The time has come.
The moment has arrived for this new vaunted Jazz lineup, the one that Jazz fans have been eagerly awaiting to see in action for months now, to step out on the floor together and get a sense of what they’re capable of.
Returnees like Donovan Mitchell, Rudy Gobert, Joe Ingles, and the four other Jazzmen who have been through a Quin Snyder training camp before will know what to expect from their head coach. But for new signees Mike Conley, Bojan Bogdanovic, Ed Davis, Jeff Green, and nine others, this will be the first time they’ll have a chance to work with Snyder and the rest of their Jazz teammates in a 5-on-5 environment.
And with only four days of practice before the team’s first preseason game, there’s a lot to get done. First comes Monday’s Media Day, in which the players will take pictures, do interviews, and generally get back into the swing of things. Then, two-a-day practices — one at 10 a.m., the second at 5:30 p.m. — start on Tuesday, and again on Thursday, with just one practice on the day in between.
Friday is likely to only have one practice as well, because the team will host a “Meet the Team” event at Vivint Arena at 6 p.m. that day. Free to the public, the event is pared down from years past when they held a scrimmage; now, it will feature a “shooting relay, three-point shootout and a game of Knockout,” according to a Jazz press release.
Then comes Saturday’s first game action: a preseason matchup against the NBL’s Adelaide 36ers, set for 7 p.m. The first contest against an NBA team comes in Milwaukee on Oct. 9, and the first regular season game comes on Oct. 23, against the Oklahoma City Thunder.
We may not learn the answers to these 10 burning questions in just a three-week period before games really begin. But right now, here are the biggest questions on The Tribune’s mind as training camp opens.
Can Donovan Mitchell make a leap?
Take a look at Donovan Mitchell’s top 10 comparables in FiveThirtyEight’s player projection system, and you’ll see reason for optimism: names like Dwyane Wade, Ray Allen, Kemba Walker, Gilbert Arena, and Brandon Roy who all improved from their second to third season. But it’s not all roses: names like Brandon Jennings, Ben Gordon, and Dion Waiters are cautionary tales.
But it’s probably smart to bet on Mitchell taking a step forward in his third season. First, the team constructed around him will absolutely give him more space to work: defenders will stick like magnets to Mike Conley and Bojan Bogdanovic, the polarity was reversed with Ricky Rubio and Jae Crowder. Second, Mitchell’s Team USA experience, albeit unsuccessful overall, gave him experience in learning how to play with better players.
He also was fully healthy this offseason, unlike last summer. And quite frankly, he just has a better attitude than the list of failures above: Mitchell likes to work for the success of his team. He took a ton of shots in the last couple of years, but it wasn’t out of number or glory chasing, it was because the Jazz needed him to. There’s reason to believe he’ll be more efficient this year.
It’s probably safe to put four of the Jazz’s starters in ink: Conley, Mitchell, Bogdanovic, and Gobert. But despite starting all but one game over the last two seasons, it could be possible we see Ingles out of the starting five in 2019-20.
Ingles will finish a lot of contests: his terrific shooting and playmaking opens up space for others. And he will spend a lot of time with the four key guys. But there are real arguments to start Royce O’Neale or Jeff Green ahead of Ingles.
What’s the thought process? Well, O’Neale is one of the lowest usage players in the NBA: he doesn’t like to take shots if he doesn’t have to. He’s also perhaps the Jazz’s best perimeter defender. It makes sense to put him in the starting lineup, where on defense he could guard the opponent’s best player, while on offense, letting the four talented guys around him go to work.
As for Green, the argument is simple: he’s perhaps the closest analog to Crowder that the Jazz have on the roster this year, and lineups with Crowder have traditionally been statistically among the Jazz’s best. Green has the size and strength to hang with all sorts of fours in today’s NBA. We’ll see what Snyder chooses to do to open the season.
Will Jazz stay top-3 defensively?
