If the birth of Mike Conley’s son winds up depriving the Jazz of the point guard’s service to the degree that it costs them their first-round playoff series against Denver, some Utah fans will skip right past the nursery rhymes and go directly to a tongue-twister:
Bubble baby buddy bumper. Now, say it three times fast.
Conley left the Orlando bubble Sunday morning, heading home to Columbus, Ohio, to be with wife Mary for the birth of their third child. Due to the NBA’s quarantine protocols, the veteran playmaker is expected to miss at least Games 1 and 2 of the Western Conference’s No. 3 vs. No. 6 series.
The shortest amount of time thus far for any NBA player returning to the bubble, assuming daily coronavirus tests have been negative, has been four days.
The Nuggets and the underdog Jazz are the first teams out of the chute, their opener set for Monday (1:30 ET, ESPN) at The Field House on the Disney campus in central Florida. Game 2 is Wednesday afternoon, with subsequent games scheduled every other day into next week.
The Jazz knew this was coming, just not right now: The baby’s due date was Aug. 27, which would have nudged Conley’s absence to either later in — or after — the series. No one notified the child, obviously, of the league’s playoff schedule.
Utah, as one of the league’s family-friendliest organizations, had agreed that Conley would leave the team for his son’s birth. But the timing of his absence brings a few challenges, particularly in a first round moving faster this year (no travel, compressed calendar).
Conley has taken heat for a sub-par performance in this first season with the Jazz. The 32-year-old’s $32.5 million salary is a lightning rod for critics, too. This could introduce a new round of second-guessing, unfair or not.
Here are three questions to be answered during Conley’s hiatus:
1. Who takes over as Utah’s starting point guard?
The ball likely will wind up in Donovan Mitchell’s hands more than it already does. Mitchell, the Jazz’s leading scorer (24.0 ppg), also is the team’s big usage guy (30.8). Fellow wing Jordan Clarkson only started twice this season but probably plugs Conley’s spot in the lineup, which further thins Utah’s bench. Clarkson did average 24.0 points in three appearances against the Nuggets, hitting 14 of his 24 3-point attempts.
2. Where will Conley be missed most?
Conley is a veteran with 56 games of playoff experience, a solid resume given the franchise’s 27 postseason games in the past seven years. The team’s 1-2 punch of center Rudy Gobert and Mitchell have logged 25 and 16, respectively.
Though he averaged 14.4 points, 4.4 assists and 3.2 rebounds overall this season, Conley had a bigger impact vs. Denver. In two meetings, he averaged 20.5 points, 5.0 assists and 7.0 rebounds, while hitting 40% from the arc.
Stylistically, the point guard’s absence could be missed most in pick-and-rolls, a weapon Denver doesn’t always defend well. But his scoring is important, too, to take pressure off Mitchell and fill some of the points void opened by Bojan Bogdanovic’s season-ending wrist surgery.
3. What does this mean for the Nuggets?
Their superior depth gets deeper for as long as Conley is out. And that really could matter if Denver guards Gary Harris (hip) and/or Will Barton (knee) are able to return to action. Neither played in the bubble.
The more numbers the Nuggets can throw at Mitchell without Conley to help, the shorter Utah’s playoff life expectancy. It was already going to be tough for Gobert and Mitchell to match the production of Denver’s Nikola Jokic and Jamal Murray.
It is worth noting that while Utah was 26-21 when Conley started this season, it was even better at 18-7 when he did not. He missed 19 of 20 games from early December to mid-January with a hamstring injury, during which the Jazz went 16-4. But Bogdanovic was on board then.
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