After a disappointing five game series demise to the Houston Rockets for the second season in a row, the Utah Jazz knew what they had to do. Utah needed offense. Their defense had carried them as far as it would go and Donovan Mitchell was dragging their offense to victory as if it was an anti-vaxxer to a Science Journal. The Utah Jazz rightfully were aggressive in the offseason. As Donovan Mitchell prepares for a Game 7, he finds himself in a similar position as years past. He must carry this team to a win.
Last year Utah targeted Mike Conley who was the best offensive threat on the trade market. He would serve as their guaranteed upgrade through trade then they would hope they could get lucky in free agency. That luck took a denial from Nikola Mirotic that allowed an opening for Bojan Bogdanovic. Utah’s offensively anemic starting lineup was now an offensive powerhouse. An up and down season mixed with a pandemic never allowed that lineup to sync up. Defensively Utah was worse.
Utah’s offense from 14th to 10th in the league, but only improved by only one point per 100 possessions as it went from 111.4 to 112.4. That one extra point was earned through Utah’s faster pace, higher eFG% (55.3%), and diminished by its stagnant turnover percentage.
On the other side of the ball, the drop for Utah was precipitous. Last year the question was how many mistakes on the defensive end could Rudy Gobert erase with his defensive abilities. This season showed that it was possible to surge past Rudy Gobert’s defensive flood gates and levies as the Utah Jazz’s defensive rating rose from 104.7 to 109.9.
Overall Utah’s average net rating dropped from +6.7 to +2.5. If Utah didn’t shoot the ball well this season, they lost. Even when they shot the ball well, they still still could lose. In losses Utah averaged 115.3 points per game. In wins, Utah averaged 104.7 points. Utah’s eFG% in wins was 57.4%, second in the league. In losses it was 51.1% which was also second in the league. Their calling card defense was lost in the deck.
In the playoffs Utah’s offense has been on another level. Utah has an eFG% of 63.9%. Their offensive rating is an absurd 136.1 points per 100 possessions. When Donovan is off the court, the Jazz offense drops by 8.8 points per 100 possessions. In this series Donovan has scored 232 points. If Donovan scores 36 or more, he will have scored more points in this series than he did his rookie year in the entire playoffs. If he scores 53 or more, he will have the most points for a playoff series all-time. Donovans 232 points makes up 32% of Utah’s scoring in the playoffs. He is the offense. Despite the upgrade in Conley over Rubio and Clarkson off the bench, Donovan is the show.
Last night was the first night Utah really missed Bojan Bogdanovic. As Royce O’Neale and Joe Ingles went a combined 2-8 from the field and were gun shy taking threes—or any shot—it is hard not to think what may have been if Bogey was out there. But that still doesn’t solve Utah’s problem.
As Utah is putting up NBA Jam type numbers on offense, they’re allowing NBA Jam like numbers on defense. Having Bojan Bogdanovic out there does not fix Utah’s rebounding woes. Time and time again Utah is getting out rebounded. Rudy Gobert is getting boxed out by guys 6’2 and shorter. Denver getting second chances was the difference and a healthy Bogey wasn’t solving that.
It’s why even a record breaking 53 point performance from Donovan Mitchell tomorrow night against Denver may not be enough for the Utah Jazz. They put everything they had on defense the past two years prior to this season and it failed them. They saw a hot shooting Houston team outmatch them. Now they have the firepower to go point for point with an even better one in Denver and they are still dancing on the edge of the elimination.
Utah’s offseason swung them completely in the other direction of offense so far that Gobert’s defensive abilities are devalued. Since he is not a dynamic threat on offense—notice I said dynamic, not a liability—his return on offense doesn’t increase as his return on defense decreases. Utah tried hard to balance both their superstars abilities while building this team but both of them love the paint. One of those superstars, Mitchell, can cede the paint to his big man and score in other ways. Rudy Gobert can’t. Even if he spaces out to the three, his man is sticking to the painted area. Donovan is diminished.
That problem is not going to be solved by next game. Utah’s problem right now is Donovan is STILL needed to show out a big game offensively in order for Utah to win and even then it may not be enough. So what can Utah do?
Juwan Morgan. That Fesenko-like surprise in Games 1 and 2 allowed Utah to put forward a bruising defensive identity. When he’s on the floor, Utah’s defensive rating drops to below 90 points per 100 possessions. Moving Ingles to the bench and Morgan to the starting lineup could allow Utah the first minutes of the game to disrupt Denver’s flow and prevent them from getting in rhythm. But that still may not be enough to slow down Jamal Murray’s next level scoring.
With a Game 7 win, Utah gets another series to play out out the experiment of going all in on offense. An opponent like the Los Angeles Clippers may allow Utah to thrive more defensively as they have traditional centers in Ivica Zubac, Joakim Noah, and Montrezl Harrell. It also may be the end of the road to Utah’s offensive explosions from the perimeter. Kawhi Leonard, Paul George, and Patrick Beverly all are All-Defensive Team defenders. Conley and Mitchell may not be able to overcome that type of defense for an entire series. If Conley struggles, Donovan will have deja vu from the prior two seasons.
With a Game 7 loss, Utah will inevitably be pushed back to the drawing board with this roster. The questions of whether they went too far for offense in the offseason will be valid. They will have to balance that lack of defense with the possibility of Rudy Gobert being on an expiring contract.
A decision will have to not only be made about Gobert’s future pay grade but whether the identity of the team beyond 2021 is about hard nosed defense. Utah will have to make a decision with Mike Conley. Conley has a player option this year that he’d be crazy to decline. His place with Utah seems shoehorned especially as Donovan Mitchell has shown he can be a top tier playmaker and shotmaker at the point guard position.
There’s Joe Ingles whose contract extension looks worse by the day as his premier three point shooting of the past three yeas has fallen back down to earth. There’s Royce O’Neale who just received his contract extension of four years. It’s easy to think that he’s a young player with another gear, but he’s actually 27.
Adding to the difficulty of Utah’s potential offseason will be the pandemic putting a hard ceiling on potential revenue. Any risk taking from Utah’s front office after this season is going to take a high threshold for failure. The future offseason is murky. The present, however, is not.
Utah’s success right now rests on Donovan Mitchell’s shoulders. Just his. The offensive help? A slight upgrade over what they had before and as dependable as before. One year later, Donovan Mitchell still has to carry Utah on his own in the playoffs. Win or lose tonight, Utah can’t put Donovan in this situation for the fourth time in four seasons. He can almost do it by himself, but he shouldn’t have to.