UTAH JAZZ

Jazz Need Better Luck More Than Better Roster

Jun 24, 2021, 1:39 PM
Mike Conley lifts Utah Jazz teammate Royce O'Neale (Photo by Alex Goodlett/Getty Images)...
Mike Conley lifts Utah Jazz teammate Royce O'Neale (Photo by Alex Goodlett/Getty Images)
(Photo by Alex Goodlett/Getty Images)

SALT LAKE CITY, Utah – The Utah Jazz season ended in disappointment, eliminated in four straight games by the Los Angeles Clippers after taking a 2-0 series lead. After finishing the regular season with the best record in the NBA, it was fair to expect this Jazz roster to carry them deeper into the playoffs than the Western Conference Semifinals.

While the Clippers lineups, even shorthanded in games five and six without Kawhi Leonard exposed flaws in the Jazz rotation, evidence points to the Jazz needing better luck more than a better roster.

With every painful playoff exit, it’s natural to look at the issues the Jazz struggled to navigate and hope to see significant changes to the roster. The team failed to contain the Clippers’ small-ball lineups, watching the L.A. ballhandlers repeatedly attack the Jazz porous perimeter defense and either finishing at the rim or kicking the ball out to open shooters in the corners.

That means the Jazz need better perimeter defenders, and Rudy Gobert needs to do a better job of marking smaller fives in the corners.

The team also needs more versatility defensively. While better individual defense would solve some of the team’s issues, there are no true individual lockdown defenders in the modern NBA.

As the four teams who have advanced to the conference finals have proved, rosters need long, rangy athletes to erase offensive spacing, something the Jazz failed to do against the Clippers. Outside of Gobert and Donovan Mitchell, the Jazz lack elite length and athleticism at most positions.

And yet, something else must be acknowledged — none of these issues really mattered during the regular season as the Jazz won 52 games and secured home-court advantage. Teams went small against the Jazz, but because the Jazz had multiple perimeter creators in Mitchell and Mike Conley, they could overcome teams who took Gobert out of the offensive game plan.

Conley was also a better-than-adequate defender during the regular season, either limiting dribble penetration or funneling ball handlers into Gobert in the paint.

As a result, the Jazz finished the regular season with a top-five offensive and defensive rating, and the best net rating in the NBA. Of the four teams remaining in the playoffs, the Clippers, Phoenix Suns, and Milwaukee Bucks finished second, third, and fourth.

So what changed between the regular season and the playoffs for the Jazz? Their health, of course.

Mitchell returned in the second game of the opening-round series against the Grizzlies but tweaked his already sprained ankle in game two against the Clippers in the second round. Though the All-Star guard still put up dominant offensive numbers, it was clear his athleticism had been decimated by season’s end. The former slam-dunk champ and high-flyer failed to dunk the ball even once during the Jazz postseason run.

Conley’s absence was even more glaring. After averaging a 20 point, 10 assist double-double in the opening round against the Memphis Grizzlies, the guard played just 25 injured minutes in the final game of the season against the Clippers.

As much credit as Gobert got, (and deserved) for leading the NBA in total plus-minus this season, it’s worth acknowledging that Conley led the NBA in plus-minus on a per-game basis.

While Gobert certainly impacted Conley’s plus-minus stats, his effectiveness dropped significantly when the All-Star guard was absent during the playoffs.

In the first four games of the postseason with a fully healthy Conley, Gobert had an average plus-minus of +9.  After Conley reaggravated his hamstring in game five against the Grizzlies, Gobert’s average plus-minus dropped to -4.3 in six games against the Clippers.

Without Conley, the Jazz’s ability to counter smaller lineups with Conley and Gobert running the pick and roll disappeared, which made it easier for the Clippers to attack the Jazz with those same lineups on offense, spacing the floor, and negating Gobert’s impact.

Ultimately, the Jazz roster, like every roster in the NBA is flawed. With Conley out of the lineup entirely, and Mitchell playing well below 100 percent, those flaws were amplified by a deeper, craftier Clippers approach.

While the Jazz need to address some of their defensive shortcomings, namely a lack of length and versatility, improved health would serve them better than an overhauled roster.

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Jazz Need Better Luck More Than Better Roster