Utah Jazz execs explain the bench shake-up: ‘We had seen enough that this current mix just wasn’t working’

(Trent Nelson | The Salt Lake Tribune) Utah Jazz guard Jordan Clarkson picks up a steal as the Utah Jazz host the Portland Trail Blazers, NBA basketball in Salt Lake City on Thursday, Dec. 26, 2019.

In the hours before Monday’s loss in Miami, the Jazz traded oft-injured lottery pick Dante Exum and two future second-round draft picks to Cleveland for scoring guard Jordan Clarkson. And in the minutes after that game, the team released veteran forward Jeff Green — a player thought to be a critical component of the team’s bench unit when he signed in free agency this summer — and handed out a guaranteed deal to undrafted rookie Rayjon Tucker.

On Thursday night, less than an hour before the team tipped off an eventual win against Portland at Vivint Smart Home Arena, executive vice president of basketball operations Dennis Lindsey and general manager Justin Zanik sat down with select members of the media to explain their thinking behind the moves.

In short?

“We could feel that the starters were being stretched. … As the team started to form, we started to see some of the challenges that we had scoring with the second unit,” Lindsey said. “It certainly became a priority.”

Lindsey conceded his suspicions at the time that sending out the likes of Derrick Favors, Jae Crowder, Kyle Korver, and Grayson Allen in order to bring in Mike Conley and Bojan Bogdanovic would inherently make it difficult to “repopulate the bench to where they can help drive winning,” and that it “was going to be a little bit of a challenge.”

Two other factors further hampered the Jazz’s second unit in his estimation, though: first, that Exum’s rehab and recovery from a torn patellar tendon took longer than the team expected; and two, Conley’s pair of hamstring injuries not only further depleted an already thin bench by moving Joe Ingles back into the lineup, but it placed additional scoring burden (and therefore extra minutes played) upon Donovan Mitchell and Bogdanovic.

Conley, who has only appeared in 22 of the team’s 31 games to this point (not to mention all the concurrent practices and shootarounds he’s missed) has been especially problematic. However, while Conley’s injuries have prevented Utah’s decision-makers from having a firm grasp of the overall state of the roster, it did at least serve to clearly expose how deficient the Jazz have been in bench scoring.

“That timing dictated where we're at. The one piece of the evaluation that we feel like is incomplete is, obviously, getting Mike integrated in, with now two hamstring injuries,” Lindsey said. “You know, we feel like there was a little bit of a gap in knowing who we really are and our arc for improvement. But we still felt like the bench scoring was so challenged that we needed to address it. … When Mike got hurt, we had to kind of speed up the evaluation and become a little bit urgent.”

Zanik agreed that while Conley’s absence casts a shadow over some of the constant evaluation they are doing, “It still doesn't change the fact that the bench needed to up the production, and we needed to see if there were other avenues to address that.”

From there, the Exum-for-Clarkson deal was honed in on in fairly short order.

For starters, perhaps the most interesting revelation to come out of the Q&A session was Lindsey’s admission that coach Quin Snyder had inquired about and expressed interest in Clarkson going back to this summer, in spite of the guard’s infamous penchant for freelancing out of system — a trait that has traditionally not sat well with the coach.

Beyond that, though, the fits simply made sense. Exum would get “a fresh start on a team where not every second — because you’re out of a playoff chase — is going to be evaluated.” And the Jazz were able to “get another guy that could be a primary guy in the halfcourt,” and who is on the same relative timeline as stars Mitchell and Rudy Gobert.

The specific rationale for Green’s departure, meanwhile, remains a bit nebulous.

It’s no secret that his production (7.8 points, 2.7 rebounds, 0.7 assists, 38.5% shooting, and 32.7% beyond the arc) was not what either he or the team had hoped for when he signed back in July.

Still, when asked point-blank why the forward’s stint with the Jazz didn’t work out, Lindsey initially responded, “I wouldn’t can it that way,” before re-routing into a convoluted answer extolling the virtues of G League standout Tucker, for whom the opportunity cost of beating out the competition to land him was a fully guaranteed NBA contract — thus necessitating the release of one of the other 15 players on the team with one.

As for why that was Green — who averaged 18.4 minutes in 30 games as a rotation regular — as opposed to, say, rookie guard Nigel Williams-Goss (who’s averaged 3.1 minutes in seven mop-up-duty appearances), well, neither Lindsey nor Zanik would clarify, though they did go on to express optimism at the prospect of additional minutes immediately for Georges Niang, and potentially for the likes of Jarrell Brantley or Juwan Morgan down the road.

“We want to thank Dante and Jeff. They were gentlemen. This isn't an indictment on anything that they weren't doing or anything with that. It's just the circumstances of the team,” Lindsey said. “… We just got to a point where we had seen enough that this current mix just wasn't wasn't working. And so it'd be unfair to Jeff … to say, 'Hey, it just didn't work with Jeff.’”

It’s certainly true there was plenty with that bench unit that wasn’t working. And at the end of the day, Lindsey added, addressing that became the absolute priority.

“There’s a little bit of a ‘duh’ factor that we’re 28th in bench scoring,” he said. “… We needed to add somebody who could just go and get a shot.”


At Staples Center, Los Angeles

Tipoff • Saturday, 8:30 p.m. MT

TV • AT&T SportsNet

Radio • 1280 AM, 97.5 FM

Records • Jazz 19-12; Clippers 23-10

Last meeting • Clippers, 105-94 (Nov. 3)

About the Jazz • Following Thursday night’s victory over Portland, Utah has won six of its past seven games. … Trade acquisition Jordan Clarkson scored nine points in his Jazz debut against the Blazers. …Point guard Mike Conley remains out with a hamstring injury.

About the Clippers • Los Angeles is 14-2 in games played at the Staples Center (vs. 9-8 on the road). … Kawhi Leonard is averaging 25.9 points per game, while fellow newcomer Paul George is scoring 23.9. … The Clippers rank fifth in the NBA in defensive rating (104.2).