May 17, 2020, 12:30 pm
When Gordon Hayward wrote to the Jazz fans in summer 2017, it seemed like this Jazz roster was going to go through a bit of a lull before finding another star to add to their building block piece in Rudy Gobert. They probably didn’t expect that star would fall into their laps earlier than advertised after trading for Donovan Mitchell’s rights on draft night and watching him blossom into a 20-point scoring threat with All-Star appearances in his future right from the jump. The first season without Gordon Hayward resulted in just three fewer wins.
Then last season they bounced right back up to 50 wins and finished fifth in the Western Conference for the third straight year. At that point, with Gobert fully developed into a stifling rim protector with two Defensive Player of the Year honors notched into his belt and Mitchell taking another step forward as the primary offensive threat, the Jazz had the justification to take some big swings to compete with the big dogs in the league.
There were a couple issues worth addressing in the 2019 offseason. This roster was elite defensively, spearheaded by Gobert’s rim protection, but was just average on the other side of the ball and the lack of scoring punch was painfully apparent in a quick exit at the hands of James Harden’s Rockets. They needed more scoring and more spacing to keep up offensively in the modern NBA. This meant Derrick Favors was the easy option to move with his expiring deal. He had been workmanlike over eight-plus seasons in Utah but it was clear that there was a cap to how much offense could develop with two guys who struggled to contribute outside of 15 feet. Moving that expiring deal cleared up space to sign Bojan Bogdanovic to a hefty contract.
The next splash had to be in the trade market. The reality has been that Salt Lake City will never attract the same level of talent as a small market in an unfair game. For this splash, the Jazz looked to upgrade at the point guard spot. Ricky Rubio had evolved into a perfectly serviceable pass-first point guard who really played well off of Mitchell but there was always going to be a ceiling on a team with these pieces and no solution to the spacing conundrum due to Rubio’s inconsistent shooting.
Mike Conley was brought in using a five-asset package to provide the jolt and push the Jazz into the upper crust of contention. Conley was coming off a career year as a scorer (21.1 points per game) for a young Grizzlies team that was due for a rebuild after years of moderate success in the Grit and Grind era. The Jazz were poised and ready to challenge the improving Nuggets for the division title and had as realistic a shot as any to be top-four seeds in the Conference.
Will the Real Mike Conley Please Stand Up?
On paper, the Conley move made tons of sense. It was a clear upgrade, a veteran presence, an underrated locker room character guy, and a damn good basketball player who probably deserved more credit than he got for his loyalty and production in the Grizzlies organization. He came to Utah with a new opportunity to play winning basketball and sport a new horrendous hairstyle. The first game as a member of the Jazz was a night Conley would rather forget, a 1-16 shooting night that was easily a career low point. At that point, it was just a blip. We thought he would bounce back and be fine. After all, this was a steady consistent producer who had been a reliable producer for more than a decade. There were some injuries along the way but nothing catastrophic outside of the 2017-18 Achilles injury that knocked him out for all but 12 uninspiring games.
The poor performances piled up and Conley just couldn’t get going. Then came the hamstring injury. On December 2nd Conley hurt his hamstring and hit the shelf for five games before coming back for one game… only to injure his hamstring again and sit out for an additional 14 games. Before this injured stretch that limited him to one appearance in over five weeks, he was sitting as the 208th player in 9-category leagues with a horrible (by his standards) 13.9 points, 3.5 rebounds, 4.6 assists and just 0.7 steals on an unpalatable 36.9% shooting clip. It was an incredibly poor run for a player who had been a top-30 fantasy asset in his last two healthy seasons and was drafted as such in a good situation on a strong team. The Jazz continued to perform without him and were comfortably a playoff team without any help from their big-money acquisition.
Conley returned on January 18th and was handled with kid gloves through the end of January, playing less than 20 minutes per contest. At this point, returning value was almost impossible but at least from the start of February to the league pause, Conley’s shot improved and he was the 86th-ranked player. The steals didn’t tick back up to the numbers we’re used to, but he was more representative of the 2015-16 version of Conley who played third fiddle behind Marc Gasol and Zach Randolph in Memphis but was a solid, mistake-averse floor general on a good team. At this point with Donovan Mitchell handing the ball and Bojan Bogdanovic as a secondary scorer on this team, an aging Mike Conley is probably more suited to that role as a top-50 asset instead of the top-30 we hoped for.
