High-usage bucket-getters like Donovan Mitchell are essential for most title contenders, and before the 2019-20 season began, that’s exactly what his Utah Jazz were. Their preseason over/under was lower than that of only three other teams, and after opening night, the FiveThirtyEight prediction model gave them a 5 percent chance of making the NBA Finals — which, to some, is the cutoff that justifies an immediate push to win it all.
In addition to Mitchell’s anticipated growth into the All-Star he became this season, Utah had an imposing defense, long-range shooters and ingenious coaching. But for a variety of reasons, the Jazz never quite coalesced like so many thought they would.
It’s not that Utah stunk. Before the season restarted, they were eighth in net rating and second in effective field-goal percentage. But they had a glut of success against weaker teams, and they went 5-5 after the All-Star break, sandwiched between the Phoenix Suns and Atlanta Hawks with the 20th-best net rating in the league. Trading for Mike Conley was a huge source of optimism in Salt Lake City before the season began, but the 32-year-old missed 23 games, and his player efficiency rating dropped to its lowest point in a dozen seasons. The other significant addition was Bojan Bogdanović — Utah’s second-leading scorer — and he’s now out for the playoffs thanks to wrist surgery.
But the NBA’s bubble season will be a whole new world. It’s fertile ground for surprises. The circumstances are unprecedented, and in them a rising star like Mitchell can shatter assumptions. Boundlessly athletic, assured and still only 23 years old, Mitchell wasn’t the reason Utah underperformed. But he didn’t make the strides as a scorer or playmaker that Utah ultimately needs if it ever wants to get over the hump.
Now, with Bogdanović out and the Jazz needing to alter how they play, Mitchell has an opportunity to progress in areas that can nudge this team back toward the doorstep of a higher tier. For the rest of the way this year — as the team is largely counted out and on track to go home before the conference finals once again — what’s best for Mitchell might be what’s best for the Jazz.
It’s fair to feel skeptical of Mitchell but also bullish about his chances. Utah was outscored by 5.3 points per 100 possessions when its All-Star guard played without Bogdanović, and in those moments it had a worse offensive rating than the 30th-ranked Golden State Warriors. But their probable new starting five — Conley, Mitchell, Royce O’Neale, Joe Ingles and Rudy Gobert — should remove any role-related confusion that previously existed for several players, while also generating more scoring opportunities, on and off the ball, for Mitchell.
Stylistically, the Jazz are unique, more egalitarian than most teams. They set a ton of screens (third most in the league per 100 possessions, according to Second Spectrum) — with Gobert’s limited skill set both preventing Utah from taking a broader approach and sharpening their execution of the game plan they do run. But with Bogdanović out of the frame and fresh lineups and sets needing to be deployed, it may make more sense to simplify that approach and feed Mitchell in ways they did not before.
The least complicated example of what this could look like is also the one that’s the most antithetical to how Utah plays basketball: Give Mitchell the ball and let him cook. Among all players who isolated at least 100 times this season, Mitchell’s 7.4 percent frequency was dead last. But even if he wasn’t the most efficient scorer in these situations, few guards in basketball are more explosive than Mitchell, with his combination of upper-body strength, long arms and a splash of offbeat creativity. Isolating Mitchell more often, particularly against weak defenders in lineups that can really space the floor, makes sense — as it did in the playoffs when he was a rookie. Let him improvise downhill and unleash the sort of swindling acrobatics that make him invincible.
Jazz head coach Quin Snyder could take that idea even further by also using Conley-Mitchell-Jordan Clarkson groups — especially in crunchtime, a la Oklahoma City’s three-guard lineup — that would ramp up the team’s speed and offensive potency. (As an off-ball complement, Mitchell hit nearly 44 percent of his spot-up threes this season — 12th-highest out of the 125 players who had at least 150 catch-and-shoot attempts.)
Now might also be a good time for the Jazz to bend a bit more toward their young franchise player’s athleticism by hunting for more open floor opportunities after they get a stop instead of pushing into the frontcourt and then steadying themselves in an attempt to pick the defense apart. (Utah shuffled its feet in half-court sets more often than any other team this season.)
Even with all this, Mitchell’s main function will still be in the pick-and-roll. The Jazz will use wings and forwards to set ball screens and confuse defenders, but the lion’s share of Mitchell’s attack involves a partnership with Gobert that’s both a gift and a curse. Per Second Spectrum, only six pick-and-roll tandems collaborated more than Mitchell and Gobert this season,and overall, Utah averaged 1.19 points per possession whenever they ran one, which ranks in the top 20 percent among all duos that logged at least 100 actions.
Gobert is a reliable lob threat, and despite having a lower usage rate than Georges Niang, he is in many ways the vertebra that holds up Utah’s entire offense: His picks, slips and measured dives to the rim demand attention from both his own man and defenders who slide in from the corner, which helped the Jazz generate threes from that zone at a higher frequency than every team except the Rockets.
But the fundamental cost of those forays into the paint is an intrasquad battle over real estate that Mitchell ultimately needs to own if he wants to scrape his ceiling; the Jazz probably can’t reach their apex if Mitchell and Gobert are simultaneously occupying the paint. According to Second Spectrum, when Mitchell shoots off a Gobert screen, he averages only 0.963 points per chance — ranking in the 29th percentile of pick-and-roll tandems.
Instead of earning the layups and free throws that might be afforded to someone with more room to operate, Mitchell is often forced to dine on tricky floaters and pull-up twos.
He’s been accurate enough on these taboo shots to justify the volume at which he launches them — as in, he’s more accurate than Kawhi Leonard and Kyrie Irving on pull-ups — but any primary scorer who also wants to be efficient can’t subsist on shots that make their job more difficult than it could otherwise be.
By increasing his isolation and transition chances, Mitchell can balance out the high-risk, low-reward looks he gets when in tandem with Gobert and seek to draw more shooting fouls — which is the next step on his ladder to greatness. Taking over an NBA game when you’re listed at 6-foot-1 — shorter than Damian Lillard! — is not easy, and it’s even harder when you aren’t getting to the line.
Of the 53 players who had a usage rate higher than 25 percent this season, Mitchell ranked 44th in free-throw rate. And the red flags travel to other venues: On Team USA last summer, Mitchell logged a team-high 219 minutes and hoisted a team-high 88 shots, but he only took eight free throws — about half as many as Marcus Smart, who missed three games. Up those attempts, and Mitchell starts to look like young Dwyane Wade with an outside shot.
Utah isn’t a lock to get out of the first round, and a Finals run feels like a pipe dream. But if aesthetic changes are made to accommodate Mitchell’s ability in Bogdanović’s absence, this team can easily exceed its dwindling expectations. Mitchell’s potential is nearly limitless; the Jazz should adapt as necessary to accelerate his journey there, and they should do it sooner rather than later.
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