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How the Utah Jazz can bolster their bench this offseason

Utah Jazz guard Jordan Clarkson (00), Utah Jazz forward Royce O’Neale (23) and Utah Jazz guard Donovan Mitchell (45) celebrate free chicken after two missed Charlotte Hornets free throws were missed during an NBA basketball game at Vivint Arena in Salt Lake City on Friday, Jan. 10, 2020. Utah won 109-92.
Scott G Winterton, Deseret News

SALT LAKE CITY — Entering the 2019-2020 season, one of the narratives surrounding the Utah Jazz was the notion that they would have good depth after signing players such as Jeff Green and Ed Davis in free agency.

That proved to not be the case, as Green and Davis were an utter failure. Additionally, a third offseason signee, Emmanuel Mudiay, had a few good moments but nothing great and returnee Dante Exum was traded at Christmastime after once again not being impactful because of injury.

Before the Exum trade, which brought Jordan Clarkson to Utah from the Cleveland Cavaliers, the Jazz bench was 29th among 30 teams in points per game and routinely gave up leads the starting unit had built. Clarkson proved to be a huge boost, and Utah was 19th in bench scoring after his arrival through the end of the season. Still not wonderful, but a huge improvement.

The good news for the Jazz was that the unit of Donovan Mitchell, Joe Ingles, Royce O’Neale, Bojan Bogdanovic and Rudy Gobert was arguably the best 5-man unit in the entire league with a net rating of 13.7 in 570 minutes, and the one replacing Ingles with Mike Conley wasn’t too far behind, with a net rating of 9.7 in 381 minutes.

In other words, Utah was very top-heavy, which, generally speaking, is how good teams end up, as they usually have a bunch of money devoted to stars and then fill out their rosters with cheap contracts. When Bogdanovic opted to have surgery in May and miss the Orlando bubble, however, the Jazz’s lack of depth became a challenge in the playoffs against a deep Denver Nuggets team.

The problem wasn’t that the rotation got shortened, as that is a regular occurrence in the postseason, but the issue was who Utah head coach Quin Snyder had to rely on for minutes. Georges Niang’s minutes increased from 14 per game in the regular season to 16.3 against the Nuggets, and previously seldom-used rookie Juwan Morgan averaged 12.3 minutes during the series.

Yes, Bogdanovic, Conley, Ingles, Mitchell, Gobert and O’Neale will all be back next season barring a wholly unexpected shakeup, but the Jazz could still stand to improve their second unit this offseason. The good news for them is that they have a couple of avenues to do so.

While not an improvement per se, the most important step for the bench surely is bringing back Clarkson, who is an unrestricted free agent. The marriage between he and Utah was a good one for both sides after the trade, and the Jazz will be able to offer him more money than any other team (they hold what is known as his Bird rights).

That said, he publicly remained on the fence when asked about his future immediately after Utah was eliminated by the Nuggets. If he doesn’t return, the Jazz takes a pretty significant step backward.

“I can’t tell the future,” he said. “I know I had a great experience here, great time here. I love my teammates here, so definitely see what happens. You know, it’s kind of my first time actually going into a free agency. Definitely a whole new experience for me.”

Regardless of what happens with Clarkson, though, the Jazz will be able to add to their rotation even though they’ll be over the salary cap by using two mechanisms called exceptions. The first, called the midlevel exception, will be worth approximately $9 million. The second, called the biannual exception, will be worth approximately $3.5 million.

While the hope of Utah’s front office surely would be that they can add a few quality free agents using the exceptions, there are also a bevy of players who could provide internal improvement. Tony Bradley came out of nowhere this season to be a relatively productive backup center, but can he continue to get even better?

Additionally, there are a whole bunch of guys who played mostly with the Salt Lake City Stars who could theoretically improve to the point of becoming a rotation regular next season. Morgan is certainly the most likely candidate after filling in well enough for Bogdanovic in the playoffs, but could players such as Jarrell Brantley and Miye Oni take steps forward?

“We’ll see how they come back once they get away and hopefully improve and reflect,” executive vice president of basketball operations Dennis Lindsey told media a few days after the season ended. “We had a very successful G League season and we think a lot of those guys can provide internal solutions.”

The last item in reshaping the bench is figuring out what needs are left after the seeming likelihood that Mudiay will depart in free agency and that the Jazz could look to trade Davis for a bit of salary relief, even if all they get in return is something like a second-round draft pick.

“We win and lose together,” Lindsey told the media when queried about why Davis and Green specifically didn’t fit well. “That’s been the Jazz way, and that way predates me. It’s a mandate, frankly, of the Millers. With that said, we have to evaluate the collective, we have to evaluate the individuals and the bits. Our evaluation of the roster is ongoing.”