With another 10 games in the books, the Jazz now close in on the quarter point of their 2013-14 season. And while no team is the exact same from one ten-game span to another, the Jazz may have seen some of the largest changes take place during this period of any squad in the NBA. They haven’t morphed into title contenders overnight by any means, but the Jazz have quietly dug themselves well out of the “worst ever” conversations and are resembling a competent group of basketball players more and more every game.
There are still several areas ripe for improvement, but also lots of elements of the game where Utah has made some real strides. So without further ado, let’s take a look at the good, the bad, and the surprising from the last 10 games:
• Kanter Struggling: After a multitude of praises from yours truly and a strong, efficient start to the season, things have taken a turn for the worse for the young Turk. While it may have seemed injury-related when he was removed from the starting lineup last week in Oklahoma City (he missed the following night’s game against Chicago), Kanter has continued to come off the bench in every game since, with the exception of Wednesday night against Indiana due to new starter Marvin Williams’ injury. Even more alarming, he doesn’t even appear to be the first big man off the bench – when healthy, Jeremy Evans has moved into this role as coach Corbin looks to improve the team’s spacing (more on both Evans’ and Corbin’s success later). It starts on defense: Kanter has been awful, particularly against good pick-and-roll teams. The Jazz are allowing a grotesque 110.7 points-per-100 possessions with him on the court, a figure that drops to a manageable 101.8 when he sits, per NBA.com. The “ice skates” look I touched on earlier this year seems more obvious every game, as Kanter is frequently thrown well out of position by simple actions from opposing offenses. And while his offensive numbers per possession are stinky as well (just 92.2 per-100 while on the court), this is more of a knock on the massive spacing issues the Jazz face when playing he and Derrick Favors together rather than a condemnation of Kanter’s individual offense. His turnovers down low remain a serious problem, but the rest of his offensive game is a positive; per nbawowy.com, his offensive rating rises to a slightly more acceptable 98.3 points-per-100 when he is the only big man on the court, allowing the Jazz better spacing. Still, he will have to pick his game up on both ends or risk remaining a bench option as the Jazz find success with smaller lineups.
• Ty the Bold: Keeping with the theme of smaller lineups, a big hats off to Ty Corbin. The oft-embattled coach has given his doubters something to chew on in recent weeks, injecting some creativity and unpredictability into his lineups that was basically unheard-of for Jazz basketball. I touched on small lineups last week in my piece about Utah’s offensive evolution over the years, and Corbin appears fully committed to them as more games pass. The Burke-Favors-Hayward-Jefferson-Williams lineup that started several consecutive games before Marvin’s DNP-Injury on Wednesday against Indiana is now the second-most used lineup for Utah this season, and should become the most used within a few games assuming Williams isn’t out long. This group is still scoring at the rate of a bottom-10 offense league-wide (an interesting note: this same lineup with Dionte Garrett in place of Burke is massacring opponents by 33.4 points-per-100 in 26 minutes this year – it could be interesting to see more of this unit), but it’s a whole lot closer to league average than it is to “worst offense of all time.” Big credit to Corbin for having the moxie to turn some things upside-down, and in the process maximize his team’s talents.
• They Forgot About Trey: Of course, any praise for Corbin’s work from the sidelines comes with a big thank-you to Trey Burke for his work on the court. The rookie has been everything expected of him and more, his return to the team from injury coinciding almost perfectly with Utah’s improvement offensively. In 12 games without him, the Jazz scored a league-worst 92.2 points-per-100; since his return on November 20th, they’re up to 103.1, a ridiculous 10.9 point discrepancy. And this is just for the Jazz as a whole – when Burke is actually on the court, the number rises to 105.0, a number that would rank above league average. Think about that for a second. For an offense to go from league-worst to league-average largely due to a single player is remarkable enough, but if that player is a rookie? Forget about it. His main weapon comes via the pick-and-roll, where Burke is 7th in the NBA in efficiency when finishing possessions as the ball handler, per MySynergySports. Watch him here:
This is one of Burke’s favorite tactics – he simply runs the defenders out of position. He may not be Russ Westbrook, but the guy has some wheels, and he makes teams pay for ignoring that fact. A high percentage of his pick-and-roll buckets come this way, often involving great patience and a remarkable ability (for his age) to read angles and opposing defenses. But when teams load up to stop him coming around the corner, watch what happens:
You can’t go under his screens, and you can’t lag off him for even a second – something Phoenix found out the hard way as Burke all but iced the game with that triple. He’s shooting an even 50% on threes out of the pick-and-roll per Synergy…so you’ve got to close hard, right? Not so fast:
WHOOPS! GET FROZEN, AARON BROOKS!! Sorry, just couldn’t resist throwing that in there in case anyone thought the handles might have been lacking. The man is just mean. Allow me one more:
Pay particular attention to his hesitation dribble as he gets into the lane; this is Chris Paul-esque, magic stuff that a high percentage of NBA point guards simply don’t have in their arsenal. Ditto for his excellent court vision and a remarkable cross-court pass to Jefferson (who I yelled at for ruining such a gorgeous play by missing), over Roy Hibbert and Paul George just in case it wasn’t tough enough already. He has work to do defensively just like every Jazz player, but this is an NBA-ready point guard on offense. The things this guy could do out of the pick-and-roll with a strong shooting cast around him are mouth-watering.
• Evans Lift-Off: As David J Smith noted a couple weeks ago, Jeremy Evans has always been something of an advanced stats intrigue. His per-minute numbers have always exceeded his real productivity, but in his first year receiving some real court time he seems to be keeping up a fairly crazy rate of production. As of this writing, Evans sits 17th in PER league-wide of guys playing over 100 minutes. He’s shooting 72% (!!) on just over five shots a game, and his per-36-minute rebounding numbers are just short of Kanter’s. And then, of course, there’s stuff like this a few times a game:
Evans is still a project, but appears poised to make a serious leap this year. His defensive IQ could stand to improve, but again this is a problem across the board for Utah. If he can continue even a portion of this sort of offensive success, though, expect to see a lot more of him.
• Goal for the Next 10: With so much improvement offensively, it would really be great to see Corbin start to work with his team on the other end of the court. The smaller lineups have brought some needed energy to the offense, but they’ve likewise done no favors for the defense, which continues to operate at bottom-five levels. It’ll be interesting to see if Corbin can bring things up in this area as well, and that’s what I’m looking forward to most for the next 10 games. Cheers, Jazz fans, and a happy holiday season to all.