When the Utah Jazz traded for Mike Conley and signed Bojan Bogdanovic over the summer, it all but guaranteed that Joe Ingles would be moved to a bench role. At media day in October, Ingles said he was fine to take whatever role needed to be played in order to help the team win. For the past three seasons in Utah, that role was playing scrappy defense which often led to steals, executing crafty passes to open teammates on the wing or in the post and knocking down 3-pointers at a high clip.
Ingles became a staple in the starting lineup and a fan favorite, but at the start of this season he assumed the role of sixth man for the Jazz, and while he would pop up with the occasional 12, or 13-point game every now and then, his numbers were noticeably down. He wasn't playing in the same rhythm that he did when he was starting, and his shooting and assist numbers were on a decline. As a team, the Jazz were struggling to find consistency within their starting lineup, and Conley has had a difficult time adjusting to his new surroundings, averaging a seven-year low in points (13.6) and shooting a career-worst 36.5 percent from the field.
The struggles of the two players might not seem connected, but as soon as Ingles was inserted into the starting lineup after Conley went down Los Angeles Lakers, Ingles has been averaging 14.7 points, 6.1 assists and 4.8 rebounds while shooting 51.9 percent from both the field and beyond the arc. Compare that to his averages of 7.3 points, 4.3 rebounds and 3.5 assists on 36.4 percent from the floor and 30.9 from 3-point range while coming off the bench, and it's an overwhelming improvement that the Jazz can't ignore., he's been on a tear. Since starting in the Dec. 4 game against the
After Utah's most recent win against the Chicago Bulls Thursday night, where Ingles had eight points, 10 assists and five rebounds, he agreed that him being in the starting lineup has been the biggest factor in his recent production over the past month.
"I haven't [come off the bench] for a long time, and I was just trying to figure it out," Ingles said. "I was getting better very slowly, but I was trying to find a groove and obviously when Mike [Conley] went down and I went in there it was more natural. You just go back to what you're used to doing, and guys I was used to playing with. Obviously, when Mike comes back we'll work it out, and if it's me that comes off the bench I'll figure it out."
In a five-man lineup of Ingles, Donovan Mitchell, Royce O'Neale, Bogdanovic and Rudy Gobert, the Jazz own a net rating of +19.4. Of the top-five lineups the Jazz use most frequently, that lineup has been the most effective this season. Inserting Ingles into the starting lineup has helped Utah go 10-3 in their last 13 games, with Ingles posting a boxscore plus/minus of +8.7, which is second on the team behind only Bogdanovic over that span.
Ingles has been used as a spot-up shooter for Utah while coming off the bench, but he's far more effective when he's able to have the ball in his hands. He ranks 19th in the NBA in passing out of the pick and roll, where he generates 1.131 points per 100 possession, per Synergy Sports.
"I think my role on the team is to get other guys involved," Ingles said. "My only focus going into a game is defensively who I'm matched up against, and trying to get Donovan and Rudy easy shots. Especially the load that they have on both ends of the floor and the minutes they play, the more I can get them easy looks and shots the better."
Ingles' play in the starting lineup creates a sticky situation for Utah when Conley returns. Pushing Ingles back to the bench doesn't seem ideal with how well this team has been playing with him in the starting five. However, benching Conley doesn't make much sense either considering the Jazz will be responsible for paying him $34.5 million next season, that is unless they trade him. Given Conley's contract and play this season though, there likely isn't a team willing to take him on, especially given his injury history and age.
The Jazz have started Conley and Ingles together just twice this season, the first time came in the second game of the season against the Lakers, where Ingles only shot the ball twice from the field and put up four assists, while Conley shot an abysmal 27.3 percent from the field on his way to 13 points. The second time the two shared the floor in the starting lineup was when Conley tried to return from his hamstring injury on Dec. 17, but ultimately re-aggravated the injury. Conley only played 19 minutes of that game while Ingles finished the night with 16 points and 12 rebounds.
The problem is both players need the ball in their hands to be effective, coupled with the fact that Mitchell also works best while operating with the ball in his hands, and you have too many guys who need to be in control when there's only one basketball. Like Ingles said, when Conley comes back they'll figure it out. For now, though, he's been essential to the Jazz's recent hot streak, and is making it harder for Utah to find an argument strong enough to keep him out of the starting lineup, even when Conley does return.