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Utah has talent, but how far can they go without a superstar?

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This story is part of our NBCSports.com’s 2019-20 NBA season preview coverage. Every day between now and when the season opens Oct. 22 we will have at least one story focused on the upcoming season and the biggest questions heading into it. In addition, there will be podcasts, video and more. Come back every day and get ready for a wide-open NBA season.

Everybody is hot on teams in the Western Conference this year. The Los Angeles Clippers have several superstars. LeBron James finally has Anthony Davis with the Lakers. The Denver Nuggets are back and as deep as ever. The Houston Rockets are trying something new with Russell Westbrook. The Portland Trail Blazers have revamped much of their roster. That’s not left much room for the Utah Jazz, one of the favorites to dominate the regular season this year.

But the Jazz, who are moving forward with Mike Conley, Bojan Bogdanovic, and Ed Davis to go with much of the same team they fielded last year, are a team without a superstar. Depth and cohesiveness will be the weapon that Utah tries to wield against its rivals in West this season, and based on the personalities in play, there is real hope they can do just that.

At the core of this hope is one of the league’s best defenses. According to Cleaning the Glass, Utah was first in the NBA in opponent points per possession, effective field-goal percentage, and offensive rebounding rate. The Jazz were also stingy when giving up shooting fouls, and that perhaps made up for some of their inconsistencies on offense.

In 2018-19, Utah was a decent enough 3-point shooting team and a great squad at attacking the rim in terms of percentage. But the Jazz struggled on corner threes, where they took the second-most shots of any team in the NBA. This was coupled with some of the issues in how the Jazz offense ran. With Ricky Rubio at the helm — and in one of his better years, no less — the team lacked a dynamism at times when they needed it most. Without a team effort, it was often difficult for Utah to get something on the board in critical situations.

That’s the same worry that will present itself this season. Both Conley and Davis are great players, but they aren’t the type that will take over a game consistently in clutch moments. The hope is that Donovan Mitchell will be more comfortable in a role he filled last season, playing off the ball as a combo-guard much in the vein of CJ McCollum.

At age 23, there is lots of room to grow for Mitchell. Hyped as a rookie, opinion has started to turn on the Jazz third-year player. Last season for Utah, Mitchell failed to curb his turnover issues. He also didn’t create offense based off of his usage percentage in a way that was more efficient and it had been as a rookie. Mitchell shot 37 percent from 3-point line last year, which was in the 67th percentile for his position according to Cleaning the Glass. It will be massively helpful if Mitchell can continue to grow his game from beyond the arc this season.

Mitchell is more athletic and explosive than some of the other combo guards we’ve seen come through the NBA as of late, and the real question will be whether he can put aside his first instinct and play smarter next year. Jazz fans are hoping for just that, and perhaps having an older mentor in Conley will help push him in the right direction.

To that end, there are some interesting players on the Jazz roster that clash with the idea that this is a “team only” squad. Emmanuel Mudiay, Dante Exum, and Jeff Green are all players who can attack and play outside of the scheme of normal, boring Quin Snyder offense.

Of course, Utah’s strength will still be its team-oriented style. Joe Ingles is now paired with Bogdanovic in the frontcourt, and that should boost the Jazz 3-point shooting numbers significantly. Last year for the Indiana Pacers, Bogdanovic shot a whopping 52% on all corner threes. He also shot 42% on threes in total, and that should boost the Utah offense as both Conley and Mitchell create opportunities on the drive.

In this same concern is the idea that Conley, a significant upgrade over Rubio, can actually shoot the 3-pointer. The former Memphis Grizzlies star is a 37% career 3-point shooter, far better than Rubio’s mark of 31%. That should stretch the geometry of how opposing defenses try to contain Utah, and give everyone on the floor more opportunities to score efficiently.

The Jazz are a team without a superstar, and that’s cause for concern in today’s NBA. Utah’s defense will once again be great — Rudy Gobert will see to that. But when we talk about lacking stars, we’re really asking questions about a team’s ability to create outside of a team perspective. If the Jazz are going to pick a year to test the team-first theory, this would be the one to do it in the Western Conference. Utah should still be a favorite to make it into the playoffs, but how deep they will go will depend on if their new additions can galvanize in time to withstand attacks from opposing rivals.

Rumor: Indiana coach Nate McMillan is on hot seat

Indiana coach hot seat
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Last season, Indiana’s Nate McMillan finished fourth in Coach of the Year voting, taking a team that lost star Victor Oladipo after just 36 games and still got them into the playoffs. McMillan is going to get COY votes again this year for much the same reason — his teams play good defense and overachieve.

Indiana coach Nate McMillan is also on the hot seat.

It’s surprising, and it’s just a rumor, but ESPN’s Jeff Van Gundy and Zach Lowe had this conversation on a recent episode of The Lowe Post podcast (hat tip PacersTalk.net).

