For a few hours this past weekend, it seemed like the Utah Jazz’s chances of winning the NBA title (which FiveThirtyEight’s RAPTOR-based predictions model pegs at 15 percent) might have evaporated. Donovan Mitchell’s ankle injury looked plenty scary in the moment, but an MRI revealed no structural damage, and Mitchell is merely expected to miss “several games,” according to ESPN’s Adrian Wojnarowski, as opposed to the rest of the season.

But while Mitchell’s injury may have sealed the fate of Utah’s season had it resulted in a prolonged absence, he has not gotten the Jazz where they are now — holding a 1.5-game lead in the race for the Western Conference’s No. 1 seed — all on his own. Mitchell’s characteristically stellar play has been complemented by the sparkling turns from fellow All-Stars Rudy Gobert and Mike Conley, of course. But just as important have been the contributions of the team’s underrated cadre of wing players: starters Royce O’Neale and Bojan Bogdanović and reserves Jordan Clarkson and Joe Ingles.

None of that quartet of players carries quite as much individual importance to the team’s offense as Mitchell or Conley, nor to the team’s defense as Gobert — but collectively, it may hold the key to Utah’s postseason success. The playoffs are all about matchups, and which team can better accentuate its strengths and mitigate its weaknesses. Because of the structure of coach Quin Synder’s offense — which prioritizes side-to-side ball movement and counts on every player on the floor to be an active threat — and the roster construction of their fellow Western Conference contenders, the Jazz may succeed or fail based on whether the strengths of their wings carry the day, or their weaknesses do. 

One of those strengths: their ability to shoot from distance. Utah takes a greater share of its shots from 3-point range than any team in the league this season and has connected on those shots at the league’s fourth-highest rate. The Jazz sport a league-high five players (of which Clarkson, Ingles and Bogdanović are three) knocking down multiple treys per game, and were this an 82-game season, they would be on track to break the all-time record for triples.

Nobody has been more dangerous from beyond the arc than Ingles, who has connected at an absurd 49 percent clip. Ingles has always been a plus shooter, but he’s gotten an extra boost this year thanks to the way the Jazz move the ball to get him open. Among the 70 players who have attempted at least 250 long-range shots this season, per Second Spectrum, Ingles’s attempts have been contested the least often. As a result, he has shot 20.85 percentage points better than expected on those attempts, the top mark in the league among that same group of players.

That ability to hit from deep aids Ingles’s efforts at beating closeouts, when defenders do manage to run out at him. Per Second Spectrum, he’s generated 1.25 points per possession against closeouts — the NBA’s ninth-best mark among 131 players who have faced 250 closeouts or more. The mere threat of his shot allows Ingles a free runway to the paint, as exemplified by his 61.7 field-goal percentage on drives — the fourth-best mark among 134 players averaging at least five drives per game, and one on par with players like LeBron James and Giannis Antetokounmpo.

Ingles has come off the bench for most of the season, but he has also proven a capable fill-in starter when Mitchell or Conley has sat out. In 16 starts this year, he’s averaged 17.7 points, 3.9 rebounds and 5.4 assists while shooting 54 percent from the field and 53 percent from deep. (Those numbers are virtually identical to his per-36 minutes averages on the year.) Clarkson has been the presumptive Sixth Man of the Year favorite for some time now, but Ingles’s efficiency, versatility and better-than-passable defense make him perhaps the better candidate.

That’s not to minimize Clarkson’s contributions. He’s been terrific in his role, hunting his shot with a fervor nearly unrivaled in the league not just this year, but ever. He’s posting the ninth-highest single-season usage rate among bench guards in NBA history — and he’s not chucking for chucking’s sake. Among the 79 seasons where a bench player has used at least 25 percent of his team’s possessions while on the floor, Clarkson’s 57.4 true shooting percentage is tied for sixth-best. That figure has come down a bit in recent weeks, but it’s still quite good.

Clarkson has also become a heady screener and playmaker in space, giving the Jazz an additional option beyond having Gobert or Derrick Favors come to the top of the floor to aid Conley, Mitchell or Ingles in initiating the action.

Teams can and will hunt Clarkson on the opposite end of the floor, though — a task made easier by his slighter frame (6-foot-4, 194 pounds) for a wing player. He’s put in work to get better on defense since his Laker days, but his stature and lack of resistance at the point of attack tend to give opponents free run into the paint, which can undermine even the best of defenses. Utah has allowed significantly more drives with Clarkson on the court (51.2 per 100 possessions) than off it (46.9), per Second Spectrum, while also letting opponents score more efficiently on those ventures into the lane.

