On Thursday night, the Utah Jazz got back to action, unveiling a few new trial-and-error wrinkles in a 101-88 “scrimmage” loss against the Phoenix Suns.
The Jazz broke out some different schemes and lineups along the way — to discover how best to replace the injured No. 2 scorer Bojan Bogdanovic, to try and give veteran point guard Mike Conley some extra responsibilities, to give a shot to literally anything that might bolster their effectiveness with eight “seeding games” coming up and the playoffs to follow.
A few hours before that scrimmage, though, a pair of ESPN “NBA Countdown” analysts, Jalen Rose and Paul Pierce, argued in a conference call with media that any and all such adjustments would ultimately be irrelevant to the Jazz’s chances of competing for a championship.
“Utah doesn’t have much expectations [on it]. If they win two playoff series, they would surprise everybody just by doing that,” Rose told The Salt Lake Tribune.
A fair and perhaps not uncommon opinion. Pierce was far more pessimistic, however.
“I’d be surprised if they got out of the first round,” he said. “There’s something about them that’s not right. I don’t know, I can’t put my finger on it. They just don’t have enough.”
During that conference call, in which they addressed a host of leaguewide and team-specific subjects relevant to the coming season restart, the longtime players-turned-commentators for ESPN and ABC would go on share their opinions with The Tribune on a variety of Jazz-related subjects, including the relationship between All-Stars Rudy Gobert and Donovan Mitchell, the impact of Bogdanovic’s injury, Conley’s fit in Utah after a dozen years in Memphis, and the Jazz’s ceiling with Mitchell and Gobert as their franchise cornerstones.
They mostly did not paint a rosy picture.
Mitchell has conceded there has been friction and frustration between him and Gobert this season, partly for on-court reasons and partly as a result of them becoming the first two players in the NBA to test positive for COVID-19.
Neither Rose nor Pierce believed that drama would have much impact on their ability to function as a cohesive on-court unit, with the former claiming they’d be “fine, because they understand what’s at stake,” and the latter pointing out “players don’t have to be friends off the court. In basketball — and the beauty about sports — you can never tell who likes and dislikes anybody on the court.
“Well, most of the time,” he conceded.
Of far greater concern to them than any locker room bickering is that, in their estimation, there are simply significant flaws to what Utah is rolling out on the floor.
“Utah is a tricky team for me. I feel like they’re a treadmill team,” Pierce said. “I don’t see the upside of this squad, especially without Bogdanovic.”
Rose was perhaps a bit less dismissive of Utah’s roster construction, but agreed that Bogdanovic’s injury, in particular, will prove fatal to the Jazz’s chances to make any kind of playoff run this year.
“[There’s] no replacing Bogdanovic. So underrated — 20-point scorer, he’s actually a go-to kind of guy you can give the ball to late, fearless, he finishes going to the basket. He’s got game,” said Rose. “That was probably one of the underrated pickups in the offseason, for me, last year. So that’s gonna limit Utah, period.”
The Jazz’s lack of “upside” apparently goes far beyond Bogdanovic’s absence, however.
While Rose praised Gobert as “one of the, if not the, best rim-protectors in the game, and rebounders,” he argued that on offense, the Frenchman needs to be content with his role as a rim-running finisher and quit advocating for post-up touches. Pierce stated that Gobert is effective at what he does, but said his old-school big-man style is simply not sufficiently well-rounded for taking a team to the highest levels.
“I mean, he’s an impact player, but he just don’t do enough for me,” Pierce said. “He’s not the modern-day big man that you need to compete for a championship — like a [Kristaps] Porzingis, or a [Karl-Anthony] Towns or [a Joel] Embiid or a [Nikola] Jokic. He’s more of a traditional Dikembe Mutombo, Alonzo Mourning-type player.”
As for Mitchell, both analysts are fans and see glimpses of prime Dwyane Wade in the guard’s game. This time, however, it was Rose who harbored the more negative viewpoint, the greater reservations, arguing that while Mitchell’s movements mirror those of Wade, him standing 6-foot-1 to Wade’s 6-4 will ultimately cause him to fall short of such lofty achievements. He’s also looking for greater consistency and efficiency from the Louisville product.
“What I would like to see from Donovan Mitchell is what I saw from Jayson Tatum,” Rose said. “They both had really good first years, but Jayson Tatum continued to ascend, while Donovan Mitchell has had more peaks and valleys this year.”
Both Rose and Pierce also suggested that perhaps Mitchell’s biggest impediment to taking that next step is his own backcourt mate — Conley.
In recent weeks, multiple Jazz players have suggested that a likely way to account for some of Bogdanovic’s missing production will be to turn Conley loose — to increasingly give him the ball and to run more plays for him, a role that would more closely resemble what he did with the Grizzlies. Neither analyst is a fan of that move, arguing that diminishing Mitchell’s opportunities to run the show would be a mistake.
Pierce even went to far as to suggest that the Jazz’s universally-lauded-at-the-time trade for Conley was a mistake in and of itself.
“I really don’t think [Conley is] a good fit. I think Utah’s at their best when Donovan Mitchell has the ball in his hands. He’s shown me that in the playoffs, he’s shown that when Conley wasn’t out there. He’s best when he’s making the plays,” Pierce said. “… That’s going to make him more dynamic, because he’s gonna be bigger, more athletic than 99% of the point guards at that spot. So I think he’s better at that position. I just don’t think Mike Conley is a great fit.”
Rose added that if both guards are not scoring between 20-25 points apiece every night, the defensive limitations inherent in their combined lack of stature would prove too significant to overcome. And he doesn’t see that dual offensive outburst happening for the simple fact that both need to be ball-dominant to be most effective.
“Donovan Mitchell is definitely better with the ball in his hands — while Conley is also better with the ball in his hands,” Rose said. “So it’ll will be interesting to see how that dynamic plays out.
“It won’t play out with a parade happening in Utah, unfortunately.”