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The Jazz’s Conundrum Of Reintegrating Mike Conley

The Jazz thrived without Mike Conley. Now that he’s back, approaching full health, is it the right decision for Utah to re-insert him as a starter, taking the league’s best lineup off the floor? Jack Winter answers.

Jack Winter

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Thursday’s loss to the Denver Nuggets is why the Utah Jazz cashed in their chips for Mike Conley.

On the road against a short-handed team with aspirational title hopes, Utah was consistently unable to produce efficient offense or string together multiple stops after halftime. If not for Jordan Clarkson single-handedly keeping his new team competitive with a late-game scoring bonanza, the Jazz would have been blown out in a game they led by double-digits early.

Conley didn’t play against the Nuggets, sitting on the second leg of a back-to-back due to right knee soreness and general injury management. His absence was the perfect opportunity for Donovan Mitchell to prove his worth as Utah’s alpha dog, mere hours after he was named an All-Star for the first time. Instead, Mitchell played arguably the worst game of his career to date, failing to score until the fourth quarter while going 1-of-12 from the field and clanking all six of his three-point attempts.

It’s easy to assume the Jazz would have prevailed regardless had Conley been available. In late June, after finally making the move that could propel Utah to legitimate title contention, Dennis Lindsey surely had Mitchell’s immense postseason labors – he shot 32.1 percent over five games versus the switch-heavy Houston Rockets – in mind. Not only would the presence of an offensive threat like Conley make life easier overall on the Jazz’s budding superstar, but he could also take the offensive reins from Mitchell during times of stress.

The idea of Conley in Utah, though, has so far proven far more appealing than the reality. His individual numbers make that abundantly clear. Conley is shooting 40.5 percent from two-point range, by the far the worst mark of his career. His 12.5 percent turnover rate is his highest since 2014-15, and nearly four points worse than a season ago. Athletic indicators like his free throw rate and steal rate have fallen off a cliff, extra troubling considering Conley turned 32 in October.

That the Jazz immediately turned their would-be disappointing season around in early December when he was shelved for six weeks is more damning of Conley’s impact than any single statistic. Utah was 12-9 after a loss to the Philadelphia 76ers on Dec. 2, and Conley’s well-earned reputation made it seem like Quin Snyder’s team might completely derail without him. Instead, the Jazz went 16-4 as Conley missed every game but one with a bad hamstring, re-asserting themselves as sub-contenders in the West.

A paper-thin schedule played a major factor in Utah’s turnaround, but it’s disingenuous to suggest Conley’s absence didn’t also pay dividends. Joe Ingles, coming off the bench to begin the season for the first time in three years, was immediately reinvigorated by taking Conley’s place in the starting lineup. He’s making a scorching 46.8 percent of his threes and averaging 6.2 assists per game since being reinserted as a starter, vast improvements compared to a distressing start that left many wondering if Ingles, also 32, was suddenly and firmly on the downside of his career.

But no player exists in a vacuum, operating completely removed from the team construct – especially one as physically limited yet consistently effective as Ingles. From tip-off of the regular season to when he supplanted Conley as a starter, the worst stretch of Ingles’ career, almost half of his minutes came with Rudy Gobert, per NBA.com/stats. Ever since, he’s playing over 10 additional minutes per game next to the Jazz’s All-Star center, taking full advantage of the pressure Gobert puts on defenses as an imminent scoring threat on dives to the rim.

Ingles doesn’t have the burst to beat his man off the dribble straight up, and his slow release sometimes prevents him from even attempting looks from three other marksmen knock down with regularity. But he’s a plus offensive player regardless because of his ability to exploit a moving defense, finding small cracks in the opposition’s armor that are largely owed to Gobert’s presence as a screener and roller. The result? Ingles’ effective field goal percentage spikes over 12 points to an elite 60.4 when he’s playing with Gobert, and his assist percentage bumps up to 25.2 from 19.6, per NBA.com/stats.

Utah’s slow reintegration of Conley over the past two weeks, as he nears full health following a series of minor maladies, has staved off a tough decision Snyder was always going to be forced to make. Would it really be in the Jazz’s best interest to ditch their non-Conley starting five, a lineup whose +19.1 net rating ranks first in the NBA among all high-minute units? Conventional wisdom suggests not, but The Athletic reported on Friday that Utah is “on the verge” of putting Conley, who’s come off the bench in every game he’s played since returning on Jan. 18, back on the floor for tip-off.

Ingles, obviously, is most comfortable as a starter, playing the majority of his minutes with Gobert. But Royce O’Neale has blossomed on both ends this season, and is better suited to check – as best he can, at least – the oversized, superstar wings who the Jazz will have to beat in the playoffs to realize their ultimate goal.

