Perfect Preseason Provides Answers (and More Questions) About Rubio & the Bigs, Exum and More

October 12th, 2018 | by Dan Clayton

Exum is primed to play. What else have we learned so far about the ’18-19 Jazz? (Gene Sweeney Jr. via espn.com)

As 5-0 preseasons go, that one wasn’t terribly informative.

Sure, the Utah Jazz finished their exhibition season undefeated, but that doesn’t mean observers learned a lot about Quin Snyder’s team. Beyond all the usual caveats associated with the predictive value of the preseason, the particulars behind this exact batch of friendly matches didn’t help. They played three of their five preseason games against non NBA-caliber teams — not a typo, sorry, Sacramento fans — and they trailed both of their quality opponents until those teams pulled their stars and made it a battle of C-teams. They might not have had the throttle all the way back in those iffy first halves against Toronto and Portland, though, so in all, it just wasn’t the most telling preseason.

It’s hardly any clearer today than it was two weeks ago whether the Jazz, who finished last season on a 29-6 surge, are primed to pick up where they left off when their season starts on October 17. 

So with the season just days away, let’s recap what we learned about Utah and what we didn’t. 

Things we know #1: There’s going to be zero drama about who is in Utah’s starting five

Ricky Rubio, Donovan Mitchell, Joe Ingles, Derrick Favors and Rudy Gobert all started for Utah whenever they were available, but we didn’t really even need that evidence to know who the Jazz’s first five would be when the regular season starts next week.

Sure, at some point you could make a fit-related argument for switching things up. They could look for stretchier options if they wanted to deal with the potential chemistry fallout of bringing one of those five off the bench, something they opted against last season. They could also achieve some of the same effects just by staggering more; preseason substitution patterns were essentially platoon-style. Some of that might be Quin Snyder’s desire to squeeze in minutes for a roster of 20, but smart money says that starting next week, we’ll see more variations of hybrid lineups that feature starters and subs.

But at this stage it’s pretty obvious who Utah’s best five are, and they are all right where they should be: in the starting five.

Things we don’t know #1: Whether that lineup will work all season against the best teams

Utah’s starter-heavy lineups struggled against both Toronto and Portland’s best guys. Turnovers and bad defense fueled a disastrous six-minute stretch against the Raptors during which the Jazz were a minus-19. Outside that comedy-of-errors stretch, they played even with or better than Team Canada, but they didn’t get the lead back until Kyle Lowry was put away for the night. Then, Damian Lillard dominated to the tune of plus-22 and 9-for-11 shooting, only to watch Utah’s deep bench lay it on the Blazer subs for a 30-6 run while the star guard took the fourth quarter off.

Cause for concern? Hard to say.

In both of those games, Utah had a hard time involving its bigs in the offense1 and got inefficient shooting nights from both Mitchell (11-for-31 combined) and Rubio (8-for-23). Basically, the Jazz saw a familiar defensive strategy in both their games against high-level NBA squads: they walled off the roll and dared the guards to shoot over a bunch of paint-bound helpers. That defense has been Utah’s kryptonite during stretches when Rubio couldn’t hit. At the risk of overdramatizing the thing, his aggressiveness and shot-making create an extremely important barometer for the Jazz.

So far, the evidence it mixed on 2018-19 Rubio. He closed the preseason making just four of his last 21 shots — going back to midway through the Adelaide game. But he also finished the exhibition games with a respectable 36 percent from 3-point land. 

Preseason performance isn’t terribly predictive, especially for veterans2, but Utah will take 36 percent. That makes a Rubio 3-point shot more valuable on average than the typical Jazz possession, to say nothing of the way it effects spacing on all of the plays that don’t end with the Spaniard firing away. He wound up at 35 percent last season, so this could be a level Rubio can sustain if he keeps taking the right kinds of threes.

Prediction #1: The Rubio-Fav-Gobert trio will have a positive NetRtg throughout the year

Remember this from back in December? At that point, it was fair to worry if the trio would ever work.

