The Utah Jazz overall have had a nice offseason. They’ve attacked some of their weak points with better talent by replacing Georges Niang with Rudy Gay and removing Derrick Favors’ bloated contract with a minimum contract for Hassan Whiteside. They also managed to draft Jared Butler in the second round. Even with all these changes, the Utah Jazz won’t look that much different. The bench is better, but the starting lineup will be the same. So should we just auto-generate this season till the playoffs to see how things pan out? No! In essence, that’s what happened last year and in some ways it hurt them in the playoffs.
Here are some things I’ll be watching that the Jazz should do to be better prepared for the playoffs.
Experiment with lineups
The Jazz ended last season with the best record in the league. The reward was a second-round exit and the last pick in the draft. The Jazz got lucky when they were able to draft Jared Butler in the second round after trading back so it all worked out but that #1 spot didn’t do much for them in the playoffs. This year the Jazz’s focus needs to be on experimenting with lineups instead of only playing for that #1 spot.
Home court advantage is nice, but having a team equipped with multiple lineup options could be the thing that gets the Jazz to the finals. Look at the Milwaukee Bucks. They notoriously spent last season experimenting with switching, something they didn’t do much of previously. It cost them wins. But when the playoffs came around their team had already battled through the growing pains that come with change. On the other side of the league, you had the Jazz who played the exact same lineups all season and essentially did the exact same things on defense night after night. It helped them demolish the worst teams in the league, mostly dominate average teams, and struggle against the good ones. When the playoffs came around they came up against a team that found the answer to stop the Jazz’s defensive scheme and the Jazz had no answers. Utah has to change that this year.
The only changes to lineups that ever happened last year were only because of rest and injuries. Miye Oni only saw the floor when Mike Conley was resting or injured. As soon as Mike Conley would return, Miye Oni rarely saw the floor. This was painfully clear in the playoffs. In Game 6 against the Los Angeles Clippers, the Jazz were up by 22 at halftime. Wouldn’t it make sense to have a defensive-focused lineup on the floor for that second half? Miye Oni had gotten minutes during the year and sat on the bench that entire game and the rest is history.
So what does that experimenting look like? Well, let me tell you and also cool your jets okay, it’s the offseason and this is the type of article you’re going to get! Quin Snyder needs to loosen things up with rotations and schemes. Try playing a 5-out scheme with Rudy Gay at the 5. The Jazz had one really fun game against the Los Angeles Lakers when Ersan Ilyasova played significant minutes at the 5 and was bombing threes. It was the most unique look we’ve seen from this Jazz team in years and I wish we had seen a little more of it. Imagine having that lineup with Rudy Gay, whose defensive numbers are actually really good, and throwing that on the floor in a playoff game randomly. It’s going to throw off another team immediately who’s prepared for everything that Rudy Gobert does. (On a side note, having two Rudy G’s is going to result in using last names much more often.)
This season I hope we see more things like that. I also hope we see younger players get actual, real minutes. Miye Oni played big-time minutes for Nigeria at the Olympics and deserves more time on the floor. His defensive presence should be counted on more. We also need to see Udoka Azubuike on the floor more. He was dominant in the summer league and if his style of play can carry over to the regular season, the Jazz may have a nice backup center for years to come.
Bringing changes like this could mean losing some games and, as weird as it sounds, that’ fine. Losing some games but gaining versatility prepares you for the playoffs and gets you a better draft pick. Win, win. Or ... lose, win .... you get what I mean.
This brings me to the next thing I’ll be looking for.
The Jazz need to play a lot of Jared Butler
Butler’s drop in the draft is one of the more surprising stories this offseason but the Utah Jazz benefited in a big way. Almost every mock draft had Butler late in the first round at worst so for him to fall to Utah was a steal. The Jazz now have to take advantage of that. Jared Butler’s game fits in perfectly with this team. He should be the main backup to Donovan Mitchell and Mike Conley from day 1. His ability to shoot 40+% from three as a spot-up shooter means he can play off of both of them. He can also handle the ball and create for others so it means he can put pressure on defenses while also setting up teammates. Butler also has good size and should theoretically do well against second units.
If the Jazz hit on Butler and he’s really good for them this year, things get pretty exciting. The only thing is he has to play. Quin Snyder can’t bury him on the bench in lieu of another veteran guard with glaring weaknesses that Snyder inevitably ingnores. Gone should be the days of watching players like Shelvin Mack and Emmanuel Mudiay steal minutes from Jazz prospects only to see them traded away the following offseason. This Utah Jazz team used to pride itself on its development of players. That should be a point of pride again. Considering the Jazz have given up a lot of first-round picks for Mike Conley and to offload Derrick Favors, they need these prospects to develop or they’ll have wasted these last few years in replenishing their talent.
With all that said, and with the Dennis Lindsey saga now in the history books, the Utah Jazz have to set Butler up to succeed. He needs to be played like the coach actually believes in him. If they do, something tells me the Jazz will have a special player on their hands.
Will the Jazz make a meaningful trade deadline move?
The Jazz’s biggest trade deadline move last season was to trade for Matt Thomas. They gave up a second-round pick for him and then promptly waived him this offseason. That type of move doesn’t cut it. You might as well do nothing instead of bring in a player that only took minutes away from guys like Elijah Hughes. Now, Hughes may turn out to be nothing but these types of short-sighted moves hurt you in the long run. You lose a pick for nothing and you miss out on seeing your rookie develop. The Jazz front office and coaching staff have to be aligned. No more of this childish bickering that was apparently happening behind the scenes. If the Jazz draft a guy, the coach needs to make it his priority to develop them the best they can. Who cares if you didn’t like him. Although, the front office also has to be listening to the coaching staff. They need to understand who they are interested in and why. But whatever player is drafted, or trade made, the entire organization has to be all-hands-on-deck to make sure the players have the best chance to succeed. A trade for a player that will never see meaningful minutes makes no sense.
With Dennis Lindsey stepping into an advisory role, Justin Zanik has a chance to show his ability. Last season the Jazz seemed to have cold feet at the trade deadline. You’re at the alter with all these players in their prime, say I do!
Players like Torrey Craid and PJ Tucker were picked up last season by the Milwaukee Bucks and Phoenix Suns and played significant roles for their teams late into the playoffs. Utah needs to do what it can to shore up weaknesses that will eventually show up during the season. If a nice player is available, make a move. This season is likely one of the best shots this Jazz team will ever have at a title and cold feet won’t get it done. But an aggressive move could be the difference. We’ll see what the Jazz do.