The problem for Snyder is that it seems impossible for Utah to reach those championship heights unless Conley plays a pivotal role in his team getting there. Could Conley possibly do it while beginning games on the bench, serving as a de facto sixth starter? Perhaps, but that would be a tough pill for a veteran of his stature to swallow, and it could prevent him from developing the chemistry he needs to thrive with Gobert and Mitchell. Conley’s early-season labors, after all, could still prove more a symptom of nagging injuries and an inevitable acclimation period than some steep, sudden drop-off in his game.

That’s the only scenario in which the Jazz will challenge for the Larry O’Brien Trophy, and it’s probably the biggest reason why Snyder seems intent on putting Conley back in the starting five. But the effects of every lineup ripple. Utah doesn’t have the margin for experimentation and error the league’s top-tier contenders do, either. This team needs to be at its peak going into the playoffs to have a real chance at playing in June.

The Jazz scraped at that exalted level of play while Conley was sidelined. Now that he’s back, soon as a starter, the question isn’t just whether they can do so again, but if they can reach another plane of performance altogether.

Jack Winter is a Portland-based NBA writer in his first season with Basketball Insiders. He has prior experience with DIME Magazine, ESPN, Bleacher Report, and more.

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NBA Daily: The Young, Western Conference Bubble

The race for the West’s final playoff spot may seem crowded, but the last two months make it clear that two teams are already ahead of the pack.

Douglas Farmer

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We all jump to conclusions too quickly, this space and this scribe most certainly included. Three months ago, five weeks into the NBA season, the Western Conference playoff bubble looked like it would be a race between the Sacramento Kings, Phoenix Suns and Minnesota Timberwolves. That has assuredly not become the reality.

While the Kings and Suns can claim to still be in the playoff race, they would have to not only make up five-game deficits, but they would also each have to jump over four other teams to reach the postseason. The Timberwolves would delight at such challenges as they initiate a not-so-subtle tank with franchise cornerstone Karl-Anthony Towns sidelined for at least a few weeks with a fractured wrist.

Instead, the race to be swept by the Los Angeles Lakers has come down to a pair of up-and-comers, a perpetual deep threat and the NBA’s most consistent organization. Of all of them, it is the youngsters who are both currently playing the best and have the most control of their playoff hopes relative to their competition.

Between the current No. 8-seeded Memphis Grizzlies, the Portland Trail Blazers (3 games back), New Orleans Pelicans (3.5) and San Antonio Spurs (4), the next six weeks will feature eight key games. Five of those will include either the Grizzlies or the Pelicans or, in two instances, both.

That pair of matchups is still a month out, but they warrant circling already, nonetheless. Memphis and New Orleans have been playing at a high level for two-plus months now, and by the time they play two games within four nights in late March — when the basketball world is largely distracted by the NCAA Tournament — the two inexperienced teams may have completely separated from Portland and San Antonio.

After starting 1-5, 5-13 and then 10-19, the Grizzlies have gone 18-9 since Dec. 21. The Pelicans have matched that record exactly, down to the date, since starting even worse than Memphis did, bottoming out at 7-23 before finding an uptick long before Zion Williamson found the court. Winning two-thirds of your games for two months is a stretch with a sample size large enough to make it clear: Neither Memphis nor New Orleans should be dismissed in this playoff chase.

Their early-season profiles were examples of young teams sliding right back into the lottery — and there was absolutely no indication a surge was coming.

Grizzlies Pelicans
Offensive Rating 106.4 – No. 23 106.8 – No. 21
Defensive Rating 111.7 – No. 23 113.5 – No. 27

Through Dec. 20; via nba.com.

Then, for whatever reason, things changed. They changed in every way and in ways so drastically that one cannot help but wonder what could come next for the teams led by the top-two picks from last summer’s draft.

Grizzlies Pelicans
Offensive Rating 111.9 – No. 15 115.1 – No. 4
Defensive Rating 109.3 – No. 11 110.3 – No. 13

Since Dec. 21, through Feb. 23; via nba.com.

In a further coincidence of records and timing, the Blazers and Spurs have both gone 13-16 since Dec. 21.

If all four teams in the thick of things out west continue at these two-month winning rates for another month, then Portland and San Antonio will have drifted out of the playoff conversation before Williamson and Ja Morant meet for a second time. Of course, those rates would keep New Orleans a few games back of Memphis; the latter has 14 games, compared to 12, before March 21, so the gap in the standings would actually expand to an even four games.

If the Pelicans can just pick up a game or two before then, though, they have already beaten the Grizzlies twice this season. Doing so twice more that week would just about send New Orleans into the playoffs – at which point, perhaps Williamson could steal a game from LeBron James to put a finishing coda on his rookie season.