The best teams in the West also figure to be more aggressive about using Clarkson’s man as a screener in pick and rolls to generate a switch and target him in space, where he’s at their mercy with a lack of nearby help. Doing so would not only yield a preferable matchup, but also allow them to avoid running their offense straight into Gobert, who is yet again the Defensive Player of the Year front-runner. (We’ve seen players like Paul George and Chris Paul light up Utah’s drop coverage in playoff series before, but Gobert has gotten better at coming out to the perimeter these past few years. Giving offenses another avenue through which to beat their pick-and-roll defense is potentially pretty damaging for the Jazz.)

It also puts a lot more pressure on the team’s two wing starters: Bogdanović and O’Neale. Bogdanović is having something of a down season, having connected on fewer than 40 percent of his threes for the first time in four years. (He’s also shooting just 33.6 percent on treys since the All-Star break.) His minutes, usage rate, free-throw rate and scoring efficiency are all down, while his defense has slipped as well. He’s still valuable because of his combination of size, strength and shooting, but he’s also not been quite the same since suffering the wrist injury that kept him out of the bubble last year.

Bogdanović was a defensive liability early in his career, right up until he put forth an enormously admirable effort defending James in the 2018 playoffs as an Indiana Pacer. He worked extremely hard to become a neutral-ish force on that end, but the reversion he’s seen in recent years is real, and at least somewhat noticeable.

Bogdanović made strides on defense but is slipping

Overall RAPTOR ratings and RAPTOR wins above replacement by season in the NBA for Bojan Bogdanović

Overall RAPTOR
Season Team Off. Def. Tot. RAPTOR WAR
2014-15 Nets -0.1 -1.7 -1.8 1.0
2015-16 Nets -1.3 -3.3 -4.6 -2.0
2016-17 Nets/Wizards -0.5 -3.1 -3.6 -1.0
2017-18 Pacers -0.2 -0.1 -0.3 3.5
2018-19 Pacers +0.6 -0.6 +0.0 3.8
2019-20 Jazz +1.1 -1.8 -0.7 2.2
2020-21 Jazz -0.8 -1.9 -2.7 0.0

2021 stats through April 20.

Sources: NBA Advanced Stats, Basketball-Reference.com

Bogdanović’s size and strength benefit him in some matchups, but the Jazz still prefer to use O’Neale as their primary stopper. O’Neale has spent more time than any player in the league defending the opposing team’s leader in usage rate, according to Bball-Index, and has faced, on average, the second-toughest defensive matchups in the league among players with at least 1,000 minutes played.

He’ll be the one counted on to defend guys like James and Kawhi Leonard, should the Jazz face the Lakers or Clippers in the playoffs. He’s up to the task in terms of the effort required to lock in on those matchups for seven games, but there are times when he simply can’t match their physicality. (Largely because nobody can. They’re all-time greats for a reason.) He’s better-equipped to deal with the likes of Devin Booker, where the focus will be on agility and quickness, and he has the strength advantage as well, instead of being at a deficit.

The Jazz, of course, have their own advantages in their cavalcade of 3-point shooters, Gobert’s paint protection and the respective abilities of Mitchell and Conley to break defenses down from the outside-in. The one player they don’t have is the big wing type who can physically overpower the opposition’s best defenders.

Bogdanović is capable of punishing smaller defenders in the post on occasion. Among 47 non-centers with 50-plus post-up chances this season, his have been the ninth-most profitable when they lead to a shot by Bojan himself or a teammate one pass away, per Second Spectrum. That production has come almost exclusively against guards, though — he has posted against a forward or center only eight times all year. Clarkson doesn’t have the size and Ingles doesn’t have the quickness to be that type of predatory scorer, and while O’Neale has proven himself a capable shooter (37.6 percent or better from deep in each of the past three seasons), he does not have the off-the-dribble skill set needed to be that type of player. Plus, part of the reason he’s shot so well from deep is that defenses have no compunction about leaving him open. 

Throughout this season, the Jazz have made up for the lack of that big, physical wing with their brilliant, economical ball movement and have buried their opponents under an avalanche of threes — catch-and-shoots, pull-ups, step-backs and off-screen snipes, with Mitchell and Conley always at the ready to catch a swing pass and kick-start the next pick and roll, swing the rock and keep the line moving. But the ball tends not to move quite as quickly or cleanly in playoff settings. 

The Jazz have made the bet that their shooters will spread opposing defenses thin enough for that difference to matter not quite as much as it should. On the other end, they’ve wagered that their perimeter defenders will make things so difficult for opponents off the bounce and the catch that they’re forced to deal with the looming presence of Gobert in the paint. In a few weeks, we’ll see if they’re right.

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