How Utah Jazz Can Maximize Mike Conley

When the referees missed an easy goaltending call on Rudy Gobert against the Portland Trail Blazers on February, it helped the home team break a five-game losing streak. It wasn’t a convincing 117-114 win for the Utah Jazz, but it was a win.

The next night against the Houston Rockets, the Jazz needed a doubly contested fade-away three at the buzzer from Bojan Bogdanović to secure a 114-113 victory. Again, at least it was a win.

At this stage of the year, the wins are the only things that matter. The point of the regular season is to secure a good seed for the playoffs and maybe have a home-court advantage in at least the first round. 

But it is also important for the team’s roster to learn how to play together, and when you bring in new talent, that task is made harder when said players miss time due to injury.

Currently, holding down a fourth-placed playoff spot in the Western Conference, the Jazz are performing well, even it was a little disappointing how they started the season, especially after the (typically quiet) front office made a number of roster moves during the off-season.

Utah came out of the blocks at a leisurely pace. At one point, the team was 12-10—not bad, but many expected the Jazz would have taken the next step, building on last season’s success.

And then it happened: the team went 22-3 during a stretch between December and January. Utah suddenly looked like its administration and fans had hoped it would.

During this stretch, point guard Mike Conley attempted to return after missing five games due to a hamstring injury. He only lasted one before reaggravating it and would be out for an extended period. 

To make up for the loss, the Jazz brought in trigger-happy Cleveland Cavaliers guard Jordan Clarkson via trade. He had struggled to find a home during his five years in the league but helped a previously punchless bench right away.

With Conley out, the team running through Donovan Mitchell and Joe Ingles, and gunslingers like Bogdanović and Clarkson carrying scoring responsibilities, the Jazz went on a 10-game win streak. 

However, the streak coinciding with Conley being out can’t exactly be seen as cause and effect.

Jan 27, 2020; Salt Lake City, Utah, USA; Utah Jazz guard Mike Conley (10) looks to shoot against Houston Rockets forward Danuel House Jr. (4) during the third quarter at Vivint Smart Home Arena. Mandatory Credit: Jeffrey Swinger-USA TODAY Sports

A snapshot of the season’s opening 20 games shows a list of tough opponents for Utah, including the Oklahoma City Thunder, Los Angeles Lakers and Clippers, Philadelphia 76ers, Toronto Raptors and the surprisingly frisky Memphis Grizzlies.

Compare that to the much simpler list the Jazz faced during the 10-game winning streak: the Portland Trail Blazers, Detroit Pistons, Chicago Bulls, Orlando Magic, New Orleans Pelicans, New York Knicks, Charlotte Hornets, Washington Wizards and Brooklyn Nets. That’s not discounting a good win in LA versus the Clippers, but you can see why the records with and without Conley might be misleading.

That’s not to say that the fit with Conley is seamless though, either. The win-loss record against bad and good teams, respectively, could indeed be hiding issues that may yet need resolving.

Conley is a point guard who had a usage rate of 26.7 during his last three years with the Grizzlies. So far in 2019-20, that has dipped to 23.6. It might not seem like much, but it has resulted in his fewest field goal attempts and field goal percentage since 2012-13, as well as his highest turnover percentage since 2014-15.

What’s more, the eyeball test often reveals a player who just isn’t always on the same page as his teammates, even as all parties involved are clearly making an honest effort to make plays for one another.

It obviously takes some time to learn a new system and adapt to it, especially for point guards who have spent the majority of their career around the same group of teammates, as Conley did in Memphis.

This is different for players like Clarkson. He fits into the same mold of Jamal Crawford or Derrick Rose-type scorers, who can be parachuted into any system and be relied upon to get buckets with a second unit. The mission is a little simpler due to (typically) lower minutes as well as fewer responsibilities. 

Feb 9, 2020; Houston, Texas, USA; Utah Jazz guard Jordan Clarkson (00) shoots the ball during the second quarter against the Houston Rockets at Toyota Center. Mandatory Credit: Troy Taormina-USA TODAY Sports

Bench scorers are there because the ball is going to be in their hands a lot as their teammates look for them to carry the offense.

For someone brought in to run the show, however, it requires a change in mindset, especially when there are already at least two showrunners on that new team.

