The Utah Jazz thought they had the answer.
Mike Conley had signed a five-year, $153 million ($221 million) deal back in 2016 for a reason; he was a reliable offensive player and one of the NBA’s best defenders in his position. The Jazz put together a trade package to bring him to Utah, and the thinking made sense: put a ball-handler who can play on both ends next to Donovan Mitchell, allowing the young star to thrive in his natural position.
We’re nearly halfway through the 2019-20 regular season, and Conley’s time with the Jazz has been a disappointment. He’s averaging under his career averages across the board — 13.6 points a game, on 36.5 percent shooting — and has been consistently hit with injuries.
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The Jazz were right in one regard: they did need that sort of player around Mitchell. What’s transpired over the holiday period is that the answer was under their nose the entire time.
Joe Ingles was demoted to the bench when the season first began; a way to immediately incorporate Bojan Bogdanovic into the lineup, while making the most of a talented two-way wing in Royce O’Neale. Rudy Gobert was obviously the man in the middle, while the partnership of Conley and Mitchell was set to begin. ‘Demotion’ is used, for lack of a better term, but it was a role change for Ingles, who’d shown himself to be a quality starter in the NBA.
On paper, it should’ve worked. Conley was a long-time starting point guard for a playoff team, while Ingles is a veteran who can be any unit’s ball-handler, shoot it as well as anyone from beyond the arc, and guard multiple positions.
Unfortunately, it never really clicked. The Jazz went 12-10 over their first 22 games; Ingles averaging 7.2 points a game, with shooting splits of 30.8 percent from the field and 30.9 percent from downtown.
Ingles just wasn’t able to play his best basketball — he had a 49 percent true shooting percentage, with a -3.2 net rating — and that, in turn, made the Jazz a worse team. Well, naturally. The Jazz were a middle of the road team in the Western Conference, with an offensive rating well below expectations, and a defensive rating significantly higher than their potential; both were 104.9.
Since entering the starting lineup on December 4, though, Ingles has been one of the most consistent players in the NBA, playing the best basketball of his career, with an efficiency that’s through the roof.
The Jazz are 15-3 since Ingles was slotted back into the role he knows best, and the Australians numbers are wildly impressive.
Over those 18 games, Ingles averaged 14.8 points a game, shooting 50.3 percent from the field, including 50.9 percent from downtown. His true shooting during that stretch has been an incredible 67.7 percent.
Along with Gobert, he’s been the Jazz’s best player over this winning stretch of games, and the partnership with the Frenchman — the man who helped deny Australia its first medal in international competition, mind you — has been a big reason for his, and Quin Snyder’s team’s, success.
Ingles’ usage jumped from 13.6 percent to 18 percent between those two time periods — the first number is from 32-year-old’s first 22 games of the season, compared to him starting his last 18 — and that’s also led to his assist ratio (28.7 to 30.7) and assist percentage (19.1 percent to 25.9 percent) rising.
The team has been better on both ends of the floor when Ingles starts, with his offensive rating as a starter at 116.1, with a defensive rating of 99.9 over that time. That’s a 16.2 net rating during this winning stretch for the Jazz, who are no looking like the contender many thought they’d be to start the season.
Ingles put his early-season struggles down to unfamiliarity with coming off the bench, when asked after a win over Chicago last week.
“I haven’t for a long time, and I was just trying to figure it out,” Ingles said of coming off the bench to start the season.
“I was getting better very slowly, but I was trying to find a groove and obviously when Mike (Conley) went down and I went in there, it was more natural.
“You just go back to what you’re used to doing, and guys I was used to playing with. Obviously, when Mike comes back, we’ll work it out, and if it’s me that comes off the bench, I’ll figure it out.”
Conley has been out with a hamstring injury for nearly a month, and it’s not clear when he’ll return. When he does come back, there’s really no reality where he’d come off the bench; he’s still obviously a starting-calibre point guard who just needs to learn how to play with his new team. With all of that in mind, there also shouldn’t be a scenario where Ingles returns to the bench; his effectiveness with the starting unit is just too good, and his pick-and-roll chemistry with Gobert can’t be ignored.
The answer could be sending O’Neale to the second unit, but, one thing’s for sure, Ingles as a starter has been a big reason why the Jazz are now back in our minds as a legitimate contender; it’s as demonstrable as ever, and he doesn’t look like slowing down.
Olgun Uluc is the Senior Basketball Reporter for Fox Sports Australia. Twitter: