Pondering Small Ball for the Jazz

June 17th, 2015 | by Ben Dowsett
Photo by Melissa Majchrzak/NBAE via Getty Images

Photo by Melissa Majchrzak/NBAE via Getty Images

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.

Ben Dowsett

Ben Dowsett

Ben Dowsett is a life-long Jazz fan and current in-depth analyst based in Salt Lake City. He also writes for Basketball Insiders and BBallBreakdown, and can be heard on SCH Radio on ESPN 700 weekly. He can be found on Twitter at @Ben_Dowsett.
Ben Dowsett
Ben Dowsett

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  1. Mewko says:

    Dante Exum and Gordon Hayward have the power to pick up the offensive pace. Also, Hood and Burks will be featured on the court more, so they have an influence on faster pace, unlike Jingles and Eli Millsap.

  2. Patrick. says:

    This why Jingles and Booker are important to Jazz, contrary to most believe. Jingles can play PF and Booker can play center and we match up pretty well with the GS’s after-game-4 lineup. Again, we are never going to shoot like the warriors but we can defend better as a group. Jingles can shoot it, contrary to what he believes and booker can bring the energy.

    But, our biggest strength is, we can play Gobert at 5 on a small ball.
    Unlike Thompson, Gobert (and D.favs to an extent) can erase mistakes of small ball on defense. Gobert’s recovery is unreal for his height.

    I say D-Favs to an extent because i found him preserving his foul numbers most of the times last season, because he needed to be on the floor. When Favs was in the bench behind big Al, his recovery and contesting of shots were near Gobert’s. Going against a small ball lineup, D-fav really does not need to preseve his fouls, because his minutes will be split with Gobzilla.

    Stan John would be a great addition to jazz. But then, we will have problems against bigger opponents, as we will just have three big man rotation. Are we going to bring Tibor? Although he hasnt been really burning scorecard, you can’t teach height – and rest for our big men.

    Can we start our season already?

  3. Josephkearl says:

    Ben, could this be why we are hearing rumors that the Jazz are interested in Paul Millsap? Wouldn’t he fill that Draymond Green roll well? If the Jazz started Exum, Hayward, Millsap, Favors, and Gobert they would have a significant advantage on the defensive end and then use Paul as the small ball power forward along side Gobert and Favors.

    • Ben Dowsett says:

      These sorts of lineups would be the exact opposite of what I’m discussing in the piece. Millsap at the 3 is the opposite of small ball, and I don’t believe it can work at all. The point of small ball is increasing spacing, not diminishing it.

      • IDJazzman says:

        Nice article, causes thoughts. I suppose small ball worked for the Warriors because they have so many shooters that can stretch the floor. The 3 ball is worth more per shot when the shooting percentages are as high among so many of the players GS had on the floor at any one time. Blatt really didn’t have any choice other than to try and cause a mismatch with LeBron, because Mozgov wasn’t able to defend well enough and wasn’t powerful enough to make them pay on the offensive end. I think for future centers in this league to succeed they will have to be a new breed. Ones that are quick enough to recover on the defensive end, but make the opposing team pay on the offensive end. Hence more centers like Anthony Davis and even Gobert are going to become quite valuable.

  4. Spencer says:

    This article adds credence to the theory that that Jazz could use a 3/4 swingman more than anything. Someone who can adequately defend and space. This the great news is that there are going go be a lot of options when the Jazz pick at #12. Looney, Portis, Dekker, Johnson as mentioned, and even Oubre after he adds strength. I really like those fits.

    While I really like Kaminsky and Turner on offense, they are not going to help with pace or perimeter defense, which is really what you want out of the small lineups.

    I love the Millsap idea Ben, but I love it like Iguadala, not Green. Bring him off the bench and let him play 24 minutes per game even though he is capable of more. Then, when the playoffs arrive, he will have the extra energy and lineups can change based on opponent. He could be used to over-match less talented players instead of being physically over-matched as a starter.

    • Paul Johnson says:

      Spencer, you didn’t mention Trey Lyles, who basically played out of position all year at Kentucky at the SF spot, and showed that he would have the ability to play the center position in a small ball lineup, as well. I’m not saying necessarily that he should be the Jazz pick, I’m just saying that he should be in the mix (probably more so than Dekker, who really hasn’t impressed me in any way).

      • Spencer says:

        I left out Lyles intentionally because he does not fill the needs I mentioned. He is not a good wing defender and never will be. He is also not a great outside shooter or even a rim protector.

        The niche I would like to see filled is first perimeter defender who can battle a stretch four in the post when needed. Second a player who can stretch the floor to the three point line. All of the guys I mentioned have the potential to do both very well. Not Lyles.

  5. Aaron (or the other Aaron) says:

    Interesting analysis. I believe that if the center is a good rim protector and a threat to score efficiently, then the small ball might not work against that team.

    Mozgov is a decent, but not elite, rim protector, but not a go to scorer andThompson is a good rebounder, but not a good defender or go to/efficient scorer, which is why GSW was able to exploit them so badly.

    I see the Jazz, once they get decent outside shooters, being able to defeat small ball lineups.

  6. I found this article really good. I usually have problems with Ben’s thoughts and insight, but this was on point. The comments only helped to make his points better.

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