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Here’s what was happening with the Utah Jazz prior to the suspension of the NBA season

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Time to turn back the clock to when Jazz basketball was more than just a memory

NBA: Memphis Grizzlies at Utah Jazz Russell Isabella-USA TODAY Sports

115 days.

That’s how long it’s been since we’ve seen Utah Jazz basketball. But who’s counting?

If in these nearly four months you’ve forgotten what happened prior to the day the NBA season died, you’d be forgiven. Plenty has happened to draw attention away from seemingly happier times, what with rumors of a Donovan Mitchell/Rudy Gobert fued, or “The Last Dance” TV series ripping open decades-old wounds and pouring a metric ton of salt in them, the social upheaval with the Black Lives Matter resurgence, or the literal pandemic responsible for over 100,000 deaths in the United State alone.

So here’s you’re refresher, the guide to help you bypass four-ish months of no-sports hell as we get ready for the league’s restart on July 30.

The Standings

The Utah Jazz are fourth in the West, three games behind the second-seeded LA Clippers and one game ahead of Oklahoma City and Houston, the fifth and sixth seeds. The Denver Nugget sit in third, 1.5 games ahead of the Jazz.

Upward movement in the standings is fairly limited for the Jazz given the circumstances. The Clippers and Lakers are just a bit too far ahead and The Nuggets hold the tiebreaker over the Jazz. It’s not impossible, just unlikely.

What’s more likely is downward movement. Houston holds the tiebreaker over Utah as well, and if the Jazz lose to Oklahoma City, who they’ll play on Aug. 1, they’ll hold effectively zero tiebreakers over the teams around them in the standings.

Bojan Bogdanovic is out for the season

NBA: Washington Wizards at Utah Jazz Russell Isabella-USA TODAY Sports

This isn’t new by any means as Adrian Wojnarowski broke the story the Bogdanovic would have season-ending wrist surgery back in mid-May. But again, a lot has happened so just in case you forgot again, the Jazz have lost their third best player for the year.

Bogdanovic had been playing through pain for about two months — scoring 19.4 points per game and shooting 40.8 percent from three all the while — but the injury became something that couldn’t be put off any longer (or he assumed there wouldn’t be a season worth playing).

A lot is lost with Bogdanovic sitting at home outside of the Orlando bubble. Not only was he the team’s most prolific shooter, leading the team in 3-point attempts and coming second in 3-point percentage (behind Georges Niang), Bogdanovic was the second overall leading scorer on the team with a scoring punch that only Mitchell and Jordan Clarkson could match.

It’s hard to gauge Utah’s ability to play without Bogdanovic as he only missed one game all year, a nine-point loss to the Lakers back in October in the second game of the season.

Last Time Out

Loss vs Toronto Raptors 101-92

Utah’s normal season ended with a loss to the Raptors where its star quartet of Mitchell, Gobert, Mike Conley and Bogdanovic combined for a grand total of 35 points, making a sizzling 11 of 40 shot attempts (27.5 percent) in defeat. Even Clarkson was off, going 3 for 9 from the field for just nine points.

The players who did do well were Joe Ingles and Royce O’Neale who had 20 and 15 points, respectively, with solid shooting splits.

Defensively, the Jazz weren’t all that bad but were undone by allowing Pascal Siakam and Serge Ibaka to own the paint. Both players had 27 points and each completed double-doubles with rebounds. Ibaka had four offensive rebounds himself and Rondae Hollis-Jefferson joined the paint party by reeling in seven offensive boards.

Overall, it wasn’t that significant of a game. It was an off night against a team that figures to be among the East’s top contenders to appear in the Finals. But it is the last game Utah played so that is why it’s relevant.

