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.