Something had to be done.
It was clear, after the Utah Jazz’s bench fell short after being called upon time and time again, that changes would have to be made.
The numbers are staggering: When any of Mike Conley, Donovan Mitchell, Joe Ingles, Royce O’Neale, Bojan Bogdanovic, and Rudy Gobert share the court, the Jazz outscore their opponents by 13.6 points per 100 possessions. That is elite. And when as soon as they had even one member of the Jazz’s bench unit out there, everything fell apart: they were outscored by 8.2 points per 100 possessions every time Jeff Green, Ed Davis, Emmanuel Mudiay, or Georges Niang touched the floor.
At first, and maybe because the disparity was so wide, it seemed like it could be an issue of small sample size and players learning to jell, but as the season wore along, it was clear: This Jazz bench was a crippling weakness. Talent would need to be added.
But how? Among tradable players, the Jazz only had two options: trade minor salaries at the end of the bench, or trade Dante Exum’s larger $9.6 million salary away. Teams rarely trade players that are both cheap and effective, so the first option was going to be difficult. If they made a trade, it was going to likely include Exum. Trading the Australian point guard allowed them to acquire up to $14.6 million back in a deal.
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Clearly, the Jazz’s front office liked Exum. There was the commitment made when they drafted him No. 5 overall in 2014, and despite a sparsely and poorly played four years, they gave him a 3-year, $27 million contract in the summer of 2018 when his first deal expired. Then, he was coming off a playoff series in which he played a defensive role against James Harden in the playoffs, and looked to be building off of his potential. He wasn’t a success story, to be sure, but there looked like there might be something there, and $9 million is about the going rate for 22-year-olds with No. 5 pick resumes with “something there."
There was a stretch of promising games at the end of 2018 in which Exum looked like he had turned a corner. Rudy Gobert said then that "The last few games, I think, has been the best stretch of his career.” But he turned his ankle in Detroit on Jan. 5, so badly that it caused a bone bruise. And when he came back, he played poorly in three games before tearing his patellar tendon, forcing another knee surgery.
He also didn’t play well in the games after that surgery when he came back to Jazz workouts this year. Watching him in pregame warmups and the portions of practice that are available for media viewing, it was clear that Exum lacked his usual burst, furthermore, his shooting ability was near career lows, too. Without a clear path to score, it was difficult to add him into a bench unit that already was struggling with that.
So while it hurt to admit it given the investment in him — the 2013-14 tanked year is now nearly all for naught — Exum was a sunk cost, adding nothing to a team that needed help. So the Jazz scoured the trade market for player and salary situations that might be able to add something, and Jordan Clarkson was that.
How much will Clarkson help? He’ll at least be an averagish scorer, along the lines of Alec Burks. He has started to change his shot selection a little recently, and that’s made him more efficient, if he can keep it up, that’d be great. He’s scored 20 points six times coming off the bench for the Cavs this year; no Jazz bench player has reached that total.
There are salary benefits to the trade, too. It means the Jazz won’t have Exum’s salary on the books in 2020-21, which might make coming to a long-term deal with Royce O’Neale a bit easier. The Jazz can keep Clarkson, or use his bigger salary in a trade in the next two months: now, the Jazz can acquire up to $18.4 million in salaries if they re-trade Clarkson, though note they’d be prohibited from trading any other players with him due to NBA rules.
To be honest, further bits of surgery are needed. The second, more surprising move on Monday was the waiver of Jeff Green, replacing him on the roster with Rayjon Tucker, a G-League standout. Tucker was given a guaranteed contract for the rest of the year, as well as a partial guarantee on his deal next year.
Green was definitely part of the problem with the Jazz’s bench: the inability to consistently shoot the 3 wasn’t a major surprise, but that he didn’t add more to the Jazz’s interior play definitely was, as his percentages on anything inside the arc cratered too. Add in Green’s at times minimal defensive effort, and Tucker’s stellar play in the G-League so far, it’s possible that this is an upgrade among minimum contracts. The Jazz are excited about Tucker: he’s been regarded as perhaps the best prospect available in the G-League, and had scored 30 points in four consecutive games at that level.
But this is not a like-for-like replacement: Green is a 6-foot-8 forward, Tucker is a 6-3 scoring guard. So how will the Jazz deal with the swap? Once Conley returns, it’s pretty easy to imagine: the bench will feature Emmanuel Mudiay and Clarkson in the backcourt, Royce O’Neale or Joe Ingles at the three, Georges Niang can move to his preferred four position, and Ed Davis would be the center.
The Jazz’s bench is extremely inexperienced: their 11th man on the roster is now Tony Bradley, who has played 231 minutes. The six players behind him, all rookies, have played a combined 48 minutes in their careers. If there are any further injuries, those rookies would have to step up. Among those rookies, Tucker and 6-foot-7 big Juwan Morgan have had the best G-League seasons so far. Jarrell Brantley is still learning the nuances of the game and how to stay tactically disciplined, Justin Wright-Foreman is a talented scorer but a developing passer and defender, Miye Oni is struggling with his outside shot right now (making just 16% from deep), and Nigel Williams-Goss is a floor manager at even the G-League level.
Will this be enough? The Jazz will get a few weeks to evaluate how their new-look bench performs, both with and without Conley available. If it’s an improvement, they’ll be able to reduce the load on their starters, like Donovan Mitchell, who played 39 minutes in the Jazz’s loss to the Heat. If not, further revisions will be necessary.
When the Jazz traded depth for Conley and Bogdanovic, this was the bet: that their talented starting lineup would be more important in the playoffs than the shallow end of their roster. That may well be true. But in the regular season, lack of depth can prove problematic, and the Jazz have found that out quickly.