In Review: 50-32 | Third in the NW Division | First Round Loss to Houston (1-4)
Head Coach: Quin Snyder (410-227)
What To Expect:
The Utah Jazz have been on the verge of making some serious noise since drafting Donovan Mitchell two summers ago, but inconsistent point guard play was one of the primary limiting factors for the team. This summer Utah’s front office addressed this in a serious way, trading for veteran Mike Conley as the Memphis Grizzlies prepare to completely rebuild. With Conley at the helm, Utah has their own big three to compete in the ever-strengthening Western Conference.
The Jazz are a team with many strengths, but there is no question their biggest is third-year guard Donovan Mitchell. The consummate role model off the court and strong-minded competitor on it, Mitchell is everything a team could want in a franchise player. Meanwhile, center Rudy Gobert provides the team with the kind of dominant low post defender that they haven’t had since Mark Eaton retired. Mike Conley rounds out Utah’s big three, which will feature clutch scoring and playmaking and big plays defensively, giving them all of the key ingredients for a championship run.
Health is going to be extremely important for Utah, especially at point guard. Mike Conley hasn’t appeared in more than 70 games since the 2013-14 season, and if he goes down there is a serious drop-off in talent behind him on the roster. Dante Exum is still a young player at just 24, but the former fifth-overall pick has yet to show the kind of potential the Jazz were hoping for on draft night 2014. The same is true at the center position, where Ed Davis has big shoes to fill when the “Stifle Tower” hits the pine (Ok, they’re cushy chairs now). Depth could prove to be the Achilles’ Heel for the Jazz this season.
Top Offensive Player:
Donovan Mitchell improved on his impressive rookie season last year, averaging 23.8 points, 4.1 rebounds, 4.2 assists and 1.4 steals per game while shooting just under 50% from the field. He loves the big moments and has a flair for the dramatic. Mike Conley’s presence beside him in Utah’s backcourt will only make him better, as Conley’s court vision and leadership are on par with any elite point guard in the NBA. Expect a breakout year from Mitchell, who has already shown moments of brilliance for head coach Quin Snyder.
Top Defensive Player:
Only the Milwaukee Bucks had a better defensive rating than the Jazz last season, and Milwaukee had the best record in the NBA. The Bucks allowed just 104.9 points per game, while the Jazz gave up slightly more at 105.2. The key to Utah’s defensive success was Rudy Gobert, who averaged 12.9 rebounds (4th in the NBA) while blocking 2.3 shots per game (3rd). He also led the NBA in field goal percentage, shooting a hair under 67% from the field. In other words, Gobert is a force to be reckoned with in the paint.
In a league dominated by incredible point guards, Mike Conley is often overlooked. He doesn’t hit half-court shots like Steph Curry, he doesn’t average triple-doubles like Russell Westbrook and he hasn’t had a championship-caliber team around him like Kyle Lowry. That being said, Conley averaged only 1.9 turnovers per game, fewer than any of the aforementioned NBA gold standard, and has a penchant for making his teammates better with his passing as well as his leadership. The Jazz didn’t need Russell Westbrook, they needed a solid hand at the wheel who will make the right decisions in big situations. That’s exactly what they will get with Conley.
Top Clutch Player:
The Jazz had two clutch players last season and arguably have three now. Finishing fifth in the Western Conference last season, the Jazz weren’t successful in as many clutch situations as they would have liked, but if Mitchell, Gobert and Conley are healthy the Jazz will be in the thick of every fight. Expect Conley’s assist numbers to skyrocket as he puts everyone around him in the right positions when it matters most.
With a nod to Bojan Bogdanovic, a fabulous addition who averaged 18.0 points per game with the Indiana Pacers last season, Mike Conley is the best new addition for the reasons detailed above. Utah’s front office is equally concerned with character and talent, and Conley delivers both in spades. The Jazz weren’t swinging for the fences in free agency like the LA Lakers, LA Clippers and many others, they just wanted solid, hardworking players to improve their already solid roster.
The Burning Question:
How good can Donovan Mitchell become? The Jazz have a great starting five and decent depth, but in a conference where the road to the Finals will lie through players like Steph Curry, James Harden, LeBron James, Kawhi Leonard, Damien Lillard and Nikola Jokic, the Jazz have to have a legit superstar to advance. All indications are that Mitchell will be that player, especially with an elite point guard next to him. If Mitchell doesn’t evolve into a star, however, the Jazz will struggle to thrive in the lethal West.