It was a packed week for the Jazz, one with plenty of heroes, both of the likely and unlikely variety. This week we’re going to dig deep on someone who has quietly become a very important Jazz man, and then we’ll look at plays, game balls, key quotes, All-Star chances and more. Welcome to the madness.
Not that long ago, Joe Ingles was considered a nice emergency piece.
He wasn’t a total afterthought, just a bit superfluous on a team with suddenly impressive wing depth. Even before the team’s four rotation wings were healthy, the 6’8″ Australian found himself playing a deep bench role because the coaching staff wanted to preserve some wing minutes for Ingles’ countryman Dante Exum. He played four minutes in a November win at New York, and had games of seven, eight, 10 and multiple 12-minute outings in the first month of the season.
Fast forward to mid January, and the cagey veteran is one of the primary protagonists on a team ascending the Western Conference power structure. He might be the most important non-starter right now, and there are times when the case could be made that he’s outplaying certain members of Utah’s starting five, too.
The shooting aspect of Ingles’ scouting report has been well-documented. He led the league for a while in three-point percentage, and he’s still in the top five despite converting just four of his 20 attempts since the new year. He’s also known as a willing passer and smart playmaker, someone who has the court vision and risk tolerance to find and make passes other don’t. But we knew all that already.
Somehow, when nobody was looking, Ingles turned himself into a really good defender.
Slo-Mo Joe’s steal rate has been steady throughout his career. He mostly racks up steals by doing what your Junior Jazz coach always yelled at you to do: keep your hands up! He deflects a lot of passes in traffic just by understanding where the passing lanes are and waving his hand. And he has always been at least aware in team defensive settings: meaning not a stopper, but not the guy who screws up or loses his man often, either.
Where he has gotten much better of late is as an on-ball defender. It was on display again when he helped frustrate LeBron James for stretches during Utah’s 100-92 win over the champion Cavaliers on Tuesday. The weight he lost over the off-season appears to have helped him defend more nimbly. He knows he can’t always stop a guy outright, but by sliding laterally he can cut off the angle and not let his man turn the corner. Last year’s Joe might have surrendered that angle more often just as a question of sheer physical ability. This year, his smarts are paired with a more mobile frame.
He’s also bringing to the table some other fundamentally sound tactics. His closeouts are near textbook, as we saw against Kevin Love and Andrew Wiggins this past week; he very rarely falls for wild fakes. He can also help and get back, and he’s getting better at channeling drivers where he wants them to go. On Tuesday he wound up on Kyrie Irving on a couple of switches, and each him he guided the All-Star guard right into Rudy Gobert’s body.
Against LeBron, he stood up to contact and maintained verticality on contests, which led to some awkward post attempts by the King.
Joe Ingles isolation defense on LeBron: pic.twitter.com/U1i0ds30lg
— Andy Larsen (@andyblarsen) January 11, 2017
He has stood out for his defense in other games as well. At the end of 2016, he had a great night against the Lakers where he guarded their bigs for a stretch and then successfully pestered scoring guard Lou Williams.
The result: of rotation players, only defensive big men Gobert and Derrick Favors have a higher defensive Box Plus-Minus.
It doesn’t quite show up in his on/off numbers yet — partially because this is a bit of a recent defensive renaissance and partly because Ingles has played a lot of minutes in some pretty bad defensive units. But there are certain combinations that really unleash Ingles unique smarts and size. For example, the Ingles-George Hill combo is Utah’s second-best defensive duo in terms of DRtg, minimum 20 minutes.
When you play that kind of defense, hit 44% of your threes, and give the team another ball-handling and facilitating option, there’s pretty much no way Quin Snyder can sit him. And he probably shouldn’t: as of January 12, Ingles is third on the team in value above replacement1 and fourth in Win Shares2.
In other words, Joe Ingles is not just a quirky fan favorite anymore — he’s legitimately really important to what the Jazz are doing right now.
Normally, I pick the signature win of the week and find some basket scored on clever action to dissect in this space.
The signature win part was easy this week. Beating the champs 100-92 was easily the Jazz’s most impressive outing since our last SC7. But the reality they mostly just played hard, stayed in their flow and executed well. There wasn’t a lot of creative offensive machinery in this one, at least not leading directly to made baskets.
So here’s what we’re going to do instead: look at two impressive fast break buckets by the game’s MVP.
Transition scoring was obviously a key part of Utah’s game plan. They were focused early on finding opportunities to run. They officially had eight fast break points3 in the first quarter alone — this from a team that typically scores 7.7 per game.
Here are two Hayward attacks, from key stretches in the first and second half.
