Mike Conley’s debut season with the Utah Jazz has been a borderline disaster. Utah’s biggest offseason addition has seen his scoring drop nearly eight points per game in shooting a dreadful 39.4 percent from the field, but what’s worse is how poorly the Jazz have played with him. Utah is only 19-15 with Conley playing compared to 17-6 without him, and for a moment, Jazz coach Quin Snyder finally seemed ready to acknowledge that.
On Wednesday, it was initially reported that Conley would be benched in favor of Royce O’Neale, Utah’s top perimeter defender, according to Shams Charania and Tony Jones of The Athletic. However, mere hours later, Charania and Jones reported that it would actually be Joe Ingles, not Conley, who would be removed from the starting lineup. The surprise reversal comes after the team reportedly informed players that it would be Conley who was removed.
On paper, removing Conley made far more sense given how well the Jazz have played without him. The five-man unit of O’Neale, Donovan Mitchell, Joe Ingles, Bojan Bogdanovic and Rudy Gobert has outscored opponents by 17.5 points per 100 possessions, per Cleaning the Glass. It has played elite basketball on both ends of the floor, and a lot of that starts with Ingles, who has played significantly better as a starter than he has off of the bench.
Ingles is not merely a catch-and-shoot weapon. He thrives as a secondary ball-handler and makes his shots within the flow of the offense. Asking him to stand in the corner and watch Mitchell and Conley dribble is a misuse of his talent.
Ingles wasn’t the only beneficiary of Conley’s absence, though. Donovan Mitchell, who spent his first two seasons alongside Ricky Rubio, grew as an all-around player while serving as Utah’s point guard. He averaged 5.7 assists per game during Utah’s 14-game winning streak that came largely without Conley compared to a career average of only 4.0.
Conley has been a full-time starter since his third season in the NBA, and is widely considered among the best players never to have reached an All-Star Game. The evidence that he needed to be benched has existed for months, but his standing around the league and within Utah’s locker room likely made the move too difficult for Snyder to make now, even if Conley could have potentially helped fill a glaring hole for the Jazz.
The Jazz are ranked 25th in the NBA in bench scoring. Jordan Clarkson has helped in that area, but he doesn’t possess Conley’s all-around game. Conley could have played a meaningful role in stabilizing Utah’s bench lineups, but for the time being, the Jazz seem set on relegating Ingles to that duty despite his struggles with it earlier in the season.