Let’s be honest: when we wonder aloud whether Utah’s starting lineup will work, what we’re mostly musing about is whether Rubio’s hot-and-cold shooting can coexist with two traditional bigs. This was a major theme in the first half of last season, when any two of Rubio, Favors and Gobert were capable of playing winning basketball, but the three together had a horrendous Net Rating (see image to the right).

But guess what: they sorted it out. After losing by more than 17 points per 100 possessions in their first 227 minutes together, they were dominant enough in the next 464 to bring their season-long NetRtg to plus-6.8. That’s an impressive turnaround3.

And there’s no reason to think that won’t continue, to some degree or another. I’m predicting that the Jazz will play winning basketball on average when those three share the court.

Things we know #2: Jazz are trying to speed up actions within their offense

Utah’s preseason pace was the sixth quickest in the NBA preseason. They played all five games with a pace of 104.5 or higher. Their pace last year was 96.7.

What’s crazy about that eight possession leap is that the offense hasn’t really changed. The Jazz still run their same basic offense, but one of the byproducts of their continuity is that now they can graduate to the 2.0 version where instead of checking all the boxes while the clock winds from :24 down to :00, they can identify opportunities to punish an overplay or otherwise short circuit the designed flow of actions when something better presents itself. In particular, they’re looking to get the big man to seal the defender away from the paint on early screening actions, and test the waters of some early weakside movement. That and some opportunistic running have allowed the Jazz to speed up their pace without fundamentally changing what they run.

Things we don’t know #2: How that will go

So far, the results have been mixed. Yes, the Jazz led the league in preseason True Shooting and overall offense, but considering their opponent slate, that’s not necessarily proof they they mastered this quicker version of their O. And in some of those turnover-laden stretches against the good teams, Utah’s breakneck pace worked against them to some degree. A lot of lost possessions resulted from trying to force that pass into the the bigs or getting a little too greedy in transition. 

There’s also a defensive trade-off. Live ball turnovers while the defense is still coming down are the most dangerous, and more than once an opponent was poised for a quick counterattack because the Jazz coughed up the basketball before the floor was set. Utah’s preseason opponents scored 17.4 percent of their points off of Jazz turnovers, and 13.3 percent in transition. 

Prediction #2: The Jazz will tap (but not slam) the brakes

The Jazz will clean up some of the miscues, but ultimately I think possessions are just too valuable to Utah to keep the risk profile higher than it needs to be. Even after the hot finish, Utah’s offense was below average last year (16th) and needs to improve if the Jazz are going to become legitimate contenders. That 17.2% turnover rate just won’t do. They’ll still run when the opportunity is there, and they’ll look to catch defenses napping early in the shot clock. But that pace number will come down considerably from the 109 preseason mark. Expect a pace of around 100, a slight uptick from last year, but not a complete reinvention of their identify on the fly.

Things we know #3: Dante Exum will play

Even aside from the consistent buzz I’m catching from plugged-in people who say the Jazz are committed to finally unleashing Exum on the NBA in the meaningful way, he looks ready.

He still has a couple of plays each game where he’s a little out of control, and fouling has been an issue off and on. But this new version of Exum is both confident and competent. He’s making better pick-and-roll reads, and he looks less fearful around the rim. It’s not by coincidence that the Jazz won big in Exum’s minutes in each of the games he played: +36, +16, +11.

He was more creator than scorer in the preseason, but the Jazz will take that. And when he did shoot, he netted 18 points on 12 field goal attempts. It’s still mostly straight-line drives for Exum, although he has a killer inside-out dribble, and he’s starting to recognize that a change of speed when going to the hoop is as dangerous and just going 90 m.p.h. all the time.

Expect a big role for Exum this year.

Things we don’t know #3: The rest of the guard/wing rotation

If we assume 30ish minutes for Rubio and Mitchell, and 20-plus for Exum… there aren’t very many minutes left of the 96 at two guard positions. Alec Burks, Royce O’Neale, Grayson Allen and Raul Neto would all like some.

