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A Utah Jazz Q&A with Dan Clayton of Salt City Hoops

Where we talk about the 2017-18 Rookie of the Year Race a Western Conference contender

NBA: Utah Jazz at Philadelphia 76ers Bill Streicher-USA TODAY Sports

As the Sixers continue their West Coast road trip tonight against the Utah Jazz, I talked to Dan Clayton, managing editor and columnist at Salt City Hoops, to gain some insight on a team a lot of people are excited about.

In moves that seem to be unanimously approved by the basketball world, the Jazz swung a trade for Mike Conley before the start of free agency, let Ricky Rubio and Derrick Favors go and used their available money to sign former Pacers wing Bojan Bogdanovic. It’s safe to say that the Jazz have added more than they have subtracted — but what is one concern you have with this reconstructed roster?

As is the case almost any time a team upgrades its core, the Jazz had to sacrifice some depth to be able to make the Conley and Bogdanovic acquisitions. So one liability is the fact that they suddenly have fewer proven rotation-caliber players than they did a year ago.

But looking at the depth chart, the biggest hole that their big summer left them is that they’re really light on big forwards. Bogey isn’t really a four, and although having him stretch the floor on offense can be helpful, he’s not somebody you really want guarding Anthony Davis or Blake Griffin for 20-30 minutes a night. Jeff Green entered the league as a small forward, and while he’s pretty much been repurposed as a four in the modern NBA, he too is a smaller body. Royce O’Neale has been the nominal power forward in the Jazz’s starting lineup most nights, but that assignment takes him away from where he’s really elite: as a frustrating on-ball perimeter defender. There are just no ideal options when the Jazz need to contend with the league’s meatier frontlines.

Most nights they can get away with it. But it definitely comes with a defensive cost. Also, all of Utah’s losses have come in games when they gave up 13 or more second-chance points, so the smaller lineups also require them to be more focused on gang rebounding.

With Joel Embiid back from his two-game suspension just in time for tonight’s game, he will likely start alongside the 6-foot-10 Al Horford, which means one of the Jazz’s converted wings is going to have to spend the night battling with the five-time All-Star.

There is no doubt that Mike Conley will be of immense value to this Utah team. But it isn’t yet clear to me what his role is going to be when playing next to Donovan Mitchell. Based on what you’ve seen a small handful of games into the season, how much different will Conley’s role in Utah be than it was in Memphis?

Conley probably ran 50-plus pick-and-rolls per game as the Grizzlies’ main offensive engine last season, so it was clear all along that by teaming up with Mitchell, he’d see a lighter load than what Memphis needed from him.

But the Jazz acquired Conley (and for that matter Bogey) specifically because they wanted to give Mitchell some creation help. Last season, Mitchell was really the only Jazz player who could consistently create his own look, and teams were able to expose that weakness. In the playoffs, Houston would choke Mitchell’s drives once he got below the free-throw line extended, and nobody else could really bail them out.

That was the precise idea behind adding a couple of guys who were 20-point scorers for their respective outfits last season: balance out Mitchell’s game a bit, and present opposing defenses with some harder choices to make. So far, he and Conley are roughly sharing the load as pick-and-roll creators; each one is finishing between 10 and 11 plays per game out of pick-and-roll action, per NBA tracking data. They are obviously leaning more on Mitchell for other play types, but that should even out as Conley gets more familiar with the offense -- and, frankly, once he emerges from his current shooting slump.

Let’s talk about Mitchell — just not about the definition of the word “rookie.” He is entering a crucial third year after establishing himself as an elite young player in his first two NBA seasons. Many are expecting a leap from Mitchell, but is there a specific aspect of his game that you think needs the most improvement in order for him to take the next step as a player?

The easy answer is defense, although he has been pretty stout on that end so far this season. He might be Utah’s most consistent perimeter defender over the first seven games, which is saying something given the load he carries on offense.

As a creator and offensive star, which is likely how his progress is going to be measured by the masses, he’s already having his best season. He has seemingly addressed a lot of the efficiency issues that caveatted his brilliant play through two seasons. This season, his true shooting has shot up to .611 and he’s turning the ball over far less while maintaining his usage. And that’s with Conley still struggling to find his shot. Once Utah’s personnel and system are firing on all cylinders, this might be the season where Mitchell finally puts to rest the arguments against him as merely a high-volume, low-efficiency scorer.

As with most young players, there are times when his decision-making and execution could be a little sharper. But with nearly 10% of the season in the books, the Mitchell we’ve seen so far is one that could be on the way to a special season in which he truly ensconces himself as one of the league’s elite guards.

Thank you to Dan for taking the time to talk!

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