In a 2015 Finals series that was exhilarating for so many reasons, perhaps most intriguing for the nerds among us was the back-and-forth chess match between coaches. Steve Kerr and David Blatt traded haymakers in the form of tactical one-upmanship, plundering of mismatches, and most noticeably, lineup alterations. In particular, the Warriors’ commitment since Game 4 to ultra-small-ball, with Draymond Green at center and no one taller than his 6’7 on the floor, appeared to change the tide of the series.
The rest of the league has had its eye on this development. The Warriors’ title isn’t a condemnation of bigger teams by any means; unique personnel is what allows them the flexibility to play this way, and duplicating it is no simple task. But it’s certainly another on a growing list of examples of the effect downsizing is having on the game, and on its biggest stage no less. Among league thinkers, there’s no doubting that smaller teams, or at the very least teams with the flexibility to play small when necessary, are trending upward.
The Jazz are budding contenders in their own right, and got there by embracing the other end of the spectrum – Utah plays almost exclusively in two-big lineups, and found their end-of-year success by obliterating opponents defensively and using their size advantage to crash the offensive boards1 and grind teams down methodically. A starting frontcourt of Derrick Favors and Rudy Gobert suggests this will remain their identity for the foreseeable future.
But the league is trending toward versatility and flexibility as much as any particular style, and it begs the question: should the Jazz look to spend more time in smaller lineups?
A look back to the brief periods where Quin Snyder experimented with these one-big units last season gives us a glimpse at some possibilities. Numbers from nbawowy.com show the Jazz played only 144 minutes with one of Favors, Gobert or Trevor Booker on the floor as the only true big2 – 85 with Gobert, 50 with Favors, and just nine with Booker at the nominal center position. The results with each were quite varied, to say the least.3
Favors’ 50 minutes as the lone big were likely the most in line with what expectations would be. Utah’s grind-it-out philosophy mostly went out the window, with the league’s slowest pace disappearing and giving way to a much speedier game. Neither team in these situations could defend worth a lick – the Jazz scored at 118 points per-100 and allowed over 127, both of which would have been easy league-highs.
The Jazz managed that gaudy offensive number despite shooting just 20 percent from 3 and 39 percent overall, suggesting they certainly didn’t lack for offense and good looks with these units. But their rebounding, such a strength overall, went into the tank – their league-best 29 percent rate snagging their own misses was basically cut in half, and they collected only 40 percent of all available boards on both ends, miles below the NBA-worst Mavericks for the year. Favors himself saw a significant dip from his season-long numbers on the glass.
Their interior defense was also much more pedestrian than the wall Jazz fans became accustomed to with two bigs on the floor. Favors-only units allowed the opposition to shoot 65 percent within three feet of the hoop, a figure that would have ranked in the league’s bottom 10.
Contrary to what one might assume given their respective styles, periods the Jazz went small with Gobert were their most generally successful. Utah played opponents to a literal draw in these 85 minutes, scoring 106.8 points per-100-possessions and allowing the exact same figure. And unlike those with Favors operating alone at center, these groups exhibited several more positive long-term signs.
Not only did these Gobert-only groups maintain the team’s vaunted rebounding prowess, they upped it. These lineups as a whole collected nearly 33 percent of their own missed shots, a Cavs-in-the-playoffs type number. Gobert himself was a maniac, topping his own exemplary season-long numbers on the glass4. Most of these periods came against opponents who were similarly small, and Rudy feasted on the extra space among the treetops with only one opposing big man to occupy his vertical space:
Small lineups around Gobert at center allowed a paltry 51 percent within three feet of the hoop, a stark contrast to units with Favors. Both were on small samples, but the more telling item here is the frequency with which they were allowed – Derrick’s small groups gave up nearly double the per-minute chances at the rim as Rudy’s while still allowing a much higher efficiency. The Stifle Tower appeared to have few issues as the only line of interior defense, making his usual speedy rotations and terrifying guys at the rim:
These figures don’t simply mean the Jazz can go small around Gobert and not around Favors. Context plays a big role – for instance, a higher percentage of Favors’ minutes in these units came earlier in the season alongside Steve Novak and Trey Burke, where more of Gobert’s came later in the year with Dante Exum and Rodney Hood. The samples aren’t large, and elements like opposing lineup composition and garbage time can have real effects in such limited stretches.
But the Jazz may have something here, especially with Gobert. Four-out lineups with Rudy charging down the lane as the dive man in pick-and-roll sets are potentially lethal if the shooting around them is up to snuff; his role as an alley-oop threat combined with high-IQ passing he flashed with more and more comfort last year makes these sets a natural fit:
Look how much space three Jazz shooters have to operate against only two Suns defenders when Phoenix is forced to send help on a potential Gobert lob:
And when the Pistons look to trap Gordon Hayward up high, half the floor is suddenly wide open for Rodney Hood and Joe Ingles once Gordon is able to thread a pass to Gobert:
Things won’t always be this easy, but the blueprint is there. Favors could be similarly effective, if not more so given his expanded range he showcased last season and his prowess rolling to the hoop. The spacing with these groups has to feel like miles of fresh air for Jazz shooters accustomed to tight spaces in their typical two-big lineups. Units like these could be highly dangerous in short order under Snyder’s motion system, especially if team brass makes a move or two to improve perimeter shooting over the summer.
There’d be concerns on the other end of the floor, particularly as far as which guys take the brunt of the de facto power forward minutes. Hayward is likely best suited overall, but Snyder won’t want him spending too much time banging down low – his usage rate with each of these smaller iterations was off the charts offensively last year, and even increased spacing won’t relieve him of his numerous responsibilities as Utah’s primary creator. Bigger opponents will go out of their way to attack him on the other end.
Ingles spent bits of time in this role last year and did well enough, and whether guys like him and Hood could sustain a few minutes each per game without getting eaten up by bigger guys may determine whether the Jazz can break these lineups out frequently. It’s also possible a draftee like Stanley Johnson could step into such a role should the Jazz go in that direction next week.
None of this is to suggest Utah’s primary identity will change – it won’t. The Jazz found their mojo last season through the Favors-Gobert combo pounding teams into the ground. Booker is already a lite version of small-ball himself, one who actually shot a better percentage from deep last year than Draymond Green, and Snyder may look to juice his spacing without sacrificing as much bulk by having him fire away from 3 more often. The team may choose to draft a shooting big like Frank Kaminsky or Myles Turner if available, which could accomplish some of the same things.
But having these units in your back pocket can’t hurt. They’d offer high-variance options to potentially ignite comebacks in a way bigger groups couldn’t, and the Jazz have the length to go to a very Warriors-like “switch everything” scheme defensively with several combinations. The Jazz will have to face the Golden States of the world sometime if they want to truly contend for titles, and the versatility they’d bring could be huge.
Snyder is content in his team’s identity, but remains a forward thinker. Don’t be surprised if the Jazz bust out some of these smaller lineups more frequently next year.