UTAH JAZZ

Success Of Jazz Season Hinges On Game Seven

Aug 31, 2020, 1:41 PM | Updated: 1:43 pm
Mike Conley of the Utah Jazz talks to coach Quin Snyder (Photo by Kevin C. Cox/Getty Images)...
Mike Conley of the Utah Jazz talks to coach Quin Snyder (Photo by Kevin C. Cox/Getty Images)
(Photo by Kevin C. Cox/Getty Images)

SALT LAKE CITY, Utah – The Utah Jazz season hangs in the balance Tuesday night. A win over the Denver Nuggets in game seven and the Jazz will face the Los Angeles Clippers in the second round of the postseason. A loss and the season is over. But beyond the win or go home significance of the game, the ability to determine whether this season was less than a success hinges on the outcome.

The Jazz entered the season with hopes of a deep playoff run after acquiring proven veterans Mike Conley and Bojan Bogdanovic last summer. Both players brought promise that Donovan Mitchell would no longer have to shoulder the enormous offensive load during a playoff run that has dismantled the Jazz playoff hopes in each of the previous two seasons.

Bogdanovic underwent season-ending wrist surgery in May when the NBA’s return was in peril and was unable to rejoin the Jazz in Orlando. Conley missed the Jazz first to games of the postseason to spend time with his family after the birth of his son.

When Conley has been on the floor in the postseason, he’s been everything the Jazz could have asked for and more. The veteran guard is averaging 22.8 points, 4.8 assists, and 2.5 rebounds while shooting an incredible 57 percent from the floor and 60 percent from three on seven attempts per game.

Though Mitchell has had to average a league-leading 38.7 points per game, 5.5 assists, and 4.3 rebounds for the Jazz to compete in the series, Conley’s presence, and the amount of attention Denver has had to place on the veteran guard has helped make Mitchell’s excellence possible.

Despite the high level of play, the Jazz may still find themselves eliminated in the first round in what would be a disappointment from the preseason expectations.

The Jazz Failures Before Game Seven

If losing game seven on Tuesday means the Jazz season was less than a success, does that automatically classify it as a failure? The answer of course is yes and no. Some of the team’s mistakes are unfixable, regardless of Tuesday’s outcome.

First, by falling short of the reasonable preseason expectations of improving beyond last season’s first-round exit, exiting this early in the playoff race would certainly be a failure. Between the improvement of Mitchell, the additions of Bogdanovic and Conley, and being a year further into Rudy Gobert’s prime, the Jazz should have been able to improve on last season’s performance. That will be dictated by Tuesday’s performance.

In addition to Conley and Bogdanovic, the Jazz signed veterans Jeff Green and Ed Davis during the summer, both of which have been undoubted failures for the Jazz. Green was waived in late December after an ineffective two months with the roster. Davis was out of the rotation shortly after.

Now, Green is finding great success in the Houston Rockets lineup as a floor-spacing big man, exactly what the Jazz signed him to do, and Davis is sitting sidelined after an injury suffered during the Jazz meaningless final seeding game in Orlando.

Both players would be welcome additions to the Jazz very shorthanded bench, and neither is available. Whether the initial signings were a mistake or never finding a way to use them in the rotation, both additions were unquestionable failures for the Jazz this season.

The Jazz Successes Before Game Seven

But just as Tuesday’s results won’t fix some of the team’s failures, it also won’t erase their successes.

First, the reassurance of Mitchell as a premier scorer capable of carrying a team in a playoff series is of enormous importance for the Jazz. Thought Mitchell had done it as a rookie against the Oklahoma City Thunder, his struggles against the Rockets each of the last two series were cause for concern.

Regardless of Tuesday’s result, Mitchell has shown an ability to take his game as both a scorer and playmaker to the next level, emerging as one of the best franchise cornerstones under 25 in the NBA.

Second, the Bogdanovic signing turned out better than the Jazz could have hoped. The Croatian forward saw his scoring average climb to a career-best 20.2 points per game. While he’s surely in the midst of his prime, Bogdanovic’s playing style isn’t predicated on elite athleticism, so even a drop in foot speed likely won’t hamper the forward’s production as he progresses into his thirties.

