Are The Utah Jazz Contenders?

Dec 29, 2019, 1:31 PM | Updated: 4:49 pm

Donovan Mitchell...

LOS ANGELES, CALIFORNIA - OCTOBER 25: Donovan Mitchell #45 of the Utah Jazz reacts after his shot and foul (Photo by Harry How/Getty Images)

(Photo by Harry How/Getty Images)

SALT LAKE CITY, Utah – At the beginning of the month of December, the Utah Jazz were limping through a disappointing start to their season. After suffering a 25 point loss at home to the Los Angeles Lakers, the Jazz were just 12-10 on the season and had been blown out in four of their previous five games. 

Mike Conley hadn’t fit as well alongside Donovan Mitchell as many had hoped to begin the season, Joe Ingles was ineffective in a sixth-man role and the bench as a whole was one of the worst units in the NBA. Worse yet, Mitchell appeared to be struggling with inefficiency once again while opposing defenses were finding ways to eliminate Rudy Gobert’s offensive impact on the game. 

25 days later, the Jazz are playing a different tune and appear to be entering the contender conversation. 

Having won eight of their previous 10 outings, capped off with a convincing 120-107 road victory over the Los Angeles Clippers, the Jazz are scratching the surface of their immense potential as they near the turn of the new year. 

The shift first began when the schedule turned in the Jazz favor, facing six teams in seven games with sub .500 records. Since December 4, the Jazz have played just three teams with a positive win percentage and will have faced eight opponents with losing records. Before hosting the Detroit Pistons Monday night, the Jazz are 7-0 against teams with losing in the month. 

Though the Jazz have split their two games against teams with a winning record, they are a combined 3-1 against teams poised to make the playoffs over their last 10 games. 

The hot stretch also coincided with an injury to Mike Conley, forcing coach Quin Snyder to adjust his starting lineup. 

Conley suffered a strained hamstring in the Jazz December 2 loss to the Philadelphia 76ers, an ailment he reinjured in just 19 minutes against the Orlando Magic on December 17. The injury pushed Ingles into the starting lineup, where he and the Jazz have been terrific. 

Over the last 10 games, Ingles scoring average has jumped from 7.2 to 16.9 points per game, while his shooting percentages have climbed from 35 percent from the floor and 30 percent from the three-point line to 55 percent from both areas. 

Ingles move to the starting lineup appears to have sprung Mitchell into a new gear, filling the role of lead guard in the first unit. 

After Conley’s departure, Mitchell has averaged 26.6 points per game, shooting 50 percent from the floor and 33 percent from the three-point line while dishing out 5.5 assists and grabbing 4.4 rebounds. 

Ingles move to the starting lineup will likely prove to be permanent, even upon Conley’s return, but took an essential playmaker out of the Jazz second unit. With the bench struggling, the Jazz made two major moves to upgrade the group, first by trading Dante Exum to the Cleveland Cavaliers for guard Jordan Clarkson, then by waiving Jeff Green in favor of Georges Niang getting more minutes at power forward. 

Clarkson, a proven scorer gives the Jazz a steady offensive weapon in their second unit. The Jazz are 5-2 on the season when they get 15 points or more from any reserve player. 

The test for the Jazz over the remainder of the season will be maintaining their recent level of play, as they reintegrate Conley back into the lineup when he is cleared to rejoin the team. Conley is averaging 13.6 points, but shooting just 36 percent from the floor and the three-point line this season. His inconsistent shooting has plagued the Jazz at times early in the season, and there has been a clear upgrade in play when Ingles and Royce O’Neale have been in the starting lineup providing floor spacing for Mitchell beyond the perimeter. 

If Conley can find his footing with the Jazz, and return to the player he was in Memphis, the Jazz will have one fo the best starting five-man lineups in the NBA, likely moving O’Neale to the bench. If Clarkson can maintain his two-game impact with the Jazz, the team’s bench struggles can be mitigated, especially with a starting-caliber player in O’Neale adding shooting to the group. 

After knocking off two playoff teams in the Portland Trailblazers and Clippers, the Jazz schedule once again turns in their favor. 

If the Jazz can continue to play at their current level and reassimilate Conley into the starting lineup, they should be hitting their stride as a contender as they enter the All-Star break. The key for the team entering the playoffs will be maintaining their momentum after the February hiatus, through tougher schedules of games in March and April.

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