Following a four-month hiatus as a result of COVID-19, the NBA is getting ready for a long-anticipated league restart. Beginning on July 31st, the top 22 teams will compete at Disney World’s Wide World of Sports Complex in Orlando. Given that there will be a secured “bubble”, concerns over the spread of COVID-19, and no fans, it’s safe to say that this will be a season unlike any other. Taking the unique NBA landscape into consideration, the Last Word on Pro Basketball staff continues this contender or pretender series with the Utah Jazz.
Can a depleted Utah Jazz squad overcome both a poor playoff track record and a rough off-season to make a surprise NBA championship run?
NBA Disney Bubble Contenders or Pretenders? Utah Jazz
This off-season has undoubtedly been challenging for all NBA teams, but it’s been especially rough for the Utah Jazz. It all started on March 9th, when center Rudy Gobert jokingly touched multiple microphones in response to the media distancing policy. Two days later, he tested positive for the coronavirus, triggering an emergency pause on the NBA season. Gobert’s actions sparked widespread backlash, and he became one of the most hated NBA players seemingly overnight.
The situation only worsened from there. Jazz superstar Donovan Mitchell also tested positive for COVID-19, and he reportedly blamed Gobert for contracting the virus. Since Gobert and Mitchell already had a tenuous relationship, this development doesn’t bode well for the future of the franchise. At the very least, there are very valid questions about team chemistry moving forward.
The month of May was marked by two emotional farewells: the death of legendary coach Jerry Sloan and the departure of vice president of player personnel Walt Perrin. Both of these figures were instrumental in bringing the Jazz franchise to prominence.
Sloan’s loyalty to the Jazz organization was unprecedented, as he spent 24 years coaching in Salt Lake City. He was very highly regarded by the organization as a whole, and his sudden death was yet another instance of off-season adversity.
Perrin was best known for uncovering numerous draft gems, including Mitchell and Gobert. He had developed close relationships with many of his draftees.
There is also a cloud of confusion surrounding the Jazz roster. With the probable absence of at least two starters, it is unknown how the Jazz will fill these holes.
During the off-season, the Jazz confirmed that Bojan Bogdanovic would be unavailable for the entirety of the season restart, as a result of undergoing surgery for a ruptured ligament in his right wrist. This is devastating news to a squad that heavily relied on his offensive firepower. Bogdanovic was their second-leading scorer and resident sharpshooter, and his injury dramatically reduces the team’s margin of error. His mere presence generated unquantifiable spacing, meaning that his absence will directly impact each of his Jazz teammates’ production.
As a result of the Bogdanovic injury, Mike Conley will have to carry a larger offensive load. However, Conley could very well not be available when the team needs him most: in the playoffs. The due date of his child is mid to late August, which is also when the playoffs begin. Not only would Conley be absent solely for the birth of his child, but he would also undergo extensive coronavirus testing and quarantine measures upon his return to the bubble. All in all, he would be absent for at least one week during the playoffs.
Though Conley hasn’t been himself this season, he has still been an important player on both ends of the floor. If he leaves in the middle of the playoffs, the Jazz would be down two starters from one of the most well-rounded squads in the league.
One of the biggest reasons that the Jazz have not been successful in the playoffs is that they’ve played the Houston Rockets in consecutive years. While this may not sound intimidating in and of itself, one must deeper analyze the Rockets’ play style.
The Rockets frequently play five-out lineups against the Jazz, meaning that each offensive player is outside of the three-point line. This forces Gobert to exit the paint, the area where he is most effective.
This results in an unsolvable dilemma for the Jazz. They can’t sit him because of his importance to the Jazz offense, especially through screen assists and the pick-and-roll. However, Gobert has consistently demonstrated significantly decreased defensive productivity against five-out lineups. Clearly, it would not be in the best interests of the Jazz to play any team with a potent five-out lineup, particularly the Rockets and the up-and-coming Dallas Mavericks.
Unfortunately, the Jazz seemed poised for playoff disappointment given the current Western Conference playoff picture. The team is fourth in the West, but they are only 1.5 games ahead of the seventh-ranked Mavericks. Unless the Jazz miraculously draws the Thunder, the Jazz will likely play one of the Rockets, Mavericks, or Los Angeles Clippers. Consequently, it’s hard to see the Jazz winning more than two games against any of these potential playoff opponents.
Utah Jazz Verdict: Pretender
It’ll be difficult for the Utah Jazz to recover from off-season turmoil. The team’s chemistry figures to be poor, given the probable absences of Bojan Bogdanovic and Mike Conley and the dismal state of the Gobert-Mitchell relationship. In addition, Gobert seems poised to be a playoff liability yet again. The Jazz haven’t won more than one playoff game against teams with five-out lineups in three consecutive years, and it’s hard to see that streak come to an end. The Jazz weren’t likely to win a playoff series before March, and those odds are even slimmer now.
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