Before this season started (was that like 4 years ago?) the Utah Jazz were set up to have an exciting season. The trade for Mike Conley and the signing of Bojan Bogdanovic set them up to have a team that could beat anyone in the league if everything came together.
Then the actual season happened.
The first month of the year included an undeniably rough start for Mike Conley that immediately changed everyone’s outlook for the Jazz. His multiple injuries didn’t help that perception either.
The Jazz then played one of the most up and down seasons in recent memory. The’d go on a long win streak only to follow it up with a multi-game skid. Over and over. And some of those losses were terrible. They’d find ways to lose against underhanded teams on the back end of a back to back time after time.
Game. Nuggets defeat the Jazz 98-95......Utah loses its fifth consecutive game. The jazz again implode to a shorthanded team playing on the tail end of a back to back. Have had three such home losses this season (OKC and Houston first) Utah falls to 32-18. On to Portland Friday— Tony Jones (@Tjonesonthenba) February 6, 2020
It also became clear there was some sort of rift within the team. Multiple nights we’d see Rudy Gobert frustrated with the lack of touches. It was a roller coaster of on court chemistry that depended on whether the team was winning or losing. It would get so bad that we saw nights where a fed up Rudy Gobert stopped protecting other players on defense that wouldn’t pass him the ball on the other end.
All of this was going on when Gobert tested positive for COVID-19. All of a sudden Rudy Gobert, Donovan Mitchell and the Utah Jazz were the center of attention for not just the NBA but the world.
The normal lack of national coverage for the Jazz meant a rift between Gobert and Mitchell was mostly unknown. Now? It was in full focus.
Donovan Mitchell reportedly is "reluctant" to fix his relationship with Rudy Gobert.— Bleacher Report (@BleacherReport) April 10, 2020
"It doesn't appear salvageable," a source told @ShamsCharania, @sam_amick and @Tjonesonthenba pic.twitter.com/K96EvPleyU
It’s been nearly three months since that crazy night in Oklahoma City. Long enough that it appears that things between them may be improving. Or at least calmed down.
Jazz executive VP Dennis Lindsey on Rudy Gobert and Donovan Mitchell: "They're ready to put this behind them and move forward. They know they need each other."— Tony Jones (@Tjonesonthenba) May 5, 2020
But that wasn’t the last of the bad news for the team.
In late May Woj dropped the bomb that Bojan Bogdanovic would have surgery on his wrist and would miss the rest of the season.
Utah Jazz F Bojan Bogdanovic is undergoing season-ending surgery on his right wrist, sources tell ESPN. Full recovery expected for start of 2020-21 season. He's averaged 20 points per game for Jazz, fourth-seed in West.— Adrian Wojnarowski (@wojespn) May 18, 2020
Another blow to the Jazz after what seemed like an endless barrage of bad luck.
So, with all this, is there any way that this Jazz team could still have a big playoff run?
Yes! I mean it’s been long enough to let the delusion set in, right?
If the Jazz can get over their locker room and on court frustrations, they still have a core of pieces that could make a lot of noise in the playoffs.
Obviously, the easiest way to make it to the playoffs is have Lebron James on your team or fill that team with three or four all stars like the Warriors. The Jazz have two all-stars in Rudy Gobert and Donovan Mitchell combined with a supporting cast of high level talent. In the past we’ve seen teams with this makeup go all the way. Could the Jazz catch lightning in a bottle?
Here’s a look at the different players on the team and how they resemble other past players that were successful in the playoffs.
Mike Conley: Point Guard and Scoring Threat
Playoff goal: Grizzlies Mike Conley, Chauncey Billups, Kyle Lowry
We’ve already seen what Mike Conley can do when surrounded by high level talent. With the grit and grind Grizzlies Conley shined. His defensive tenacity was a part of what helped those Grizzlies teams go deep in the playoffs. Over time he’s polished his offensive game to be a weapon that can get buckets when you need it.
To be successful with the Jazz, Conley will need to make good decisions and hit big shots. Having that threat across from Donovan Mitchell will open things up for both players.
In the past few playoffs the Jazz had seen some success, especially on the defensive end, but their offense sputtered with a lack of play makers and shooting. Getting Mike Conley was the big move to fix that. If the Jazz get the best version of Conley it will keep defenses honest and allow the entire team a chance to make plays in space. That lack of spacing has been the thing that has killed their offense in the playoffs the last two seasons.
Conley still has a chance to be that difference maker they’ve been hoping for. Perhaps with Bogdanovic out it will put the ball in Conley’s hands even more and allow him to make the plays for the Jazz that he used to make for the Grizzlies.
