Less than a month into the NBA season, the dust of off-season hype, unyielding roster confidence, and unrealistic expectations have yet to settle across the league. At this point, paper tigers rule the conference standings, twitter fingers move at the speed of light, and overreactions to every win, loss, or Adrian Wojnarowski report hold more water than they should.
Still, the Utah Jazz, as much as anyone else in the league, should be happy with how their season has started. Standing atop the western conference standings with a record of 7-1, the Jazz have found themselves dominating the regular season (much how they did last season), all while having failed to put together a complete game thus far. So, with that said, there are a lot of things, both good and bad, to digest up until this point. Here is a summary of the Utah Jazz’s season, three weeks in:
Utah’s All-Stars are playing like All-Stars
Rudy Gobert, Donovan Mitchell, and Mike Conley, Utah’s three All-Star-selected players from last season, are playing at a high level to start the year. This shouldn’t come as much of a surprise to anyone.
Gobert, as mentioned in Calvin Chappell’s article earlier this week, is legitimately playing at an MVP level this season. If you’d like to read more in-depth about that, definitely check out his article. Here, I’d just like to make a few notes about his season thus far:
Free throw shooting: is the improvement real or just statistical variability? If the season were to end today, Gobert’s free-throw percentage would sit at 68.1%, a career-high mark. For Gobert, a percentage like that would be absolutely amazing. For one, it would vastly open up Utah’s offense if interior defenders weren’t able to simply foul Gobert when he's at a scoring advantage down-low, essentially killing a possession. On top of that, those extra free-throws made would contribute to a statistically dominant season for Gobert, something that would increase his chances at All-Star and All-NBA nods. With that said, I have to mention that I am significantly skeptical of Gobert becoming a 7 percentage-point better free-throw shooter in the course of an off-season. The last eight seasons of statistical evidence have shown that Gobert hovers around 60-63% free-throw shooting in a typical season, a mark well-below the league average of 77%. Would it be wonderful if this improvement sticks? Absolutely. Will that actually happen? I guess we have to wait and see.
For Donovan Mitchell and Mike Conley, this first stretch of the season has been similarly fruitful.
While Mitchell has had some issues with scoring efficiency, he has looked like a top-15 player in the league. Between an improvement in his vision, passing, and game control, Mitchell is slowly-but-surly becoming much more of a floor general. His performance against the Sacramento Kings displayed that perfectly, with him putting up 36 points, 8 rebounds, and 6 assists in a win. If this kind of play continues, Mitchell should make some serious noise in the All-NBA conversation.
Impressively so, Mike Conley seems to have improved at 34 years old. He has started out the season shooting the ball at a 45% clip from downtown, is moving around the court briskly, and seems to have become fully comfortable using Rudy Gobert’s screens in the pick-and-roll. When Conley first came to Utah, it was clear that he was used to playing with a pick-and-pop big like Marc Gasol instead of a rim-roller like Gobert. But now, he looks to have mastered finding his shot or making the correct pass nearly every time he comes off a Gobert pick. So long as he is given an adequate amount of rest throughout the season (cough, cough, play Jared Butler more, cough, cough), I don’t see why Conley couldn’t repeat his All-Star appearance.
The bench has been simultaneously exciting and disappointing
Let’s first start off with the good:
Hassan Whiteside and Eric Paschall have been pleasant surprises. Given that they were both bargain gets (a vet-minimum and a protected second-round pick, respectfully), I don’t think the Jazz could ask for any more out of them. Whiteside, for one, seems to be really enjoying himself in Utah. He is fitting in Quin Snyder’s system perfectly, playing with energy off the bench and looking like he’s having fun, something he didn’t experience in Sacramento last season. In all honesty, I didn’t think he'd work out as well as he has. Much of the same can be said about Eric Paschall. He’s quickly carved out his role as the “energy guy” off Utah’s bench and has provided consistent stretches of versatile defense. However, as fun as it is to root for Paschall, it should be noted that he’s still a -2.7 in box plus/minus, shooting 29.4% from downtown, and will almost surly be surpassed by Rudy Gay when he returns from injury. That’s not to say that Paschall doesn’t have a role on the team in the future; he most definitely does. I think adding a more consistent perimeter jumper is all he needs to become a staple in the rotation.
Okay now, here’s the bad:
Jordan Clarkson does not look good. At all. In particular, Clarkson is having an immensely difficult time hitting any shot from behind the arch. Just take a look at a few of his shooting performances from three this season:
- @ Kings: 2-11
- vs Nuggets: 3-10
- @ Rockets: 3-11
- @ Bucks: 0-7
- vs Kings: 0-11
So, yeah, that’s not great.
Granted, last night, Clarkson turned into an absolute flamethrower, scoring 30 points on great efficiency. But more importantly than that, Clarkson has managed to keep himself from becoming an absolute negative on the floor with his defense. It’s been a pleasant surprise to see him play actively on that side of the ball, even after laying brick after brick. Obviously, Clarkson won’t shoot like this for the rest of the season (e.g. last night), but these kinds of epic low’s and high’s have become a defining characteristic of his game, for better or for worse. In his third year with Utah, I’ve just accepted them for what they are.
What’s more concerning, in my opinion, is Joe Ingles recent stretch of play. Actually, let me rephrase that: Joe Ingles recent temperament while playing. When it comes to actual play this season, Ingles has provided almost exactly what he’s always provided; good shooting and good playmaking. But after playing 32 minutes against the Chicago Bulls, the subsequent games against the Bucks and Kings were brutal. In all honestly, at times throughout those games, I actually forgot that Ingles was on the court since he seemed so uninterested in being there.
The reason for this is pretty clear: fatigue.
After already being fatigued from the NBA season and the Playoffs, Ingles spent last summer playing in the Olympics for Australia. It isn’t surprising to see him already experiencing the effects of fatigue this early on in the season on SEGABABA’s. Does that make this any less concerning? No, not at all. As a matter of fact, it really scares me to see Ingles so clearly tired less than 10 games into the season. The good thing is, the Jazz have a plethora of time to fix this problem. With Rudy Gay coming back soon, Eric Paschall playing well, and Jared Butler needing minutes, I see no reason why Ingles should play more than ~20 minutes each night. As a matter of fact, I think that playing Ingles any more than that figure is detrimental for the Jazz since then they’d run the risk of having an exhausted Ingles in the playoffs. We’ll have to see if Jazz think so too.
In the end, I don’t think the Jazz could have asked for a better start to their season. Obviously, there are still plenty of things for the team to work on. But, if these eight games are any indicator for the rest of Utah’s season, there are plenty of good things to come.