Has the Utah Jazz Bench Lived Up to Expectations?

Expectations were high for the Utah Jazz bench heading into the 2016-17 season, but have they lived up to the hype?

Prior to the start of the 2016-17 NBA season, anticipation was sky high for Jazz fans given the moves that the team had made over the summer. After narrowly missing the playoffs by a single game, the Jazz re-tooled by adding solid veterans in the likes of George Hill, Joe Johnson and Boris Diaw.

With the extra bit of firepower that those three would undoubtedly provide mixed with the simple improvement of Utah’s core guys, fans were almost certain that this year’s campaign would finally be the one where the Jazz broke their way back into the playoffs. The question wasn’t would they qualify, but rather how high would they finish in the Western Conference standings?

The answer to that question still has yet to be determined although the Jazz currently find themselves solidly in fifth place in the West at the season’s midway point. However even prior to the season, many thought the X-factor in how high the Jazz could go would depend on how well their bench, with its newfound depth, would play together.

Expectations were set extremely high for Jazz fans when a CBS Sports article that came out in early August ranking all the NBA benches had the Jazz’s reserves slotted as the best bench in the league. Below is the excerpt from that piece:

PROJECTED BENCH: Dante Exum, Alec Burks, Joe Johnson, Trey Lyles, Boris Diaw

“The Utah Jazz, after a big offseason in which they added three key veterans, come in as our No. 1 bench unit by a nose over the Warriors. The biggest question they have is the return of Dante Exum, who missed last season with a torn ACL. How quickly will he adapt back to the NBA game and will his defense be as good as it was at the end of his rookie campaign?

Meanwhile, Alec Burks is a Houdini around the rim, Joe Johnson gives them outside shooting and versatility, and Trey Lyles had beautiful development on both ends of the floor during his rookie season. But the key to it all could be Boris Diaw. If he’s the motivated Diaw that did whatever Gregg Popovich wanted him to do, this holds up as the top bench in the NBA. He’s everything they want in a backup big man and gives Quin Snyder so many lineup options with his versatility.”

That was some pretty high praise from a reputed sports media outlet, however it certainly came with a lot of caveats. Unfortunately, Dante Exum has struggled to find court time behind Shelvin Mack and even Raul Neto in Utah’s latest bout against the Magic.

A contributing factor to that has indeed been because his defense hasn’t been as good as it was at the end of his rookie campaign as the CBS Sports article alluded to. Dante hasn’t been nearly as good of a stopper and he has struggled to stay out of foul trouble all year long.

Of course the article also mentions Alec Burks who missed almost the entire first half of the season. He now has six games under his belt although he’s logged meager playing time in those contests as he is averaging under six minutes per game.

He looked significantly better in Utah’s most recent game against Orlando as he logged 15 minutes of action due to Joe Johnson sitting out the game for rest, and converted on three of his five attempts to finish with eight points. If Burks can get back to his former solid play, he could very well elevate this Jazz bench to new heights and take them closer to what was described in that preseason article.

Then there’s Trey Lyles who did appear to be developing well in his rookie season but has struggled somewhat to find his shot this year. He’s shooting a not-awful but not-great 40.4 percent from the field and 33.5 percent from deep. Until he can get more consistent, he isn’t quite the producer that the writers of the CBS Sports piece probably presumed.

The final two guys that were brought up in the article were Joe Johnson and Boris Diaw. In a lot of ways both have been great as their pure veteran leadership and long-time experience have most definitely helped the Jazz be smarter, calmer and do a better job of finding a way to win closely contested games.

However, in some ways both Johnson and Diaw have under-performed a bit as Jazzmen, particularly Diaw. Johnson is putting up points, assists and rebounds that are all near his career-lows, but his shooting percentages are quite respectable as he’s converting on 43 percent of his field goal attempts and 38.3 percent of his threes.

He’s averaging nearly 12 minutes per game less than what he logged last season, so this obviously has affected his numbers significantly. The Jazz knew they were signing a Joe Johnson in the twilight of his career, not the prime seven-time All-Star, so all things considered he’s done rather well for the Jazz despite his numbers not being quite as flashy as some may have hoped.