Van Gundy: “I had two people come up to me since I’ve been here [in the NBA restart bubble] and say, ‘Nate McMillan’s in trouble.’”

Lowe: “It’s been the hottest rumor all season… What you’ve heard in Orlando’s been going around all season…

“Let me be clear: It’s just a rumor. I don’t know if it’s true. When you talk to people around the Pacers, they say, ‘It’s not true’ or ‘Where you’d hear that from?’”

Maybe management wants a more modern offense, the Pacers are bottom eight in both three pointers attempted and pace. Overall, Indiana’s offense is middle of the pack (18th in the league), which is not bad considering it was without Oladipo for most of the season (and he was playing his way into shape when he returned and was not at an All-NBA level).

It’s hard to imagine that the Pacers would make a change this offseason, which will be short and give a new coach less time to ramp up a program. Plus, does owner Herb Simon want to pay two coaches? The finances of the league are helping other coaches keep their jobs.

More than all that, McMillan doesn’t deserve to be fired.

Not that “deserved” has had much to do with NBA coaches keeping their jobs in the past.

 

Report: NBA players bypassing ‘snitch’ hotline to call Adam Silver directly

NBA commissioner Adam Silver
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No NBA players have been diagnosed with coronavirus in the bubble. And they want to keep it that way. A championship and a lot of money are on the line.

That means preventing players from having close contact with anyone outside the bubble. And, in case someone contracts coronavirus, wearing masks (intact masks) to prevent a wider outbreak.

The NBA set up a hotline – quickly dubbed the “snitch” hotline – for players to report violations.

Chris Haynes of TNT:

Players have been circumventing that process. Sources informed me that multiple players are personally calling commissioner Adam Silver to issue their complaints with things they’re seeing in the bubble.

Adam Silver is accessible to players – particularly the president of the union.

I’m not sure about tattling straight to the top boss when there are other protocols in place. Are hotline calls not resulting in changed behavior?

Either way, it’s important for the NBA to keep players safe – both for their health and the league’s revenue (about half of which goes to players in salary). So, cut Chris Paul anyone calling Silver a break. They’re at least trying to help. And so far, violations inside the bubble have led to reminders, not harsher discipline.

Zion Williamson sitting out Pelicans-Wizards (rest)

Pelicans big Zion Williamson
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The Pelicans have been one of the NBA’s most disappointing teams in the bubble. New Orleans has gone 1-3 at Disney World and fallen to 13th in the Western Conference.

Still (barely) hanging in the race to make the play-in, the Pelicans must face the Wizards without Zion Williamson.

Pelicans:

The Pelicans are treating Williamson carefully – and they should. He’s their 20-year-old franchise player with major health concerns.

But New Orleans still has its highest ceiling now with Williamson on the floor. He’s an offensive force. His interior scoring and gravity create efficient looks for himself and teammates.

Williamson has been woeful defensively, and the Pelicans have bigs – Derrick Favors and Jaxson Hayes – to take Williamson’s minutes. New Orleans can go small, too.

The Pelicans should still beat Washington, even without Williamson. Ideally, this will have Williamson ready for a closing stretch against the Spurs, Kings and Magic without sacrificing today’s game.

Yet, this is really just proof New Orleans isn’t as ready to launch as it appears during Williamson’s most exciting moments. His availability remains murky. His team has run hot and cold. I wouldn’t assume a win over the Wizards – though it’s a game the Pelicans need to preserve their fading playoff hopes.

Rumor: Next NBA season could begin in March

Wizards guard Bradley Beal and 76ers center Joel Embiid
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The NBA could reportedly delay the start of next season – currently planned for Dec. 1 – if fan attendance becomes foreseeable.

How long would the league wait?

Joe Cowley of the Chicago Sun-Times:

one plan includes starting in March if the NBA feels they can get fans in the arena by then, as well as not lose personnel and viewership to the Summer Olympics.

I understand the temptation to delay. The coronavirus pandemic has made it more difficult for NBA teams to turn a profit.

But this plan would invite all sorts of complications:

  • What if there’s no vaccine, cure or comparable solution by March? Then, the league would have wasted months getting practically no revenue – rather than reduced revenue – without reaching a more favorable point. (However, maybe owners could also reduce costs with a lockout.)
  • Starting the season in March would radically alter the NBA’s calendar. Shifting back to an October – or even December – start date would mean even more upheaval, potentially for several years.
  • The Tokyo Olympics are scheduled for July and August 2021. The Olympics have been a powerful tool for the NBA and its players expanding their global reach.

These are unique and trying circumstances. Coronavirus is a massive and confounding variable. Everything should be on the table.

Do I predict next season will begin in March? No. But apparently the possibility is being considered, which is something.