Don’t Overreact to the Utah Jazz’s Early-Season Struggles

Don’t Overreact to the Utah Jazz’s Early-Season Struggles
Wed 4th December 2019

This is not how it was meant to start for this new-look Jazz team. A franchise that many experienced pundits picked to represent the Western Conference in the 2020 Finals is currently sitting barely over .500 (12-9); has a number of glaring deficiencies on both ends of the floor and is currently recovering from a five-game Eastern Conference road stretch in which they went 1-4 against a set of teams likely to also feature heavily at the pointy end of the NBA season.

Those four losses to the Bucks, Raptors, 76ers and Pacers were bad enough, but the manner in which they occurred was even worse. Utah was outscored 476-424 collectively, and even that scoreboard doesn’t tell the true story. The Jazz were down by 40 points at the half in Toronto, the 76ers led by as many as 26 points in that loss and if Giannis Antetokounmpo (50 points, 14 rebounds) had any help whatsoever in the game in Milwaukee, the result would have been far greater than the final line would suggest.

The problems for Utah don’t start and end there, though. The offseason acquisitions of Mike Conley from Memphis and Bojan Bogdanovic from Indiana were intended to improve the Jazz on both ends of the floor. Instead, they appear to have had the opposite effect.

A defensive unit which has consistently finished among the most stingy in the NBA are allowing 4.9 points per 100 possessions more in the last 10 games than they did last season, and their rankings are down in every major metric overall, including going from second in opposition points per game in 2018-19 to fifth and from second in defensive rating in 2018-19 to eleventh.

While the defense is concerning, the offense is the real issue. Currently the Jazz are the 24th-ranked offense in the league for points per game (106.6) and 21st for offensive rating (106.3). Conley has shot career-low percentages across the board, including just 37% from the floor and is averaging his lowest number of points per game since the 2011-12 season. Arguably, to date he’s been less of an asset at the point than the much-maligned Ricky Rubio was last year.

It’s not just Conley who’s putting up career-low numbers; Joe Ingles has gone from being an elite scorer off the bench, and a cult-hero across the NBA, to shooting an abysmal 30.9% from beyond the arc. For reference, Ingles’ previous season-low in three point shooting percentage was 35.6% back in 2014-15; his first season in the NBA after a number of seasons in Europe and Australia.

Everything the Jazz have done in the last few years, particularly in the acquisitions they’ve made, has been to help Donovan Mitchell. In many ways, they’ve succeeded; Mitchell is averaging a career-best 24.5 points per game, shooting 36.9% from three and taking a career-best 5.3 free throw attempts per game, even as he continues to try and do too much at the offensive end of the floor.

All that being said, Utah still sit sixth in the wide-open Western Conference. Amongst all the negatives, there are positives still to be found in every direction.

Rudy Gobert – the reigning two-time Defensive Player of the Year – is well on his way to cementing his status as one of the great individual defenders the league has ever seen,. He currently ranks second in FiveThirtyEight’s RAPTOR metric for overall defense (only slightly behind Kawhi Leonard), is blocking two shots per game and pulling in a career-best 13.7 rebounds per game.

Bogdanovic, meanwhile, has been one of the best offseason acquisitions in a summer full of high-profile signings. After crashing out of the playoffs against the Warriors in 2017, the Rockets in 2018 and the Rockets again in 2019, the Jazz had to make a change. Derrick Favors has long been one of the most underrated players in the league thanks to his outstanding all-round defense, but Mitchell had clearly reached a point in his development where the most pressing need for him was a secondary scorer to take the crushing offensive pressure off his shoulders.

Bogdanovic has provided that, and then some. Through 19 games he is averaging career-highs across the board, including 21 points, 4.4 rebounds and 2.1 assists per game. Remarkably, the 30-year-old Croatian is on track to become the first secondary Jazz scorer since Jeff Malone in 1990-91 to average more than 20 points per game in a season. He’s sitting fifth in the league for catch and shoot threes with 47, and seventh in the league for jump shot field goal percentage (43.9%).

According to the Salt Lake Tribune, if Mitchell and Bogdanovic continue their current scoring pace they will become just the eighth duo in Jazz franchise history to both average more than 20 points per game in a single season. The last time it happened was 1991-92.

The Jazz are notoriously slow starters; in fact, this is their best start to the season since 2015-16. There are enough stats to suggest that the dip in offensive production is due to nothing more than bad luck; Utah rank 27th in the NBA in assists (21 per game). Assists are generally a hallmark of a Quin Snyder offense; a year ago, they ranked eighth, with 26 per game.

Utah has also played the fifth toughest schedule in the league to date, according to Power Rankings Guru. That’s not a surprise given a quick look at their fixture shows two games already played against powerhouse teams like the Clippers, Bucks and 76ers.

Ingles and Conley’s poor shooting can only improve, while Ed Davis – another vaunted addition over the offseason – has already missed 12 games this season due to injury. Former top-five draft pick Dante Exum has also returned from injury and has shown flashes of his prodigious talent.

It is not time to panic. This Jazz team is much better than the one that lost to the Rockets in the first round last year, and infinitely better than the one which made it to the second round in 2018. Gobert remains a defensive force, and the offense is still yet to find any semblance of its groove.

If you’re writing Utah off as a contender after 19 games, think again. 

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