Editor’s note: Mark Russell Pereira is a writer for Salt City Hoops. This story is part of a collaboration between SCH and The Tribune that seeks to create more dialogue and community for Utah Jazz fans.
If you look back on every team that won the NBA Finals, you can always point out multiple ways that players and coaches rose to the occasion. This includes star players reaching previously unseen heights, role players making significantly increased contributions, fringe rotation guys stepping up with a surprising game or three, and coaches making bold tactical adjustments to exploit opponent weaknesses.
For the Utah Jazz, there is real championship potential lying somewhere beneath the surface of an underdog 5-seed. But if Utah is to make use of that potential, who will be the guys that step up to meet or exceed their abilities, and what would that look like for them? This is a wish list for every player on the roster, and how their contributions can bring a title to Salt Lake City.
For the first time in a few seasons, the Jazz head coach has true optionality when it comes to personnel and play style. The injury report is clean and enough guys have worthy claims to the rotation that Snyder can, and must, be much quicker to adjust when a lineup isn’t working. Is Jordan Clarkson getting hunted defensively, and giving none of it back on offense? Reconsider how long he needs to really be out there in lieu of the starters or Trent Forrest. Is Royce O’Neale becoming invisible by screens while chasing ballhandlers? Stick him on a bigger forward and ask Danuel House to take over the primary action. The backup forward rotation can also be delicately matchup oriented, and Snyder must nail those choices.
On a broader note defensively, I implore Snyder to do so much more than stick Rudy Gobert and Hassan Whiteside in drop coverage and hope the bad perimeter defense somehow survives — let Gobert switch onto ballhandlers, let point-of-attack defenders occasionally dial the aggression up and hunt steals, and fire up a zone defense from time to time. Opposing coaches will adjust to static, immovable strategies before you can say the words “second-round exit”.
Finally, Snyder has a special relationship with Donovan Mitchell, and the Jazz star clearly has infinite rope to do whatever he wants at the end of the day (which he has earned). But Snyder needs to cash in some of that relationship equity and find ways to glean a more diverse offense from Mitchell. The best version of this era of Jazz basketball has never been purely heliocentric around Mitchell, but rather when Mitchell’s abilities also create a chasm for others to also feast. I think it’s more on Snyder than Mitchell to influence the team’s shot profile to this effect, especially in the 4th quarter.
A fiery, well-timed technical foul in front of the home crowd might conjure up the spirits of Jerry Sloan and Larry Miller, too.
Mitchell has participated in an astonishing litany of playoff experiences in such a short career thus far. He’s so incredible as a player that it feels wrong to wish for more; he’s already given us so much. But we’re here to watch Utah win its first NBA championship, not sit for Thanksgiving. And Mitchell’s excellence is occasionally marred by small sore spots that keep him out of top-tier All-NBA consideration.
Mitchell considers himself as good a shot-maker as anybody in the league — he’s certainly had moments, playoffs included, that rival any other player’s best moments. But he’s not a consistent enough pantheon-level scorer to really sit in the same tier as a Kevin Durant type of guy.
His path to basketball immortality will lie in his overall playmaking, particularly late in games, and it is imperative for Mitchell to figure out where, and from whom, the best shots should come. At the very least, 20-foot two-pointers over three defenders just cannot be a valid club in the bag.
This doesn’t mean Mitchell should give the ball up and stand in the corner every time a slight double-team comes his way; our simple hope is countering multi-defender aggression with threes, rim-attacking aggression of his own, or identifying a more open teammate worthy of taking the shot. Utah’s path to a title lies in repeated 30-point, 8-assist games from Mitchell—not the rare and insane 50-point effort.
Mitchell has enough of an offensive load that he won’t be tasked with primary on-ball defense, but if he can be good enough defensively to not be hunted, it leaves him free to use his arms and instincts to deflect passes and take risks off the ball —skills he has definitely shown before.
