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Commentary: If the Utah Jazz aren’t going to win an NBA title, what should they be playing for?

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Utah Jazz forward Bojan Bogdanovic, left, celebrates with Mike Conley during game against the Minnesota Timberwolves on Nov. 20, 2019, in Minneapolis. The Jazz will start their NBA first-round playoff series against the Denver Nuggets Monday without either player on the court.

AP Photo/Andy Clayton-King

SALT LAKE CITY — I’ve been thinking a lot lately about what exactly the Utah Jazz are playing for, what a realistic outcome is for them in the NBA bubble’s playoffs.

I know teams are supposed to have confidence in themselves when it seems like nobody else does. There are some instances when I think that’s the right mindset. Take the Portland Trail Blazers for example. Former Weber State star Damian Lillard knows his 8th seed Blazers are facing a lot in the top-seeded Los Angeles Lakers, which includes, according to Lillard, “the best player in the world.” Even so, Lillard believes the Blazers can win, upset the Western Conference’s No. 1 seed and compete for a title.

Here’s the thing: I believe Damian Lillard. A lot of people do. I also do not believe the Jazz have what it would take to compete for an NBA championship.

Really, at best, the Jazz are probably looking at a second-round exit. So if that’s the case, then how should they approach their upcoming first-round matchup against the Denver Nuggets?

Jazz-Nuggets playoff schedule

(3) Denver Nuggets

vs. (6) Utah Jazz

Game 1

Nuggets 135, Jazz 125 (OT)
Game 2

Jazz 124, Nuggets 105
Game 3

Jazz 124, Nuggets 87
Game 4

Jazz 129, Nuggets 127
Game 5

Nuggets 117, Jazz 107
Game 6

Nuggets 119, Jazz 107
Game 7

Nuggets 80, Jazz 78, Nuggets win series 4-3

Should they run Donovan Mitchell, Rudy Gobert, Royce O’Neale and Joe Ingles ragged, playing them 40 minutes a night to make up for not having Bojan Bogdanovic around throughout and Mike Conley for at least the first few games?

Do they really think that when Conley comes back to the bubble, after leaving to be with his wife who gave birth Sunday, that they could then beat the Nuggets, beat either the Dallas Mavericks or L.A. Clippers and then put up a real fight in the Western Conference Finals?

As fans, I expect this attitude will make many of you mad. That’s great. You should totally have that unflappable confidence in your team. It’s not my job to believe in the Jazz. It’s my job to call it like I see it, and I don’t think I’m breaking any news by saying the Jazz are considerable underdogs in the 2020 playoffs.

What I see is a team that hasn’t really found any kind of legitimate footing this season. The bench, in large part, is young and inexperienced, and the two biggest offseason acquisitions the Jazz picked up last summer won’t be there when the playoffs start on Monday.

Jazz-Nuggets statistical leaders

Utah Jazz, Denver Nuggets Statistical Leaders

Utah Jazz

  • Donovan Mitchell, 24 ppg
  • Rudy Gobert, 13.5 rpg
  • Joe Ingles, 5.2 apg

Denver Nuggets

  • Nikola Jokic, 19.9 ppg
  • Nikola Jokic, 9.7 rpg
  • Nikola Jokic, 7 apg

Bogdanovic and Conley were supposed to push the Jazz into a higher tier in the West. Without them, they are the team that lost to the Rockets, sans Ricky Rubio and Derrick Favors. That team isn’t going to win a title.

The San Antonio Spurs probably could have made the playoffs had they gone into the bubble with a “leave everything on the court” mentality. That Spurs team handled the Jazz this season, but when head coach Gregg Popovich looked at his team and surveyed the competition in the West, he decided to use the bubble as a development tool.

He knew the Spurs weren’t winning a title, so why would he risk injury and health when instead his team could gain experience?

Maybe the Jazz should take a similar approach. I’m not saying rest the starters and only throw in G-Leaguers against Denver. But, while Conley is gone, would it be so bad if Miye Oni was a part of the regular rotation?

Instead of playing the already heavy-minute rotational players to the point of exhaustion, it would be incredibly valuable for Tony Bradley to be given more than just fearful backup minutes with the hopes that a lead doesn’t disappear. It would be great for Jarrell Brantley to play postseason, competitive basketball against a good team in a staggered lineup with starters next to him.

Even if it ends up just being the first round, the experience gained could end up making a real difference for some of these young players, and I think that would be more valuable for the Jazz than a second-round exit and a fatigued starting five.

I freely admit that I could be wrong. The Jazz could finally make everything click, Conley could come back, the team could beat Denver and keep winning and shock the world. The NBA is undefeated in weird things happening. But, I wouldn’t bet on any that occurring.

If the Jazz are honest about what they are really playing for in Florida, they could gain a lot by squeezing every drop of experience they can out of what will probably be a short playoff run.