The Jazz have been a top-3 defensive team for the last three seasons, and it’s been the Jazz’s calling card for even longer. “Invincibility lies in the defense” is a phrase posted prominently around the Jazz’s practice facility.
Yes, they’ll still have the Defensive Player of the Year back there in Rudy Gobert, blocking and deterring shots better than anyone else. That being said, the Jazz’s defense struggled earlier in the 2018-19 season as the perimeter players didn’t do a good enough job of keeping themselves between the man and the basket. Gobert can stop a lot of 2-on-1s, but not all of them.
Conley figures to be at least Rubio’s equal on defense; though he’s smaller and less steal-prone, he’s always been a fundamental defender. But if Ingles and Bogdanovic share front-court minutes, will the two 30+ year olds always be able to stay in front? Both have been solid so far, but age can hit first defensively.
They’ve also just never faced roster turnover to this degree. Defensive effectiveness comes in large part as five men working together to stop an opponent. That cohesion is easier with years of experience together rather than weeks.
When will Mike Conley and Rudy Gobert find chemistry?
Conley is one of the best point guards in the league, and Gobert is one of the best centers, so a Conley and Gobert pick and roll should be easy money for the Jazz, right?
It very well may be. But one thing we learned from the Ricky Rubio experience is that putting a great passer next to a great finisher isn’t necessarily enough right away. Early in Rubio’s first Jazz season, he couldn’t find the timing of Gobert’s lobs and roll passes, and threw away some pretty ugly turnovers. He got better, of course, but it wasn’t immediate.
Conley has always been less turnover prone than Rubio, but he’s not really used to playing with an above-the-rim center. His partnership with Marc Gasol worked brilliantly, but his work with Jaren Jackson Jr. was less effective last season: Conley only threw one successful lob pass to JJJ all year long. I think Conley will get the partnership going, but it’s fair to temper expectations early.
Can Rudy Gobert beat his own dunk record?
If that Conley/Gobert chemistry can get rolling, Gobert has a chance to make history, again. Last year, his 306 dunks set an NBA record for a season. And there’s reason to believe he’ll get even more opportunities this year. Fewer defenders will be able to get in his way as he rolls to the rim, because they’ll have to stay attached to Conley and Bogdanovic.
Gobert might also play more minutes: he averaged only 31.8 per game last year, because Derrick Favors was just so effective in the center role. Ed Davis is good, but he’s not Favors good.
On the other hand, with more able offensive players, more of the putback dunks Gobert feasted on last year will just fall through the rim instead. Gobert might not play 81 games this season. And after Milwaukee led the league defensively with a pack-the-approach, more teams might try this in 2019-20, giving Gobert more traffic to deal with.
How much will the Jazz use load management?
The Toronto Raptors set the precedent for teams to aggressively use load management tactics in order to see increased effectiveness by the time the playoffs rolled around. Yeah, Kawhi Leonard only played 60 games in the regular season last year, and he could have played more. But he was an all-out assassin for the Raptors in the playoffs, looking healthy while other guys looked tired, and dragged Toronto to the Finals last year.
With five key contributors — Conley, Davis, Bogdanovic, Ingles, and Green — over the age of 30, it might be smart for the Jazz to strategically rest guys during the course of the season. But in an all-out Western Conference war, with playoff positioning critical, can the Jazz afford to? That’s especially true given that the depth of this team from spots 10-15 is not as effective, on paper, as what it was a season ago.
Who will the Jazz’s backup point guard be?
Emmanuel Mudiay, after a season playing for the beleaguered New York Knicks, was looking for a new team. The Jazz needed a point guard who would sign for the minimum, and Mudiay was a fit. There was just one catch: in order to play for Snyder, Mudiay needs to play defense. In his career, he hasn’t done so at all effectively. In signing his contract, he promised to work on that part of his game, with the full understanding that if he didn’t, he wouldn’t see playing time.
So after an offseason of work, is Mudiay an able defender? At 6-foot-5, he has the tools to be. If he is, his midrange scoring likely makes him the Jazz’s best backup point guard option.
