After all of Wednesday afternoon’s drama amid conflicting reports about who will be starting and who will be moving back to the bench for the Utah Jazz, coach Quin Snyder cleared up not only the who but also the simple why.
Royce O’Neale is back among the first five, Joe Ingles returns to the reserve role he began the year with, and Snyder is looking for a way to juice a defense that has been entirely too lax of late.
“The overriding thought on our team right now is we’ve got to get back to defending. That’s been our focus in practice,” Snyder said a little less than two hours before deploying the new lineup against the Celtics. “My decision to put Royce in the lineup is grounded in that, although he can’t do that on his own.”
Utah’s precipitous three-game losing streak since its return from the All-Star break has been defined by porous perimeter containment. The Jazz allowed 113 points to the Spurs (and trailed by as many as 25 in that game), 120 against the Rockets, and 131 against the lottery-bound Suns.
In that most recent loss, Phoenix shot 56.3% from the field, 60% from the 3-point line and scored 66 points in the paint, as the Jazz offered up little resistance anywhere on the floor.
The apparent idea behind the move is that O’Neale, who is regarded as the team’s best perimeter defender, will help supply some of the toughness and physicality that has been absent of late.
“Right now, defense has been something we need to be better, and Royce can give us that mindset for our whole team,” Snyder explained.
So concluded a drama-filled couple hours in which The Athletic first reported O’Neale’s pending return to the starting lineup — but with veteran point guard and first-year Jazz player Mike Conley moving into a bench role. About an hour after that initial report, The Athletic reported that the team had a change of heart and opted to have Conley still start and move Ingles back to the bench.
For his part, Snyder largely declined to clear up the confusion (“I appreciate the question — I’m not gonna go through a timetable about how we made decisions.”), but did allow that, “Mike’s been a starter, and particularly for our team.”
He also reiterated that this change is actually not all that unique in the bigger picture, rattling off the varying lineups that stemmed from Ingles’ slow start to the season, Conley’s injury, Conley’s minutes restrictions, and Conley’s inability to play back-to-back games.
“It’s never been the be-all, end-all to our group. Our guys know that it’s 48 minutes that we all have to play, and play together. And regardless of who’s starting or who’s finishing or who’s in rotations, our rotations have varied a lot this year. That’s what made sense,” Snyder said. “… Our lineups are fluid, and I’m lucky to be able to coach a group that embraces whatever we do.”
Interestingly, in Wednesday morning’s shootaround, Conley attributed the team’s recent struggles in part to the constant shifting of lineups.
“We just have a team that has a lot of moving parts, is organic, and we’re still used to people getting in and out of lineups, and just a lot of things have been changing over the weeks,” Conley said. “Guys are just adjusting, and teams are adjusting to us.”
Ingles has struggled during the Jazz’s current losing streak — averaging 8.0 points, 5.0 assists, 1.4 rebounds and 3.0 turnovers, while shooting 36.4% from the field and 33.3% from deep. He has also been a significant part of the team’s broader perimeter defense issues.
However, concern remains about how effective Ingles will be in a reserve role, as he notoriously got off to a slow start this season when he was coming off the bench. As a starter, Ingles has posted 11.2 points, 6.1 assists and a 61.1 true-shooting percentage; as a reserve, those numbers have regressed to 7.6 ppg, 3.5 apg and a 49.6 TS%.
Snyder said he took that stint into consideration, but believes that the present construction of the team (with Jordan Clarkson added to the bench, and capable rim-roller Tony Bradley having taken the backup big minutes from the offensively-limited Ed Davis), will help Ingles out in the role this time around.
“I think our team’s identity on the offensive end was evolving at that point,” Snyder said. “And hopefully it continues to evolve and we get better and better.”
Still though, for now, his concern is foremost how the team performs on the other side.