The hype for this upcoming Utah Jazz season is going to reach a fever pitch. While a rough preseason may have tempered the Jazz’s season expectations for some Jazz fans, there’s no disputing that Justin Zanik and the rest of the Jazz’s front office built this roster with the expectation of competing for an NBA Championship. Utah is going full speed ahead toward contention while the league is enjoying the most competitive parity it has seen in years. The window is now. But how will Jazz fans know if Utah is on the right track? Early season wins and losses can be deceiving, so here are some key signs—both promising and foreboding—that fans can look out for over the season.
Consistent improvement on the defensive end
Last season, despite having almost everyone back from the prior year, the Utah Jazz started the season 14th in defensive rating in the first month, but month after month, Utah improved. Utah would end the season with the second best defensive rating in the league. With a good portion of their roster being filled with new additions, it is going to take a bit of time for Utah’s roster to turn it around. Utah may not be the best defensive team in the league over the entirety of the regular season, but the goal will be to have the best one heading into the playoffs.
One prime example of this was the Houston Rockets last season. Prior to the All-Star break they were ranked 25th in the NBA in defensive rating. Post All-Star break they were the league’s second best defense. They consistently improved on that end. One thing they shared in common with Utah was the lack of roster continuity. Houston burned through wings until they found reliable wings on the budget market who could defend and space the floor. That gambit to continually experiment until they got it right paid off once the playoffs started.
With so many new pieces, familiarity on the defensive end is going to take some time. Patience will be key. If the Jazz stay stagnant and stick around average for the first couple months of the season, that could be the canary in the coal mine that Utah may need to follow Houston’s lead from last year and not be content with average.
Donovan Mitchell’s efficiency on the floor increases
In his first two season, Donovan Mitchell—wrongfully so—has had the label of a chucker thrown on him from time to time. That label usually comes from small sample sizes (the beginning of last season when Mitchell was still recovering from injury and the playoffs against the second best team in the West), but the label unfortunately persists.
The reason behind that label is a career 43% field goal shooter and doesn’t have a great Win Share per 48 or Value Over Replacement Player (VORP) rating. Using just those last two stats, a casual fan could infer that Derrick Favors and Joe Ingles were more important to Utah’s success than the only player who could get buckets without assistance. But, once again, the label persists.
If Donovan’s numbers do take a giant leap forward in terms of efficiency, it would be a big benefit to Utah. It would mean starting more defensive possessions with an inbounded ball. It would mean Utah’s big acquisitions—Bojan Bogdanovic and Mike Conley—were playing well and getting the respect of the opposing defense. It would mean that Donovan Mitchell had taken the leap to not just a fringe All-Star but a superstar.
In the preseason, Donovan Mitchell averaged PER36 25.5 points, 5.9 rebounds, 4.9 assists, and only 1.7 turnovers while shooting 37% from three, 48% from the field, and 82% from the line. He also averaged almost 6 free throws a game PER36 in preseason. Once again, that is only preseason. Just as the Jazz’s defense is not as bad as preseason portends, Utah’s offense isn’t quite the buzzsaw that it predicts.
If Donovan Mitchell averages close to his preseason numbers or better, Utah is well on their way for a special year.
Joe Ingles averages about 25 minutes a game to start out the season
Joe Ingles is now a sixth man and not in the complete Manu Ginobili sense. Utah wants Ingles to have a Ginobili-type impact while he’s out on the floor and to finish games, but they want to keep Joe Ingles fresh for the postseason. The goal for Utah is to keep him far, far away from his 31.3 minutes per game last year. Utah’s depth SHOULD give Utah the luxury to pull this off.
If Joe Ingles finds himself playing closer to his 31 minutes a game for the first couple months of the season rather than around 25 minutes a game, that could mean Utah’s hope for Jeff Green, Royce O’Neale, and Bojan Bogdanovic to man either the three or four spot is not quite working out the way it hoped. Likewise, it could mean that Dante Exum and Emmanuel Mudiay are struggling off the bench and as playmakers.
If Quin Snyder finds himself going to his most trusted Australian trash-talker rather than Utah’s new additions, this could be a sign that Utah may have some issues it needs to resolve to be considered a championship contending squad.
Rudy Gobert is elite, not just above average
This sentence almost seems blasphemous to type, but it has to be said now that Utah removed Gobert’s elite defensive redundancy, Derrick Favors. The Jazz’s defense works because of Rudy Gobert. Full Stop. Period. Utah being not just above average at his position, but elite and historic is why Utah can get away with being aggressive and suffocating. He allows Utah to bring the house on every possession—to borrow a football term.
During the preseason, Rudy Gobert looked out of sorts. That could be him just worn down from a long FIBA run, spending his offseason in three different continents, and having long practices mixed with games against tougher preseason competition than in past seasons. That’s probably the main reason as to why Rudy Gobert just looks tired or detached on certain possessions.
If Rudy Gobert is disengaged to start the season, Utah could have a repeat of last year’s rough defensive start where they weren’t locked in. It took Dennis Lindsey making the Kyle Korver trade to shake this roster awake with some urgency. Dennis Lindsey even tried to get Conley earlier and bring him in at the trade deadline. With Justin Zanik now running the front office, I anticipate he doesn’t want to have to make a midseason trade for a role player to awaken his roster’s urgency for the second year in a row.
Dante Exum and Emmanuel Mudiay become valuable parts to the Jazz’s rotation
Utah has the depth to play around Mudiay and Exum if they struggle or play outside of their roles to start the season, but if Mudiay and Exum can be feisty backcourt off the bench, Utah’s ceiling goes up exponentially. Part of why Utah holds onto Exum—aside from never trading away a player when their trade value is at its lowest—is Exum’s defensive abilities—when healthy—are elite.
‘With Joe Ingles taking over primary playmaking responsibilities with the bench unit, Dante Exum and Emmanuel Mudiay have the luxury of leaning into their strengths as a defensive stopper and a scorer, respectively. Add in that they’re both big guards and Utah could have a nice wrinkle off the bench with both of them.
The problem—and some would say reality—is that Dante Exum is not close to being is healthiest self and won’t ever get close to the flashes he has shown when healthy. The other problem—or some would say reality—is Emmanuel Mudiay will always play outside of his role and force himself into mistakes. But if these two can become well defined role players off the bench for Utah this season, Utah is a championship contender.
Royce O’Neale is an above average rebounder at the four spot
Utah took the chance to move on from Derrick Favors partly because they believed in the long-term potential of Royce O’Neale as modern power forward in today’s NBA. If we are to look at his performance during the preseason, the results are mixed. O’Neale shot 60% from three for preseason which is a good sign if Utah is looking for him to spread the floor. He also was a net positive when he was on the floor.
He did not rebound the ball as well as he could. Royce O’Neale averaged 3.5 rebounds a game in 20 minutes a night. In preseason he was coming away with 3.4 rebounds a game in 22.4 minutes. He’s a little under his averages. Unfortunately for Royce, Utah is not just hoping he can increase his number of rebounds a game, they are expecting it. Utah needs to replace the rebounding that happened when Derrick Favors and Jae Crowder split time at the four spot. Admittedly, Crowder spent more time there than Favors, but those rebounds need to be replaced. O’Neale is a big part of that.
If O’Neale’s rebounding numbers improve just by 10-15% from last year, that’s a good sign toward Utah’s success on the defensive end and the season.