As always, these playoffs are reminding us how the NBA game tightens up in the second season. Matchups become magnified as those with even the smallest of advantages lean heavily on them and force adjustments. Players with big holes on one end or the other are exploited more ruthlessly and sometimes played off the floor if their deficiencies are too large to cover. Guys with variation, both in general skills and more specific tendencies, can see their value increase.
The Jazz want to make the playoffs next season, and they’re aware of these realities. They’re aware that the relative importance of minimizing weak points is heightened even more with a roster like this, one with several good-to-great players1 but no legitimate superstars. The more things a potential addition can do at a high level, and the less he can be ground down by his weaknesses, the better.
Jrue Holiday is on the higher end of this spectrum skill-wise as far as plausible targets go. At 6’4 and with long arms2, he can match up with most guards and many smaller forwards in a pinch. He’s a strong and versatile ball-handler with unselfish habits, but also has the size and speed combination, along with the shooting, to operate off the ball effectively.
Holiday’s been strangely underappreciated (and often underutilized) as a shooter throughout his career, with nearly a 38 percent average from 3 on just over 1,000 attempts in Philadelphia and New Orleans combined. He’s been among the top 15 percent among guards for open distance shooting both years this data has been available, and though his relatively small sample after missing big chunks of each year is worth noting, there’s nothing about his stroke or track record that indicates a fluke here.
The dimension he could add as a lead ball-handler for this Utah team is hard to understate. The Jazz managed nearly a league average offense this season despite two guys at the point in Dante Exum and Trey Burke who weren’t respected at all by defenses in two-man actions – neither drew a shred of gravity coming around picks, with teams all but begging them to fire away off the bounce or try a typically wild (Burke) or timid (Exum) foray to the basket while they loaded up against better options elsewhere.
That wouldn’t be so easy with Holiday on the floor. He can punish teams for dropping back against him in basic pick-and-roll sets:
And do much of the same if they go under his high screens:
Holiday shot over 42 percent on dribble jumpers out of pick-and-roll sets this year, per Synergy Sports, one of the 20 best figures among about 100 guys who took at least 50 of these3. He’s patient and prodding, good at shielding a defender on his hip and at rising up straight in the air to keep his stroke consistent even on the move. He could open up a whole new section of the playbook for the Jazz offensively.
Things don’t go much more smoothly when defenses load up on him as a primary offensive threat in the two-man game. They probably wish they’d let him shoot, in fact; Holiday has understated vision and is extremely unselfish, and has quietly been among the league’s most deadly distributors out of the pick-and-roll in recent years. Hypothetical lineups with Holiday and any two (or even three) of Gordon Hayward, Rodney Hood, Alec Burks, or Joe Ingles – all capable spot-up shooters, among other things – could be vicious. Holiday has a great understanding of how his movements with the ball will bend defenses, and can pick out guys on the perimeter:
They may be less flashy plays that don’t show up on a stat sheet, but he’s also smart about recognizing when a simpler pass will cause a damning rotation and an open look down the line:
Pelicans spot-up shooters hit a blistering 49.1 percent of their looks following passes out of the pick-and-roll from Holiday, per Synergy, easily the highest figure in the league this year among qualified ball-handlers. His roll men were similarly effective, and both serve as evidence of Holiday’s ability to leverage his own shooting skills.
It’s worth mentioning that he benefited from playing alongside Anthony Davis, one of the best pick-and-roll complements in the league already, which inflates these figures a bit. But Holiday has been a plus distributor – and one capable of punishing teams for sticking too closely to Davis or other teammates – since before he arrived in New Orleans.
On the other end of the ball, Holiday has all the physical talent one could ask for. He’s quick laterally, with good anticipation and fluid movements. He’s got the frame to check both guard spots effectively and even many small forwards for short bursts, another guy who’d fit among Utah’s similarly-sized perimeter defensive group4.
His lack of follow-through has kept him from entering the league’s elite defensively, along with his health issues the last couple years. Holiday is excellent at the point of attack, but has a tendency to cut plays off early, particularly around picks. He’ll navigate things well enough and rarely gets his angles wrong, but has a strange habit of slowing down after getting through the screen when he could still easily impact the play with a bit of hustle. This seems a mental issue more than a physical one – a bit of tutelage from Quin Snyder could reveal something of a menace as an on-ball defender.
