Conley will replace Royce O’Neale in the starting lineup, according to sources.
The Jazz’s starting lineup without Conley, who has come off the bench since returning from an extended absence due to a hamstring strain, has been statistically the most effective in the NBA. That five-man group has a league-best plus-minus of plus-190 in 466 minutes.
But Snyder believes that the Jazz need to make Conley as comfortable as possible to maximize their chances of contending for a championship, which means putting him back in the starting lineup, according to sources.
Conley had made it clear, publicly and privately, that he had no problem with a reserve role. He has averaged 8.8 points and 2.0 assists in 19.5 minutes off the bench in six games since returning from injury.
“I came here to do whatever I can for the team,” Conley told ESPN recently. “Whatever our role is individually, just try to maximize it. I understand what we have as a starting unit. Those guys have been phenomenal. One of my fears coming back is I didn’t want to mess any of that up.”
The Jazz had won 19 of 21 games before their current three-game losing streak. Conley’s return to the starting lineup was the plan all along, not a reaction to the recent rough stretch. He will still be on a minutes restriction that will continue to gradually increase, sources said.
O’Neale, who recently signed a four-year, $36 million contract extension, will continue to be a critical part of the Jazz’s core. He is a prototypical 3-and-D wing who usually is shooting 41.5% on 3s and usually draws the toughest defensive assignment, from point guards to power forwards.
A source said the Jazz’s substitution pattern will be determined in part by defensive matchups due to O’Neale’s importance on that end of the floor.
O’Neale has started all but three games this season, as Joe Ingles served as the Jazz’s sixth man before Conley’s injury.
The Utah coaching staff opted to keep Ingles in the starting lineup because he’s been drastically more productive in that role than he was off the bench, in large part due to his chemistry with center Rudy Gobert as a pick-and-roll partner. Ingles is averaging 12.8 points and 6.1 assists with a 64.5 true shooting percentage as a starter, compared to 7.6 points and 3.5 assists with a 49.6 true shooting percentage in a reserve role.
O’Neale was aware that his role could change to make room for Conley in the starting lineup and had no issue with the possibility. He came off the bench in a Dec. 17 win over the Orlando Magic — when Conley returned from the hamstring strain, only to aggravate it again — and played well in that game (11 points on 4-of-8 shooting, six rebounds, plus-9 in 35 minutes).
“It’s about everybody not caring who’s starting and who’s coming off the bench,” O’Neale recently told ESPN. “At first, it was Joe coming off the bench and he didn’t care. We’ve got guys who are unselfish, who really don’t care who’s scoring or whatever, who love playing with each other. As long as the team wins, everyone is happy.”