The Utah Jazz’s 2021-22 season is now officially one week and three games old: How have they looked so far? What are the early trends? What from their victories against the Thunder, Kings, and Nuggets may be indicative of situations to come and what are the discardable outliers?
Here are three pros and three cons of the Jazz’s one-week-old campaign:
PRO: MORE TOOLS IN THE TOOLBOX
In the past, a situation such as the one that unfolded Friday night in Sacramento — where key reserve Joe Ingles was unexpectedly ejected for a flagrant foul — would have severely strained Utah’s depth. And yet, against the Kings, coach Quin Snyder would praise Eric Paschall, Hassan Whiteside, and even Trent Forrest for playing stabilizing roles in the game.
Whiteside and Paschall, in particular, have been especially useful in stepping into spots in the rotation thus far, even without being consistent scoring options. Meanwhile, the team’s marquee free-agent addition, forward Rudy Gay, has yet to even make his debut yet, as he continues to rehab from offseason surgery on his right heel.
The roster may yet get an additional boost should rookie guard Jared Butler find the form he displayed in summer league and preseason. In the games that count, the 21-year-old has struggled a bit, being an iso-heavy ball-stopper on offense, and excessively foul-prone on defense. To his credit, though, Snyder keeps running him out there for short stints to further his acclimation process. The preseason hype has proven unjustified, but may yet pan out down the line.
CON: DEFENSE STILL NEEDS WORK
One facet of the Jazz’s on-court performance over the years that’s been problematic, and which appears to remain problematic, is that they are too susceptible at the point of attack on the perimeter.
This was especially apparent in the first quarter against Denver, where, time after time, Aaron Gordon got the ball on the wing, sized up the likes of Bojan Bogdanovic and Royce O’Neale, and blew past them into the lane.
Talented opponents will inevitably, invariably accomplish getting to where they want, but the Jazz must find ways to make such occurrences more difficult and less frequent.
“Our focus needs to be on our defense and the offense will take care of itself,” Snyder said.
PRO: INCREASED PHYSICALITY
Between Ingles’ ejection against the Kings for a flagrant foul, and Whiteside’s dismissal against the Nuggets for his confrontation with JaMychal Green, Donovan Mitchell joked that the Jazz are on pace for a lot of disqualifications this season.
Thing is, those two incidents were hardly the same. Ingles got caught in no man’s land and made an unfortunate play. Whiteside, though, while perhaps undeserving of an ejection, nevertheless gives the team some of the edge it’s perhaps been lacking since the departure of Jae Crowder a few seasons back.
“In the past, when teams got into us physically, we would just kind of stop playing,” Mitchell said. “We have to learn to play through the physicality.”
Utah has been regarded at times as a bit of a finesse team; having some new guys around in Whiteside, Paschall and perhaps Gay will only make the team that much more multifaceted.
CON: BALL MOVEMENT/STAGNATION
Utah is at its best when players are making quick decisions and moving the ball — “point-five decisions,” Snyder calls them.
They’ve been far too infrequent thus far.
While the coach did cite Jordan Clarkson as an example of someone going instantly and aggressively, several of his teammates have not been following suit. Mitchell has repeatedly coughed the ball up trying to either beat defenders one-on-one or splitting high-hedge double-teams, as opposed to swinging the ball. Butler has been over-dribbling, obsessively seeking out advantages off the bounce that aren’t there.
Another semi-frequent self-destructive habit has re-appeared, too: passing up open shots.
“I saw the ball sticking, we passed up shots. I know we didn’t shoot well, but if we don’t take our shots, if we don’t move the ball, things get stagnant,” said Snyder. “That affects us.”
PRO: OPTIONS AT CLOSING TIME
If Monday night’s decision to close the game with Ingles in the lineup in place of Bogdanovic seemed a curious one, Snyder didn’t mean it to be.
“Bojan has finished almost every game for us that he’s played, and he’ll continue to do that,” the coach said. In this case, though, he felt Ingles’ playmaking was the more valuable skill in the moment.
And, he added, the situation was an illustration of a good problem to have: The Jazz don’t lack for options in terms of guys capable of handling high-pressure, late-game moments — Mitchell, Bogey, Ingles, Clarkson, Mike Conley, O’Neale, Gobert.
“Bojan was out two years ago in the bubble. We had Donovan out last year, and Mike out. Having guys who are able to step in at various times is huge,” Snyder added.
CON: 3-POINT SHOOTING
Not to get all Obi-Wan Kenobi, but the Jazz’s early struggles to make 3-pointers are really only a problem from a certain point of view.
Yes, it’s objectively true that only Conley and Ingles have been efficient from beyond the arc — combining for a 48% conversion rate between them. And yes, it’s equally objectively true that the rest of the team is hitting only at about 30%, with high-volume bombers such as Bogdanovic (31%) and Mitchell (30%) particularly struggling. Those two went a combined 2-for-14 from deep vs. Denver.
Thing is, a three-game sample size is far too small and random to assess a team’s shooting capability. There’s just too much variance involved. If you’ll remember, Utah initially struggled from 3 in the first few games last season before going on to have one of the more prolific deep-shooting seasons in league history.
So, from a certain point of view, this con could almost be considered a pro. The poor outside shooting has not hurt them yet, for starters. Furthermore, the team’s cadre of shooters are simply too good to believe their struggles will be a long-term problem.