Gobert probably has the tallest order out of any player on the roster this postseason. As much pressure as Mitchell has to lead the team to greatness, Gobert’s entire utility as a championship building block is arguably in question. There’s no need to hope Gobert will do the things that make him an All-Star: he’ll pervade as the best rim protector in the game, inhale 15 rebounds per game, and deftly catch and finish pick-and-roll opportunities. But can he show off additional skills to punish teams that deign to guard him with smaller bodies?
Gobert has such skills, but he needs to deploy them consistently. It never looks clean, but Gobert is fabulous at shutting down ballhandlers in isolation — it’s time to show off this skill on the biggest stages, and I think we’ll see it. But we all know the flashbulb moments will be on offense. Last summer in the Olympics, Gobert routinely shoved and sealed defenders of all sizes — including Bam Adebayo and Draymond Green — practically into the stanchion, securing bucket after bucket. However, for a long stretch of this NBA season, small-ball opponents got away with having switched guards shove Gobert outside of the whole dang paint, which completely neutered most advantages of having Gobert on the floor, offensively or defensively. Towards the end of the season, we saw Gobert sealing much more effectively — even if the ballhandler doesn’t find him, this type of work still allows the ballhandler to get to the paint with far more ease. This off-ball, sometimes thankless, effort needs to continue
With the ball, posting up little guys on the block isn’t per se bad for Gobert as people think it is, but I am hoping for a very simple concept to be followed: Gobert must internalize and assume that the defense is already sending a double-team his way. As such, he needs to keep his dribbling to an absolute minimum and be cognizant of where the second defender is coming from. Gobert will find success —surprising to many, I’m sure — if he immediately powers in through his shoulder and just gets the ball around the rim.
I sincerely hope these aren’t huge asks of Gobert, because he is a spectacular player who deserves every plaudit, but fears of Utah having already reached its ceiling may not be unfounded without a little more juice from Rudy Gobert.
We appear to be starting the first stages of Mike Conley’s skillset truly declining, so Conley needs to bring as much as he’s got with this much left in the tank. Specifically, we’ve seen Conley’s attempts and finishes around the rim become both less frequent and less efficient. I don’t think he’s particularly cooked there yet, but keyed-in offenses will exploit or ignore areas where a player is ineffective. If teams don’t think Conley can (or even try to) make shots around the rim, they will stick closer to Gobert and also take away that lob threat. This is a long-winded way of suggesting that Conley needs to be a little more threatening in the paint as a scorer, particularly before he loses his explosiveness.
There was a time when Conley was considered one of the craftiest, toughest defenders in the game. These days, he gets crushed by screens and doesn’t really impede ballhandlers’ progress to the rim. He is who he is at this point physically, but he’s still extremely smart. It would be terrific to see him use his guile and quick hands to gamble more and force turnovers. After all, gambling poorly and losing a ballhandler isn’t that much worse than the current state of affairs.
Even if those two wishes don’t come to fruition, it will still be nice to see Conley perpetually exist on fire from deep. His shooting slump was positively an aberration; there will be several huge threes coming from the hands of Mountain Mike.
O’Neale needs to return to focusing on his NBA skills: defending bigger forwards, rebounding alongside the trees, effortlessly humming the Jazz offense along, and firing open 3s. He’s also surprisingly fast in a straight line with the ball and can get above the rim in a hurry when attacking from the corners. It has been a rough season for O’Neale, but the dude didn’t forget how to play basketball. A lot of his defensive issues might be reduced to constant miscasting by Snyder, asking the strong and burly O’Neale to ineffectively chase small guards around screens, for example. It is entirely within reason and hope that O’Neale gives us the best version of himself.
O’Neale’s usage rate is preposterously low: a dead-last 10.1% per Cleaning the Glass, where the next three anti-leaders are fellow 3-and-D specialists Dorian Finney-Smith (12.8%), Herb Jones (13.7%), and Ayo Dosunmu (14.6%) — but those guys are also far worse shooters, so this disparity is … annoying. This usage rate isn’t different from previous years, so it’s probably too much to ask to hope it changes for the playoffs. But we’re starting to see O’Neale’s reticence reach new lows and seriously muck up every other player’s offense. Defenses sag off of him, not because he can’t shoot from deep (39%), but because he might not even try if he gets the ball — so it’s more valuable to put more pressure on the ballhandler.