The months leading up to the hiatus

The Jazz apparently decided to spend 2020 doing their best audition for the title character in a stage play production of “The Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde.” Utah’s heavily inconsistent nature, going from great team to league bottom feeder was giving fans serious tonal whiplash. From Dec. 26 to March 9, the fans experienced the wonders of a 14-1 stretch, a five-game losing streak, another four straight wins, followed by four more losses and then five consecutive wins. Didn’t quite follow? Here’s a table with Utah’s ranks, per Cleaning the Glass, in offense and defense that shows just how much of a roller-coaster 2020 was for the Jazz from the very start.

Utah Jazz Ranks in Offense and Defense (via Cleaning the Glass)

Date Record Expected Wins Win Diff Rank Off Pts/100 Poss eFG% Def Pts/100 Poss eFG%
Date Record Expected Wins Win Diff Rank Off Pts/100 Poss eFG% Def Pts/100 Poss eFG%
Dec 26 - Jan 25 14-1 13 7 1 1 6 2
Jan 27 - Feb 5 0-5 1.2 30 24 13 25 21
Feb 7 - Feb 12 4-0 2.6 1 7 4 14 16
Feb 21 - Feb 26 0-4 0.7 28 17 17 29 24
Feb 28 - March 7 5-0 3.7 2 4 1 10 6

There’s more flip-flopping on that table than is found in your average politician. The correlation of strength of schedule should be noted and can be seen by the expected wins column. But the Jazz’s performance against tougher opponents was simply abysmal as the win differential column shows. The incessant swap from Jekyll to Hyde was enough to lull most fans into melancholy.

The argument over Mike Conley’s worth

NBA: Toronto Raptors at Utah Jazz Russell Isabella-USA TODAY Sports

Admittedly, this was a season-long debate that stemmed from Conley’s nightmare-inducing stats from early in the season and the price Utah paid to acquire the veteran guard. But the argument got a little more sticky when the Jazz went 15-4 while Conley nursed a hamstring injury throughout nearly all of December and half of January. Not only that, Utah held the title of best offense in the NBA while Conley was out from Dec. 4 to Jan. 16. Mitchell, filling in at point guard in that span, averaged 25.0 points and 5.2 assists, up from 23.9 points and 3.8 assists in all other games plus a jump in field goal percentage from 43.8 to 48.9.

The ever-present shroud of Mountain Mike’s struggles and the hope they would end shows in a sampling of articles between October and March.

“What’s Wrong With Mike Conley? Blame October.” (KSL Sports, Nov. 4)

“Utah Jazz: Was the Mike Conley trade worth it?” (Fansided, Dec. 12)

“Will Mike Conley Ever Click With The Utah Jazz” (Forbes, Jan. 28)

“The Mike Conley conundrum: Is there still time for the Utah Jazz and their point guard to make this work?” (Salt Lake Tribune, Feb. 29)

“Utah Jazz: Mike Conley is finally turning the corner” (Sports Illustrated, March 11)

Obviously SLC Dunk hasn’t avoided this topic with speculation wandering from whether Conley fits at all in Utah to the more optimistic approach that he’ll hopefully find his legs in the Beehive State.

Things escalated from speculation to outright drama when Shams Charania and Tony Jones of The Athletic reported that Conley was to be benched in favor of Royce O’Neale. This news came out while the Jazz were on one of their losing skids and two days after Utah’s highly embarrassing 20-point loss to the Phoenix Suns on Feb. 24 in which Conley had just eight points, one assist and three turnovers.

However, mere hours after this report, the Jazz apparently reversed course — again according to reporting from The Athletic — putting Conley back in the starting five. Only they didn’t just keep O’Neale on the bench, he came into the starting five to replace...Joe Ingles. Ingles had started the last 36 games while Conley’s hamstring kept him out for most of those 36 contests. During his stint as a starter, having come off the bench to start the season, Ingles led the team in assists at 6.1 per game and was Utah’s best 3-point shooter making 43.5 percent of his 5.3 attempts per night.

