With a sample size of 505 player minutes of preseason Utah Jazz basketball, some trends are already emerging to help us sort through a long list of roster and rotation questions.
For starters, it’s already obvious which 14 or so players are top of mind for Jazz coach Quin Snyder, who has tipped his hand by relying on mostly the same dudes, even when injuries and rest abridged his arsenal. Look deeper at the different positional groupings, and you find similar hints as to how things are shaping up ahead of an October 28 season opener and the roster cuts that must come first.
Mostly because it’s a good way to capture a bunch of smaller observations about the team’s first two preseason outings1, we’re going to peer into those groupings and assess who’s helping their case the most early on. As usual, we’ll stick to bigs/wings/points in our breakdown, as lines get blurry between the 4 and 5 spots and even more so between SF/SG.
Favors & Gobert are essentially tied. I gave Favors the nod because of a dominating game 1 performance and talk that he and Gordon Hayward have been the best in practice. Gobert also had stretches where he changed the game on the defensive end. Moral of the story: both of these guys are incredibly valuable, and I’m not going to spend a lot of brain cells worrying about how to order those spots.
Beyond that, the field of bigs is one area where things got less clear in Honolulu, as enough guys played well to present Snyder with some interesting playing time dilemmas.
Booker should probably be next, but I knocked him down because of a silly mistake that’s going to cost him some regular season action. I don’t get why fans are choosing to exult his loss of composure against Laker goon Roy Hibbert, or treat Booker like some kind of folk hero.
Cut it out. He screwed up. Mrs. Booker likely should have read little Trevor this book.
Nothing fans have said to defend this mistake holds up. “His role is to bring the passion,” some say. Yeah, but he can only play that role if he’s in the gym, and he won’t be when the Jazz open in Detroit. “That’s the mental toughness he brings,” I’ve heard. No it’s not. That’s the opposite of mental toughness. You know what takes mental toughness? Keeping your composure, staying in the game and kicking your opponent’s butt with your play. We have this debate every time a player reacts to opponent thuggery — and when they don’t — and there’s simply no nobility in removing yourself from the game (or multiple games) in the name of empty machismo.
Few have helped themselves as much this October as Withey, who just looks like a dude who knows how to play. He’s gotten just props for his offensive explosion on Tuesday, but he looked equally solid in four minutes on Sunday. He came in, instantly earned eight trips to the line and snared three rebounds. He looked even better as the Jazz improved to 2-0 in exhibition. The Jazz were down six with just over two minutes to play, and Withey’s final 125 seconds of regulation — two dunks and a late block on Hibbert — helped force overtime.
Rookies Lyles and Pleiss have each looked brilliant at times and lost at others, but overall both have been encouraging. Lyles’s abilities as a playmaking four were on display on Tuesday2, and Pleiss has been finishing well, moving instinctively away from the ball, and using his body to keep opponents off the glass.
With the way those six have played, things are looking tough for Cooley, and even tougher for the injured Jerrett. In today’s NBA, it’s hard to make it as a big if you’re not a) quick enough to guard switches or b) big enough to protect the rim. Cooley and Jerrett don’t really fit either profile, and that’s without even looking at the offensive end, where neither guy has stood out.
The really interesting takeaway here is how things are shaking out behind Hayward, who has done nothing to lose the mantle of “best Jazzman” so far.
Burks and Hood both had largely forgettable first games3 before wildly impressive Tuesday performances. Burks in particular looked like an absolute star in the rematch, with a blend of drives, dishes and defense that made him the game’s best player by a wide margin. It seems incredibly obvious now that not only is he the obvious incumbent for the starting SG role, but he absolutely should be.
Early on, Hood looked a bit unsure of how to fit into the role of bench sniper, at times ignoring obvious alternatives in favor of forced and awkward attempts. Part of Hood’s charm late last season was his great floor game and decision-making beyond his years. Once he settled down — he shot 3-for-15 through six quarters — he remembered. He had 17 points in the second half and overtime, eclipsed only by Burks’ 19 over the same span.
Once the games count, there’s probably only room for one of Ingles and Millsap in the rotation, and that’s a tough, tough call. Millsap has rightfully gotten a lot of positive chatter because of his continued great D and an expanding passing game, but I think we’re overlooking Jingles quite a bit. He’s been more important to the facilitation of the offense than the box scores show, and he’s also looking remarkably spry. He doesn’t give Utah quite what Lil Sap does on the defensive end, but he has underrated abilities like squeezing through screens, bodying up posters and closing on shooters without fouling.
The others have all been spectators thus far. Johnson is surely in the conversation for the final roster spot, but with the five guys ahead of him, it would take a couple of catastrophes for him to get called on for rotation duty.
It’s really hard to separate 1 & 2 thus far. Neto had fans absolutely buzzing after a 6-assist, 4-steal, plus-20 outing in his Jazz debut. But Burke was just as stellar during the opening frame on Tuesday, when he was unstoppable on his way to 12 points and plus-17 for the quarter.
Both have had struggles, too. Neto still can’t score — 1 FGM in two games — and failed to look anywhere near as impactful in game two aside from one fun highlight. And Trey, outside of two efficient first quarters, is shooting 2-for-12.
That both guys sat while Utah closed on a 16-9 run is an interesting treatise on the state of affairs at the position. It’s particularly weird timing for Burke to find himself watching and not playing, since his fourth-year option has to be picked up by the Jazz before the end of the month. It probably still will be — his $3.4M would be less than 4% of next year’s cap — but let’s not forget that the Jazz have a real decision to make there. Burke also may have more trade value as an expiring, although the flip side to that argument is that with a declined option, the Jazz (and any subsequent acquirers) would lose the matching rights that give teams leverage on rookie contracts.
Again, for that price it’s more likely that they’ll err on the side of caution and keep him in the fold. But it’s a good reminder that this is a time when Burke would probably prefer to be on the court making his case.
Meanwhile, Cotton still hasn’t played a preseason minute. It may have seemed like a foregone conclusion that he’d get a roster spot; perhaps less so now given his lack of run and Snyder’s willingness to deploy three and even four-wing lineups. The Jazz could always waive him for now but keep his number on speed dial in case an injury occurs later, but in the meantime, they wouldn’t have the right to keep him in the family by assigning him as an affiliate player to the Idaho Stampede. The Austin Spurs would have the D-League rights to Cotton since he last played for them4, and either way, the other 29 NBA teams could call him up or even claim his team-friendly contract on waivers.