The Utah Jazz beat the New Orleans Pelicans, picking up the first win in the NBA’s restart. But they did it with a shallow rotation that could be a problem.
In the first game of the NBA’s re-Opening Day, the Utah Jazz held off the New Orleans Pelicans, 106-104. Playoff seeding is of far less importance to the Jazz than establishing a rhythm and regaining on-court chemistry. Remember, Rudy Gobert was the first NBA player to test positive for COVID-19, which resulted in the suspension of the NBA season. His teammate, Donovan Mitchell, tested positive as well and Gobert’s cavalier attitude to the virus before testing positive was reported to be a source of personal friction.
In that regard, a two-point win might be cause for concern. Gobert and Mitchell played well and combined for the winning play for Utah, the bigger problem was how thin the rotation looked without Bojan Bogdanovic.
Bogdanovic was third on the Jazz in minutes played, second in shot attempts and fifth in assists during the regular season. In the middle of May, the Jazz announced that he’d had surgery to repair a ruptured tendon in his rest and would be out for the, at that point unscheduled NBA restart. Bogdanovic was not Utah’s best or most important offensive player but his versatility was incredibly important and taking him out of the lineup moves everyone behind him in Utah’s rotation up a notch in offensive primacy, asking them to shoulder a slightly larger load than they are suited for.
Utah’s starting lineup against New Orleans — Mike Conley, Mitchell, Royce O’Neale, Joe Ingles and Gobert — outscored the Pelicans by 17 points in just under 16 minutes together. That means the Jazz were outscored by 15 points in the 32 minutes at least one bench player was on the floor.
What’s wrong with the Jazz’s bench rotation?
That bench player was Jordan Clarkson, who logged 32 minutes and scored 23 points. He also took 17 shots, missed seven 3-pointers, had just three assists to go with a pair of turnovers and the Jazz were outscored by 15 points when he was on the floor. The other three bench players Utah used — Emmanuel Mudiay, Georges Niang and Tony Bradley — were a combined 2-of-10 from the field, 0-of-5 on 3-pointers and combined for two turnovers and zero assists. There aren’t any answers further down the bench either.
To be fair, to Clarkson, he’s been very good since joining the Jazz. His true shooting percentage this season was a career-best, by a wide margin, buoyed by new career-high shooting percentages both inside and outside the arc. He is finally delivering on his potential as an efficient, moderate-volume scorer and the -15 he posted against New Orleans is a bit of bad luck and a bit of his defensive shortcomings rearing their ugly heads.
The problem is that even if he’s able to replicate everything Utah was getting from Bogdanovic, there is no one to reliably replicate what Utah was getting from him. The idealized version of Utah’s offense was Rudy Gobert and Donovan Mitchell in the pick-and-roll, surrounded by shooters and complementary creators who could hit open shots or attack closeouts and keep the ball moving.
O’Neale, Niang and Mudiay can all do those things to some degree but now they’re going to need to do them more often, in higher-leverage situations. For example, here are three golden scoring opportunities, manifesting in the hands of O’Neale against a bent defense.
All three end in turnovers and not to be too effusive with praise of Bogdanovic, it’s hard not to imagine a much better set of results if he’d been handling the ball. To be fair, O’Neale did finish the game with three assists but one was questionable at best (a pass that led to an extended Mike Conley drive), one was an obvious hit-ahead in transition and the last was a simple pass to Clarkson coming off a screen.
The other major concern for Utah is frontcourt depth. Bogdanovic spent about 30 percent of his possessions this season defending opposing 4s. Both O’Neale and Ingles have experience defending 4s but less often than Bogdanovic, and both bring much less size to the challenge. Gobert has been played off the floor at points in the last two playoffs and Bradley is a 22-year-old who only played more than 20 minutes in a game twice this season. Again, it’s plausible that the Jazz can survive with this rotation but it all seems incredibly fragile, vulnerable to both injury and exploitation by specific matchups.
Utah is assured of a playoff spot and honestly, might be to simply out-talent a team like the Oklahoma City Thunder in the first round. But if the plan is for a deep playoff run, and a surprise surge to the Finals, they’re going to be asking their starters to play huge minutes or their supporting cast to play way over their heads.