When the calendar flipped to 2015, head coach Quin Snyder suggested to his squad that they compartmentalize the remaining games into more manageable 10-game chunks as a means of marking progress.
We’re doing the same for this 2014-15 season recap. Instead of looking back at the year as one amoebic, 82-game blob of a campaign1, we’re breaking down the season into 10(ish)-game increments and reliving the major storylines of each.
We also have two leftover game balls to dole out as a final means of putting 2014-15 in the proverbial books.
Overarching narrative: The Exum Era. Perhaps not coincidentally2, this stretch lined up exactly with the change at starting point guard. It came at an odd time if you only pay attention to box scores; Exum had been slumping and Trey Burke had a nice run of games in January. But Snyder decided — ostensibly for a combination of chemistry and defensive reasons — to shake things up. The move worked all around: Exum shook out of his slump with back-to-back double-digit games, Burke had a scoring run as the first option off the bench, and the defense started to improve.
MVP: Gordon Hayward was again unstoppable over this stretch. He averaged 24 points, with 48% from three and True Shooting a hair above 61%. He also threw in 5.8 rebounds, 4.6 assists and 1.6 steals just for good measure.
Glass half full: The Jazz defense had started to improve nominally at this point, but they were still 4th worst at 106.8 DRtg going into the lineup change. The next 10 games: 103.9, good for 18th in the league over this stretch. And remember, this is still pre-deadline, so this improvement predates the departure of That Former Player.
Glass half empty: The change came with a cost at the other end. In fact, Exum regressed to the mean pretty fast on offense, averaging just 5 points over this stretch, largely because he only attempted 1.6 two-pointers and ZERO free throws over this stretch. And for his part, Burke did see a raw scoring surge (12.7) as the second unit’s main guy, but it’s not like he reinvented himself from an efficiency standpoint. At 35% FG and 42% eFG, Burke’s marksmanship actually took a dip from his season-long numbers.
Overarching narrative: A New Hope. Addition by Subtraction. The Gobert Report. That Former Player. Whatever you call it, this stretch had one major storyline that got the nation talking: Enes Kanter out, Rudy Gobert oh-so-in. Truth be told, we’d still have to wait to see the best of Gobert. He 9 points, 12 boards and three blocks over this stretch, but posted a net rating that was barely positive and didn’t even have the best DRtg3. But it didn’t matter. The plot point for this 10-game stretch was clearly there: the new core is in place, and Gobert is firmly a part of it. Plus, the salute was born.
MVP: Derrick Favors. Gobert was the story, but Favors (and Hayward) really carried the Jazz. Favors had the best shooting of any of the regulars, on his way to averaging 17.3 and 8.4. More importantly, he took over fourth quarters, especially in the wins. He led the Jazz in fourth-quarter scoring behind his 73% fourth-quarter TS4. That is just unreal. He established himself as the Jazz’s “go get us a bucket” guy.
Glass half full: There was enough room for optimism in this stretch that you can pretty much pick a number and I won’t argue. For me, the 90.4 defensive rating was the most important figure in terms of establishing an identity.
Glass half empty: The guards still didn’t have it going. Burke and Exum combined to shoot 39% over this stretch, but covered that up by both posting sub-90 defensive ratings.5
Overarching narrative: The defensive-minded Jazz aren’t messing around. OK sure, after stretching their season-best win streak to six, they suffered a bit of a hiccup in this stretch, losing five of six. But they also humbled the Rockets, embarrassed the Bobcats, held the Lakers to 71 on their floor, and just generally kept looking like they were figuring out how good they could be. Only two teams in this stretch put up 100 points on the Jazz in regulation, and five opponents were held to between 66 and 88 points.
MVP: Gobert. In purely empirical terms, the MVP of this stretch was probably Favors (18 & 9, the best net rating of any Jazzman who played all 10), or Hayward (20/5/5, in fewer games). But this was, more than any other, the stretch where Rudy made his mark. He got even more national ink, and with good reason: this stretch included a career-high 19 point outing as well as seven 14+ rebound games. His 19 & 22 night against Houston and his 18 & 17 against Minny had jaws dropping everywhere.
