Five questions for the Utah Jazz ahead of the playoffs

Rotation issues in the frontcourt, Trent Forrest’s injury situation, and the team’s reputation for a lack of cohesive and clutch play are among the issues to be confronted in the coming postseason.

(Trent Nelson | The Salt Lake Tribune) Utah Jazz guard Donovan Mitchell (45) and Utah Jazz forward Danuel House Jr. (25) in the final minute of overtime as the Utah Jazz host the Memphis Grizzlies, NBA basketball in Salt Lake City on Tuesday, April 5, 2022.

With the end of the regular season imminent, here are five important questions about the Utah Jazz to consider as they prepare for their coming playoff run.

1. Will the Jazz start Danuel House over Royce O’Neale going forward?

This theory has been gaining a lot of traction among fans of late, as O’Neale has sometimes struggled defensively, and has continually been a reluctant shooter. (And when he has taken shots, they’ve not been going in much.)

Meanwhile, House has played well since his return from injury, and Jazz head coach Quin Snyder played him over O’Neale down the stretch of the fourth quarter and in overtime in Tuesday’s win against the Grizzlies. He had another strong, energetic performance in Wednesday’s win vs. OKC (when O’Neale sat out), and has become a knock-down shooter from the right corner.

Still, while Snyder benching O’Neale down the stretch vs. Memphis represented a not-insignificant change, it seems a step too far for the coach to swap out the forwards in the starting lineup. Still, House has impressed Snyder, and his versatility has been useful: “His length, in a lot of situations has an impact, and his energy. Both those things. Like all our guys, we want him to be confident in the catch-and-shoots.”

If O’Neale continues to struggle, more of his minutes could be usurped by the one-time 10-day signee. But it’s unlikely they have a massive change in their respective roles.

2. Rudy Gay or Juancho Hernangomez?

Two straight DNP-CDs for veteran forward Rudy Gay seemed to perhaps spell the end of his time in the rotation, no matter his status as a marquee free-agent addition. Juancho Hernangomez, a seeming throw-in piece in the Joe Ingles/Nickeil Alexander-Walker trade, had appeared to pass him by with his length, 3-point shooting, and more spry movement.

But Snyder insisted Gay would still be used situationally, and indeed had strong games against the Grizz and Thunder. After the OKC game, the coach was about to leave his postgame media session when he stopped and asked rhetorically, “Do I get to talk about Rudy Gay? Playing his tail off?”

Against the Thunder, Gay shot it well, was active on the boards, made an impact defensively with a pair of blocks, and made his coach “proud” with the “emotion and the energy” he showed — particularly when he dived on the court for a loose ball in the fourth quarter.

“Ocho,” for his part, joked that may have been a mistake: “I immediately thought to myself, ‘What the hell are you doing?’ as soon as I lunged out. I’ll let you guys know how I feel tomorrow. … When I realized I couldn’t bend down to go get it … I probably shouldn’t have dove.”

Gay clearly seems disappointed to not be an automatic rotation guy now (”I came here to play and be a part of it”), but added that after an arduous recovery process from offseason heel surgery, he’s ready to play in whatever role is asked of him: “I’m finally feeling like I’m at the point where I can be me and contribute the way I know how to.”

3. What’s the impact of Trent Forrest’s latest injury?

The two-way guard seemed destined to have his deal converted to a full NBA contract at some point so that he’d be eligible to play in the postseason. Wednesday’s foot injury potentially threw a wrench into that.

Snyder said Forrest would undergo diagnostic testing at the hospital Thursday morning, adding, “Hopefully this situation isn’t serious, because he adds a lot to our team.” He was diagnosed with a left midfoot ligament sprain, and will be re-evaluated weekly.

The coach noted that Forrest has gone from a guy playing a couple of minutes early in the second quarter to spell Mike Conley at the beginning of the season to someone he trusted with regular rotation minutes. Teammate Hassan Whiteside called Forrest an “elite defender” and added that he’s “getting better at being a point guard out on the floor.” Snyder cited Forrest’s length and defensive versatility (pointing out that he’s guarded everyone from Steph Curry to Kevin Durant to Luka Doncic this year), his pick-and-roll passing, floater game, his ability to get into the paint in isolation, and his finishing at the rim as his specific assets.