If not? Dante Exum could be that guy, but there’s real thought that he hasn’t displayed on-court leadership and vision needed to be a point guard in the NBA, and that he might help more as a wing player. Nigel Williams-Goss, signed from Olympiakos, is kind of the anti-Mudiay: he avoids mistakes, but there are real questions of whether or not he’ll be athletic enough to play in the NBA.
One darkhorse: Joe Ingles. Ingles spent huge swaths of time as Australia’s primary ballhandler in the FIBA World Cup. After the All-Star break last year, he led the Jazz in assists with 7.5 per game. He may not defend opposing PGs, but if he’s in the second unit, expect him to have the ball in his hands a majority of the time.
How does the second unit fare?
The Jazz’s second unit last year was a success, but so much of that was due to the impact of Derrick Favors. Favors’ pick-and-roll combination with Ingles proved a consistent provider of buckets when nothing else worked; and the Georgia Tech big man’s offensive rebounding and putback game saved the Jazz numerous times. Defensively, too, Favors was one of the best rim protectors in the league last season.
The good news: Ed Davis has many of those characteristics. He’s a terrific paint defender, and can rebound just as well, if not better than, Favors on the offensive glass. (He’s perhaps less good at the putbacks, preferring a volleyball style tip-out to reset the play.) But he can’t roll and finish like Favors can.
On their own, none of Exum, O’Neale, Green, Niang, and Davis are bucket-getters. So it seems reasonable that perhaps the best way to approach this problem is to stagger the lineups heavily: have Bogdanovic, Ingles, or even Mitchell or Conley have a chance to lead the second unit offensively. Bogdanovic, especially, has shown himself capable with his time leading Indiana in scoring last year.
What’s up Quin Snyder’s sleeve?
The book on the Jazz, prior to the 2018-19 season, is that they were slow. They never finished with an above-average pace since 2012, and in the Snyder era, had even finished dead last a number of times. That all changed last year; the Jazz jumped up to 13th overall in pace. Rubio and Mitchell especially sought to run whenever possible.
So what surprises in style will the Jazz bring this year? It’s fair to expect Snyder to keep much of the same defensive system that’s worked for ages, and I expect the Jazz’s offense will continue to be known for the side-to-side ball movement that can disrupt defenses — no team has more court reversals than the Jazz.
But Snyder has spent months reportedly thrilled about the possibilities of his new additions paired with his old crew, and with multiple players capable of so much offensively, he has to have some new additions to the playbook. Quality shots and players capable of knocking them down? That’s the dream.
Can breadth of talent beat the NBA’s best?
The Ringer’s Dan Devine put it well: “A team full of A-minus and B-plus players can get you a long way; I’m just not sure it gets you past multiple opponents with A and A-plus talents in a seven-game sample.” The Jazz have five players in both ESPN and Sports Illustrated’s Top 100, heck, they’re all even in the top 70. Gobert’s a top-15 player in both rankings, and Conley and Mitchell are both top-30.
But there will be league-wide skepticism about the Jazz beating a team with LeBron James and Anthony Davis, or Kawhi Leonard and Paul George, or any other number of top duos, until they prove they can do it repeatedly in a playoff series.
The NBA chestnut has always been “the team with the best player usually wins the series,” and unless Gobert or Mitchell take a leap to become top-5 players — possible! — the Jazz won’t have many of those matchups.
Of course, there is precedent: the ’04 Pistons used the same model as the Jazz to beat the heavily-superstar-laden Lakers. Super teams have come out victorious over superteams. Come playoff time, the Jazz may need to outperform their opponents as a collective, rather than outshine them individually.
Key Jazz preseason Dates
Monday: Jazz Media Day
Tuesday: Two-a-day practices begin
Friday: Annual meet the team event at Vivint Arena
Oct. 5: First preseason game against Adelaide 36ers
Oct. 9: First preseason game against an NBA team, the Milwaukee Bucks, on the road
Oct. 23: Regular season begins against OKC Thunder at home