Smaller Topics

Jordan Clarkson’s bench dominance

After packing his bags in Cleveland and moving to Utah, Clarkson became one of the NBA’s better bench scorers. He ranks 12th in bench scoring since Dec. 23 (eighth if you throw out a few guys who played only a few games off the bench in the time), putting in 15.6 points per game. That total is third on the Jazz in that same span, ahead of starters Rudy Gobert (15.2) and Mike Conley (14.1).

The acquisition of Clarkson transformed the Jazz from a team without a viable bench scorer to having one of the better scoring subs in the league. His 37-point performance against Denver on Jan. 30 nearly gave Utah a win it hardly deserved that night and another 30-point outing on Feb. 9 gave the Jazz a win over Houston.

What’s happening with the starters?

This topic and some of the legwork is stolen directly from a March 10 article from fellow Dunker, Tavan Parker. The main point of his article was the seeming under-performance of the starting lineup in recent games as opposed to how well the bench was playing. Up through the end of January, A couple variations of Utah’s starting lineups appeared in the top 10 lineups in the league among lineups with 100-plus minutes under their belts.

It became a talking point early in the year that Utah would get off to a good start but when the bench came in things fell apart. From the start of the season until Christmas, the Jazz ranked 29th in bench points. A day later, on Boxing Day, Jordan Clarkson played his first game for the Jazz and since that day the team ranks 18th in bench scoring.

For a while, the Jazz enjoyed the best of both worlds, ranking a decent 17th in bench scoring from Dec. 26 to Feb. 4 while its main starting lineup for that span (Mitchell/O’Neale/Ingles/Bogdanovic/Gobert) ranked fourth among all lineups in net rating (min 75 minutes played).

Then the rest of February happened and into March Utah’s starting lineups went from champs to chumps. Not one of the three different starting lineups from Feb. 5 to March 9 ranked in the top 60 (minimum of 30 minutes on court). And on an individual level you can see a complete reversal in net ratings and the average plus/minus for Utah’s main rotation players.

Individual Net Rating and Plus/Minus

Player Net Rtg Dec. 26 - Feb. 4 Net Rtg Feb. 5 - March 9 Net Rtg Swing Avg +/- Dec. 26 - Feb. 4 Avg +/- Feb. 5 - March 9 Avg +/- Swing
Player Net Rtg Dec. 26 - Feb. 4 Net Rtg Feb. 5 - March 9 Net Rtg Swing Avg +/- Dec. 26 - Feb. 4 Avg +/- Feb. 5 - March 9 Avg +/- Swing
Rudy Gobert 16 -5.7 -21.7 11 -3.6 -14.6
Donovan Mitchell 11.3 -7.8 -19.1 7.1 -5.1 -12.2
Bojan Bogdanovic 13.2 -5.9 -19.1 8.7 -2.9 -11.6
Royce O'Neale 10.4 -2.2 -12.6 5.9 -1.1 -7
Mike Conley -2.9 3.0 +5.9 -0.1 1.9 +2.0
Joe Ingles 16.4 0.6 -15.8 10.4 0.7 -9.7
Jordan Clarkson 0.6 12.2 +11.6 1.0 6.1 +5.1
Georges Niang 4.4 9.0 -4.6 1.4 2.3 +0.9
Tony Bradley -1.7 15.6 +17.3 -0.8 3.6 +4.4

The bench’s vast improvement in the new year can largely be credited to Clarkson but why the starters have suddenly fallen off has almost no explanation.

Backup center solution?

Utah began the year with fairly high hopes for backup center with Ed Davis signed and the young former first-round pick, Tony Bradley, in the wings if needed. Then Davis missed 12 games, essentially all of November, and then proved to be rather ineffective upon his return. Bradley was promoted and has had his own up-and-down tenure backing up Gobert.

In his most recent games, if you remember the above tables, Bradley’s net rating numbers are up and is part of a capable bench brigade. The question regarding Bradley is how real this surge is and how viable he can be in a playoff scenario. Despite being a third year NBA player, Bradley has very little real NBA experience outside of this season and two career playoff minutes.