Third, Jordan Clarkson is a nice option for the Jazz to have off the bench, assuming they can resign him this summer. The Jazz lack of depth has been the bane of the series over the last two games, but Clarkson has been an overwhelming positive for the Jazz since December.

The Jazz will have to fend off fellow suitors for the unrestricted free-agent, but Clarkson’s fit on the roster, green light playbook off the bench, and relationship with Snyder should work to the Jazz advantage this offseason.

The Unknown/Yet To Be Determined

While some successes and failures have already been determined, there are still matters that have yet to be resolved and could use more playoff games to fix.

First, what to make of Gobert’s future. The two-time Defensive Player of the Year is eligible for a max contract extension and has a had an up and don’t postseason once again for the Jazz.

In the Jazz wins, Gobert is been impactful finishing at the rim and playing Nikola Jokic to a virtual standstill. During losses, specifically in games five and six, the center’s impact has been hard to notice.

In Gobert’s first four games in the series, the center looked like All-Star self averaging 19.3 points, 9.8 rebounds, while shooting 75 percent from the floor on 11 shot attempts per game. Over the Jazz last two losses, Gobert is averaging just 11 points, 11.5 rebounds, and shooting 41 percent on 8.5 field goal attempts per game.

Whether Gobert is struggling, or Denver has adjusted their game plan to limit the center’s impact, the Jazz are not getting enough from their highest-paid player. Gobert can rectify that with an impactful game seven, helping the Jazz win the series, and continuing to show his ability to impact a playoff series in the second round.

If Gobert has another quiet game and the Jazz are eliminated, it should put serious doubts on how aggressive the Jazz are when trying to sign the All-Star to an early extension this offseason.

Gobert will be eligible for the supermax contract extension this summer worth roughly $250 million over five years. If Gobert can be limited so significantly by a defense as flawed as the Nuggets, it should give the Jazz front office pause in offering such a massive contract after another disappointing playoff appearance.

Other Early Extension Candidates

In addition to questions about Gobert’s early extension, the same can be asked of reserve big men Tony Bradley and George Niang. Both players played themselves into the rotation and are eligible for early extensions this summer, but have struggled in the playoffs.

Niang has shot the ball efficiently (50 percent from the floor and 40 percent from the three-point line), and has a positive plus-minus for the series, but is a target for the Nuggets defense. Denver coach Michael Malone was caught on a TNT broadcast telling his players to include Niang is as many actions as possible when attacking.

Due to their lack of foot speed, Niang and guard Joe Ingles are difficult to play on the floor at the same time. With Ingles under contract at a significant price tag for the next two seasons, Niang is likely worth extending, but not at a significant price tag. The forward might be a worthwhile piece during the regular season, but remains an unproven player in the postseason.

Bradley has improved as much as any player during the season for the Jazz but had been virtually erased by the Nuggets during the postseason. The third-year center is averaging just eight minutes per game, some of which has been increased during back to back blowouts in games two and three, and has seen his performance dwindle as the team’s venture deeper into the series.

The Jazz are in desperate need of Bradley’s rebounding, but even it has been sparse, leading to bigger questions of whether the Jazz can wait to develop the center of another season or need to supplant him on the depth chart. Davis was supposed to fill that role but simply didn’t fit into the team’s scheme.

Another series where Niang’s versatile offensive skillset and Bradley’s size could help secure their contract status ahead of next season, but for now, the Jazz shouldn’t feel pot-committed to either player.

Game Seven

Ultimately, regardless of what the Jazz have already taken from this season, the results of game seven will have a significant impact on the perspective of the team’s performance.

Though the Jazz are unlikely to make major adjustments based on the game’s outcome, and can surely default to the absence of Bogdanovic as a big reason for the team’s shortcomings, the game will paint the Jazz as either a future contender in the Western Conference, or a pretender with good, but ill-fitting pieces.

For the overall health of the franchise, and the fanbase’s perspective that comes with it, a win is of critical importance for a season otherwise filled with mixed results.

The Jazz and Nuggets tip-off Tuesday at 6:30 pm MT on ABC.

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