting Utah’s offensive potential. Once Favors was on his way to New Orleans, it opened up Utah’s cap space to be able to sign Bojan Bogdanovic and Jeff Green. Utah was placing its bet on modern offensive principles rather than sticking in the past, but can Utah’s patchwork corps of wings masquerading as fours do the job?
That’s the question Utah is betting on being a “Yes and more so.” But the answer to that question might seem murkey right now after a preseason in which Utah’s defense was one of the worst in the association at a Defensive Rating of 111.4. At the same time, Utah’s offensive rating was one of the best in the NBA in preseason at 110.4. The good news is these are just preseason numbers against NBA teams with strong continuity. While Utah struggled defensively against these teams due to confusion, focus, and lack of roster continuity in preseason, they gelled really quickly on the offensive end and put up big numbers against tough NBA-caliber rosters. The key is to give this group patience.
Like the young paladins of Voltron, the Jazz’s power forward corps will take some time to figure out how to soar to new heights in Utah’s defensive system. While Rudy Gobert is an amazing defensive eraser, many are not accustomed to playing with such a defensive beast. That means that they have spent a good majority of their careers not funneling their man to the big man. That means that instinctively they may be guarding their man incorrectly as their base setting. As more time goes on, these old defensive habits will fade.
Mike Conley—not a power forward, I know—spoke of this after the Jazz’s last preseason game. He said a lot of mistakes on offense and defense may have been his due to him just being so used to having the big man be Marc Gasol or not having capable wings like Donovan Mitchell, Bojan Bogdanovic, or Joe Ingles. Likewise Bojan Bogdanovic ran a lot of last season as “The Man.” Jeff Green has found himself on just as many contenders as dumpster fires over his career. Royce O’Neale has never been expected in his career to be a potential NBA starter. This is new territory for a lot of these new Jazz wings.
But there’s potential for this bunch. A quick view of their stats says the Jazz have a group that can make an impact both offensively and defensively. Royce O’Neale is one of Utah’s best defenders with the best Draymond Rating outside of Dante Exum and Rudy Gobert. Bojan Bogdanovic and Joe Ingles can punish teams that try to pack the paint with their superb three point shooting.
Utah Jazz Potential 2019-2020 Power Forwards
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Out of all players who may struggle defensively, Bojan Bogdanovic is going to be the one that stands out. He’s a scorer first, playmaker second, and defender last. That doesn’t mean he’s a bad defender, it’s just he sometimes isn’t engaged on that end. That has to change. In preseason, teams went at Bojan in the pick and roll. Part of that is that he’s an average defender. The other part is he’s new to the scheme. Both of those things together made for a perfect target.
On both plays above, you can see Bojan just going through the motions on defense and getting lit up by guards. Portland was working to get Bojan guarding either Lillard or McCollum. Those don’t really inspire confidence in Bojan, BUT there’s something that is normally providing some insurance: Rudy Gobert. In the preseason—for whatever reason—Gobert wasn’t his normal mistake erasing self. Considering that Bojan has room to improve to get to his average defensive ability and Gobert is not normally this detached on defense, Jazz fans should not worry about potential guarding issues.
The problem for Utah comes when they have to figure out how to rebound. While Jae Crowder wasn’t burning down the nets with his scoring, he was averaging 4.8 rebounds a game for the season. Rebounding the ball is the biggest void Utah is going to have trouble filling. Royce O’Neale and Bojan Bogdanovic only averaged 3.4 rebounds a game in preseason. Jeff Green? 2.8. Joe Ingles? 2.5. If Utah is unable to rebound the ball, their small lineups may suffer. Utah’s best non-center rebounding player in preseason? The undersized Donovan Mitchell. While Donovan has the chops for rebounding, that may not be a recipe for continued success to rely upon the Jazz’s primary scorer for rebounding as well.
The good news? Royce O’Neale and Bojan Bogdanovic typically rebound better than what they what they showed in the preseason. Part of their adjustment may be the result of Utah switching a lot more on defense than what both are used to in prior systems. Both their career averages indicate that they should be able to rebound capably during the season.
Where this group of wings converted to the four spot can really soar is on the offensive end. Utah’s high scoring offense in preseason was just one sign that Utah’s on the right track with the four spot going to a big wing rather than an overpowering big. Utah’s offense was the fourth best offense in the preseason. There have been plays in which Donovan Mitchell has had loads of spacing just by virtue of who was on the floor. Last season if the Jazz’s backcourt wanted that type of spacing, it would have to be earned through a hot shooting night by Jae Crowder. Now it’s just a given.
This type of play is now available just because of the name on the back of Utah’s wings’ jerseys. Portland has to react to Gobert’s gravity near the rim, but can pull away from Ingles and Bogdanovic because of their ability to hit the three ball AND take the ball off the dribble and create. That allows Utah to play a game of 3 v. 3 on this play with Conley getting the open shot. Utah’s offense changes dramatically.
One potentially fun lineup—Conley, Mitchell, Ingles, Bogdanovic, and Gobert—is really exciting as Ingles and Bogdanovic can go flex from 3 to 4 depending on the play. That allows Utah to really put teams in a blender. It also allows Utah to have four playmakers on the floor. Something that Utah never had last season. While Jae Crowder had the ability to shoot the three—33% from distance—he wasn’t someone Utah relied on for playmaking.
That’s an area Utah has some fun variability. In preseason, Joe Ingles averaged 5.8 assists a game, Royce O’Neale averaged 2.6, Bogdanovic had 2.2. Even Jeff Green took his turn at running the Utah offense. No longer can teams expect Utah to find the guard and bring it down court. Utah’s new power forward group can go from rebound to initiating the offense which will speed up Utah’s pace of play. If anyone watched Utah during the preseason, it’s a bit jarring to watch them play at a frenetic pace. That pace could have also contributed to their rough defense, but that’s a thought for another day.
While it may be hard to move on from the Derrick Favors years for Jazz fans, the good news is Utah has a group of players that through the aggregate can take Utah to higher heights. The foursome of Green, Ingles, O’Neale, and Bogdanovic has skills that Favors and Crowder just would never develop. Are there going to be times Utah misses Favors flexibility to move from the four to five? Most certainly. Are there going to be times Utah missed Jae Crowder’s toughness on defense? Of course. But by the midpoint of this NBA season, Jazz fans will see that Utah’s ceiling is now higher with this more modern set of NBA power forwards.