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NBA Daily: The Stretch Run — Southwest Division

David Yapkowitz finishes Basketball Insiders’ Stretch Run series with an overview of the Southwest Division.

David Yapkowitz

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We’ve hit that point in the NBA season approaching the final stretch of games before the playoffs roll around in April. The trade deadline has come and gone, the buyout market is wearing thin and most teams have loaded up and made their final roster moves in anticipation of the postseason.

Here at Basketball Insiders, we’re taking a look at each team — division by division– at what they need to do to get ready for the playoffs, or lack thereof. Looking at the Southwest Division, this was a division that used to be one of the toughest in the league.

It still is for the most part. The Texas triangle of the Dallas Mavericks, Houston Rockets and San Antonio Spurs was no joke and hell for opposing teams on a road trip. Those are still a couple of formidable teams, but with the exception of the Rockets, it’s not quite near the level of yesteryear.

The Memphis Grizzlies and New Orleans Pelicans are a pair of young, up-and-coming teams that will give you 100 percent every night. While Memphis sits firmly in the eighth spot in the Western Conference, the Pelicans are on the outside looking in. Here’s a look at how each team might fare in the stretch run.

The Houston Rockets have been the best team in the Southwest all season long, and all that remains for them is playoff positioning. They currently sit in fourth place in the West, giving them home-court advantage in the first round, but they could just as easily slip a bit with the Utah Jazz essentially tied with them record-wise in the standings and the Oklahoma City Thunder a mere two games back.

The Dallas Mavericks have taken a huge leap this season behind Luka Doncic, who is rapidly becoming one of the best players in the league. They currently sit in seventh place in the West and a return to the postseason is in the cards for the Mavericks.

The rest of the teams in the Southwest is where things get a little interesting. The Grizzlies have been one of the surprises of the season, as they’ve defied expectations and are firmly entrenched in the playoff race out West. They have a three-game lead on the Portland Trail Blazers and a four-game lead on the San Antonio Spurs.

Out of the Grizzlies’ final 26 games, 15 of them come against teams over .500, more than either the Blazers or the Spurs. 14 of those final 26 are also on the road, again, more than the Blazers or the Spurs. They also play both the Spurs and Blazers one more time this season. If the Grizzlies end up making the playoffs, it will be very well earned.

The Spurs are knocking on the door, and they have one more game against the Grizzlies which could prove to be very meaningful. This is a team that has been one of the standard-bearers in the league for success over the past decade. Their streak of playoff appearances is in serious jeopardy.

They’ve won two of their last three games, however, and out of their final 26 games, 15 of those are at home, where they are 14-12. Based on how the Grizzlies are playing though, a close to .500 record at home probably isn’t going to cut it. They’re going to need to pick it up a bit over the next month if they want to keep their playoff streak intact. A lot can happen between now and then, and the Grizzlies do have a tough remaining schedule, but it looks as if San Antonio will miss the playoffs for the first time in 22 years.

The final team in the Southwest is the Pelicans, boosted by the return of prized rookie and No.1 draft pick Zion Williamson. Prior to the start of the season, the Pelicans were looked at as a team that could possibly contend for the eighth seed in the West. Then Williamson got hurt and things changed.

But the team managed to stay afloat in his absence, and as it stands, they’re only three-and-a-half games back of the Grizzlies with 26 games left to play. Out of the bottom three teams in the division, it’s the Pelicans who have the easiest schedule.

Out of those 25 games, only seven of them come against teams over .500. They are, however, just about split with home and away games. New Orleans is 8-2 over their past 10 games, better than the Grizzlies and Spurs. If Memphis falters down the stretch due to its tough schedule, and the Pelicans start gaining a little bit of steam, things could get interesting in the final few weeks.

In all likelihood, the Pelicans probably won’t make the playoffs as not only do they have to catch up to the Grizzlies, but the Spurs and Blazers as well. But it certainly will be fun to watch them try.

There are some big storylines in the Southwest Division worth following as we begin the final run to the postseason. Can the young Grizzlies defy expectations and make a surprise return to the playoffs? Will the Spurs get their playoff streak snapped and finally look to hit the reset button after nearly two decades of excellence? Can the Pelicans, buoyed by Williamson’s return, make a strong final push?

Tune in to what should be fun final stretch in the Southwest.

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NBA

NBA Daily: The Stretch Run — Southeast Division

With the All-Star Break behind us, the final stretch of NBA games has commenced. Quinn Davis takes a look at a few teams in the Southeast Division that have a chance at making the dance.

Quinn Davis

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Well, that was fast.