Conley and Mitchell play in a similar way and take up similar spots on the floor. And while playing them together has been relatively fine for the Jazz, if you replace Conley with Joe Ingles in a five-man line-up alongside Royce O’Neale and Rudy Gobert, you get a much better result

Despite the Jazz reaching the All-Star break with a good record, it still feels like Conley’s mindset has not entirely switched to his new role. He is acting as a floor spacer but isn’t making defenses pay, averaging his worst three-point percentage since his rookie year. (If you discount the 12 games he played in 2017-18).

Instead, Conley often looks like the guy from the office you invited to your regular pick-up game just to make up numbers. Nobody is really looking for him on the offensive end, and he is letting players with better chemistry just do their thing while trying to avoid getting in their way. Because he is no longer a major threat from three, defenders can sag off to Gobert in the post or Mitchell on the drive.

On the other end, Conley is still proving to be a smart defensive guard.

Feb 5, 2020; Salt Lake City, Utah, USA; Denver Nuggets guard Jamal Murray (27) looks to shoot against Utah Jazz guard Mike Conley (10) during the second quarter at Vivint Smart Home Arena. Mandatory Credit: Jeffrey Swinger-USA TODAY Sports

Numbers don’t really help the case for his ability at any point during his career, partly because he has been one of the weaker defenders on a ton of excellent defensive teams. When you line up alongside Tony Allen, Marc Gasol and Rudy Gobert for the best part of your career, in schemes set by defensive-minded coaches like Lionel Hollins, David Fizdale and now Quin Snyder, it’s easy to seem like the weakest option.

Conley has also been relatively healthy most of his career until recent seasons—when time off for bumps and scrapes has gradually increased—including missing 70 games in 2017-18 due to surgery. Some of his lateral quickness has diminished, but he his still an intelligent player who won’t make too many mistakes and can help anchor a team, even if he can’t quite keep up with the best one-on-one offensive threats as well as he once did.

That’s not to say Conley can’t have a role on this squad. When he returned from injury, he came off the bench and Utah ripped off another four wins while he was on a minutes restriction. But as soon as his workload started drifting above 20 minutes per night, the team lost five straight.

Conley has since returned to the starting unit and the results have been mixed. The issue is that he is arguably too talented to come off the bench but, in reality, the Jazz don’t need him to be the guy he showed he could still be last year. 

Thanks to so much missed time, Utah head coach Quin Snyder is still toying with the best rotation. While Conley has started recently, it’s clear that Snyder wants to split him and Mitchell running point as much as possible.

In recent games, one of them will come off after about five minutes, and they will then swap for each other until the closing minutes of the half. The sample size is still small, but Utah will have to figure out pretty quickly after the All-Star break: Do they want to keep Conley in the opening unit or bring him off the bench?

Mitchell and Conley have played roughly 20 minutes per game together in recent contests, and the team’s latest wins have come with Conley on the bench for the closing possessions.

Jan 20, 2020; Salt Lake City, Utah, USA; Utah Jazz guards Donovan Mitchell (45) and Mike Conley (10) react during the second half against the Indiana Pacers at Vivint Smart Home Arena. Mandatory Credit: Russell Isabella-USA TODAY Sports

But they still resulted in wins, and that’s what matters at this stage.

Conley guard is still an asset as a deputy stepping up when Mitchell is on the bench. He can be the veteran head alongside Georges Niang to keep the scoreboard ticking. But the Jazz don’t want to be heading into the playoffs still trying to force the fit with Mitchell and Conley logging heavy minutes together.

Clarkson and Conley have had limited playing time together so far. Over 10 games, the pair have averaged around 14 minutes together, and some of the five-man units have proven positive.

The point guard is not necessarily needed to be a scorer alongside Clarkson, because Conley can be used as a feeder. The Jazz average 5.8 assists when the two share the court, but the team’s plus-minus is not great.

If they don’t work as a pairing going forward, Clarkson could play more of his minutes alongside Mitchell. These lineups are slightly more productive and there is a greater sample size to pick at, but they are still not impressive.

These different units and rotations might be good enough to win games in the regular season. They can beat up on inferior opponents and occasionally pick up wins against good ones, but with barely more than 25 games left before the playoffs begin, the Jazz need to start singing from the same sheet music.