The Triple Team: After Jazz regular season ends, reviewing our preseason questions

Utah Jazz's Jarrell Brantley (5) draws a foul from San Antonio Spurs' Luka Samanic (19) during the fourth quarter of an NBA basketball game Thursday, Aug. 13, 2020, in Lake Buena Vista, Fla. (Kevin C. Cox/Pool Photo via AP)

Three thoughts on the Utah Jazz’s 118-112 win over the San Antonio Spurs from Salt Lake Tribune Jazz beat writer Andy Larsen.

1. Maybe some of these guys will be useful in the playoffs?

It was a final game that didn’t matter for either team. The Spurs were already eliminated from the playoffs for the first time since 1997 earlier in the day, and the Jazz locked in the sixth seed based on the games that occurred Wednesday night.

The only long-term impact this game had was perhaps in draft position, where the Jazz could have ensured the 20th pick by losing. By winning, they could end up anywhere from 20th to 24th.

But by getting at least a full half from some guys on the edge of the roster, we learned more about their strengths and weaknesses, and maybe got a little bit of idea on whether or not they’ll be able to help the Jazz in the playoffs.

When you’re evaluating guys who can fit in with a playoff-caliber rotation, you’re not looking for the best possible scorers, you’re looking for the guys who are the best at adapting in playing in a team construct. And I thought we saw three players be able to do that who aren’t usually in the rotation: Miye Oni, Jarrell Brantley, and Juwan Morgan.

Oni and Morgan show an ability to play solid positional defense, while Brantley’s not a good positional defender but creates havoc with his 7-foot-1 wingspan. Oni’s a little bit slight-of-frame at this point in his NBA career, while Morgan and Brantley are a little stronger. Brantley’s an exceptional playmaker — he even played point guard a little bit at the end of the first half — while Oni and Morgan just simply make the right play as low-usage guys. None of the three are very good rebounders. All three are capable-but-not-outstanding shooters.

We should note that the guys who have had those rotational spots this season might just keep them. Emmanuel Mudiay was hurt today, but certainly has shown some pros and especially cons in the bubble. Georges Niang has found his shooting stroke, and that may well be enough to keep him on the floor unless he just gets outplayed athletically. And Tony Bradley continues to do just enough good (offensive rebounding, finishing around the rim) to counteract the bad (delayed defensive rotations, getting eaten up in pick and roll).

But if those latter three get played off the court for one reason or another, Quin Snyder doesn’t have to keep them out there. There’s a chance Oni, Morgan, or Brantley will get a legitimate opportunity in a playoff series.

2. What a bummer of a season for Ed Davis

It was Ed Davis’ best game of the season, in only seven minutes on the floor.

The 11 points he scored in those seven minutes? A season high. He scored his first transition basket of the season. He scored just his fourth basket as the pick and roll man of the season. And he had five putback points on Thursday afternoon. That’s typically his specialty, but for the season, he’d only had 17 points all year doing it. He had six rebounds and an assist, too.

And then he fell into a group of players while battling for a rebound, hurt his knee somehow, and limped off the floor, pointing to the sky as he did so. It was honestly tragic.

Ed Davis didn’t deserve this. Last season, he had the second-highest Defensive Real Plus-Minus of anyone in the league, was a top five rebounder per-minute, was just an exceptional role player for the Brooklyn Nets.

Then he signed for the Jazz, and had a completely lost season. The Jazz had a terrible bench for most of the year, but it did get much better once Davis was moved out of it — the Jazz were outscored by 18.8 points per 100 possessions while he was on the floor. He wasn’t a super effective defender, but the biggest problem was how he just added nothing offensively: no rolling value, no shooting value, nothing. The screening part was important: the Jazz’s offense so desperately needs effective screens set, but Davis never figured it out.

I’ll be curious if Davis figures it out in his next stop. I do think, in retrospect, that the Jazz were a bad fit for him, just because of that offensive whirring required in Snyder’s system. I completely didn’t see that coming. But he’s also 31 now, and he wouldn’t be the last player to just have an early age-related drop-off in performance. It happens.

At the beginning of the year, his 2-year, $9.7 million contract looked like a bargain. Now, the season was bad enough that he probably represents negative value in a trade.

Davis is extremely well-liked — Damian Lillard called him his favorite teammate ever — and some young team might just bring him aboard for that reason as much as anything. But I remain shocked and saddened it didn’t work out in Utah.

3. “Burning” questions answered

That’s all, folks! That was the end of the regular season, the strangest one of all time. The Jazz finished with a 44-28 record, which is nearly exactly a 50-win pace.

Back in September, I wrote a “10 burning questions” article, which is one of my favorite sports article tropes. Let’s do a quick review of what we found out:

Can Donovan Mitchell make a leap?