With the NBA All-Star break in the rearview, there are now fewer than 30 games to play for all 30 NBA teams. In other words, time is running out for certain teams to improve their seeding in the conference.

Here at Basketball Insiders, we will be looking at a certain subset of teams that are right on the border of making or missing the playoffs. In this edition, the focus will be on the Southeast Division.

The Southeast features three teams — the Charlotte Hornets, Orlando Magic and Washington Wizards — operating in the lower-middle-class of the NBA. These three will be slugging it out over the next month-and-a-half for the right to meet the Milwaukee Bucks in the first round of the playoffs.

The two remaining teams are the Miami HEAT and Atlanta Hawks. As this is being written, the former is comfortably in the playoffs at 35-20, while the latter is comfortably gathering more ping pong balls at 16-41.

In this space, the focus will be on the three bubble teams. The Magic are currently frontrunners for the eighth seed, but the Wizards and Hornets are within striking distance if things were to go awry.

Led by head coach Steve Clifford, the Magic have ground their way to the eighth seed behind an eighth-ranked defense. Lanky wing Aaron Gordon is the standout, helping the Magic execute their scheme of walling off the paint. The Magic only allow 31.3 percent of opponent shots to come at the rim, putting them in 89th percentile in the league, per Cleaning The Glass.

Following a post-break loss to Dallas Mavericks, the Magic sit at 24-32 and three games up on the ninth-seeded Wizards. While a three-game margin doesn’t sound like much, that is a sizable cushion with only 26 games to play. Basketball-Reference gives the Magic a 97.4 percent chance to make the playoffs.

The Magic have the third-easiest remaining schedule out of Eastern Conference teams. They have very winnable games coming against the Bulls, Hornets, Cavaliers, Knicks and Pistons. They also have multiple games coming against the Brooklyn Nets, the team they trail by only 1.5 games for the seventh seed.

The Magic are prone, however, to dropping games against the league’s bottom-feeders. It can be difficult to string together wins with an offense this sluggish. The Markelle Fultz experiment has added some spark in that department, but his lack of an outside shot still leaves the floor cramped.

After a quick analysis of the schedule, the most likely scenario appears to be a 12-14 record over the last 26 games, putting the Magic at 36-46 come season’s end. A record like that should not be allowed anywhere near playoff basketball, but it would probably be enough to meet the Bucks in round one.

If the Magic go 12-14, that would leave the Wizards, fresh off a loss to J.B. Bickerstaff and the Cleveland Cavaliers, needing to go 17-11 over their last 28 games. They will need to finish one game ahead as the Magic hold the head-to-head tiebreaker.

The Wizards finishing that strong becomes even more farfetched when you consider their remaining schedule. They have the second-toughest slate from here on out, per Basketball-Reference.

The Wizards do have a trump card in Bradley Beal, who is the best player among the bubble teams in the East. He has now scored 25 points or more in 13 straight games and has been the driving force behind the Wizards staying in the race.

He has also picked up his defense a bit following his All-Star snub in an effort to silence his critics. The increased focus on that end is nice, but it would’ve been a little nicer if it had been a part of his game earlier in this season when the Wizards were by far the worst defense in the league.

Even if Beal goes bonkers, it is hard to see a path for this Wizards team to sneak in outside of a monumental collapse in Orlando. Looking at their schedule, it would take some big upsets to even get to 10 wins over their last 28. Their most likely record to finish the season is 8-20 if all games go to the likely favorites.

The Wizards’ offense has been impressive all season, but injuries and a porous defense have been too much to overcome.

The Hornets, meanwhile, trail the Wizards by 1.5 games and the Magic by 4.5 games. They have won their last three in a row to put themselves back in this race, but they still have an uphill climb.

The Hornets also may have raised the proverbial white flag by waiving two veterans in Marvin Williams and Michael Kidd-Gilchrist. The goal coming into this season was never to make the playoffs, so they are likely more interested in developing young talent over these last 27 games.

If the Magic do play up to their usual levels and go 12-14, it would require the Hornets to go 18-9 to finish the season against the sixth-toughest remaining schedule in the East.

Devonte’ Graham and his three-point shooting have been a bright spot for the Hornets, but it would take some otherworldly performances from him and Terry Rozier down the stretch to put together a record like that. Basketball-Reference gives this a 0.02 percent chance of happening (cue the Jim Carrey GIF).

Barring a miracle, the eight playoff teams in the Eastern Conference are locked in place. The only questions remaining are how seeds 2-6 will play out, and whether the Magic can catch the Nets for the seventh spot.

The Wizards will fight to the end, but it is unlikely they make up any ground given the level of opponents they will see over the next six weeks. The Hornets, meanwhile, are more likely to fight for lottery odds.

At least the playoffs should be exciting.

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