Two straight years with nagging injuries are certainly a concern. Holiday has re-aggravated an existing issue on more than one occasion, and it’s worth wondering whether he’s more prone than many. But there’s a long list of guys who have been bothered by things for a year or two only to eventually move past them, and while a move for him would certainly be a calculated risk, it’s a long way from a blind shove on a hopeless reclamation project. If his incidents were simply coincidental and not reflective of long-term issues, far from a long shot, it’s actually likely they’ve served more to keep him under the radar and perhaps heavily undervalued as a player when healthy.
The larger worry among many will be the current makeup of Utah’s point guard situation, a hot-button topic among fans and prognosticators alike. The front office has toed a consistent party line regarding Burke and Exum (and more recently Bryce Cotton), maintaining a desire to develop the position internally and, true to form, avoid skipping steps in the process.
As has been discussed in this space frequently, however, developing young players and adding outside talent are not mutually exclusive categories. There’s a long and star-studded history of guys developing splendidly alongside better players, even at their own positions – they can be equal parts challenged and mentored, and more importantly can become accustomed to high-level teammates earlier in their careers.
It’s not necessarily in the best interest of Jazz brass to show their full hand publicly, and while it’s obviously unlikely they’re being blatantly disingenuous about their point guard situation, assuming they’ll rigidly hold a particular stance is misplaced with a management group that well understands the value of flexibility. They’ve had to face reality with a former member of the team’s core as recently as February’s trade deadline.
The time may be swiftly approaching for another moment of revelation. Burke’s value around the league is plummeting, and despite the proper public approach, there has to be some portion of the thought process devoted to his future with the team. The Pelicans had real interest in Burke in the 2013 draft before their trade for Holiday, according to a few trusted folks I talked to who cover the team. The organization was understood to be leaning heavily toward drafting a point guard before the trade, with Burke their preference over Michael Carter-Williams; it’s obviously impossible to say how much their interest has or hasn’t wavered since.
Holiday and Exum could easily share the court for significant periods. Both have the size to guard 2s, and their skill sets offensively don’t project to overlap much even if Dante makes a leap over the summer. Holiday would be on the books for two guaranteed seasons at reasonable money, plenty of time to continue bringing Exum along and assessing their play together.
Whether New Orleans would have interest in the pieces Utah could make available is tougher to gauge, and could be a flat “no” if they consider Holiday an integral part of their core moving forward. Opinions varied somewhat wildly among those I canvassed as far as Holiday’s value to the Pelicans brass. Many view him as their clear-cut second-best player behind Davis, where others feel like the organization wants to move forward with Davis and Tyreke Evans as their centerpieces. And of course, none were able to give a concrete picture of their plans going forward, ones made even more untenable Tuesday with the firing of coach Monty Williams.
Burke and Utah’s 2015 first round pick are hardly enough to get the deal done both for salary and value purposes, and it’s hard to say which other assets might be desirable to Pelicans management. They need a solid two-way wing, but whether Burks fits that profile in their eyes5 – and whether Utah would consider sending him in this sort of a deal, as he’s under contract for two more years than Holiday – is uncertain. Trevor Booker may also be a chip worth putting on the table, and Elijah Millsap would be a big help to the Pelicans’ wing defense as a secondary piece in a hypothetical deal.
This is all very speculative, of course. It’s more likely than not that Dennis Lindsey and his front office are being mostly truthful about their plans to keep their point guard situation as-is, though again, assuming this as a concrete decision is unwise. A guy like Holiday is a risk to some degree with his health and the years left on his deal, and a true ascension from Dante could render him an expensive backup for some period of time. But the opposite end of the spectrum, the one where Holiday serves as a better insurance policy than Burke for a guy in Exum who has a huge number of boxes still left to check off, seems much more likely. And in a league becoming more diverse and less attached to traditional labels and positions with each passing year, there are tons of scenarios where the two are a long-term backcourt if the fit is there.
It bears repeating, even if it’s been said enough: The time for win-now decisions is fast approaching, and may already be here in a summer where unused cap space might as well be a flaming barrel of cash. Expect the organization to kick the tires on a number of possibilities – even those that might run contrary to a common line of thinking.