Depending on who you ask, the NBA’s annual Christmas Day slate of games features either the league’s most elite teams or its most marketable clubs (or a healthy combination of the two). Either way, the retooled Jazz won’t be playing on the holiday, making Utah the highest-rated team in FiveThirtyEight’s 2019-20 NBA projections to be left out.
As the reigning NBA champs would tell you, a game on Christmas only matters so much. And the best way to ensure a Christmas game is to win it all. So with that in mind, just how well-positioned are the Jazz, who added Mike Conley and Bojan Bogdanovic to last year’s 50-win core?
The short answer: Utah definitely looks like a contender, but it also faces a handful of important questions — the answers to which may determine whether the club can take that elusive next step.
The Jazz, who had the No. 1 defense in 2017-18 before finishing second on that end of the floor this past season, now have the potential to become very good on offense, too, with Conley and Bogdanovic. The team’s starting five will have four shooters to spread around lob threat Rudy Gobert. It could be the best scoring unit Utah’s had in years and the most potent lineup Conley has ever been a part of. In Conley’s 12 seasons in Memphis, the Grizzlies never posted a top-10 offense.1
Plugging that duo into this offense — one that already reversed the ball more than any other club and set the second-most screens of any team2 — offers a ton in the way of upgraded shooting and ball-handling. Ricky Rubio was often left all alone on the perimeter last season as teams dared him to shoot, while his drives to the basket didn’t yield much. Yes, Rubio enjoyed a career-best season at the rim this past year, getting 58 percent of those shots to drop. But Conley has shot 58 percent from that range for his entire career.
Bogdanovic’s ability to create will likely surprise those who haven’t watched him play before. Much like Joe Ingles, he’s a fantastic 3-point shooter who can beat defenses to the rim repeatedly following a solid screen.3
Conley and Bogdanovic were acquired in the hopes of making life far easier for 22-year-old guard Donovan Mitchell, who struggled to carry the heavy burden of being the lone scoring threat in the backcourt. In each of his first two postseasons, the Jazz were eliminated during a series in which Mitchell put up ghastly efficiency playoff numbers — like, NBA-worst, even-worse-than-Russell-Westbrook efficiency4 — while logging a usage rate in excess of 31 percent. Either that usage rate needs to come down, his efficiency needs to improve, or both. Adding a pair of solid ball-handlers should help in that regard.
By no means does this suggest that the Jazz have solved all their problems. In fact, some might feel that they’re robbing Peter to pay Paul with these moves.
To make cap room for Bogdanovic, Utah dealt away Derrick Favors, a solid big man who could both play alongside Gobert and fill in for him if need be. Favors was a key reason the Jazz led the NBA in defensive rebounding last season, and without him — and with Bogdanovic as a small-ball power forward — the team may struggle against clubs with more traditional frontcourts.5
How Bogdanovic fares as a small-ball four will go a long way in determining whether the Jazz were right to give the 30-year-old a four-year, $73 million deal, which our CARMELO projection model sees as one of the biggest free-agent overpays of the offseason. (Aside from any concerns about how he’ll age over the years, the model believes Bogdanovic is vastly overrated on the defensive end.)
But beyond that, perhaps the most important question to ask is whether Utah’s last two playoff exits — both at the hands of the Rockets — were short-term blips, or if there’s a more stylistic issue at play. In 2018, the Rockets neutralized Gobert by feasting from midrange, and this past postseason Houston was more than willing to exploit a flawed scheme the Jazz tried using in Games 1 and 2.
Funneling action toward Gobert will almost certainly be a winning defensive strategy for the Jazz during the regular season. And with the Rockets having traded Chris Paul for Westbrook, the plan may have more success in the playoffs now if the two teams were to face off yet again. But the Clippers’ Kawhi Leonard loves attacking from midrange. The Warriors’ ability to space the floor (especially if Klay Thompson gets healthy) is nothing new. The Lakers, seeking to make up for last year’s lack of shooting, have plenty of sharpshooters to open up the floor for LeBron James, who won’t hesitate to test a rim protector.
It’s too soon to know how it will all pan out. But we know one thing: If the Jazz reach their ultimate goal, this time next year, their fans won’t be complaining about the lack of a Christmas Day game.
Check out our latest NBA predictions.