I’m going to let you in on a little secret: I have absolutely no idea what to make of the Utah Jazz. As a basketball writer, this is less than ideal, but I suspect there are others like me, who after 64 games still don’t know exactly what we’ve learned about them.
The Jazz rank eighth in offense and 11th in defense in the possibly finished 2019-20 season, but those numbers fail to capture how they repeatedly picked up steam and then lost it. If this is it, I will remember them as one of the more confusing teams in recent history.
On the morning of March 11, had you asked me to make the case that the Jazz were dark horse championship contenders, I could have. With equal ease, I could have made the case that they weren’t, had never been, and true top-tier teams didn’t fear them.
The night before, they had lost to the Toronto Raptors, and their sometimes beautiful offense was grotesque in crunch time. They only made one field goal in the final 5:45 of the fourth quarter. They entered that game on a five-game winning streak, though, and in the 2020 calendar year no team has scored more efficiently.
While we’re on the subject of efficiency: Maligned as he’s been throughout his brief Utah tenure, Mike Conley’s true shooting percentage since getting his starting job back on Feb. 1 was higher than it was in almost all of his seasons in Memphis. This can be safely filed as encouraging information, but using that adjective to describe anything Jazzy makes me want to temper it with something discouraging, like the many instances of Rudy Gobert looking frustrated that his teammates weren’t passing to him or the time Gobert told ESPN’s Tim MacMahon that Utah didn’t have the “dog mentality” it needed on defense.
On the evening of March 11, the Jazz didn’t play the Oklahoma City Thunder as scheduled. You know why. If these were normal times, that game might’ve been a first-round preview, and maybe they would have won, and maybe they would have returned home to beat the Grizzlies and Pelicans, and maybe their home-and-home against the Lakers would have been previewed by people like me saying, “The Jazz have had a rocky season, but don’t overlook them!” Or maybe that collapse against Toronto would have snowballed into yet another losing streak. The only thing this team did reliably was avoid neat narratives.
The season began with Conley bricking just about every shot he took and Joe Ingles looking unsure of himself as a sixth man. Right as Conley seemed to be finding his rhythm, he hurt his hamstring, at which point Donovan Mitchell went wild and Ingles thrived in his old role. The Conley-Ingles-Mitchell playmaking storyline obscured the massive bench problem, which led to the Jordan Clarkson trade that preceded a long, headline-friendly winning streak during a soft part of the schedule. Conley returned, initially as a reserve, and for seven weeks Utah alternated streaks: win four, lose five, win four, lose four, win five.
There were so many changes that it was hard to keep up. Ed Davis broke his leg and Tony Bradley took his place as Gobert’s backup. Jeff Green fit so poorly that the Jazz waived him before Christmas. Bojan Bogdanovic, on the other hand, did exactly what he was supposed to do, and Royce O’Neale improved dramatically. At around the same time O’Neale signed a four-year contract extension, TrueHoop’s David Thorpe wrote effusively about Utah getting the most out of Emmanuel Mudiay, who almost immediately lost his spot in the rotation.
If the season does not resume, every team with short-term aspirations will be deflated. The Jazz are one of many organizations with a lot riding on the playoffs. There might not be another one, though, that needs a postseason in precisely the way they do. They still don’t have a firm identity, and their ceiling is a mystery. As messy as the regular season was, the playoffs were supposed to clear things up.
Last April, after the Houston Rockets disposed of Utah in five games, vice president Dennis Lindsey said that “the results told us that we don’t have a great team,” only a very good one. As crushing as that first-round loss was, it was also valuable, if only because it forced a stylistic shift. In theory, this version of the team should be more adaptable in a playoff setting because Mitchell doesn’t have to do all the heavy lifting. If the season does not restart, though, the front office will have no real results to guide it, only incomplete data from an inconsistent group.
Gobert is eligible for a supermax extension, the kind of contract typically signed by ball-dominant players with their own signature shoes. How will he react if the offer never comes? Even if he and Mitchell remain the faces of the franchise for the foreseeable future, difficult decisions loom. Are the Jazz comfortable running it back in the final year of Conley’s contract? How much are they willing to pay Clarkson? Are they thinking more about competing for a title next season or about building something sustainable?
These questions would be much easier to answer after seeing how the team responds to playoff pressure. You can’t get where you want to go if you don’t know where you are.