Joe Ingles: Do it all wing, 3-point threat
Playoff Goal: Oklahoma Series Joe Ingles, Tayshaun Prince, Reggie Miller
Against Oklahoma City in 2018 Joe Ingles showed that he can be a big difference maker. Ingles went toe to toe with Paul George in the series and legitimately locked him up in the deciding game. That, along with some big shooting nights, helped advance the Jazz to the second round.
In both series against the Rockets, Houston was able to keep Ingles in check by sagging off of Ricky Rubio and Derrick Favors and taking him out of the game. But with more spacing, Ingles has a chance to make plays for the Jazz like he couldn’t before.
Ingles is the kind of player that can win you a game in each of the series he’s in whether it’s with defense, setting up Gobert with easy buckets or on the defensive end.
Royce O’Neale: 3 and D
Playoff Goal: Bruce Bowen, Ron Artest
Losing Bojan Bogdanovic was a blow to the Jazz offense. His shooting and ability to get a shot off would have been a huge asset in the playoffs. On the other hand Bogdanovic also gives up a lot on the defensive end. At times it can feel like what’s gained on one end is given up on the other.
Now the Jazz will rely much more on Royce O’Neale. And that’s a good thing! O’Neale is one of the Jazz’s most versatile defenders. Every night he’s able to guard multiple positions and take on the best player on the opposing team. He’s also a solid spot up shooter from three.
O’Neale has had a larger load this season and has been rewarded with a new contract. The next step for O’Neale is to let if fly more often from three. For the season O’Neale has put up 3.3 3-point attempts per game. If O’Neale can get his shot attempts up to 5-6 per game and keep his percentages up during the playoffs, combined with his high level defense, can take the Jazz over the top in multiple games.
Jordan Clarkson: Sixth Man, Bucket Getter
Playoff Goal: Jason Terry, Manu Ginobili
One of the silver linings of having Bogdanovic go down is that it puts Joe Ingles in the starting lineup and gives more minutes to Jordan Clarkson.
Clarkson has been a revelation in Utah with his ability to get a bucket when an offensive possession falls apart. Clarkson is one of those players that makes coaching easy. Against second units, if the Jazz can spread the floor, they can give Clarkson the ball and he can get to work against second unit defenders. Against any opponent Clarkson has found a way to score.
Expecting Clarkson to put up numbers like a hall of famer in Ginobili isn’t fair. But Clarkson has been surprisingly good in Utah. Enough that you could consider him a Ginobili-lite. Since joining the Jazz, Clarkson has put up big numbers off the bench much like Ginobili would do for the Spurs.
Everyone knows that the playoffs are a different animal. If Clarkson can continue his scoring when everything slows down and defenses lock in, the Jazz have the bench threat they need that could swing a series.
Rudy Gobert: Defensive Anchor, Lob Threat
Playoff Goal: Dikembe Mutombo, Tyson Chandler, Ben Wallace
The Dallas Mavericks in 2011 were led by Dirk Nowitzki who had a masterful playoffs. Of everyone on that championship team, people seem to forget Tyson Chandler. The same Chandler who won the DPOY the following year with the Knicks.
Chandler was the defensive anchor that kept their defense respectable. Dallas had the #1 offense that year with the #17 defense. Without Chandler they wouldn’t have had a defense that was good enough to take them over the top.
Rudy Gobert is every bit the defensive player that Chandler was. He’s also a lob threat, just like Chandler, that opens up the lane for his team by pulling the main rim protector away from the basket.
Gobert can easily fill that role. Of every player on the Jazz this is the easiest to imagine happening. If the Jazz get elite Gobert, it changes every game they’re in.
Donovan Mitchell: Primary Scorer
Playoff Goal: (Pistons Isiah Thomas), Tony Parker, Dwyane Wade
This is the arguably the most important and prominent role. We all remember the guy from every championship who led the offense. And rightfully so. Scoring in the playoffs is really, really hard.
You can set a team up with all the tools to succeed. Spacing, shooters etc. But you need THAT GUY to make the actual buckets. To score when things are tight and everything shuts down.
We’ve seen Donovan Mitchell do this before in the playoffs. As a rookie he looked spectacular out-dueling Russell Westbrook and the Oklahoma City Thunder. The last two seasons teams seem more aware of the Jazz weapons and how to counter them. Even with more spacing the team has seemed to struggle with scoring. With Mike Conley on the team, Mitchell has to take advantage and make the right plays. Sometimes that’s being happy with spot up threes. If there are open lanes, he has to take them and finish with ferocity. If a lane closes, Mitchell has to find the open lob or corner three. These are the things that special players do.
Can Mitchell become one of those guys?
We will see, because he has a lot of talent around him. Put Lebron James or Kawhi Leonard in his same spot and they likely are in the finals. This is Donovan Mitchell’s chance to put himself into that category of player. If he does, this season for the Jazz could become very special.