On November 8th in the ninth game of the young season against a juggernaut Bucks team, Bojan Bogdanovic announced himself as a force with a buzzer-beating triple to cap off a 33-point masterclass. It was a harbinger of a career-best scoring season for Bojan in his first season as a Jazzerciser. This organization is never one to make the splashiest move but they are well established as a smart group that gets more than advertised out of their players. Bogdanovic was inked to an under-the-radar four-year, $73 million deal in the free agency frenzy as what the Jazz hoped would be a third offensive option as a swing man. He turned into the clear second guy because of Conley’s disappearing act and was a catalyst for an otherwise limited offense.
It’s not a perfect analog to Gordon Hayward, who was a much better all-around playmaker and two-way asset than Bojan can ever dream to be, but this team is lacking another scoring option when Donovan Mitchell struggles and being able to have a guy who doesn’t look like he can get his own shot find ways to create offense for himself is valuable when the game slows down and the lights get brighter. The Jazz are well set with this iteration of Bogdanovic as a key contributor to a contending team, but whether that would be enough to compete in June is another question.
However, on the fantasy side… maybe it wasn’t everything we dreamed of. The high praise for being a better real-life asset didn’t translate as much as expected. The bump due to landing spot was obvious and the industry pushed Bojan well into the top-100 based on last season’s 93rd overall finish. This season the points bumped from 14.3 in 2017-18 to 18.0 in his final season in Indianapolis to this career mark of 20.2 points per game. With the scoring and 3-pointer bump (2.0 to 3.0) came the sacrifice of any semblance of a defensive game (down to 0.5 steals and no blocks), an increase in turnovers due to the higher usage and a subsequent five percent drop in shooting percentage. What’s more, the last couple months of the season really pushed down Bojan’s hot start, where he was well outside the top-100 on a per-game basis over the last 25 games of the truncated season.
Bogdanovic has some holes in his fantasy game because of his propensity for the outside shot putting him at risk for low shooting percentages and lack of defensive ability, but this is a very similar profile to a player like a more offensively creative JJ Redick who generally maintains good percentages given his playing style, doesn’t do a ton outside of efficient scoring but would be sorely missed if he wasn’t there, both for the Jazz and fantasy squads.
Where is the Help, Mate?
In seasons past the Jazz have gotten high level production, at least from a fantasy side, from players like Joe Ingles, Derrick Favors and Ricky Rubio. Favors and Rubio have moved on to different clubs and Ingles looks like he’s moved back to Australia at times this season because no one can find him on the court. There’s only so much that a limited offensive player in Royce O’Neale can do to keep the tempo of the game when shots aren’t falling. Still, O’Neale was the one piece of the supporting cast that was pulling his weight all season. Clearly the front office felt the same, awarding him a four-year extension worth $36 million. O’Neale is a fan favorite who is very popular in Salt Lake City but no one outside of Utah has ever heard of this undrafted player out of Baylor who spent two seasons overseas before signing with the Jazz.
The supporting cast (specifically bench) issue was such a problem that as of December 23rd the Jazz bench was averaging just 27.1 points per game, good for the second-worst mark in the league, ahead of only the Houston Rockets. Unfortunately for Utah, there’s no one on this roster with the scoring prowess of James Harden or perhaps even Russell Westbrook. December 23rd marked the acquisition of Jordan Clarkson from the Cleveland Cavaliers for failed project prospect Dante Exum (who struggled with injuries, then poor outcomes, then “Donovan Mitchell is better than you” syndrome) to ignite the Jazz bench. Clarkson at the very least did that, continuing his famous “Clarkson” outings where he provided scoring at a reasonable efficiency and forgot to do anything else. The Jazz got their scoring spark and did look like a more well-rounded unit.
Ingles started to play better after the “facilitate the second unit” approach largely failed and he shifted back to being a regular starter. Of course, most of the vintage Ingles came during Mike Conley’s absence. The (almost) 20 games without Mike Conley were huge for rescuing Smokin’ Joe’s value as he smoked 3.2 triples and scored 15.6 points per contest en route to top-40 output. Before the injury? Ingles was 143rd overall. After Conley’s return? An even worse 219th overall. It’s hard to swallow for fantasy owners who drafted Ingles regularly above his teammate and fellow Menards coworker Bojan Bogdanovic.
