Donovan Mitchell, Bojan Bogdanovic have been superb for Jazz, who look dangerous despite strange early trends
Conley will be better, but you wonder about Utah's shot distribution, and its one missing defensive ingredient
There are two ways you can look at the Utah Jazz's 105-94 loss to the Clippers this past Sunday. On one hand, it's encouraging that the Jazz were able to hold the Clippers, the second-best offensive team in the league entering the game, under 40-percent shooting while forcing Kawhi Leonard into an inefficient 9-of-26 night.
On the other hand, when you catch the Clippers on that poor a shooting night, and your star outplays their star (Donovan Mitchell finished with 36 points on 4-of-6 shooting from 3-point range), that's a game you should win, even on the road, if you're going to measure yourself against the league's elite.
It's a fairly decent microcosm of Utah's season so far: Great defense and great star play haven't yet led to great results. Entering Tuesday, the Jazz are 4-3 without a signature win -- beating the Thunder, Suns, Kings, and the Clippers without Kawhi, but falling short against the Lakers and the Clippers WITH Kawhi.
Of course, it's way too early to be judging teams on results alone. At this point, we're looking for indicators, and there are plenty of positive ones for a Jazz team that has every right to believe it can compete for the West's No. 1 seed. First, the good stuff.
Donovan Mitchell is killing
When the Jazz traded for Mike Conley and signed Bojan Bogdanovic in free agency, it became impossible not to think about all the room in which Mitchell was going to have to operate with all those floor-spacers around him. It's playing out pretty much exactly to plan. As of Tuesday, Mitchell is averaging just under 26 points per game on 52-percent shooting, including 44 percent from beyond the arc.
"The last six years we've built a competitive team that was very good, but the playoff results told us we weren't great," Jazz general manager Justin Zanik recently told CBS Sports. "We knew we needed to get better in some specific areas. We wanted to add some spacing and shooting, and I think just more offensive versatility. There's no doubt that when you have a player like Donovan who is so dynamic attacking the rim, you want to give him room to operate, but you also don't want him to have to make every play.
"With the way we went about our financial planning, we always knew this [past] summer we were going to have some opportunities to address the areas we were deficient in," Zanik continued. "With Mike [Conley] and Bojan [Bogdanovic] out there, along with Joe Ingles, another great 3-point shooter, Royce O'Neale, Jeff Green, Rudy [Gobert] in the middle with shooters all around, I think you're already seeing a lot of what we envisioned."
Bogdanovic, specifically, has been fantastic, which we'll get to momentarily. Conely has struggled mightily, but his presence on the outside alone is added spacing versus what the Jazz looked like the last two seasons with Ricky Rubio at the point. With four good shooters, and the defenders they've dragged with them, spaced all the way around the 3-point line, look how wide open the lane is for Mitchell to attack on these drives:
When Mitchell is matched up one-on-one with a lane this open, he is equally beautiful to watch and nearly impossible to stop. Meeting him with a last-second rim protector is generally too late. He's too strong. Too determined and acrobatic with his finishes. Perhaps most impressively, Mitchell has cut his turnovers nearly in half from his first two seasons despite all the creating he's being asked to do.
The Jazz loved the role Mitchell got to play with Team USA this past summer. They expected him to make a superstar leap, and so far he looks like a surefire All-Star, even in the crowded Western Conference.
That said, Utah's overall offense isn't where it needs to be if they're going to truly compete for a title. They're averaging 100 points on the dot entering Tuesday, which ranks 28th in the league. They've got a strange shot chart, which we'll look at shortly. Ingles and Conley are not shooting anywhere near their capabilities, but you expect that to change rather quickly. And when it does, there is a lot to like from what we've seen in the early going with Mitchell leading the charge.
Bojan Bogdanovic a perfect fit
Utah's offensive hierarchy is a bit by committee beneath Mitchell. On any given night, it could be Bogdanovic, Conley, or even Ingles or Gobert who serves as Mitchell's primary wingman. But Bogdanovic is very clearly the No. 2 right now, and he's perfect for it. He is not a No. 1 option player. There is no confusion like there sometimes is with two-headed attacks. Mitchell is the clear head of the snake, but Bogdanovic's strike can be pretty deadly, too.
