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Utah Jazz starters overcome 4th qtr deficit caused by bench, defeat Orlando Magic

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*Jedi hand waive* These are not the bench players you’re looking for

Orlando Magic v Utah Jazz Photo by Alex Goodlett/Getty Images

On Star Wars night, the Utah Jazz learned the value of a strong star cast and the need for a strong supporting cast. With fans dressed in Star Wars gear, the Utah Jazz got off to a great start. The Utah Jazz were able to overcome a late 11-0 run by the Magic by going on a run of their own once they could get as many starters back onto the court for the final stretch. The Jazz would win 109-102, but this is yet another game in which Utah’s bench as a whole provides negative value for their team. The Jazz may have another long-term issue with Mike Conley leaving the game with an injury.

In good news, both Bojan Bogdanovic and Donovan Mitchell scored 30+ points. This marks the first time the Utah Jazz have had two players with 30+ point performances in the same game since Carlos Boozer and DWill in 2008. Unfortunately, Donovan and Bojan don’t get to have the same solid bench unit as those two.

Rational Reaction #1: The Utah Jazz have an elite starting unit

When looking at 5 man lineups that averaged 10 minutes or more a game and have played at least 8 games or more together, the lineup of Mike Conley, Donovan Mitchell, Bojan Bogdanovic, Royce O’Neale, and Rudy Gobert have a +/- of +4.6. That’s 4th best in the league. The problem is once the Jazz substitute that lineup with someone from the bench not named Joe Ingles, the bench unit falls off a cliff—more on that in a second.

Tonight that starting lineup scored 95 of Utah’s 109 points on 37-71 shooting while going 12-26 from three. The only starter that had a negative +/- was Mike Conley who left the game early with a hamstring injury.

If you include Royce O’Neale into that group who had 11 points on 4 of 8 shooting.

The problem with Utah having an elite starting unit and a starting caliber 6th man is the drop off from there is precipitous.

Rational Reaction #2: The Utah Jazz bench is just horrifically bad

What does Utah do with a bench unit this bad? A week ago I wrote how the Jazz’s bench in context of the last 16 years was one of the 80 worst benches as far as +/-/min goes. They may have good FG% and rebounding numbers, but if you’re consistently getting outscored, that turns into less rest for starters as a coach will make a quicker sub. These same teams see their bench minutes diminish throughout the year as coaches lose trust.

Even more, having a bad bench is the “IT’S A TRAP” of team building. While it’s true that star power can overpower teams, contending teams need help and bench players capable of playing above their abilities from time to time. Utah has a bad bench that is only capable of playing at their ability from time to time. On the best days, Utah gets average. On most days they get nothing. On bad days, they get no room for error.

This one actually surprised me. Since 2003-2004, there have been 80 teams that had benches with the same or worse +/-/min (-2.32/min) as Utah’s bench on December 5th. Of the teams that had a bench that poor performing (or worse), only 16 teams were able to scrape by with +.500 record. Out of those 16 teams, only one—ONE—went on to have 50 or more wins: 2013-2014 Memphis Grizzlies (50-32).

Of those teams that had benches that poor performing, only seven teams had an offensive ranking that could be considered a top 10 offense. The best team with the worst bench? The 2017-2018 Minnesota Timberwolves (47-35).

That 2013-2014 Memphis Grizzlies team would get beat by the Oklahoma City Thunder in the first round of the playoffs.

Outside of Joe Ingles and Royce O’Neale, the Utah Jazz are getting absolutely nothing. According to Cleaning the Glass, when Jeff Green finds his way onto the court the Jazz get outscored by 7.9 points while scoring 102.3 points per 100 possessions and give up 110.2 per 100 possessions. He’s just a vet minimum contract, so what can you expect?

Ed Davis, who ties up Utah’s Mid-Level Exception money, is not any better. And by better I mean an absolute train wreck. The Jazz’s offense drops to the 1 percentile. Rock bottom. They average 95.3 points per 100 possessions. Tonight, Utah averaged 91.3 with Davis out there. He’s not supposed to be an offensive player, but yikes. He was billed as a tenacious offensive and defensive rebounder yet Utah gives up an offensive rebounding percentage of 28.7% when he’s out there.