It’s hard to get excited about a support group that wasn’t able to step up into more production even with the growing pains we saw from this roster throughout a still fairly successful season. Every one of the fantasy-relevant producers on this team outside of Royce O’Neale, who is a deep-league darling on minute volume alone, underperformed their draft-day outlook. Let’s swing through fantasy-drafted Utah Jazz players and their current ranking compared to their average ADP on ESPN and Yahoo! (from Fantasypros):
Rudy Gobert (16.5/36)
Donovan Mitchell (30/48)
Mike Conley (55.5/186)
Joe Ingles (84.5/143)
Bojan Bogdanovic (88/96)
Jordan Clarkson (141/144)
Ed Davis (162/396)
Let that sink in. The only player who contributed value above their ADP across the entire stretch of the season was a waiver-wire pickup (O’Neale) who sits at 165th overall. That’s on the cusp of streamer status in standard leagues for a player who has a very non-streamable skillset without any standout fantasy abilities. The Jazz have some work to do shoring up the supporting cast if they want to really compete with the true elites.
Donovan Mitchell’s Next Gear
We’ve learned that Donovan Mitchell is an All-Star scorer and one of the most exciting players in our league. We’ve also learned that the shiny new toy gets so much buzz that all the equity gets sucked out before we can even get excited. It’s not that Mitchell isn’t an incredible player with room to grow. He is, and that’s where it’s complicated.
When Mitchell is a top-30 draft pick, he has to hit every benchmark to return value. It’s the same issue we’ve seen with Devin Booker, who has similar concerns. Booker is a better scorer and a worse defender, but in very similar fashion, there are question marks about the shooting efficiency and the turnovers. When the shot is falling, both of these guys are fantasy stars who can heat check with anybody and facilitate better than they get credit for. When the shot doesn’t fall like it didn’t for Mitchell in the month of March (17.8 points per game on 38.3% shooting) he can fall into mid-round value or later (He was ranked 100th for the month of March).
Again, we’re not solely trying to throw a wet blanket on the hype and excitement that is Donovan Mitchell, it’s just important to temper expectations and take the development we see in stride. Mitchell’s first three seasons from a 9-category fantasy perspective: 54th, 56th and 48th. If he remains a top-30 pick and doesn’t improve other facets of his game in concert with his scoring improvements, he can’t return his draft-day value. That’s just math.
He’s becoming a better, more efficient scorer, but this season that came at the cost of half a steal per game. If Mitchell trades something back for the added ticks in shooting percentages, we just break even right back where we were. This concept is a lesson around the league for our fantasy game. When we play category leagues, every category matters the same as the next. Scorers score. There’s a reason we love the strategy and calculus involved in building rosters. Maybe the scoring and efficiency gains were enough to flip categories and on the other side, maybe the loss in defensive counters was enough to push things the other way. The moral of the story: always double-check the math. A highlight reel dunk and an elbow jumper both count for two points, don’t always get sucked in by the awe factor.
Is the Locker Room Broken?
Regardless of the talent on this team and their status as a competitor in the Western Conference, the main question that will decide the fate of this organization in the upcoming years is the state of this locker room. It’s no secret that Rudy Gobert’s nonchalance in the face of a global pandemic where he became the NBA’s Patient Zero (at least publicly) almost immediately after making light of the crisis made him public enemy number one. When the NBA resumes, Rudy’s reception is bound to be tepid at best.
It’s also no secret that Mitchell, the other building block for this organization (and another player who contracted COVID-19, presumably from Gobert) expressed significant disdain for how Gobert handled the COVID-19 threat. This is a step away from the fantasy angle and a moment to dissect the state of the most critical relationship on this roster. If this professional relationship is truly not salvageable, how do the Jazz proceed? Both players are free agents after the 2020-21 season, with Mitchell being of the restricted variety. We would have to assume that the Jazz would be foolish not to match any offer that gets made to Mitchell. Does that mean that Gobert won’t stick around? Would he have stuck around if it hadn’t been for the building animosity and now the Jazz will be more motivated to let Gobert walk or move him via trade in the offseason?
This is the most public divide in the locker room right now. We’ve heard that there are some attempts being made to repair the relationship between the two stars but we’ll have to see if there ends up being a schism throughout the entire locker room, where Mitchell has guys in his corner and Gobert has guys in his. Of any team, the Jazz seem most likely to be affected from a roster angle due to the backlash from COVID-19. Hopefully for the sake of their competitive window, Mitchell and Gobert can work through their differences and compete for the Northwest division crown again next season.