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Three questions the Jazz must answer by the All-Star break

Utah is heating up, but there’s still room for improvement

NBA: Detroit Pistons at Utah Jazz Jeffrey Swinger-USA TODAY Sports

By just about any metric, the Utah Jazz are rolling. They’ve won eight of their last nine games and are poised to make a jump up the standings with an easy slate of games over the next two weeks and most of January.

However, the Jazz haven’t necessarily put their October and November demons behind them. For now, it seems like they have, but there are lingering questions that the team needs to answer to ensure that the preseason goal of legitimate playoff contention remains a possibility.

Is finding a new backup center a high priority?

The offseason signing of Ed Davis clearly hasn’t worked. There was always going to be a drop-off in the reserve center department when the decision was made to let Derrick Favors leave town. But Davis has essentially played himself off the floor (case in point: his DNP-CD against Detroit where even Rayjon Tucker and Nigel Williams-Goss saw floor time).

Aside from hoping Davis improves his play, the only other option is Tony Bradley, who has seen the most meaningful minutes of his career thanks to Davis’ recent incompetence. But Bradley currently seems only capable of a few minutes per stint before Quin Snyder begins anxiously counting the seconds before he can comfortably cut short Rudy Gobert’s resting spells on the bench.

Making the move to bolster the bench with some scoring was clearly a high priority for the Jazz considering they made a move two months before the deadline. The question here is how much of a concern is frontcourt depth and what can the front office to rectify that concern.

Frankly speaking, the Jazz don’t have any valuable players they’re willing to move. Emmanuel Mudiay, Bradley and Davis — the most expendable players at the moment — will hardly net much in return without sending compensation. The necessity to send second round picks to get Jordan Clarkson proves that point. If Utah wants better players than they have, they’ll have to pay for them in assets.

Should Joe Ingles move back to the bench when Mike Conley comes back?

December has been a month to remember for Joe Ingles. His season up through November was bad enough to make grown men cry openly. His shooting numbers were atrocious and his scoring and passing were just as awful.

But, for the last 31 days or so, the Aussie has been playing out of his mind, shooting 53.1 percent from deep on nearly six attempts per game. He had five games of eight or more assists in December alone after having zero in the preceding months. Overall, the final month of 2019 saw Ingles score 14.4 points, dish out 5.8 assists and grab 4.9 rebounds per game.

It is in the extreme interest of the Jazz to keep this version of Ingles and not the faker from August-November. The thing to note when examining this turnaround is that it coincides almost perfectly with Ingles’ return to the starting lineup full time, right when Conley suffered his hamstring injury. He started once (as an injury fill-in starter) prior to December but started in 12 of his 14 appearances in December itself.

One offseason side-story was that Ingles would likely move from full-time starter to bench leader. He’d be a sixth man playing almost as many minutes as before. That experiment appears to have failed as Ingles clearly thrives when playing with and off the starters, Rudy Gobert in particular.

So when Conley makes his inevitable return, should Snyder move him back to the bench? Or should Royce O’Neale take Ingles’ old spot as first off the bench? Another thing to take into account is the addition of Clarkson. His job is to lead the bench via scoring. Could Ingles thrive in a lineup with a score-first/score-only guys like Clarkson and Mudiay?

Where exactly will Conley fit when he returns?

Perhaps something many Jazz fans have in their mind but may not be willing to point out is how well the team is doing in the absence of Conley. Utah’s eight wins in nine games have only seen 19 minutes of Conley on the floor.

Mitchell has once again assumed the role of primary play-maker and point guard. And once again he is showing he can thrive in that role. In the eight Conley-less games, Mitchell’s averaged 26.1 points, 6.1 assists; a slight bump in scoring and major jump in assists.

It’s not practical or logical in the slightest to suggest the Jazz move on from Conley after just half a season and based on less than 10 games of sample size. But there is room for introspection and reconsideration.

Looking at lineups once again, if the Jazz went back to a Conley-Mitchell-Ingles-Bogdanovic-Gobert starting crew, that may not produce the greatest result. It’s the third-most common lineup this season, seeing 116 floor minutes thus far, but it’s also by far the worst among Utah’s five most common lineups with a -1.9 net rating. The next-worst is Conley-O’Neale-Ingles-Bogdanovic-Gobert, which is +11.4.

An interesting tidbit, however, is that among Utah’s 20 lineups that have seen more than 15 minutes (and that aren’t impossible because certain players have been traded), the two best are lineups where Mitchell and Conley do not share the floor.

A little over 21 of Conley’s 29.4 minutes per game come with Mitchell on the court. It might behoove Snyder to cut that down by a few minutes and stagger his two backcourt scorers. The two are similar in some ways in terms of style, so, reaching into the realms of speculation, it’s possible the two are redundant and not quite complimentary. At least not yet.