Utah Jazz meeting expectations after All-Star break

(Francisco Kjolseth | The Salt Lake Tribune) Miami Heat forward Jimmy Butler (22) tries to reach in for the ball on Utah Jazz forward Bojan Bogdanovic (44) as the Utah Jazz host the Miami Heat in their NBA basketball game at Vivint Smart Home Arena in Salt Lake City on Wednesday, Feb. 12, 2020.

To steal the words of the late former Arizona Cardinals coach Dennis Green in one of the most memorable rants in sports history, “They are who we thought they were.”

In short, in almost every way, the Jazz haven’t surprised this season. Coming out of the All-Star break with a 36-18 record, they’re on pace for 54.6 wins. FiveThirtyEight predicts them to win 53 games this season, given their remaining schedule. ESPN predicts 54. Given that sportsbooks generally pegged the Jazz’s over-under win total at 53.5, they’re exactly fulfilling expectations.

Given how healthy they’ve been, though — only Mike Conley has missed significant time, and the Jazz generally won with him out — being on pace to meet but not exceed expectations is a little disappointing. Their seeding reflects that: they’re currently the fourth seed, two games above the Houston Rockets in the fifth spot, and only one-half game behind the third-seeded Clippers. The Nuggets and the No. 2 seed are a game ahead of that.

(Christopher Cherrington | The Salt Lake Tribune)

The projection systems differ on where they expect the Jazz to end up. FiveThirtyEight puts their win expectation 5th among Western Conference teams, while ESPN places them third. Inpredictable.com is more optimistic, giving them a 1% chance at the 1 seed, a 38% chance at the 2 seed, a 26% chance at the 3 seed, a 20% chance at the 4 seed, a 12% chance at the 5 seed, and a 2% chance at the 6 seed.

Do we find more surprises if we break down the component parts? The Jazz have the seventh-best net rating in the league, thanks to their ninth-ranked offense and eighth-ranked defense. That defense number is probably a little bit worse than you would have expected going into the season; whenever Rudy Gobert has been healthy and starting for a whole season, the Jazz have been third or better.

Speaking of the big man, Gobert has become a little bit more efficient offensively, but gets slightly fewer opportunities as teams focus on taking the lob away from him. He’s on pace for only 267 dunks this year, not 306. He’s rebounding the ball more, but that could be due to a lack of Derrick Favors. Defensively, he’s been asked to do more on the perimeter, and is now really good in that area, but being out there does take him away from his gobsmackingly-elite rim protection.

Fellow All-Star Donovan Mitchell is shooting the ball about 2% better than last year, despite taking more mid-range shots. He’s cut the turnovers slightly, but is getting to the line less, making a higher percentage when he gets there. He hasn’t taken a huge leap, but there is definite improvement.

Bojan Bogdanovic’s performance is probably the biggest positive surprise of the campaign so far. After being a No. 1 option for most of the season in Indiana, he looked poised to be a second or third banana in Utah. But despite that, ‘Bogey’ is putting up career-highs in points and assists, and tying career-highs in rebounds and 3-point percentage. He credits the improvement to Quin Snyder’s offense working to get him shots he’s most adept at.

On the other end of the spectrum is Conley, who hasn’t been able to stay healthy and has been relatively inconsistent when he has played. Early in the season, Conley really struggled to find his shot, and seemingly couldn’t find a way to fit in in the offense without the ball in his hands. But his four most recent games in February were terrific, he averaged 20 points, five rebounds and five assists per game. The overall numbers are bleak, but Conley does have the opportunity to right the ship if he can keep up more solid play.

Two other newcomers really disappointed, while two exceeded expectations. Jeff Green was so awful he was waived in December. He was just given a 10-day contract by the Rockets. Ed Davis has been supplanted by Tony Bradley — who has clearly improved in his third NBA season — in the rotation. But Emmanuel Mudiay has been surprisingly solid in his minutes, and Jordan Clarkson’s been absolutely terrific since the Jazz traded Dante Exum for him two days before Christmas.

Joe Ingles was first asked to come off the bench for the Jazz, and really struggled in that role. Much of his skillset is about pick and roll work, which makes him best suited to play with Gobert, not Davis. His numbers in the 34 games he has started, though, nearly exactly match his career-best seasons.

Royce O’Neale is basically the same player he’s always been, which earned him an extension last month. O’Neale’s improved from 3-point range, but is less willing to take 2-point shots than ever before. Georges Niang has essentially become a 3-point specialist, which can keep him on the floor so long as that average stays above 40% or so. He’s shooting 41.6% from deep right now.

Two-thirds of the way through the season, it’s been an entertaining and exactly-only-satisfying campaign. That means there’s still time for surprises, good and bad — even if there haven’t been an abundance of them so far.