I don’t think we’ll get a wildly different O’Neale profile when the postseason begins. I’ll leave his defensive assignments as a Snyder problem to solve. O’Neale’s effort and rebounding will still be there. But if he actually shoots open shots when asked and confidently engages closeouts, it unlocks a new tier of Jazz offense that doesn’t require O’Neale to recreate his identity. He’s done it before.
There is nothing unreasonable to ask of Bogdanovic in a deep playoff run, so we can save the rabbits’ feet and four-leaf clovers for other guys. Bombing 7 3-point attempts per game on a 40% clip and mashing smaller dudes on the block will just be regular days at the office for Bogdanovic, and yet absolutely backbreaking for defenses to handle. Sometimes, it feels as though Bogdanovic goes cold right when everybody else does, which just can’t happen. Instead, when the team tightens up, his steady offense could be just the cough drop (or Heimlich maneuver) to keep Utah from heading home early.
Also, referee’s whistles are going to be a bit tighter, so Bogdanovic should intend to spend less time splayed out on the floor, despondent that a foul call didn’t go his way.
We go into every game hoping we get a maximum effort out of Whiteside, and not slacking off when the game (read: shot attempts) isn’t going his way. Whiteside is so enormous and talented that he can pop off wild 4-minute swings of blocking 3 shots and scoring 4 buckets off of tough offensive rebounds — so long as he’s truly trying. He has some playoff experience, so I sense that the added intensity of postseason ball will serve as prime fuel for what makes Whiteside so great. He’s one of the few guys on the Jazz will really yell at opponents (and the world in general). Winning basketball games will always be about a team’s bite, but when dudes like Whiteside are also barking loud, it can truly embolden a team and its fans. That matters, especially when Utah’s leading players aren’t exactly notable rah-rah types.
And look, I don’t know how much money means to Whiteside at this point in his solid NBA career, but a postseason full of consistent effort and impact defense is going to turn a lot of heads from contenders this summer. A starting role may never materialize again, but the money certainly could.
It may seem a bit counterintuitive, but Clarkson’s high-variance gameplay is one of Utah’s very best assets securing a championship. But absent a dominant, MVP-level player, Utah is going to need some occasional moonshots from their supporting cast, and there is no player better suited to fly among the stars than Clarkson.
Clarkson has a second tier of ability that he only occasionally hits, but it always triggers when he makes decisions quickly. I want the very most ridiculous irrational confidence version of Clarkson who is reacting instantaneously when the ball hits his hands. That’s a guy who always has the defense on their heels, which provides him more open pull-up threes and lanes for layups and interior passes. If Clarkson decides his actions too slowly, those jumpers become hopelessly contested and the paint becomes too thick to make any reasonable layup attempt or a slick dump-off pass.
Note that this wish isn’t for Clarkson to pass more or defend better. While there are some small things in those areas that you can hope for (resetting possessions to a different ballhandler if a drive goes nowhere; kindly paying attention to back-door cuts), I’m not going into this postseason hoping Clarkson becomes a different guy. Maximizing what Clarkson is already good at is more than enough to win a title.
I can’t wait for Clarkson to keep the good vibes coming and help Utah’s homecourt advantage return to deafening levels in a way that only he can.
I keep having this very specific vision of House in the playoffs: House gambles for a steal on the perimeter and takes it coast to coast for a thunderous jam. It caps off a double-digit run for Utah, and the home crowd at Vivint goes nuts. The opponent calls timeout, and Reggie Miller makes a terrible pun about dwellings as TNT goes to commercial. House’s energy and magnanimous on-court presence has been a revelation for the Jazz, and it is frankly jarring for Jazz fans to see him ahead of every fast break and savvily gambling defensively. These are things the rest of the team just doesn’t do well consistently, and that aggressive mindset must pay dividends in the playoffs.
