DimeMag

Utah Jazz X-Factor: Mike Conley Jr.

The way in which one frames Mike Conley Jr.’s 2020-21 season depends on the viewpoint. By and large, it was successful individually. He bounced back from a downtrodden, injury plagued 2019-20 to nab his first All-Star berth, shot a career-high 41.2 percent from deep and helped guide the Utah Jazz to the Western Conference’s No. 1 seed. From a regular season perspective, it was one of the best years of his career.

But amid all those triumphs were more injuries that cost him 14 of Utah’s final 22 games, including much of the playoffs. He missed the first five games of the second round against the Los Angeles Clippers. By the time he returned for a do-or-die Game 6, he was not his All-Star self, scored eight points on 1-of-8 shooting and was limited to 26 minutes. This is not to say Utah would’ve won with a healthy Conley — and L.A. was likewise missing Kawhi Leonard over the final two games — but him being at his best seems paramount for the Jazz if they are to finally look like a title contender in the postseason.

When available, Conley’s pick-and-roll chemistry with Rudy Gobert and pull-up shooting bolster the offense significantly. He’s not much of a creator without a pick present, but he’s a dazzling ball-screen guard and decision-maker. In a movement-heavy offense like Utah’s, his off-ball exploits also pair well. Alongside the necessary, explosive scoring tendencies of Donovan Mitchell that aren’t always flanked by consistent decision-making, Conley’s methodical, savvy approach helps balance possessions.

Defensively, he flows around screens and can pester opposing guards, though bigger, brawnier assignments pose trouble. For all the hand-wringing about Gobert’s defensive trials against Los Angeles, it was merely a byproduct of the more prevalent issue: Utah’s dearth of effective perimeter defenders, which Conley’s absence and restraints exacerbated. At the very least, he would’ve helped in some regard.

It’s easy to say a healthy Conley solves many of the Jazz’s faults. A healthy Conley, though, has become increasingly difficult to expect in recent seasons. He’s struggled with injuries in both years with Utah and missed most of 2017-18 surgery due to season-ending surgery on his left heel. That’s three times in four years where a 34-year-old, 6-foot-1 guard’s season is notably impacted by injuries.

The Jazz rightfully kept Conley in town with a three-year, $72.5 million this summer. He is very good. They need him. He fits properly with their other All-Stars. But they need him healthy to challenge the contenders in the West. Any chance of breaking through the second round, something the franchise has failed to do since 2006-07, in part relies on him being ready for the stretch run, primed to splash triples, toss lobs and fluster assignments on the perimeter defensively.

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