Glass half full: This stretch did end with four straight losses, including two against bottom-eight teams. The loss to Minny was particularly discouraging since Utah led by five with under a minute to go before allowing the Timberpups to force overtime with three straight threes.
Record: 7-3 (Starting with a skid-snapping win thanks to a lift by a That Former Player.)
Overarching narrative: The Jazz youngs get a turn. With some of the “vets” missing time for injuries or rest, the Jazz got to see how Gobert could shoulder a bigger load, put the ball in Rodney Hood’s hands more often, and saw Exum at his most aggressive. They even got surprise performances out of the likes of Trevor Booker and Bryce Cotton.
MVP: Hood. Remarkably, Gobert put up 20 TWICE in this stretch, and I’m still giving it to Rodney. That should tell you how good he was. During this stretch, he posted new career highs in points (25), rebounds (8), assists (8) and steals (4). His 14.6 ppg stretch trailed only Hayward’s 15.6.
Glass half full: Some of these wins were a little empty when you look at what they meant to either team, but it was still a ridiculously fun stretch. Exum with a career high in assists. Booker with a once-in-a-lifetime explosion. Cotton dunking over the world. Rudy displaying offensive moves nobody knew existed. This was sort of the “miscellaneous” stretch, but still a blast.
Glass half empty: Remember when analyzing the Jazz’s late season surge that their schedule was Charmin soft at this point. Only one Western Conference team (LAL) had an easier opponent slate than the Jazz over the season’s final 20 games. Don’t get me wrong: some of what the Jazz tapped into post-ASB should still carry over nicely. But when calculating exactly how real their post-trade identity, you have to factor that in.
Now let’s quickly allocate our last two game balls & gander at the final rankings.
Jazz 111, Blazers 105 – Booker
No real suspense here: if you get 36 in a win, you’re probably getting the leather. Book was 12/15, hit all four three-point attempts, and had an ORtg of — get ready — 173. Yeah, no controversy here.
Also considered: Hood had a nice 21 on 13 shots.
Jazz 109, Mavs 92 – Cotton
The Twitter gang told me I was probably overthinking this one. That’s fair, although I think Gobert was the best player on the floor that night. Still, the buzz was all about Cotton, who netted 21 and put the Mavs on a poster.
Also considered: The Mavs’ whole defensive approach to this game was based on what they thought Gobert couldn’t do in the middle of the offensive floor. Guess what… he proved them wrong. 20 points, 17 board, 3 assists and 3 blocks. Also, long-time Jazz trainer Gary Briggs got the actual game ball.
So where does that leave us in terms of Game Ball?
Hayward and Favors were the Jazz’s best players, and that shows here. The fact that Rudy joined them as co-most important is just huge. That’s your core right there: G, Fav and Gobert, with Exum waiting in the wings.
I’ve written this before, but Burke’s high ranking here is illustrative of the dichotomy of Trey. When he’s playing well, the Jazz are really good. If his good games weren’t so spaced out by rough nights with sub-30% shooting, we’d be talking about him a lot more.
Hood and Booker impressed late, which gives the Jazz a lot to consider this summer since the wing rotation and the third big spot are places most people assumed the Jazz would need to upgrade in order to compete. And for guys who got 0-1 game ball, that doesn’t mean they didn’t provide a much-needed lift time and time again6. But “gave team a lift” is different from “defining player in a win.”
Finally, Snyder’s value is obviously far more than one win, so what gives? I had an unofficial rule that players should get the recognition unless there was a plain-as-day reason to go elsewhere7. So don’t take his relative place on this chart as a sign of where I esteem his value. He’s incredibly important, and authored many of the strategies and game plans that resulted in his guys getting the love — which is exactly how a great coach wants it.