The Utah Jazz must consider themselves lucky to be 16-11 at this point in the season with the issues they’ve had on the court. 27 games into the regular season the Jazz have the league’s 21st ranked offense and 9th ranked defense. Rudy Gobert hasn’t looked like a defensive player of the year candidate yet, Donovan Mitchell has found an unhealthy relationship with the floater, Joe Ingles’ trigger on threes is still misfiring, and Bojan Bogdanovic while an offensive powerhouse is not going to be Favors on defense.
The bench unit is easily one of the worst in the NBA. Now Utah finds itself without the prize of their offseason, Mike Conley, presumably for their upcoming East Coast road trip and as many as multiple weeks according to Tony Jones and Shams Charania of the Athletic. What hurdles does Utah face the next couple weeks and is there help on the horizon?
While Utah is going on the road, they are playing two out of their next three games against teams with a sub .500 record, the Atlanta Hawks and Charlotte Hornets. They face a difficult opponent in the Miami Heat to end the trip, but that type of opponent gives Utah a fighting chance of leaving the trip 2-1. Unfortunately for Utah, the ease of the opponent hasn’t quite provided them with a game in which they can coast to a win.
In the last week and a half the Jazz have played the Grizzlies, Timberwolves, Thunder, Warriors, and Magic with very mixed performance. The result has been four wins and a loss, but the means to get to the end has been like a Santa’s delivery schedule. It doesn’t seem scaleable or repeatable, but somehow it works. But that doesn’t mean there isn’t a better way.
The good news is in those games—most of them without Mike Conley—the Utah Jazz have boasted an offensive rating of 114.5. That’s the 4th best offensive rating in the NBA during that stretch. Honestly, it would be worrying if their offense wasn’t able to put up points on bottom feeders.
The bad news is in those games the Jazz—who are supposed to be known for their defense have averaged a defensive rating of 109.0, 15th in the NBA over that stretch. That’s against the league’s cupcakes. The problem? The Jazz’s weak bench.
The bench is a complete wreck
Without Mike Conley, the Utah Jazz’s bench goes from weak to brittle. Royce O’Neale and Joe Ingles now get full-time duty with the starters and the leftovers have shown all season long—with few exceptions—that they’re woefully out of their league. Utah’s bench has struggled against the NBA’s worst team’s benches. Over the last 5 game stretch, the Jazz bench has a +/- of -0.9. Five games may seem like a small sample size, but it’s against weak, inexperienced, and untalented NBA benches. In short, the Jazz bench is the Wells Fargo of NBA benches; they consistently bite off more than they can chew, leave Utah with deficits they didn’t consent to, and always need a bailout.
The bench unit—not including Royce O’Neale—during that stretch averaged 12.8 minutes per game. They have scored a collective 20.8 points a game on shooting splits of 40/43/65. But here comes the kicker, over that 5 game stretch they have a combined +/- of -30. They are getting run off the floor. Veterans like Ed Davis and Jeff Green were brought in to provide a stable presence on the bench, but, frankly, they’re increasingly becoming unplayable. It’s not bad, it’s embarrassing. Embarrassing because this is a bench with veterans like Ed Davis and Jeff Green. Lineups that include both Jeff Green and Ed Davis are routinely getting outscored by nine points per 100 possessions and repeatedly out-rebounded. With Ingles and O’Neale no longer coming off the bench while Conley is out, there is not one player left coming off the bench that provides consistent positive value.
Of note, Utah’s bench has only averaged 15.0 minutes per game (28th in NBA) and is averaging an embarrassing 24.6 points a game (27th in NBA). Against the Magic last night, they only managed to put 14 points on the board. Against the blatantly tanking Golden State Warriors whose bench comprised Jacob Evans, Marquese Chriss, Damion Lee, Omari Spellman, and Jordan Poole, they only scored 12 points. The Warriors bench put up 52. They were outscored by 40 points by the equivalent of the Santa Cruz Warriors.