We’re approaching the time where we need to question whether it’s worth it to have Georges Niang on the court at all in any capacity. He has a Net Rating of -12.9 and tonight in only 3 and a half minutes on the court, the lineup featuring him almost gave away the game to Orlando in the fourth quarter.

If Utah wants to be a contending team, they have to figure out a way to upgrade this bench. Internal improvement and development may not yield results in time. If they want to be a playoff team, they still may be required to upgrade the bench. As I said before, only one team had a bench as bad as Utah’s and won 50 games or more. That team then was upset by the six seeded Thunder. Utah’s front office doesn’t like to hit the panic button, but it may be okay to at least break the glass encasing it just so it’s at the ready.

Overreaction #1: The Utah Jazz’s gamble on Mike Conley is not going the way they planned

We are now 26 games into the season and Mike Conley has played 21 games while averaging 13.6 points, 3.5 rebounds, and 4.6 assists. If this was a bargain play to acquire Mike Conley this would be little to no concern. He’s shooting better from three than Rubio, he has a background of flexing up as the season goes on, and he’s battling an injury now so that could be depressing his numbers. But he wasn’t a bargain play. Utah went all in for the star point guard and their immediate return has been subpar. Mike Conley currently ranks in the 19th percentile in Points Per Shot Attempt at 99.3 points per 100 possessions. The player he replaced is averaging much higher and 9.3 assists.

The Jazz sacrificed depth and redundancies believing he’d provide them star power. He hasn’t. He is barely providing above replacement player value with a VORP of 0.1. His worst since his rookie year (not including the year he had a season ending injury).

To make matters more worrying, he left the game early after re-aggravating his hamstring injury. The thought of losing Conley for 5 or more games again is worrying. Utah needs Conley to be comfortable in their system and play like the star he is. Which leads me to my next question overreaction...

Overreaction #2: Can Quin Snyder’s offense elevate a star point guard?

Quin Snyder—prior to this season—has never had a star talent at point guard quite like Mike Conley. He’s rotated through the likes of Trey Burke, Dante Exum, Raul Neto, Shelvin Mack, George Hill, and Ricky Rubio. George Hill is the only one in that group that can say he has had stretches where he was on the same level as Conley.

No Utah Jazz point guard in Quin Snyder’s system has averaged more than 6.1 assists per game. That was Rubio last year. The next closest was Shelvin Mack at 4.3. And as the assists go down, turnovers go up. Most point guards in Quin’s system see an increase in TOV%. The only point guard to avoid this was George Hill who luckily had Gordon Hayward and Boris Diaw as the playmakers the majority of the time.

Ball dominant guards like Conley and Rubio have struggled, but Conley’s skillset is feeling tied down and not elevated by Quin’s system. Andy Larsen had a thought about this in his Triple Team at the Salt Lake Tribune something to this effect which seems to fit this narrative—though I need to do some research on it.

The Jazz believe that if Crowder, or Favors, or Green, or Rubio, or whoever takes 3-point shots, the Jazz’s best players will be more open later in the game. They also believe that allowing those poor shooters to take open shots will keep them more involved in the game. Snyder believes an egalitarian system will benefit the whole, by making the team more selfless.

It’s really interesting. One might argue — and I’m not sure I believe this, but it’s a possible hypothesis — that the Jazz’s commitment to collective play hurts them on the offensive end but helps them on the defensive end.

Now Conley is back to being hurt with Quin not wanting to disclose anything as he has to have further evaluation. Not exactly the most glowing endorsement if something was minor or precautionary.

Underreaction #1: A win is a win is a win

The Utah Jazz got a win. They got more of a sample size that their bench is below Knicks quality. They overcame a big run by the Magic. They overcame losing Mike Conley in the second half. They’ll now go on the road to face Atlanta, Charlotte, and Miami. Only Miami should be feared.