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Move over, Mike Conley: Here's why Joe Ingles should start over Utah's new recruit
The resurgence of Utah Jazz forward Joe Ingles has been one of the NBA's feel good stories over the past month. Forced into a sixth man role by newly-acquired swingman Bojan Bogdanović and the rising Royce O'Neale, Ingles had a dismal start to the season. Throughout November, the 6'7 sharpshooter averaged just 7.5 points per game with 28% shooting from deep, making it a month to forget.
At 32 years of age, questions were raised as to whether Ingles was inching past his prime. His struggles began in the 2019 playoffs, before carrying over to the 2019 FIBA World Cup. The veteran forward's woes were only compounded by a challenging start to the 2019/20 season. However, his fortunes finally changed on 3rd December, when starting point guard Mike Conley suffered a hamstring injury. As of December 28, Conley was still reported to be weeks away from a return.
Although Conley's injury was a major blow to this promising Jazz team, Ingles has exceeded expectations in his absence. The Australian reclaimed his familiar starting position, and reminded everyone what he is capable of. Following Conley's injury, Ingles posted per-game averages of 15.3 points and 5.8 assists for the remainder of December. The 32 year old also shot 53% from three-point land for the month, proving that his shooting touch hasn't gone anywhere. Arguably in the best form of his career, Ingles even tied his career high on Chrismas eve, pouring in 27 points against Miami.
Jazz coach Quin Snyder will have his work cut out for him, when Conley returns. Ingles is simply playing too well to drop right now, and appears much better suited to the starting lineup. Royce O'Neale is no slouch either, currently making 45% of his three-pointer attempts. The next few weeks may determine whether or not Slow-Mo Joe cements his starting role.
A winning formula
Utah currently sits sixth in the Western Conference with a 22-12 record. The team hasn't missed a beat over the past month, winning 10 of 13 games despite Conley's absence. Ingles features on the second-most common Jazz lineup, which is also their most successful one.
The lineup of Mitchell-Ingles-Bogdanovic-O'Neale-Gobert has logged 241 minutes and posted a net rating of +19.4. For those unaware, net rating measures a team's point differential per 100 possessions - in other words, the team's defensive rating is subtracted from their offensive rating. In comparison, Utah's most common lineup of Mitchell-Conley-Bogdanovic-O'Neale-Gobert has posted a slightly lower net rating of +16.3 in 254 minutes of play. The only difference between the two lineups is the presence of Ingles or Conley, with all other players featuring in both.
Mike Conley joined the Jazz with much fanfare, following a brilliant 2018/19 season in Memphis where he averaged 21.1 points and 6.4 assists per game. However, the veteran point guard struggled with his new team prior to injury. Conley's per-game averages fell to 13.6 points and 4.6 assists, while he also shot just 36.5% from the field. However, coach Quin Snyder would be a brave man to drop Conley, considering the 32 year old's resume and US$32.5 million pay packet in 2019/20.
So, why can't Ingles and Conley just play together? Apart from Royce O'Neale's aforementioned growth, this combination hasn't worked well for the Jazz. Utah's third most common lineup of Conley-Mitchell-Ingles-Bogdanovic-Gobert has posted a woeful -0.9 net rating in 117 minutes of play. Snyder may be forced to choose between the surging Joe Ingles and the out-of-form Mike Conley, when the latter eventually returns.
Regardless of Jinglin' Joe's future in Utah's starting lineup, he has achieved a remarkable turnaround in fortunes over the past month. Ingles will likely be a key player for Australia at the Tokyo Olympics during the next NBA off-season, barring injury.