As stated above, Bogdanovic, who signed a four-year $73 million deal with Utah this summer, has been fantastic to start the season. Entering play on Tuesday, he's averaging just under 21 points on 45-percent shooting from the 3-point line and 95 percent from the free-throw line. First and foremost, this is what Bogdanovic is: One of the best shooters in the world.
"But he's more than a shooter," Zanik told CBS. "He's a three-level scorer. He's a guy who can get to the rim, who can score in the mid-range and with his back to the basket, and obviously we know what he can do from three."
It's true. In the past, almost all of Utah's one-on-one creation fell on Mitchell's shoulders, especially late in the shot clock. Now the Jazz can turn to Bogdanovic, who is quicker than you think and a really strong finisher, to make plays -- not only for himself but also as a passer -- when the offensive system doesn't produce anything.
You see that sweet drop-off pass to Gobert for the dunk in the back half of that video. Indeed, if you haven't watched Bogdanovic play a lot, don't be fooled by his relatively low assist numbers. He's a score-first player, no doubt, but he can really pass the ball. And he's smart. You can depend on him to make the right play.
"His scoring, his shooting, his toughness, and he's such an unselfish player with a high basketball IQ," Zanik said of Bogdanovic. "When we sat down with him [this summer], he loved the idea of playing in [Quin Snyder's] system. He loved the idea of playing next to Donovan. Defensively, he liked having Rudy Gobert back there protecting everybody, because [Bogdanovic] is a defender, too. He can guard. We knew he would integrate into what we do on both ends pretty seamlessly, and he has."
Great defensive shot distribution
Entering play on Tuesday, the Jazz are the No. 2 defense in the league giving up 97.4 points per 100 possessions, per NBA.com. They've held five of their seven opponents under 100 points.
Rudy Gobert anchors everything at the rim, and the Jazz -- with Mitchell, Bogdanovic, Ingles, Royce O'Neale and Jeff Green -- have a lot of switchable parts on the perimeter who really guard the 3-point line. They guard the corner 3s particularly well, which is the shot every offense is trying to create as the shorter 22-foot line makes for the most efficient statistical attempt outside of dunks and uncontested layups.
Through Monday, per Cleaning the Glass, only 5.5 percent of the shots Utah has surrendered have been corner 3s, which is the second-best mark in the league. Not only is Utah stingy in even allowing corner 3s, but the few they do allow are going in at just a 15-percent clip, which is the top mark in the league.
It's all about rotation, communication and discipline. In the following clip, you'll see the Jazz bring an immediate double team when Kawhi Leonard gets the pass in the post. This starts a ball reversal, and it eventually ends up in the hands of Patrick Patterson at the extended-wing 3-point line. At this point, the Jazz have a choice: Fly at Patterson and leave Landry Shamet, a better shooter, alone in the corner for a simple swing pass, or suppress the natural instinct to run at the guy with the ball and instead go to cover Shamet. Wisely, they choose to account for Shamet and force Patterson, the worse shooter, to take the longer, tougher 3-point shot.
In a perfect world, the Jazz would've communicated a bit better and sent one guy -- Bogdanovic, who is behind the ball swing after coming to double Kawhi -- to Patterson while Conley accounted for Shamet. This way, perhaps neither of them would've gotten an open look. But real-life NBA defense, happening on the fly, is often about split-second, lesser-of-two-evil choices, and in the end, both Jazz defenders made the right choice by going to Shamet. That's how you only allow corner 3-point shots on 5.5 percent of possessions. It's a priority. And everyone sticks to the plan.
All told, teams are shooting just 32.4 percent from 3-point land overall against the Jazz. The Clippers went 7 for 32 from deep on Sunday. With the 3-point line covered, and Gobert, a two-time defensive player of the year with a 7-foot-9 wingspan, deterring shots at the rim, Utah is forcing teams into mid-range attempts -- statistically the worst shot in basketball -- on 39.1 percent of their shots, the highest mark in the league.
Add it up, and you have a team with good-to-great individual defenders who force teams to take the hardest shots on the court by defending collectively and intelligently. The Jazz switch aggressively. They double hard. They rotate to the right shooters. You can do all this with the security of knowing Gobert is behind it all in case you make a mistake of aggression.
Utah's defense looks great ... perhaps except for one problem, which transitions us into the things that have not looked so great for Utah in the early going.
