The no-All-Star superteam? Utah's unique challenge in loaded West

ByTim MacMahon ESPN logo
Wednesday, October 30, 2019

SALT LAKE CITY -- Constellations of All-Star talent light up the rosters of a Western Conference that is as wide open as it has been for at least half a decade.

Just look at all the All-Stars on the teams that could contend in the West.

Kawhi Leonard convinced Paul George to join him on the LA Clippers, and that pair of perennial All-Stars might not even be the best duo in their own city. Anthony Davis followed LeBron James to the Los Angeles Lakers, giving L.A.'s more glamorous team potentially its most potent one-two punch since the Shaq/Kobe heyday. Russell Westbrook, like George and Davis, successfully pushed for a trade to his preferred destination. As a result, Westbrook joined James Harden on the Houston Rockets, a reunion of former Thunder teammates that had previously only happened in All-Star Games.

Give up on the Golden State Warriors if you wish, but they've got as much star power as anyone with Stephen Curry, Draymond Green, D'Angelo Russell and perhaps at a later point Klay Thompson. The Portland Trail Blazers (Damian Lillard) and Denver Nuggets (Nikola Jokic) each feature a lone current All-Star, plus a veteran teammate with multiple past appearances (Pau Gasol in Portland, Paul Millsap in Denver).

And then there are the Utah Jazz.

The talented Jazz roster is considered one of the West's best even though it doesn't include a single player who has been selected as an All-Star, which is a sensitive subject in Salt Lake City.

"I've been screwed. It's ridiculous," Utah forward Joe Ingles deadpanned. "Who votes for this s---?"

Even center Rudy Gobert, the back-to-back Defensive Player of the Year and two-time All-NBA selection -- a system that, unlike All-Star voting, still differentiates between forward and center positions -- has zero trips to the league's midseason showcase.

Gobert hasn't been bashful about expressing his disappointment regarding his All-Star slights, and he has been strongly backed by his bosses.

"I've still got an ax to grind with NBA head coaches," said Jazz executive vice president of basketball operations Dennis Lindsey. "Rudy clearly on impact should have been an All-Star twice. Somehow the writers can get it right on the All-NBA team, but the guys closest to the court can lead to a myopic nature."

The Jazz certainly consider Mike Conley to be an All-Star-caliber point guard, as evidenced by the package featuring a pair of first-round picks they gave up to get him from theMemphis Grizzlies. For years, Conley has been in the conversation of best never-All-Stars, having missed out on the honor primarily because of all the backcourt competition in the West.

Guard Donovan Mitchell, the first player since Carmelo Anthony to lead playoff teams in scoring in his first two seasons, seems like a safe bet to make multiple All-Star appearances. It just hasn't happened yet. Add sweet-shooting forward Bojan Bogdanovic, who might be the most impactful free-agency addition in franchise history, and an argument can be made that the Jazz have the best collection of non-All-Star talent the league has seen.

The Phoenix Suns and Sacramento Kings, the franchises with the longest playoff droughts in the conference, are the only other West teams that don't have a former All-Star on the roster. (Put an asterisk on the Grizzlies with Andre Iguodala, who is unlikely to ever play a minute for Memphis.) The Jazz are clearly the outlier in that group.

According to the Elias Sports Bureau research, since 1970-71, only two teams have reached the conference finals featuring a roster that didn't have an All-Star prior to that season: the 1976-77 and 1998-99 Portland Trail Blazers.

The Jazz, with a roster revamped around their young franchise cornerstones, are hoping to join that rare company, a goal that will require developing chemistry on the fly and conquering teams featuring more accomplished stars.

"All-Stars or no All-Stars," Gobert said, "we're going to win a lot of games."

The Jazz are among a handful of teams that truly believe they can win a Western Conference no longer in a Golden State stranglehold. But with so many strong competitors, they can't afford to stumble out of the gates, as Utah did the past two seasons. One hurdle Utah faces is whether this team can click quickly while incorporating all the new core pieces.

"There's no reason that can't happen quickly, but it also may not," Jazz coach Quin Snyder said. "You can anticipate a situation where you don't panic without saying that it's OK if you start slow.

"My focus is just on trying to maximize the group. That is a process. I think it's exciting. I don't think we're running from any expectations, but at the same time, I think it's important for us to stay grounded in the reality of where we are."

Snyder noted that the Jazz's slow starts the past two seasons had extenuating circumstances.

Utah was dealing with the gut punch of Gordon Hayward's free-agency departure, took some time to realize Mitchell's potential and had Gobert miss extended time due to knee injuries in 2017-18, when they were 19-28 before finishing with 48 wins. The Jazz had an extraordinarily challenging early schedule last season -- their pre-Christmas slate was the toughest in the league, according to Elias data -- when they started 18-20 en route to 50 wins.

Well, this time, it was the FIBA World Cup that complicated matters for the Jazz. They didn't have the luxury of spending weeks before training camp bonding and playing pickup, because their best returning players were representing their countries in China, with Mitchell starring for Team USA, Gobert for France and Ingles for Australia.

"It's hard because guys were all over the world," Ingles said. "Little things on the court obviously matter -- where someone is going to cut or how someone likes to play -- but a lot of it too is just the off-court stuff. Just getting connected."

"We've got a really good group of guys, which I think definitely speeds up that process. And we've got high-IQ guys that know how to play."

The other big question, of course, is whether the Jazz flat-out have enough talent to be the rare team to win a title without at least one, if not multiple, bona fide superstars.