House must take the catch-and-shoot opportunities whenever presented, which for him isn’t a tall ask — Utah just needs those shots to go in. However, we do know that House will never shy away from shooting if the shot isn’t falling, which is still helpful. House also has sneaky good ball skills, but historically he can be out over his skis on this front. I have a ton of confidence House can attack closeouts really well; he just needs to keep the ball away from handsy playoff defenses. If House slows down bench offenses, earns extra possessions, and shoots well, he will prove to be a massive advantage against most playoff opponents.
Overall, Gay’s season has been disappointing, but he hasn’t suddenly lost his abilities, either. Gay still has a skill and size combination that isn’t replicable elsewhere on the roster — if it makes sense to utilize his solid 6′8″ frame and difficult shotmaking, Snyder will do so. And since Utah no longer has a third true center on the roster, Gay is still the best option to throw out there as a small-ball, switching center if something happens to either of the two big fellas. Smaller lineups have been a disaster for the Jazz, but they’ve also played a lot of minutes attempting to make them work. In the throes of a playoff series, with some more targeted practice, a few minutes of Gay at center might catch an opponent off-guard just enough to swing a quarter or two.
The trade deadline throw-in has found himself with frequent rotation minutes as of late due to injuries and the relative ineffectiveness of Gay. Hernangomez is a preposterous +19.4 when he shares the floor with Gobert (331 possessions) per Cleaning the Glass, which will typically be when he’s deployed. He’s shooting 43.8% from deep as a Jazzman, which would be a career-high among his numerous stops. In a season where positive surprises for the Jazz are few, why can’t we get a treat of the journeyman Hernangomez continuing his trend of positive play, even in spot duty?
The rest of these guys fill roster spots that will not play unless an injury occurs to the main roster, but rare is the team that completes a 4-series postseason run without needing a token contribution or two from the deep bench. It’s awesome that Forrest got his two-way contract converted so Utah can call his number if something happens to Mitchell or Conley. But right now, those guys are entering the playoffs healthy, so he should focus on getting his foot right.
If he’s needed on the court for a few minutes, Forrest can expel a ton of energy on defense, providing that bench hound defensive mindset that can really muck up the flow of a contending offense. Every team will know what Forrest can and can’t do offensively, so he and Snyder need to find a way to surprise defenses, rather than plop him in the corner to shoot airballs. For example, it was interesting seeing Forrest being used as a screener at times this season, putting defenders not typically used to guarding pick-and-roll actions on their heels.
Utah didn’t trade for him to contribute this year, but Snyder might trust Alexander-Walker over Jared Butler if emergency minutes are needed. If so, this will likely be due to his defensive potential. In NAW’s most impactful game this year — a 16-point contribution versus Chicago — coaches and players were quick to first point out his defensive effort, ability, and instincts. If he sees the floor, he can put his energy there and the shots will come.
I don’t think we have to worry too much about Paschall’s energy and effort if he sees the floor in the playoffs. But if the Jazz end up in a situation needing Paschall to play frontcourt minutes, defensive focus will be key. It is unreasonable to expect any sort of rim protection, but if Paschall can continue his reasonable isolation defense and match his highest effort levels for a few minutes, those minutes won’t be a disaster. Defenses will still not guard him from deep, so punishing that would be a huge bonus.
There are too many ballhandlers ahead of Butler on the depth chart, so Utah needs his spirit and support more than anything. We’ve seen how the team can get down bad when those infamous 4th quarter leads start to slip away—it will be nice to see Butler give the vets encouragement and spirit even if he’s the only one doing it. If Butler soaks in the playoff experience with respect to its intensity and effort, he can be called upon in future years.
Udoka Azubuike and Xavier Sneed
Azubuike is out for the season with an ankle injury, and Sneed is ineligible to play in the postseason because of his two-way contract, but they both can enjoy the ride and be perpetual positive energy sources on the end of the bench.