Mike Conley has been very bad
This is not a secret. Conley went 1 for 16 in his Jazz debut and is shooting just 31 percent from the field for the season, including 28 percent from beyond the arc. If you throw out the one good game he had -- an 11-for-17 showing in a home win over the Clippers, who were playing without Kawhi -- Conley is shooting 23.5 percent from the field and 19 percent from the 3-point line.
It's not just the shooting, either. Conley is turning the ball over more than he ever has in his career, and a decent amount of these turnovers have been head-scratching silly, which is hugely uncharacteristic for one of the sturdiest points guards of the last decade. Conley has had some flashes of his old self but for the most part, has looked totally out of rhythm.
Some of it is to be expected. Conley has never played with a center like Gobert, who isn't a post-up/pick-and-pop guy like Marc Gasol and Zach Randolph, both of whom formed incredible inside-out combinations with Conley during their many years together in Memphis.
Playing with a rim-rolling big like Gobert, who is primarily looking for lob passes as a roller, makes for a totally different ball-handling cadence. It's a different timing in terms of how long Conley holds onto the ball, how deeply he probes into the lane before he gives it up. Forcing defenders to commit to you as a scorer BEFORE you give it up requires a different kind of patience AND a different kind of aggression. Conley is seemingly stuck in between, and it's leading to a lot of indecision and confusion.
Watch here as Conley isn't sure whether he wants to pass to Gobert or take a short shot himself, and he gets caught in the air with nowhere to go with the ball:
On this next play, you'll see the patience Conley needs to show in playing pick and roll with Gobert. Look at where Conley is, and where Gobert is, when Conley picks up his dribble and decides to make a lob pass:
As you can see, Conley is nearly at the 3-point line, and Gobert is only at the free throw line, and Conley is already throwing a lob to the rim. Never mind that a Clippers defender, Ivica Zubac, is sufficiently attached to Gobert. Conley needs to keep his dribble alive here, get deeper into the lane and force Zubac to push up onto him as he becomes a greater threat to score himself, and then release the lob.
Instead, this is how that play turned out:
Another adjustment for Conley is that he isn't the go-to perimeter player on his team anymore. That role belongs to Mitchell. Conley is certainly capable of playing off the ball, and he's still running his share of pick and rolls, but it's a change from his days with the Grizzlies when he was regularly a 20-point scorer. Conley is averaging 12 points this season, and his shot attempts are down across the board.
The Jazz added Conley for leadership and to take some of the responsibilities of running the offense off Mitchell's shoulders so he could focus on attacking to score relentlessly, but they also added Conley for flat-out tangible production. They need his shooting. They need his scoring. They need him to set up Gobert, who wants to be more involved in the offense, and they need him to do it all efficiently and securely.
None of that has happened yet. But the good news is the Jazz have still looked capable of beating the best teams. When Conley gets going, which you have to assume he will, that's when this team will truly approach its potential.
Strange offensive shot distribution
Last year the Jazz took a 3-pointer on 39.5 percent of their possessions. This year that number has dipped to 37 percent. If you take out end-of-quarter/clock heaves, that 3-point frequency dips to 33 percent, per Cleaning the Glass, and it was a significantly lower percentage than that before they put up 31 triples in the Clippers loss.
Even with Conley and Ingles shooting bricks to start, the Jazz are still making their non-heave 3-pointers at just under a 38-percent clip, which ranks No. 9 in the league per Cleaning the Glass. They're just not generating a lot of them, even after adding one of the best shooters in the world in Bogdanovic and a very good 3-point shooter in Conley.
Given Mitchell's driving ability and with Gobert occupying the dunker spot as a lob and dump-off threat, you would think, then, that the Jazz are trading their 3-point attempts for more shots at the rim. They're 12th in that area, which is fine but not great. Entering play on Tuesday, 42 percent of Utah's shots are coming from the long mid-range, per Cleaning the Glass. Mitchell takes a lot of these. He is shooting 55 percent from the mid-range. That's both fantastic and a hard thing to sustain.
Part of the problem is Utah isn't moving the ball the same way it has in the past. Last season the Jazz averaged 310 passes a game, per NBA.com; this year that number has fallen to 262. Last season they averaged 26 assists per game; this year that number has fallen to 19.
They are playing a lot of one-on-one basketball. Almost 16 percent of their shots have come after a player has taken seven dribbles or more, which is the fourth-highest mark in the league, per NBA.com. That's a lot of Mitchell and Bogdanovic backing out defenders and going into isolation. That's a lot of ball-pounding in general.
Mitchell is a great one-on-one creator and Bogdanovic is creating on his own as well, but neither of them are James Harden so the Jazz can't rely on them in the same way. The other Jazz players need the system and overall activity and movement to create shots for them, and so far Mitchell and Bogdanovic are covering for a pretty stagnant offensive look overall.
It's too bad, because with all their added spacing and shooting, this is what the Jazz can look like when they spread out and move the ball:
Quin Snyder is one of the best coaches in the league. His offenses move and cut and share. The Jazz will get this figured out. They'll start creating more 3-point opportunities and they will start moving the ball better. But so far, it's looked pretty un-Jazz-like on a lot of possessions.
An elite defense without an elite wing defender
Yes, the Jazz have a great defense overall. They invite you to take the toughest shots in basketball and guard the heck out of the easiest ones. It's an analytical dream. And yet, when push came to shove last Sunday in their loss to the Clippers, they had no individual answer for Kawhi Leonard.
Now, in fairness, no team really has an answer for Kawhi, or LeBron, or Giannis Antetokounmpo, or Paul George, or Kevin Durant when he's healthy. These absolutely elite wing scorers/playmakers are the biggest difference-makers in the league.
But most of the teams we really consider to be championship contenders at least have a wing defender who can hold his own one-on-one against the top guys. Andre Iguodala's biggest role in the Warriors' dynasty was checking the most dominant opposing wings. The Sixers can stick Ben Simmons on Kawhi or Paul George if they were to match up with the Clippers. The Lakers can put LeBron on one of those guys. The Celtics can deploy Jaylen Brown or Marcus Smart or even Semi Ojeleye in a pinch. The Bucks can sick Giannis on anyone. The Rockets have P.J. Tucker. The Heat have Jimmy Butler.
The Jazz have ... Royce O'Neale?
Listen, I like O'Neale. He makes a lot of winning, if subtle, plays. He's a good cutter. He can make 3-pointers. But he's 6-foot-5, maybe even 6-4 depending on what source you trust. He's not truly bothering the best scorers in the business. Neither is Bogdanovic, who has the size at 6-foot-8 but not the athleticism or lateral quickness. Jeff Green is not a championship-level defensive option at small forward, either.
The Jazz simply have to send doubles to guard the very top wing players. They did it aggressively against the Clippers on Sunday, and as currently constructed, they would have to do the same in a playoff series.
That leaves you really vulnerable, no matter how well you rotate and even with a windshield wiper at the rim in Gobert. Portland has the same problem after losing Al-Farouq Aminu and Moe Harkless this summer. In a playoff series, they're looking at Rodney Hood or Kent Bazemore on the LeBron James' and Kawhi Leonards of the world.
I will say, I'm less concerned with Utah's lack of an elite defensive 3-man than I am, say, with Portland's, and far less than I would have been with Golden State's situation back when we were still trying to make a case for them as a contender. Portland doesn't have the overall defensive structure to counteract their lack of an elite perimeter defender. C.J. McCollum and Damian Lillard do not bring nearly the same defense as Mitchell and Conley do at the guard position.
And even at 6-5, O'Neale is a solid defender who will make you work. This is incredible one-on-one defense against Kawhi, who is just so good he still manages to score:
In the end, it's a tough road when you constantly have to double the best perimeter scorers. It stretches your defense very thin. It won't matter in the regular season for the Jazz, who are almost guaranteed to be a top-five defense, barring injury, on the strength of Gobert alone. But it's something to watch come playoff time for a team that has every intention of competing for a championship. At that level, the smallest little matchup problems make the biggest difference.
CBS Sports HQ Daily Newsletter
Get the best highlights and stories - yeah, just the good stuff handpicked by our team to start your day.
Thanks for signing up!
Keep an eye on your inbox for the latest sports news.
There was an error processing your subscription.
Kawhi Leonard and Paul George, as a duo, are already solving Clippers' greatest weakness
Mavericks' star had more points, more rebounds and more assists than the Warriors in first...
It took 172 games but the unthinkable finally happened for the 76ers' star on Wednesday against...
SportsLine's advanced computer model simulated Wednesday's Celtics vs. Clippers game 10,000...
Mike McClure, a DFS pro with almost $2 million in career earnings, gives optimal lineup advice
SportsLine's advanced computer model simulated Wednesday's Mavericks vs. Warriors game 10,000...