The 2003-04 Detroit Pistons were the last team to fit that profile. They are the only team in NBA history to win a title without a future Hall of Famer, assuming the eventual inductions of Dirk Nowitzki, LeBron James, Dwyane Wade, Kobe Bryant, Kevin Durant, Stephen Curry and Kawhi Leonard.

And there certainly are some similarities between those Pistons and these Jazz: from being anchored by an elite rim protector and rebounder (Ben Wallace and Gobert); to featuring a rising star at shooting guard (Richard Hamilton and Mitchell), a savvy, skilled point guard (Chauncey Billups and Conley) and a versatile, lefty swingman (Tayshaun Prince and Ingles); to acquiring a scoring threat at forward as the final major piece (Rasheed Wallace and Bogdanovic).

The Jazz made upgrading their offense the obvious priority this offseason, a decision stemming from their poor shooting despite great looks dooming Utah in last season's first-round loss to the Rockets. They let two rugged, quality defenders go to improve their spacing, giving up Jae Crowder in the Conley deal and bidding farewell to Derrick Favors to create salary-cap space for Bogdanovic.

"It's on me to be ready to lead the team even more this year on that end," Gobert said. "I like that."

Mitchell might be the biggest beneficiary of those moves. Suddenly, after often trying to create in cramped quarters his first two seasons, the floor feels wide open with Mitchell surrounded by quality shooters. His primary developmental focus is on making better reads, which will result in improved efficiency, and his eyes light up when he talks about how much easier the reads seem with good spacing.

The early results are encouraging: Mitchell is averaging 24 points per game, with a true shooting percentage (60.2%) that is significantly higher than the previous two seasons. You could call it All-Star production, not that such an honor is his priority.

"I think we're a bunch of talented guys," Mitchell said. "At the end of the day, it's unselfishness. That [recognition is] not what we're thinking about as we come into the season.

"We have a group that's very underrated, and we're just going to go out there and do our thing."

"Five! Five!"

Conley called out the play during Utah's second-to-last preseason game against the Kings. It was one of Conley's favorites, but there was one problem.

His Jazz teammates responded with confused looks. Gobert thought he must have misheard the call, while Mitchell quickly pointed out the issue to his new backcourt partner.

"Mike, we don't have that," Mitchell said.

Conley chuckled to himself, realizing he had mistakenly called a set from his old Grizzliesplaybook.

It was a reminder that there'd be bumps in the road for the 12-year veteran and perennial All-Star snub as he transitions to a new team.

"You form a lot of habits being in one place for so long," Conley said. "I'm trying to figure it out."

The Jazz's front office and coaching staff consider Conley a perfect complement to Mitchell as a cerebral, consummate professional capable of orchestrating the offense and playing off the ball. There are zero concerns about how Conley, the NBA's Teammate of the Year last season, will mesh with the Jazz's culture.

But for the Jazz to emerge as a contender, there has to be a consistent connectivity on the court, which has been a challenge for Conley as he adapts to his new surroundings and Snyder's intricate offensive system.

It's not just getting accustomed to a new system and a new city. (That's Salt Lake City, not "the city of Utah," as Conley absent-mindedly referenced in a post-trade tweet that gave his wise-cracking new teammates instant fodder.)

Conley is getting a feel for playing with a lob target in Gobert after playing almost his whole career with big man Marc Gasol, a completely different kind of offensive weapon. And the guard has never shared a backcourt with an explosive scorer like Mitchell.

Conley's Jazz debut went about as well as his intro-to-Utah tweet, as he went 1-of-16 from the floor in a narrow win over the Oklahoma City Thunder. The Jazz have managed to win three of four to start the season despite Conley averaging only 7.8 points on 20% shooting, including aone-point, 0-of-7 dud in Monday's squeaker over the Suns. (Bogdanovic, on the other hand, is off to a sensational start after struggling in the preseason. He is averaging an extremely efficient 23.7 points in three games, sitting out the Jazz's lone loss due to a sore ankle.)

Conley has acknowledged that he is battling tentativeness as he makes the transition from Memphis to Utah. That's partially due to the Jazz's terminology still feeling like a foreign language that he is learning, causing him to think on the floor instead of reacting and playing on feel. He also is perhaps too conscious of trying to get his teammates touches.

"He's naturally unselfish," Gobert said. "We just want him to make the right play. We need him to be aggressive and just make him the right play. He's been doing that for many years, and that's what makes him a great player."

The Jazz's returning core players consider it their responsibility to help speed up the process of making Conley, Bogdanovic and the other newcomers comfortable.

Mitchell, in particular, has made an effort to click with Conley. They worked out together in Los Angeles right after the trade and before Mitchell reported to Team USA training camp. Mitchell returned to Salt Lake City immediately after the World Cup to get some more on-court time with Conley and hosted a team dinner to help build camaraderie.

"We can't just come in and say, 'Oh, this is what we have,' and expect it to jell," Mitchell said. "We've got to put the time in. I think we have guys that are willing to do that, a team that's willing to do that."

Conley, who helped recruit former Grizzlies teammates Ed Davis and Jeff Green to join him on the Jazz, is on the same page. Until last season, Conley expected to spend his whole career in Memphis, but the reality of the Grizzlies' rebuild hit him when Gasol was traded to theToronto Raptorsat last season's deadline.

Watching Gasol win a title in Toronto -- Conley celebrating with his friend via FaceTime while champagne sprayed in the Raptors locker room -- gave Conley "a sense of hope" of what could happen if he got traded to a contender.

"Seeing Marc accomplish it, seeing a different team other than Golden State or a LeBron-led team win a championship, seeing it happen, I think a lot of teams feel that way," Conley said.

"Like, 'Hey, we can win this.'"

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