The NBA Playoffs are only five weeks away. For the Utah Jazz, so much hinges on their ability to perform this post-season. Given that the last couple years have ended in disappointing playoff exits, a similar finish could mean the end of this roster as we know it.
As a result, the Jazz are going to need all the help they can get. They will need a player outside of Rudy Gobert and Donovan Mitchell to step up their game and push the team to the next level. In looking back at last year’s NBA Playoffs, players like Reggie Jackson, Bobby Portis, and Cameron Payne filled that “X factor” role for their respective teams and helped them get important wins at the biggest stage.
So who will step up as the Utah Jazz’s X factor this post-season? Here are three candidates:
This is the most obvious candidate.
Jordan Clarkson has had a volatile season thus far and taken a step back from last year’s 6MOTY campaign. In every major statistical category, Clarkson has shown regression. Although inconsistency has been a staple throughout JC’s career, this season he’s really struggled stringing together stretches of good play.
However, that doesn’t mean he can’t step up in the playoffs. I see two ways Clarkson can have a major impact in the post-season: (1) bringing energy to the team and crowd and (2) playing solid defense.
Clarkson has an uncanny ability to bring people to their feet. When he plays with excitement and energy, everyone in the arena feeds off it. While it’s hard to expect a player to make “big plays,” I hope to see Clarkson play with a level of liveliness that we’ve missed for the bulk of the season.
That feeds into the second way he can make an impact: defense. I don’t think that anybody expects Clarkson to play lock-down defense, but he has the ability to bring effort to that side of the ball. The Jazz need their role players to perform better on defense this post-season and I think that starts with Clarkson.
Historically, Bojan Bogdanovic has performed really well in the playoffs. Going back to his day’s with the Indiana Pacers, Bogdanovic has consistently stepped up in big situations. Against the LA Clippers last season, Bogdanovic averaged about 18 points per game while shooting over 47% from three. That’s amazing!
The Utah Jazz will need a similar, if not better, performance from him this year. In particular, the Jazz need Bogdanovic to play into his strengths: catch and shoot and post play. When Bogdanovic tries to create off the dribble in isolation, his effectiveness as a scorer plummets.
Taylor Griffin touched on this in his recent article about Bojan Bogdanovic, but if he can play at a similar level to what he’s done over the last couple weeks, the Jazz become a very dangerous team. His shooting is genuinely some of the purest in the NBA and can completely change Utah’s offense when utilized correctly. So long as his finger injury doesn’t become an issue in the future, he’s Utah’s not-so-secret weapon.
I was tempted to put Mike Conley in this last spot, but I think we can pretty safely assume that, if healthy, he’ll play at a high level.
Royce O’Neale, on the other hand, is more complicated. I think he played well in last year’s post-season, averaging about 11 points and 7 rebounds on great shootings splits. Given that he’s averaging a career high in points, field goal percentage, and three-point field goal percentage, I think he’ll perform well on offense.
For him, the X factor-ness comes on the defensive end. O’Neale has had amazing moments on defense, but this year he’s gone through significant lapses on that end. For whatever reason, he’s died on screens, let player’s blow past him, and made some head scratching plays. Outside of Danuel House Jr., O’Neale is Utah’s best perimeter defender and they will need him to limit these mistakes in the playoff’s. The Jazz’s inability to defend the perimeter led to their demise last year. It’s unfair to expect O’Neale to fix the issue by himself, but given that he’s made a career out of effort and defense, the Jazz need him to limit his mistakes on that end. If he can set a tone early on defense, Utah’s gets one step closer to a championship.
In the end, the Jazz will likely need everyone to play at their highest level to make some noise in the playoffs. While there are issues with this roster, they still have the ability to to go all the way. Let’s just hope they reach the post-season in full stride.