After five games and 16 days of training camp, Quin Snyder was asked about the things he’s learned this preseason. He said there were “dozens” of things he’s taken away; then said he didn’t want to mention any of them, lest we — the media — focus on the specific elements he said. A classic lawyer-esque move from the only head coach in the NBA with a J.D. from Duke.
So in Snyder’s silence we’ll have to fill in our own conclusions, though we know a lot less than the Jazz’s head coach. Having seen only the games and not the practices, here’s what we’ve noticed so far:
The defense? It has a long way to go.
Against the NBA teams the Jazz played, they allowed 133, 128, 128, and 126 points. That puts them 33rd in terms of defensive rating among teams this preseason in those last four games. A careful reader may note that there are only 30 NBA teams, but international teams coming over for preseason stints like the New Zealand Breakers, Melbourne United, and Buenos Aires San Lorenzo had better luck at stopping their opponents.
That’s not great. How much of it will translate to the regular season? To be sure, a large part of the Jazz’s defensive problems were old-fashioned preseason lack of effort, something to be expected especially among the 30-and-over set the Jazz have. In particular, Ed Davis, Jeff Green, Bojan Bogdanovic, and sometimes Mike Conley and Joe Ingles haven’t defended the way you’d expect them to given their history of defensive intensity. That makes sense: save it for when the games matter, right?
THUNDER AT JAZZ
When • Wednesday, 7 p.m.
TV • ATTSN
But even when the effort turned up, as it did in the second half of Sacramento or most of the game against Portland, there have still been repeated miscues. Sometimes, they’ll blow a switch. Other times, they’ll incorrectly interact with Rudy Gobert, who hasn’t been as impactful as usual in the first five games.
There’s widespread optimism among the team they’ll be able to figure it out eventually, but Snyder said that the team is behind defensively compared to last year. And that team started slowly, finishing 18th in defensive rating over the season’s first 18 games. If this team similarly struggles through the season’s first month — albeit with an easier schedule — they could get out to a slow start, and their record could be impacted.
The offense has huge potential
As bad as the defense has looked at times, the offense has looked brilliant. Especially against the young and mistake-prone New Orleans Pelicans or Sacramento Kings, the Jazz played the kind of ping-pong passing offense that gets wide-open threes and dunks and layups at the rim. In other words, it’s the kind of offense that enterprising highlight artists put classical music over on YouTube. Mike Conley called it the offense “he’s always dreamed of.”
Conley has proven as advertised at making the right read, while Joe Ingles has added some flair to the Jazz’s passing attack — his passes have been on point with a high degree of difficulty, while defenses also bite on his passing pump fakes. Rudy Gobert’s rolls and finishes are just as dangerous as ever.
The big key? The Jazz actually have shooting talent throughout the roster, players who can actually knock down the open shots Snyder’s system generates. If anything, Snyder says the team has been too unselfish during the preseason, passing up some open corner threes at times. What a problem to have!
Royce O’Neale at the 4 looks most likely, but expect further experimentation
In two of the Jazz’s three preseason games where they didn’t rest their best players, Royce O’Neale started at the Jazz’s four position. Green was the starter in the other contest, but the Jazz’s defense was maybe at its worst during that game against Sacramento.
O’Neale at the four makes sense because he’s perhaps Utah’s best perimeter defender; starting him means he’ll be matched up against the opponent’s best players. But he’s also not a high-usage player, instead usually preferring to keep the ball moving unless it’s a transition opportunity. Conceptually, he fits in well.
But I don’t think the Conley/Mitchell/Bogdanovic/O’Neale/Gobert lineup will be the Jazz’s starting look for all 82 games. Snyder believes that the starting lineup is an overrated concept in general, and prefers to look at matchups and units on the floor throughout the game. That’s why Ingles — one of the Jazz’s five best players, without a doubt — is likely to be Utah’s 6th man this season: it just makes sense to have him play with and orchestrate the second unit.
Jeff Green looks to fit well
Jeff Green hasn’t been the Jazz’s best defender, though he had a wonderful chase-down block on Wednesday. But he has fit in very quickly with the Jazz’s offense, getting the kind of cutting and finishing points that give the Jazz’s offense a new wrinkle.
He’s much more athletic than his predecessor, Jae Crowder. That allows him to finish more effectively in transition, making the Jazz’s fast break attack more dangerous. And in half-court, he can shoot a little, but Green attacking closeouts has proven to work well.
His immediate chemistry with Ingles in the second unit was most surprising of all, though. Most of the time, it takes time for teammates to come together and have a feel for each other, but Green immediately started making the surprise cuts that Ingles could deliver passes to, becoming a semi-reliable way for the Jazz to score.
Donovan Mitchell is better than ever
I’m not sure he’ll raise his averages from last season; the load has just been decreased. Mitchell shouldn’t feel obligated to take 20 shots per game anymore, as he did last year.
But he’ll be a better player. In preseason, Mitchell’s new probing approach paid dividends in reduced turnovers and increased setup for his teammates. Sure, Mitchell can attack holes in the defense and get to the rim — Snyder likened Mitchell’s play to a running back hitting the open space among linemen — but he’s also proven capable of staying in control and making the right read to the corners. He’s even found Gobert for lobs a few times, something he only did once in last year’s playoffs.
Mitchell’s defense has taken a jump, too. While the effort has ebbed at times — certainly not alone there among Jazzmen — when he’s at his best, he’s looked legitimately fearsome on defense. He stays attached physically, then uses his remarkable 6-foot-10 wingspan to make life tough for his man, with or without the ball. Don’t count him as a Most Improved Player candidate or anything, but he’ll be more well-rounded than ever before.