Would Forrest have had a big postseason role given his well-documented outside shooting issues? Probably not. But Snyder clearly values what he brings to the table, and would like the option to deploy him situationally.

“He’s in a really good spot with our group, in terms of what he’s capable of doing and his fit on this team because of his size and his length,” Snyder said.

It had been thought postgame Wednesday that Forrest’s injury might pave the way for the signing of Greg Monroe to be a third center, with Udoka Azubuike out for the season, but Shams Charania of The Athletic reported Thursday morning that Monroe will be joining the Wolves instead.

As for the Jazz’s backcourt rotation if Forrest can’t go, well, his recent wrist injury and concussion recovery saw increased minutes go to Donovan Mitchell, Mike Conley, and Jordan Clarkson. It seems highly unlikely that either of Jared Butler or Alexander-Walker would get minutes instead.

4. Can Hassan Whiteside be counted on exclusively as the backup 5?

The mercurial big man has mostly been viewed this season as the team’s best backup to Rudy Gobert in years. He has, however, had a few stretches of less-than-engaged play, and the recent revelation that he’s battling a painful bone spur fracture in his right foot has raised the specter of whether it’s wise to have him as the only legit big man off the bench. (Especially with Monroe departing.)

Whiteside, who should not need surgery on the foot, and can play as pain allows, provided a positive outlook when asked about the injury Wednesday: “Yeah, I’m feeling a lot better. The first game [back], it was a little lingering, but through rehab and anti-inflammatories, I’m a lot better.”

His game has shown as much: 15 points, 11 rebounds, five blocks vs. OKC … 14/10/4 the night before vs. Memphis.

If he feels capable of going, the only question about him revolves around keeping him motivated. He acknowledged that playing short three-, four- or five-minute stretches behind Gobert is “not an easy role,” but he’s trying to “come in and make as big of an impact as I can.”

Snyder has been impressed: “A lot of who he is adds energy and emotion to our team.

“When Hassan plays with enthusiasm and energy, he goes to another level,” he added. “… Hassan, part of what makes him who he is, is he’s emotional. And that can be something he can really use to his advantage. Particularly the way he’s finishing — guys believe in him when he’s down there.”

5. Can this team be clutch and unified when it matters?

No need to re-litigate all the issues that Snyder brought up in his epic pregame rant on Tuesday about blowing double-digit leads, or Mitchell not passing to Gobert (for what it’s worth, he began Wednesday’s pregame session by saying, “Um, before I start, the numbers that I gave you were slightly off. I think the point is still the same.”).

Regardless of how anyone wants to spin the context, this remains a team with a reputation — and perhaps a deserved one after recent losses to the Clippers and Warriors in which they led by 25 and 21 points, respectively.

Despite some recent attempts to spin them as positives (“That Warriors loss brought us closer together. It’s unfortunate we had to lose that game that way, but I think it’s going to help us out in the long run. It made us more connected as a team. It showed our flaws,” said Whiteside), Gay was a little more honest about what they represented.

“Those losses, those are ones we needed,” he said. “… We’re up 25, then we’re down — I don’t see those as good games, because that’s tough to do.”

Still, after a players-only meeting Monday to hash some things out, then recovering to beat Memphis in OT after squandering another fourth-quarter lead, the Jazz are publicly hopeful that they’re in a good place ad will be able to present a unified front, and thus keep their composure when the momentum starts to swing the other way.

“It says a lot about the group — resiliency, mental toughness. The way that we reacted from that situation says a lot about our group,” said Snyder. “… After it goes to overtime, it would have been very easy to be defeated, and it was exactly the opposite.”

“These past two games, after our meeting [Monday], we really had a better understanding of each other,” Gay added.

We shall see.