If you put together a list of team priorities for the Jazz coming into the 2020 offseason, it might look like this:
1. Don’t get worse. Make sure both Donovan Mitchell and Rudy Gobert feel comfortable playing with each other; don’t lose Jordan Clarkson in exchange for nothing.
2. Find a solution for the minutes when Gobert is off the floor. When he was off, the Jazz were statistically — and visually — at their worst.
3. Improve the team’s perimeter defense, so the likes of Jamal Murray can’t score 50 points twice in a playoff series against you.
4. Improve the team’s athleticism, so that they may have a defensive chance against LeBron James, Anthony Davis and the Lakers.
5. Improve the bench depth, so that the team is less reliant on iffy bench players like Emmanuel Mudiay, Georges Niang and Juwan Morgan should injury strike.
The good news: it’s clear that the Jazz’s top priorities were taken care of.
First, remember that the situation between Mitchell and Gobert looked tenuous during the summer, with one report even calling their relationship “unsalvageable.” But the two played together relatively well together during the bubble’s NBA games, and now the discord has quieted; both men say they want to play with the other. It could have been an offseason in which the Jazz were forced to blow it up; that they didn’t was good emotional management by the Jazz’s coaching staff and front office. Both look likely to sign extensions with the team, though pen hasn’t been set to paper.
Bringing back Clarkson was an important piece of business, too. The NBA’s salary cap rules meant that losing the talented scoring guard wouldn’t have meant any additional cap room for the team, so the choice was either retaining Clarkson or losing him for nothing.
Clarkson, an unrestricted free agent, could have decided to leave to join another team on his own accord, but the Jazz wooed him back with a 4-year, $52 million contact. The money spoke, of course, but Clarkson does really like his current situation, and he loves his head coach, Quin Snyder.
Beyond that, it was clear that improving the Jazz’s minutes when Gobert was off the floor was the top priority. When Gobert played, the Jazz were excellent, outscoring all opponents by 6.4 points per 100 possessions. When he was off the floor, catastrophe struck — they were outscored by 6.2 points per 100 possessions. All season long, Snyder had to balance getting his big man some rest with the knowledge that doing so would likely mean diminishing leads.
Derrick Favors probably singlehandedly fixes that problem. In his final season with the Jazz, the Jazz outscored opponents by 5.2 points per 100 possessions with Favors on the court but Gobert off of it. The Joe Ingles/Favors pick-and-roll tandem just ate opposing bench centers alive with its efficiency, and that figures to return this season. And the bench defense should get entirely better with the strong Favors at the helm, a guy who knows how to play Snyder’s system well.
What isn’t immediately clear, though, is that if the bench minutes were the team’s problem in the playoffs. In the series against the Nuggets, the Jazz were outscored by just 2 total points with Gobert off the court.
No, the problem was perimeter defense. In particular, the team was outscored by 15 points with Royce O’Neale on the floor, while beating the Nuggets by 39 points when he was off of it. In short, Nuggets point guard Murray barbecued O’Neale — and every other defender the Jazz threw at him. It was just a matter of whether or not the team could keep up offensively.
That issue has gone unaddressed so far, and the team has limited resources left to address it. They could use the bi-annual exception on a defense-first player, but are reportedly unlikely to use that exception. All that’s left is the minimum salary, and it’s probably best to keep expectations low on what minimum salary players can add in the playoffs in terms of defending the league’s star guards.
Athleticism was upgraded in the frontcourt, but not yet in the backcourt. Favors looked slower at times this season, but was reportedly not exactly thrilled with his situation in New Orleans. A return to Utah might mean a leaner, bouncier Favors. And Udoka Azubuike replacing Bradley and Davis will bring additional leaping ability to that role; we’ll see where his lateral movement stands at the NBA level when the season begins. But the other positions will still see slower, ground-bound players like Mike Conley, Ingles, Bojan Bogdanovic and Niang playing most of the minutes.
They will likely use the minimum to address one or two bench depth pieces — a replacement for Mudiay, who is not expected to return, is probably top priority. They could use a fifth or sixth wing player as well. Niang is expected to continue to play a role in the Jazz’s regular season rotation, and second-year wing Miye Oni or rookie Elijah Hughes could be asked to step up as well. Jarrell Brantley is a restricted free agent; the returns of Rayjon Tucker and Nigel Williams-Goss aren’t assured.
Of course, the season itself will brings the opportunity to make some changes as well. Vice president of basketball operations Dennis Lindsey has made an in-season trade in the last three seasons; the roster we see by December probably won’t be the one we’ll see in May. It will give him a chance to address the holes in the roster that we see now, and any others that we may discover when play resumes.
But the top of the Jazz list of priorities? Consider the boxes checked.