This season the Utah Jazz’s bench has only outscored five teams’ benches on a per minute basis. Those teams are Philadelphia, New Orleans, Indiana, Milwaukee, and Sacramento. If a few of those teams stick out in your memory, you may remember that the games against Philadelphia, Indiana, and Sacramento were blowouts. The games against Philly and Indy were not in Utah’s favor while Sacramento was. Leaving the only the time in which Utah’s bench actually outscored an opposing team’s bench outside of garbage time were against New Orleans and Milwaukee. Three games in the course of an entire season in which this bench wasn’t a tire fire.
In non-blowout-getting-the-doors-blown-off-of-them situations, the Jazz average -.289 points per minute in point differential to the opposing bench. The Utah Jazz bench averages 16.0 minutes per game. That equates to Utah getting outscored by an average of -4.6 points a game. Ouch. Not a leeway for a starter to have an off night or, in the case of Conley, get injured. The scary part is that doesn’t even include the downward gravity that putting two or more bench players in the lineup.
Staying afloat during the next few games
The Mike Conley injury could put a little pep in the step of the Utah Jazz’s front office when it comes to upgraded the bench. Utah wants to be a buyer at the Trade Deadline, but they lack the salaries to match and the assets to assure a solid IOU. Utah is the teenage kid outside the convenience store wanting some beer. They scraped together the cash, but to get the goods they REALLY need an irresponsible adult to step up and do them a solid. Ultimately, any deal that Utah could make isn’t going to help their potential trade partner as much as it will help the Jazz.
Also hurting them is their less-than-stellar start. It’s not exactly making them a hotspot for good role players who get bought out and want to go ring chasing. They’re going to have to get creative. While it’s fun to play Trade Machine for players like Kevin Love and Jrue Holiday, those players are not in Utah’s price range (unless you’re cool with still having a bench that can’t support Utah during an injury or pass gatorade).
One name that is suddenly available on the market is Robert Covington. He’s a dynamic defensive player and a capable catch and shoot player. Exum could be the vehicle in that type of move to match salary then Utah can bargain on what type of additional asset Minnesota wants on the ride to the Tundra.
Another is JJ Redick who the Pelicans say they don’t want to move. He’s a great win now player and he’s more valuable to the Pelicans as a trade piece especially as he’ll be 36 once the Pelicans MAY have the healthy pieces ready to contend. (I wish Utah could go after Favors, but CBA Rules are Rules.)Marcus Morris—who I’ve mentioned many times—is another of great interest. But here’s the problem. Other teams with much better collateral are in that same market.
Utah doesn’t have a lot of mobility, and many teams would have to settle HARD at the trade deadline to make things work with Utah. That leaves players who are not great trade targets and may be even worse than Utah’s current personnel because of adjusting to a new system midway through the season and their low performance. Think like Shelvin Mack for a second rounder type deals. It may juice the numbers for a few weeks, but it’s duct taping a sinking ship at that point. Is it worth the time, assets, and effort?
Time to wait it out
This Utah Jazz roster could be just a one year experiment if things go south. If Conley struggles with injuries and doesn’t regain last season’s form, if Utah’s bench doesn’t improve, and the Jazz’s defense doesn’t regain his past season’s glory, is that really a team you want to double down on as you send increasingly more assets out for small incremental improvement that’s the difference between an 8 seed and the 7 seed? Not really.
Justin Zanik and the rest of the Jazz front office want to make sure they have the foundation right before they really put the pedal to the medal. If this Utah team was where LA was at the top of the West, I’d say Utah would be VERY motivated buyers. As of right now, they may just ride this car out until the transmission goes out. If the experiment fails, they can move Conley in the offseason and pivot with three stars in Mitchell, Bogdanovic, and Gobert. If it REALLY fails due to injuries, they gain a lotto pick pick as a VERY precious asset to juice up trade deals to pair with say Joe Ingles or Dante Exum.
If Utah tries to go all in right now with a struggling squad, they are basically having to use the NBA equivalent of payday loans to get stuff done. We have said this season and maybe next season is Utah’s window. If the window is already shut now due to injuries, a bad bench, lack of identity, and no money to improve, Utah’s probably best not to reverse mortgage the house just to have a hint of playoff breeze.
So as Mike Conley is out the next few games, fans are going to have to wait it out and trust in the Utah’s current roster. It could get a little bumpy. As Boler would say, “Buckle up.”