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Jazz singing new tune, earn higher expectations as they change their ecosystem

In his 12 seasons with the Memphis Grizzlies, Mike Conley never played on a team with a top-12 offense, per Cleaning The Glass. At their peak, the grit-and-grind, big-and-slow Grizzlies were fringe contenders, bludgeoning their way to the Western Conference finals in 2013 and taking a 2-1 lead in the second round against the eventual-champion Warriors in 2015. Their style immortalized and limited them, as they were vulnerable to get past more versatile, balanced opponents. They tried to modernize with coaching changes and all sorts of player movement, but Chandler Parsons‘ injuries and a series of wasted first-round picks eventually doomed them. Conley always wanted to make things work, to lead a team that defined itself with defense but didn’t labor so much when it came to putting the ball in the hoop. Now he is in a completely new basketball universe, with a second chance to do just that.

Rudy Gobert has only been in the league for five seasons, but he and Conley can relate — he has never played on a team with a top-12 offense. Recent iterations of the Utah Jazz have been dominant defensively, largely thanks to Gobert’s presence in the paint, but they have needed more firepower. After they lost to the Houston Rockets in five games in the first round in April, vice president Dennis Lindsey said that “the results told us that we don’t have a great team” — only a very good one. Conley had been linked to Utah at February’s trade deadline, and Lindsey got his guy in a draft-night deal. The Jazz also wanted “48 minutes of spacing, and got it by moving Derrick Favors and signing Bojan Bogdanovic to a four-year, $73 million deal, essentially swapping size for shooting. 

“I’ll have space like I haven’t seen before,” Conley said, via The Athletic.

Coach Quin Snyder’s system and philosophy won’t necessarily change in 2019-20, but Utah’s offense will look totally different with Conley and Bogdanovic. “Advantage basketball” is about misdirection, sharp cuts and timing; when done well, it can make up for subpar playmaking, and until now that has been the point. The returning Jazzmen will find that it is much easier to create advantages when opponents can’t pack the paint or load up on Donovan Mitchell, and they should have much better luck avoiding stagnation in the playoffs. Mitchell didn’t shoot 4-for-22 in their final game because he’s a selfish chucker, but rather because he was their only bail-out option when their system couldn’t generate open looks. This should not happen again. 

Everybody’s jazzed about the Jazz because they can close games with Conley, Mitchell, Joe Ingles, Bogdanovic and Gobert. That likely won’t be the starting lineup, though, and the front office has earned praise for adding backup center Ed Davis on a bargain deal and Jeff Green and Emmanuel Mudiay on minimum contracts. Bogdanovic called Utah’s roster the deepest in the league, and while I don’t share that opinion, it’s hard to argue with the way it spent its money. As training camp approaches, the Jazz face questions about their rotation, but nothing as fundamental as whether or not they have enough offensive talent. Conley will make sure they understand the opportunity in front of them. You can go a whole career without playing on a team like this. 

Glowing quote

“I think we all see that it’s an opportunity for all of us to have that aspiration. We all want to win a championship. And especially myself, it’s something I’ve really been looking for my whole career and have gotten close and never been able to push through. And now it seems like it’s the time — this year especially, there’s not too many teams with three big-time, top-five, top-10 guys on a team. It’s kind of split up, so it’s a great opportunity for the Jazz to just be ourselves, continue to improve as the season goes on, and we’ll be there at the end of the year knocking at the door.” — Conley

What could have been

Three scenarios stand out:

  • Before Nikola Mirotic became the highest-paid player in Europe, it sounded like he was going to sign with the Jazz, giving them a more traditional (i.e. taller) stretch 4 than Bogdanovic. There is an argument that Mirotic would have a better fit, but that argument is less convincing after seeing Bogdanovic make the strides he did — first as a defender, then as a scorer — in Indiana. 
  • They could have kept Favors if they had talked themselves into the idea that replacing Ricky Rubio with Conley was enough to fix the offense. There is risk in finally moving away from the Favors-Gobert frontcourt, especially in terms of rebounding, but there would also have been risk in continuing to prioritize that over spacing. 
  • According to Lindsey, “if we didn’t pull off the Mike Conley trade, we had several max-level free agents that were ready and willing to come.” I don’t think he is talking about Kevin Durant or Kawhi Leonard, but it’s not crazy to imagine Kemba Walker, Tobias Harris or D’Angelo Russell choosing Utah. All are fascinating to think about, but there was value in the certainty of making the Conley deal early and using him to attract other free agents. 

Taking the temperature

A hypothetical conversation between someone who thinks the Jazz had a perfect offseason and someone who doesn’t

Optimistic fan: Regardless of what happened in the World Cup, Mitchell is the big winner of the summer. I’m sure having to carry the offense for a playoff team taught him what to work on, but there have been games where I’ve felt bad for him. He desperately needed a teammate who could put the ball on the floor, and he desperately needed more room to operate. I like that he’s talking about getting better on defense, but, even if he does that, I expect a bigger leap on offense based on environment alone. 

Skeptical fan: Yeah, making things easier on him was clearly a priority. It’s a little weird, though, that every basketball nerd on Twitter is all-in on a team that might start Jeff Green. Don’t nerds hate Jeff Green? The Jazz totally had the right idea, but I’m not sure that they nailed the execution.

Optimistic fan: Maybe they’ll start Green to balance the rotation, but who cares? We know who their best five guys are, and I’d put them up against anybody’s best five. 

Skeptical fan: Hmmm, that’s bold. Look, I like the Jazz, just as any self-respecting basketball geek should, but part of me is uneasy about Bogdanovic, Ingles or Royce O’Neale playing power forward. I prefer stretch 4s that are actually the size of 4s, and I don’t trust Green. 

Optimistic fan: You’ve identified the one area of “concern” that everybody brings up when talking about this obviously improved roster. But haven’t we spent years encouraging every team to load up on wings and find its version of the Death Lineup? Two years ago, Steve Kerr said that “the 4 position has almost been eliminated from the NBA.” Gobert should hold down the paint just fine on his own, and the same is true of Davis with the second unit. 

Skeptical fan: Every question mark matters when we’re talking about potentially winning a championship, and that’s the bar they have set by cashing in their trade chips to get Conley. And this particular question mark feels relevant because, unlike Kerr, Snyder doesn’t have a Draymond Green type on the roster who can play like a big on defense but transcends positions. As incredible as Gobert is on defense, some matchups — like, say, Houston — are going to present real challenges for him on the perimeter, and that hasn’t changed if Conley-Mitchell-Ingles-Bogdanovic-Gobert is Utah’s “Death Lineup.” I’m not disrespecting the Jazz by acknowledging this stuff, I’m just saying that, in the process of addressing their obvious offensive issues, they have complicated matters on the other end. My nitpicking is a sign of respect! Cherish their champagne problems!

Eye on:

In the Snyder era, the X-factor has always been the same: Dante Exum. The man seems cursed, but he’s still 24 (only one year older than Mitchell!) and he is so much bigger and stronger than when he came into the league. Exum had knee surgery in March, and he has only played 221 games, playoffs included, since being drafted third overall in 2014.

Nothing about Exum’s career has been normal, and I will never not be interested in him. I also have no idea what his role will be on this year’s team. If he’s healthy, though, Snyder can throw him out there and have him defend the opposing team’s best guard or wing. How awesome would it be if he had a Zydrunas Ilgauskas-esque second act?