Burks had a heck of a preseason, and was the first guy off the bench in many situations. He dropped a .658 true shooting figure, helped by netting 48 percent of his threes. He can break down the defense with or without a pick, and his decision-making has been better. On the other hand, O’Neale is the more vanilla option on offense — safer, perhaps, if also less dynamic and less able to manufacture buckets out of thin air — but is already an elite defender. Those two will vie for the majority of the remaining guardline minutes, and both can play the three if needed to help Snyder get everybody on the floor.

Prediction #3: When the dust settles, Burks will be the 10th man in Utah’s 9-man rotation

Thabo Sefolosha’s absence in the first five will give Snyder a chance to spread more minutes out to both Burks and O’Neale, but when it comes down to it, the latter is just plain too good at what he does and he’ll get the bulk of the minutes.

But players can find a lot of minutes in that on-deck role, too. That means any time a player is hurt, resting, struggling or in foul trouble, Burks will get the call and Snyder will adjust guys’ positions up or down to accommodate. He’ll find his way on the court, enough that he’ll feel like a de facto rotation player, even though he’ll be behind the other nine when everybody’s available.

There just aren’t enough minutes for everybody, though, so Allen will mostly be a situational player/deep reserve time for the time being. That’s too bad, as his shooting (52% from three in the preseason!!) could be a fun counterweight to Exum’s second-unit slashing and driving. But there are only 240 minutes available per night and, as Snyder has pointed out, you can’t try to feed everybody without experiencing some diminishing returns.

Things we know #4: The Jazz will take a historic number of threes

More than 40 percent of Utah’s preseason shots were 3-point looks, and as a team they converted a remarkable 42 percent of them. Both numbers will come down a little in the regular season against a steadier slate of quality opponents, but the Jazz’s commitment to tugging at the defense from the perimeter is obviously real.

Things we don’t know #4: Whether the Jazz will get enough “stretch” from their stretch 4s

Actually, in a much broader sense, one of the biggest remaining mysteries is how the minutes will shake out between Sefolosha and Jae Crowder. The former shot 37.5 percent in the preseason, almost entirely from the corners. But Crowder struggled, nailing less than 30 percent of his deep looks. That will go a long way in determining how the minutes look at the stretch four spot over the course of the season. Assuming his shooting normalizes a bit in the regular season, this will be an interesting rotation spot to watch. Jae at the PF spot with the other four starters was a crazy successful lineup last year, while Sefolosha made every single teammate better than they were without the Swiss Army forward alongside. So this is not a particularly easy call.

Expect Georges Niang to get in on the act when guys are out. He can play.

Prediction #4: Favors will get his 3-point percentage over .300

The NBA three is as much about rhythm and feel as anything, which is why I wasn’t the least bit surprised to see Favors shoot at just a 22 percent clip last season when he was taking fewer than one per game. A 3-point shot can’t be something you pull out once every couple of games. This year, Fav will attempt them more consistently and that will allow his percentage to stabilize. His stroke looks great, so now it’s just about building the muscle memory in authentic game situations. 

No, 30 percent isn’t ideal territory, but it’s enough. That translates to 0.9 points for every possession that ends in a Fav three, which is better than the average non-transition possession in the NBA. And the simple fact of being willing to attempt them consistently will impact the Utah’s broader offensive ecosystem in ways that will lift efficiency for other dudes on other play types. And in a weird way, it strengthens the defense because it enables Snyder to engage the Favors-Gobert tandem with fewer qualms.

The math gets even easier to justify if he improves to 31 or 32 percent, which is doable. Don’t expect him to turn into a 35-percent shooter overnight, but with consistent looks, breaking into the low 30s is achievable step-function change for Favors as an outside threat.

Prediction #5: It’s almost time to enjoy the hell out of 82 games

The ride starts Wednesday. Let’s enjoy.

 

Dan Clayton

Dan Clayton

Dan covered Utah Jazz basketball for more than 10 years, including as a radio analyst for the team’s Spanish-language broadcasts from 2010 to 2014. He now lives and works in New York City, but contributes regularly to Salt City Hoops, FanRag and BBALLBreakdown.
Dan Clayton

One Comment

  1. Paul Johnson says:

    Something Jazz fans didn’t expect to hear 8 years ago: “Derrick Favors for 3!”

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