December 25, 2019, 3:20 am
The Jazz are not quite where they would like to be this season. Though an 18-12 record is respectable, that puts them at sixth in the vicious Western Conference, and while they’re a clear cut above the teams below them in the standings and relatively safe from the frenzy, this was a team that was expected to become a legitimate title contender.
The pricy acquisitions of Mike Conley and Bojan Bogdanovic have required the Jazz to approach all moves as a team whose best opportunity is in the present. Those decisions were meant to crank Utah’s title contending window wide open and have forced the team to stay aggressive in making the most of it.
Monday’s trade of Dante Exum and two second-rounders for Jordan Clarkson is a small but necessary step in the Jazz finding a way to hit their theoretical ceiling. While the waiving of Jeff Green is a hopeful case of addition by subtraction, both moves are focused on solving a clear and obvious problem.
The summertime moves haven’t had a negative impact on the Jazz defense. They’ve fallen from second to 10th in the league in defensive rating, though that’s more to do with other teams getting better considering Utah’s at 105.5 this year after posting a 105.3 mark last year. Offensively, it’s another story. The Jazz sit 21st with a 106.8 offensive rating (they were 14th at 110.3 last year), which has left them in mediocre territory with a net rating of plus-1.3, good for 12th overall in a league where 14 teams are in the positives.
More pressingly, Utah’s bench has been atrocious. The Jazz are 29th in the league with 26.9 bench points per game, and their reserves are 17th in the league with a 3-point percentage of 33.8. Last season Utah was 15th in bench scoring (36.7 points per game) and third in 3-point percentage at 36.3 percent. The Jazz lost Kyle Korver and the move from bench to starter for Royce O’Neale has gutted the team’s bench shooting capabilities.
Adding Clarkson will go a long way to helping either front, as the 27-year-old combo guard is averaging 14.6 points and shooting .371 from deep on the year. He is only a .338 career 3-point shooter so some regression may be in order, but either way Clarkson gives the Jazz a more reliable scorer to buoy a second unit that has, to this point, relied on Green, Joe Ingles (who has recently been plugged back in as a starter with Conley out), Emmanuel Mudiay, Georges Niang and Ed Davis.
It will take Clarkson time to acclimate to the system after spending some time in the basketball wilderness of post-LeBron Cleveland, but he fills a major need. More broadly, Clarkson also gives the Jazz some bankable adequacy that they might not have been able to find elsewhere on the bench, and he can even play up with the starters on nights where he’s feeling it.
Boosting the bench in any way had to be a major priority with three Jazz averaging over 33.5 mpg so far this year and three others at 29.3 and above, with the seventh man (Green) way in the rear view at 18.4. It’s a heavy toll in a race that’s a true marathon, especially if the Jazz have eyes on some kind of homecourt advantage come playoff time.
As for Green, it’s tough to say that he was anything more or less than advertised. He was able to provide Utah with serviceable minutes, though the team’s offense cratered when he was on the floor to the tune of a 100.2 offensive rating. His .327 conversion rate from 3-point territory was tough to manage with the rest of the bench’s lack of firepower. The Jazz shouldn’t have expected different from a player who had shot better than .315 from deep just once in his previous four seasons.
Reshuffling the deck at power forward should lead to more minutes for Niang, who is averaging 4.5 points and shooting .415 from three in 11.8 minutes per contest so far, as well as additional run for more offensively inclined players like Ingles, O’Neale and Clarkson.
With Green’s roster spot, the Jazz inked Rayjon Tucker to a guaranteed deal. Tucker impressed at the G League showcase and is averaging 23.3 points (and shooting .386 from deep) with the Wisconsin Herd this season. That should bolster the second unit’s offense even more.
Even though Conley’s left hamstring injury has further burdened the team’s depth, these problems shouldn’t have come as a major surprise. The Jazz lost some significant offensive contributions up front, where the departures of Derrick Favors and Jae Crowder left a huge hole at both the backup power forward and center spots. That was the tradeoff that Utah chose in pursuing Conley and Bogdanovic, though the extent of the bench woes has surpassed even the most pessimistic predictions. Clarkson and Tucker should help rectify that to some extent but there are still plenty of questions to answer.
When Conley does return, either Ingles or O’Neale will return to the bench. Can Ingles ride his current run of strong play into a new role or will he return to his early season struggles? Can Niang keep it up as the sample size grows? Can the new bench defend or rebound well enough to truly work?
The Jazz pushed their chips to the center in the summer, and there’s no turning back now. This week’s flurry of moves may not be a cure-all, but the organization had no choice but to make them.