The Utah Jazz finished the 2019 season with 50 wins, netting them the fifth seed in an incredibly competitive Western Conference. In the first round of the playoffs, the Jazz took a decisive loss to the Houston Rockets, ending the Jazz’s hope of making the second round of the playoffs for the third consecutive season.
The Jazz have re-tooled through the acquisitions of Mike Conley and Bojan Bogdanovic, but there is an elephant in the room which hurts the Jazz as they try to lift the Larry O’Brien Trophy in June of 2020.
The loss to the Rockets shines a light on the problem that ails the Jazz: Rudy Gobert.
Before you click off the article, this is not an attack on one of the best defensive players to grace the NBA in the modern day. Gobert is a wonderful defensive player who defends as many shots as anyone in the NBA. Based on FiveThirtyEight’s advanced metrics, no single defender faced as many shots as the famed French Rejection who severely cut down on the shooting percentages of his opposition. Gobert is as good as it gets on the interior, but he has one glaring flaw which the Rockets expose on a yearly basis: Gobert outside the paint.
Despite this critique, Gobert rarely runs into problems during the regular season. The Jazz routinely have a premier defensive unit, and it begins and ends with Gobert. However, in the playoffs, teams can specifically attack Gobert by forcing him to switch onto point guards. In the 2017 playoffs, Stephen Curry and the Golden State Warriors abused the matchup, forcing Gobert to be up to 25 feet from the basket at times, chasing around the former MVP.
In the 2018 and 2019 playoffs, James Harden and the isolation-heavy Houston Rockets took advantage of a Gobert-less paint by executing a simplistic offensive attack aimed at dissolving the Stifle Tower. Based on defensive rating (the number of points allowed per 100 defensive possessions), Gobert slips from a regular season average of 99 (routinely among the best in the NBA) to a playoff average of 104 (not terrible by any means, but it does not reflect Gobert’s status as an elite defensive player).
Despite the additions of Conley and Bogdanovic, the Jazz must solve the catch .22 of playing Gobert in the playoffs. Gobert is as good as it gets in the NBA when it comes to altering shots at the rim, but Gobert can be enticed out to the perimeter and has a tendency to end up on the highlight reels of offensive players. With Derrick Favors being traded to the Pelicans, the onus falls even more heavily onto Gobert’s shoulders to keep the Jazz at an elite defensive level. While Conley should help reduce drives and effectively defend the pick and roll at the source, Gobert must improve dramatically on the perimeter in order for the Jazz to be taken seriously.
From an offensive perspective, the Jazz lack the maturity of a well-run offensive unit. However, with Conley replacing the questionably talented Ricky Rubio and Donovan Mitchell entering Year number three, the Jazz are trending upwards in this regard. The 2019 Jazz had a dearth of outside shooting, but Conley and Bogdanovic should solve these problems. As a whole, the Jazz should be better offensively, and Mitchell should have ample space to establish himself as an elite level scorer in 2019.
Conley has effectively run the Grizzlies offense for more than a decade, and he can strike more fear into the opposition than Rubio, so that is an upgrade. Bogdanovic pairs with Joe Ingles to become a hyper-efficient shooting duo which should open up driving lanes for Conley and Mitchell who both have enough prowess to consistently hit the open man and collapse the defense.
The Jazz are serious contenders for the number one seed in the Western Conference, especially if the Los Angeles teams coast like their stars tend to do during the regular season. The Jazz have a point to prove and provide stiff competition for the likes of the Portland Trail Blazers and Denver Nuggets.
Expect the Jazz to come to play in all 82 games and try to secure a playoff seed as high as possible in order to take advantage of their home court advantage and altitude. An ideal scenario for the Jazz sees them lock up the number one seed, relegating the Clippers and Lakers to the two and three seeds. The Jazz have the capability of beating almost anyone in the NBA, but when the Los Angeles teams sport two legitimate star players, the Jazz might not have the firepower to match the onslaught. While the days of being torched by the likes of Curry and Harden may be numbered, the Jazz now have heightened expectations as the Warriors stumble from the invincible realm.