The Milwaukee Bucks finished with the best record in the East for two consecutive seasons, only to run into defensive walls in the playoffs. Their non-switching, drop-back defense that proved dominant in the regular season let them down at points against the best teams in the playoffs. More importantly, their half-court offense was stagnant. So, last season, the Bucks adapted. They upgraded the roster with Jrue Holiday and P.J. Tucker (which kind of helped with the half-court offense but was no cure-all). They also spent part of the season working on switching defenses and offensive versatility, so they were comfortable with the concepts come the playoffs. It cost them a few wins; the Bucks finished third in the East.
However, the end result was Giannis Antetokounmpo and the Bucks hoisting the team’s first championship trophy in 50 years.
Last season, the Utah Jazz entered the second year of their own personnel upgrade with Mike Conley at the point. The All-Star point guard was paired with Donovan Mitchell and Rudy Gobert — young All-Stars (and in Gobert’s case, an All-NBA player) leading a rising team. As a result, Utah finished with the best record in the West and the best net rating of any team in the league by nearly three points last season.
However, come the playoffs, injuries and a lack of scheme versatility caught up with them. The Clippers eliminated the Jazz in the second round of the playoffs, taking four straight games — without Kawhi Leonard playing. Like the Bucks years before, the Jazz looked like a regular season juggernaut who struggles to adjust to playoff basketball.
There is real pressure on the Jazz this season to show that is not who they are. With a driven and committed new ownership in place, results matter.
“We’re almost at the point where it’s like, ‘Let’s just get going and start to figure it out on the court,'” Joe Ingles said at media day Monday. “Because we can do [Media Day] and take beautiful photos out there, but we have to win basketball games at the end of the day.”
Utah is essentially bringing back the same roster from last season — which is a good thing. It’s one of the best and deepest units in the league. Gobert is a three-time Defensive Player of the Year and anchor on that end who is underrated on offense (14.3 points a game on 67.5% shooting). Mitchell is an elite shot creator and scorer, something he proved last season, averaging 32.2 points per game essentially on one leg in the playoffs. Conley is an All-Star point guard who impacts both ends of the court. Jordan Clarkson comes off the bench and was the Sixth Man of the Year. Joe Ingles might be the player most likely to take the Sixth Man crown from Clarkson. Beyond them, the Jazz roll out Bojan Bogdanovic, Royce O’Neal, and they just added Rudy Gay.
It’s an elite roster, and with its continuity likely will have the best regular season record in the West again.
That’s not how their season will be judged.
What has to happen for the Jazz to take a step forward?
They have to stay healthy first. Some Jazz fans will argue that if Conley’s hamstring hadn’t flared up and Mitchell didn’t have to carry the offensive load while playing through a sprained ankle, it would have been Utah and not Phoenix in the NBA Finals. Maybe, maybe not. That’s not what happened in this corner of the multiverse. However, part of the point is valid: If Utah is going to make a Finals run, it has to start with all their players being healthy. An injury to a role player hits the Jazz harder than a team like the Lakers. Utah has All-Stars in Gobert and Mitchell, but not top-seven talents that can carry a team to a title like LeBron James (or Antetokounmpo). The Jazz remain a very talented ensemble where the whole is more than the sum of the parts, but they need all the parts to be in place to compete with the LeBrons of the world.
Health alone is not enough for Utah to reach the level it wants.
The Clippers small ball exposed the Jazz because their defense is all predicated on Gobert’s elite ability as a rim protector — he cleans up a lot of messes for a pretty pedestrian (or worse) perimeter defense. Last postseason, Mitchell, Bogdanovic, Ingles, Clarkson, and the rest were getting blown by on the perimeter without much resistance. Because the Clippers were five-out spacing the floor, it forced Gobert to be out in the corner or elsewhere in space guarding a shooter. When Mitchell/Ingles/whoever was blown by, Gobert had to choose to protect the rim or stay with his shooter. He defended the rim, and the result was Terrance Mann getting open look after open look on passes from the initial shot creator.
Utah has to become a better perimeter defensive team, something that should start with Mitchell.
On the other end of the court, Utah scores a lot of system points in the regular season, but get into the playoffs (especially past the first round), and those points dry up against a prepared defense. Utah needs offensive diversity in those games beyond what Mitchell can wow us with. More of the Conley/Gobert pick-and-role. More Bogdanovic getting past his man. More Ingles pick-and-roll (he’s crafty with it). Clarkson will keep doing his thing, but that role may shrink some in the postseason.
And we need to see more of all this in the regular season, so it doesn’t look and feel new come the playoffs.
Any team making a deep playoff run has to adapt — the best opposing teams and defenses take away Plan A. Teams have to be comfortable with Plan B. And C. And D. The Clippers showed that last season, dropping the first two games of the series against the Jazz as they looked for a lineup and style that worked, but when they found something, suddenly it was the Jazz who could not adapt.
Learning to adapt and adjust is what the Bucks did a season ago.
It’s what the Jazz have to do if they want to get past the Lakers, Suns, and the rest of a deep and talented West and get their shot at Brooklyn (or whoever) in the Finals.