The majority of Atlanta fans will look at the 2019-20 season as a positive, despite the horrid win/loss record. The Hawks have done a terrific job at building a squad for the future, and this was shown during the past season.
At their worst, the Jazz look small, slow and unathletic – at their best, we haven’t seen them yet.
The Jazz are still only an idea, a wonderful abstraction and outline that hasn’t been coloured in.
Their reality as a championship contender isn’t hard to imagine – a super-charged Rudy Gobert-anchored version of the feel-good 2015 Atlanta Hawks, where a lack of overall size is transcended through exquisite skill, coaching, shooting and selflessness.
To this point, though, the Jazz haven’t been very good. The defence has been fine, but not otherworldly or enough to carry them. The offence – which came with such high hopes – has been a disaster.
Jazz possessions look troublingly impotent and repetitive. Mike Conley, Bojan Bogdanovic or Donovan Mitchell run a pick and roll with Rudy Gobert, the defence sells out to protect against the lob, defenders stay at home on shooters, and Conley and Mitchell can’t quite power to the rim, settling for mid-range fade-aways or leaning floaters.
Conley and Mitchell take the most floaters in the league and that has become the sad identity of the Utah offence. The Jazz are grappling with reality of their two best perimeter players being 6″1′.
There’s no powerful wing-sized specimen like LeBron James or Luka Doncic who can work their way to the rim or the line at will. And there’s no shape-altering step-back shooting force like Damian Lillard or Stephen Curry to let the offence breathe.
Instead there’s Conley and Mitchell – leaning and hoping.
It shouldn’t be this difficult. Conley is lost and Mitchell is settling – taking more long twos than ever before. The floor is a paradox – spaced with excellent shooters but always congested, a kind of self-inflicted scoring flu.
As a result, Joe Ingles is sick. Ingles is a product of his environment – a knock-down shooter who hits shots when shots are open and an excellent passer who makes passes when they can be made.
Ingles has been miscast as a second unit leader. A roll partner like Gobert and dead-eye shooters accentuate his talents – Ed Davis, Emmanuel Mudiay and Jeff Green subdue them.
The floor is more cramped and Ingles doesn’t have the space or the additive basketball IQ around him to enliven his skills.
Conley missing time with hamstring tightness, though, may have presented a possible solution. Over the past five games the Jazz offence has woken up with line-ups featuring all of Ingles, Gobert, Mitchell and Bogdanovic.
With these four sharing the floor suddenly the Jazz look as imagined. Ingles especially looks like himself – taking those cheeky, lazy curving routes around Gobert’s pick and then, as though the ball itself is grinning, slinging the bouncing pocket pass back to the rolling Frenchman for a clean, thunderous dunk.
Or, as a sweet optical illusion, Ingles takes that hard, abrupt step left to the hoop and for a fleeting second looks athletic.
Ingles and Mitchell anchoring the bench units isn’t working. Both, particularly Ingles, need class around them to thrive. The move, perhaps, is to give Conley the reigns with the second unit – putting the ball in his hands and letting him go to work with an inferior cast. If he closes his eyes, he’ll be able to see Memphis again.
The Jazz have not been right all season but find themselves at 14-11, having just begun a favourable stretch. They have all the time to find themselves, and all the talent to get there.