For every player on the 2021-22 Utah Jazz roster, this is the most important NBA season of their career.
So, what is the most critical component of this year for the Jazz? What is the one thing that could make or break this all-important season? What must be focused on, above all else?
“Health,” Jazz general manager Justin Zanik said on Monday.
The Jazz’s lead decision-maker went on to say that talent, being connected and good coaching were also very important. But, the Jazz have all of those things. What they need is to deliver a healthy roster to the playoffs. That’s what will give them the best chance at a title run.
“It comes down to health,” Zanik said. “If we’re healthy, we’re good. Really good.”
The core of the current roster is heading into its third season together. But that group has yet to enter a postseason as a complete unit, free of injury or absence. Bojan Bogdanovic had season-ending surgery in 2020 and then the Jazz faced last season’s playoffs with injuries to its All-Star backcourt of Donovan Mitchell and Mike Conley.
It’s difficult to properly evaluate a team like the Jazz when they haven’t been able to compete in a postseason at full health. No one knows how deep a run the Jazz might have made if the full squad had been able to play together the last two postseasons. For all we know, things might have ended the same way.
Be that as it may, the Jazz have flamed out in the first and second round of the playoffs and it’s left everyone wondering, what if?
What if the Jazz had rested their stars more? What if the Jazz had limited the usage of their more veteran players? What if coach Quin Snyder had opened up the rotation a little more? These are fair questions, but they don’t come with simple answers.
The injuries sustained by Mitchell and Conley, an ankle sprain and hamstring strain, respectively, at the tail end of the 2020-21 regular season meant that players like Bogdanovic, Joe Ingles and Rudy Gobert had to carry a heavier load down the stretch.
Bogdanovic played all 72 games of the regular season, Gobert played in 71 and Ingles played 67, the least amount Ingles has ever played in his career after playing in every game of the previous four seasons and only missing a total of four games in his first two seasons in the NBA — one for oral surgery in December 2015 and three others in February 2015 due to back spasms.
“The fatigue is a real thing,” Ingles said. “That’s no joke.”
And it’s not like these guys had a normal offseason. The time off was already shorter than usual due to the irregular 2020-21 NBA schedule pushing deeper into the summer and Bogdanovic, Gobert and Ingles all competed for their national teams, with Gobert and Ingles playing Olympic basketball through the first week of August.
Fatigue or not, the Jazz are back together, preparing for the upcoming season and are hoping they can prove themselves to be more than a second-round playoff team.
Whatever it takes
Every Jazz player agrees that health is key to the team being a championship contender, and all say they are willing to do whatever it takes to ensure they are healthy when the playoffs start. If it’s resting more, playing less, giving more opportunities to the younger, developing players on the team, changing diets, adopting new training and treatment techniques, the players say that they will do it.
Of course, saying they are willing, and then actually taking it easy are different things. These are NBA players, after all — they are incredibly competitive by nature and they don’t want to take days off. It feels counterintuitive at times to be told that they need to take things easy.
When asked about the possibility of resting or playing less in order to preserve him for the playoffs, it was really difficult for Mitchell to commit to an answer.
“I’m all for ways to make sure we’re healthy,” he said before admitting that there is a right time and place to be cautious. “God forbid we’re fighting for the eighth (seed), then I’m not sitting out.”
Mitchell said he understands the need for longevity and health in the postseason, but also said that he wasn’t going to sit out five games. And Mitchell wasn’t alone in waffling on the issue.
Ingles said that the team “would be smart” to take extra care of managing minutes and rest this season. Then the next day he admitted that he hates missing games and has debated the idea of rest with team health performance staff in the past, though he’d be willing to take up those debates again and accept different results.
These aren’t unique views in the NBA. Players across the league are quick to argue against pulling back on the reins. They love playing and competing, and that’s what you want from elite athletes.
Snyder has been criticized in the past for his nine-man rotation being too strict and for waiting too long to take out starters in blowout games, but Snyder is very good at arguing his case, and there’s evidence to back up what he says.
When asked about the possibility of resting players more and opening up the rotation, Snyder pointed out that the Jazz did rest Conley in back-to-backs last season, the Jazz are not alone in using a nine-man rotation, the Jazz rarely held game-day shootarounds, and that the health and performance staff are experts in their fields with the best interest of the players in mind at all times.
Additionally, after looking through the 15 games from last season in which the Jazz won by 20 points or more, there were only a handful in which starters were left in the game past the five-minute mark of the fourth quarter. If Snyder had taken his players out a couple minutes earlier in those games, the combined time shaved off would only really amount to the total minutes a high-usage player would play in a single game.
Not only that, but good teams are good because the good players are on the court.
“If I’m playing Jordan Clarkson 18 minutes instead of 24, then we’re not using Jordan Clarkson, in my opinion, the right way,” Snyder said. “Same thing with Joe. You can shave Joe’s minutes from 32 to 26, but at some point, those guys are really good.”
Also, the great teams and great players are supposed to be able to fight through fatigue. They’re supposed to survive the grind of the 82-game season and prove themselves as the best of the best both mentally and physically.
“Coach and his staff have done a great job of managing a roster and every roster is different,” Zanik said. “We have a very veteran group, and we think we’ve added some players that can help coach manage that as well.”
How do the Jazz make sure that they are healthy when the playoffs roll around? Well, it takes a lot of luck and dedication.
To the Jazz players’ credit, they all came into camp in great shape. It was the one thing that Snyder asked of them through the offseason.
Conley recently started doing yoga and feels like that’s something that can help him stay strong through the season. Mitchell admitted that his late-season injury last year has changed his perspective a little.
The NBA season is a marathon, not a sprint. Ingles knows that Father Time is undefeated and that he needs more recovery time than some of the younger players. Snyder welcomes the depth of the Jazz roster and competition that it will create and opportunity it brings for more players to see the court.
Everybody is doing their part and is hoping for the best and at this point there’s really not much more you can ask of them. Will it be enough? Only time will tell.