It’s also likely that Johnson is pacing himself and you can rest assured that he will be a significant presence and impact player for the Jazz come playoff time.

While Johnson has been relatively solid for the Jazz, Boris Diaw has been quite a bit shakier. He’s certainly turned things around from his first half dozen games, but the numbers still aren’t that great. He’s averaging 4.7 points per game while only converting on 31.7 percent of his threes, a number that Jazz fans had hoped would be much higher as it was in his best years in San Antonio.

He’s an excellent passer and has had moments where he’s looked like a great playmaker for the Jazz, but he’s also been somewhat turnover prone and has fallen into a habit of settling for ill-advised shots.

Still, with Derrick Favors heating up and Trey Lyles around as extra power forward insurance, Diaw is far from hurting the Jazz bench and I wouldn’t be surprised to see his game come together with this Jazz squad quite well in the second half of the season.

And of course one key guy that was left off that list entirely and has been superb for the Jazz bench albeit in an under-the-radar sort of way is Joe Ingles. The third-year player out of Australia is having a career year as he’s shooting 47.7 percent from the field and 45 percent from behind the arc.

Though he averages just 6.4 points per game, that is largely due to inconsistent minutes. When Ingles’ number is called and he’s asked to play a bigger role, he has certainly been able to as he’s hit several big shots this season and helped drastically elevate Utah’s bench.

Finally, in terms of Utah’s bench production as a whole, they’ve been decent but not quite as elite as they may have been projected to be. The reserves rank just 22nd in the league at 31.3 points per game.

This number is slightly misleading given that the Jazz play at the slowest pace in the league, but given the fact that Utah’s bench ranks in the middle of the pack in field goal percentage and three-point percentage and is also outscored by opposing benches by an average of 4.3 points per game, it’s clear that they still need some work before they can realistically be considered the best bench in the league as CBS Sports projected.

The biggest question mark has clearly been the back-up point guard spot. Hopes were high that Exum would be the one capable of filling that spot even if based on his defensive prowess alone. However, with limited opportunity, he hasn’t been able to prove himself worthy of taking over the reins as back-up point guard.

Unfortunately, it’s also clear that neither Mack nor Neto is quite the answer either. That’s a tough situation that the Jazz will need to figure out sooner rather than later.

But of course the major contributor to Utah’s bench falling short so far this season has been the outrageous number of injuries the team has suffered. For the first quarter of the season or so, Utah was so plagued with injuries that coach Quin Snyder wasn’t even able to roll out a consistent first or second unit game after game.

With so many Jazz starters missing time, guys who were supposed to be boosting the second unit were thrust into the starting lineup, therefore throwing everything out of wack. Jazz reserves such as Alec Burks, Boris Diaw and Dante Exum have also missed time this season which has undoubtedly led to setbacks as well.

However, now that the Jazz are finally getting healthy (with exception of course to Rodney Hood’s recent injury) we could finally start to see the bench unit described by that CBS Sports article come together. Burks looks to be slowly but surely improving. Diaw and Johnson are finding their groove on this team and Joe Ingles has been a pleasant surprise as a reliable reserve.

Therefore, although the answer to the question posed in this headline would likely be that the Utah bench has failed to live up to those illustrious expectations, the reasoning for that has been largely due to injuries and a need for the team to gel. With 40 games still left in the season, I’m more than confident that the Jazz bench can still come together and find itself among the elite reserve units in the league.

There’s no questioning that the Jazz boast the depth to become one of the toughest match-ups over a 48-minute span as they have the personnel to roll out one of the most talented benches in the league. Their ability to achieve their forecasted success will all depend on if the team can finally sort out the back-up point guard spot and how well the reserves are able to stay healthy and get assimilated to one another.

And although they may be performing under their expectations up to this point, there’s still plenty of season left for them to surge their way up to the top.

All stats courtesy of NBA.com and hoopsstats.com

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