I know this was Mitchell’s first All-Star season, but to be honest, I think that had much more to do with the other guards in the Western Conference than Mitchell’s own performance. It’s hard to argue that he took a leap this season. Here’s his per-36 minute numbers:

Per 36 Minutes Table
Provided by Basketball-Reference.com: View Original Table
Generated 8/13/2020.

Quite frankly, not much changed. He became a one percent better finisher from inside the arc and a better free-throw shooter but on fewer attempts. Everything else feels very same-y across the board. I think you can argue it was a step forward, but a leap? No.

Who starts?

We knew four of the starters coming into the season, but we didn’t know if Royce O’Neale or Joe Ingles would start more games. In the end, O’Neale did, but Ingles really struggled in a backup role, so he was moved into the starting rotation. Conley was hurt for enough of the season that both of them started more games than they came off the bench.

Will Jazz stay top-3 defensively?

Oh no, no they will not. They stand at 12th right now, a shockingly average performance. Rudy Gobert was sometimes elite and sometimes lackadaisical, but more importantly, he didn’t get anywhere near enough help from his teammates. The bench defense was woeful, the backcourt of Mitchell and Conley looked small, and Ingles and Bogdanovic were frequently flat-footed. This was troubling.

When will Mike Conley and Rudy Gobert find chemistry?

Looking at the stats, Conley actually averaged 1.3 assists per game to Gobert in October and November, then dropped off after that to about the 1.0 assist per game level. In comparison, he averaged about two assists per game to Marc Gasol two seasons ago.

In other words, it never really clicked to the highest degree, and I think Conley’s simply focused on taking the floater more than looking to set up Gobert with misdirection. More than anything, I think Conley’s chemistry with the rest of the team has been lacking, not necessarily just Gobert, though that did improve over the course of the season.

Can Rudy Gobert beat his own dunk record?

Nope. Gobert had 221 dunks this season, which is on pace for 252 in an 82-game season. He had 306 in 2018-19. Teams, copying the success of the Milwaukee Bucks, spent more defensive resources guarding the paint this year, and so Gobert’s dunks declined. I predicted this, actually!

How much will the Jazz use load management?

At the end of the season, a ton. Even in mid-season back-to-backs though, players were frequently rested, especially Conley.

Who will the Jazz’s backup point guard be?

Mostly Emmanuel Mudiay. Jazz fans were disappointed that it wasn’t Dante Exum, but he wasn’t good in his Jazz minutes this season, nor did he set the world ablaze after being traded to Cleveland. Exum Island is at its lowest population totals ever.

And Nigel Williams-Goss was signed as a steady third-string option, but just got zero run: he scored four points all season before tonight’s game, when he scored 10. In the end, I just don’t understand what his NBA skill is, and signing him to a guaranteed deal seems like an awfully weird move in retrospect given the Jazz’s lack of point guard quality. Raul Neto was right there!

How does the second unit fare?

Oof. I thought this might go averagely, and instead it went incredibly poorly. Jeff Green and Davis were horrendous in their new roles. Ingles moved to the bench and found no success without a rolling big man. Mudiay, Niang, and Bradley were called on to do their best, but did so at replacement-player levels. The real replacement-level signings from the summer were also replacement-level. The Jazz’s bench woes cost them numerous games, and it’s the single most problematic issue of the team moving forward.

What’s up Quin Snyder’s sleeve?

Nothing too crazy, it turns out. The Jazz were actually an above-average pace team in 2018-19, but slowed way down to 24th this season. There were a couple of game-saving out-of-bounds plays drawn up. It’s hard to criticize his rotations when clearly he had a lack of solid players available. They underachieved compared to expectations, though.

It was interesting to hear Snyder during bubble preparations wondering about if he coached his team correctly in the early part of the season, worrying that maybe he treated them more as a young, developing team than he should have. You’ve seen some of that reflected in the best of the Jazz’s bubble play, where they just let players go to work and stay comfortable in the roles, without a whole lot of complexity at times. We’ll see what happens in the playoffs.

Can breadth of talent beat the NBA’s best?

Well, the breadth of talent dropped off quickly. Once Conley devolved to average-starter status, Bogdanovic got hurt, and the whole veteran bench imploded, the Jazz no longer had a breadth of talent. In most games, it’s been about whether or not Mitchell and Gobert can carry their team to a win, with guest starring appearances from Conley, Ingles, and Jordan Clarkson. And while Mitchell and Gobert are tremendous talents, they’re certainly not the NBA’s best duo.

The Jazz now enter into a playoff series with the Nuggets, one in which they’re underdogs to win. I think they have a decent chance — more coverage to come here on SLTrib.com — but barring a miracle run, it’s been a disappointing year. And that means Dennis Lindsey, Justin Zanik, David Morway and company have significant work to do in the abbreviated offseason before next season begins.

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