Utah Jazz can contend for 2022 NBA championship under this 1 condition

Utah Jazz guard Jordan Clarkson (Gary A. Vasquez-USA TODAY Sports)
Utah Jazz guard Jordan Clarkson (Gary A. Vasquez-USA TODAY Sports) /

Mike Conley Jr.’s right hamstring and a lack of positional versatility limited the Utah Jazz’s ceiling in 2020-21. Is there another condition that could improve their title odds in 2021-22?

The Utah Jazz placed themselves firmly in last year’s title race, finishing the regular season an NBA best 52-20. Unfortunately, those title hopes were dashed prematurely in the Western Conference semi-finals, as the red-hot Los Angeles Clippers would eliminate the Jazzmen in 6 games. That they managed to do so without superstar Kawhi Leonard for the final 2 games only rubbed salt in the Jazz’s wound.

Collectively, Utah Jazz fans were left grappling with the same question: how could this have happened?

There are several answers, and some of them are easier to accept than others. Certainly, the sprained right hamstring that kept Mike Conley Jr. on the shelf for the first 5 games of the series was a significant factor. The 5 points and 3 assists he contributed in his Game 6 return fell considerably short of a healthy, fully-functioning Conley’s expected output as well.

Meanwhile, the Clippers struck strategic gold by shifting Nicholas Batum to the center position for long stretches, playing with five-out spacing that confounded elite Utah Jazz big Rudy Gobert. Batum’s ability to knock down long-range jump shots drew Gobert out of the paint, minimizing his effectiveness as the Association’s best rim protector.

The Utah Jazz have taken measures to correct this problem during the offseason, adding Rudy Gay and Eric Paschall as potential small ball 5s to counter similar attacks. These were smart signings that will improve Utah’s positional versatility.

However, there is another factor that could change the Jazzmen’s fortunes, and it would have to come from good-old-fashioned internal improvement.

Utah Jazz: Jordan Clarkson’s shooting efficiency

The Utah Jazz can contend for the NBA championship in the 2021-22 NBA season if Jordan Clarkson can shoot efficiently throughout the playoffs.

An important caveat: Jordan Clarkson is a remarkably talented basketball player. Nobody contributes 18.4 points per game at the NBA level unless they are. It’s only by virtue of Clarkson’s style of play that such substantial weight is being placed directly on his shoulders.

Donovan Mitchell has been the model of consistency over his last three seasons for the Utah Jazz. His scoring output has increased marginally over each season (from 23.8 points per game, to 24.0 to 26.4), and his efficiency has trended positively as well (from a 53.7% true shooting percentage to 55.8% to 56.9%).

Looking at the remaining members of Utah’s core, it’s safe to say that Rudy Gobert will continue to be the best rim protector in the NBA throughout the 2021-22 season. Mike Conley Jr., save for an odd 2019-20 season spent acclimatizing to the Utah Jazz’s unique offense and culture, has been incredibly consistent and reliable throughout his NBA career as well (if we disregard his health, a factor over which he has precious little control).

Meanwhile, Clarkson’s shooting efficiency is significantly less reliable. He started the 2020-21 NBA season by lighting it up on a nightly basis for the Utah Jazz,  posting a 58% effective field goal percentage (eFG%) heading into the All-Star break. Unfortunately, that mark dipped to a suboptimal 49% after the break, and he carried his shooting woes into the playoffs, with an eFG% of 50.9.

Clarkson is a quick, crafty, skilled scoring guard, but he lacks the physical advantages of a player like Mitchell. Physical advantages often breed consistency, however, if the Utah Jazz could get the best out of Jordan Clarkson during the playoffs, it could dramatically improve their odds of winning an NBA championship.

Undeniably, Mike Conley Jr.’s health is another massive variable in determining Utah’s success, but it is an entirely uncontrollable one. Meanwhile, it’s fair to assume that if Clarkson had been able to maintain his early-season efficiency throughout the playoffs, the burden of Conley Jr.’s absence would have been less impactful.

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Clarkson is a score-first guard with tremendous skill who, relative to the NBA’s impossible standard, is lacking in natural physical gifts. Players who fit this description have a tendency towards inconsistent efficiency. Still, if Clarkson could get hot for the Utah Jazz’s next playoff run, there’s no telling when it might stop.