The first one has a little give-and-go action to it. Hayward sees three maroon shirts waiting for him, so he passes to the wing and slows down a bit. In that moment, you see the defenders kind of breathe a little bit. THAT’s where Hayward attacks, and catches them flat-footed. A lot of guys like to drive baseline or sneak backdoor on drives. Not Hayward. He often attacks the middle of the floor, going right at the seam between two guys, perhaps to create some confusion over which one should jump out to stop him.
The second one is included just because it’s a damn star move. Utah had already seized control with a 14-0 run that included eight Hayward points, but he wasn’t done. He got the ball after this Gobert deflection, sized up the defense and just went into attack mode. He dances past a first defender, directly challenges a second one and hits a tougher-than-it-looks corkscrew right from the middle of the paint. The Jazz never trailed again after that 16-0 run was complete.
“It’ll be a disgrace if he’s not an All-Star this year. I feel like he deserves it with the numbers he’s put up this year and winning a little bit. That should be a no-brainer for him.”
– George Hill, speaking to the mothership about teammate Gordon Hayward’s All-Star chances
“He’s one of the best in the league right now,” Hill told ESPN’s Tim McMahon, making the case that Hayward should be one of 12 Western Conference players to participate in this February’s All-Star game.
Whether Hayward makes it or not, here’s a fun fact about the selection process for All-Star reserves: the seven subs for each conference will be announced on January 26 on TNT — the same night that the Jazz play on TNT.
That probably means that coaches will have turned in their ballots to the league by the 25th. Even though the NBA has changed the voting process for All-Star starters to include players and media, there is no change to the reserve selection: reserves are still selected by the coaches in each conference4. This is probably encouraging news for the Jazz’s All-Star hopefuls, since coaches may be more in tune with what the Jazz are up to than the average NBA fan or social media user.
The timing is also good news: between now and January 255, Utah plays mostly sub-.500 teams. Coaches have a proven tendency to err on the side of taking players from teams with better records, and the Jazz could be in a really good position by the time coaches turn in their ballots.
Of the Jazz’s seven opponents between now and the 1/26 announcement, only Indiana and OKC are winning teams, and those are both home games6. If the Jazz could go 5-2 over that stretch, they could potentially be 29-18, and Western Conference coaches may have a hard time ignoring a team on a 51-win pace. If they somehow run the table, they’ll be 31-16, on track for 54.
Not that coaches will only pay attention to the Jazz’s record. But if they’re flipping a coin between Hayward and someone from a .500ish-or-below outfit, the Jazz being solidly on their way to 50 could make the difference.
This next stretch might determine whether the Jazz’s TNT appearance on the 26th will be a celebration of Hayward’s or Gobert’s anointment, or an awkward encounter.
Jazz 94, Timberwolves 92: Derrick Favors
I totally get why we got a lot of George Hill votes after the Jazz came back in Minny. The point guard’s line (19-5-7) was more impressive at first glance, and he posted a game-high +10 in his 33 minutes. But the win only happened because of the final three minutes, and the final three minutes belonged to Favors. Utah won because of an 11-0 run, and Fav scored seven of those points: a dunk, a jumper, and then his second-ever career three-pointer. Plus, he had three steals, two blocks, and rim protection numbers (2-for-8) that were even better than Rudy’s.
Jazz 100, Cavs 92: Gordon Hayward
It takes a bunch of good performances to beat an elite team, but c’mon… this one is easy. G-Time dueled with the King, hitting 10 of 12 on his way to a line of 28-9-2-1-1 in comparison with LeBron James’ 10/20 for 29-6-5-4-0. But more than anything, he clinched it with the starriest stretch we’ve maybe ever seen from Hayward in that third quarter. The Cavs had charged back with a 19-2 run that included several “wow” plays from LBJ. And Hayward answered right back. He had 10 of Utah’s points in a 16-0 run that put Utah back up for good. Ingles deserves a lot of defensive credit, and Trey Lyles and Rodney Hood hit key shots late, but this one was easy.
One of the big storylines this week revolved around the Jazz’s plans to use the SLC Stars, their D-League affiliate as a means of getting rotation guys back to form and giving their deep reserves some important reps. The discussion started in earnest when they assigned Dante Exum, Alec Burks and Raul Neto to get some practice with the Stars on an off day. Then, on Wednesday, the latter two were assigned for an actual game.
Neto used the opportunity to shine the most brightly. Above is his line, but the most impressive part was the +38; it’s really hard to win an entire basketball game by 38; the Stars won by 38 just in Neto’s 33 minutes. Spencer Wixom’s full scouting report from the game is here.
It was less impressive field trip for Burks, who physically looked great but struggled to find the basket. But both players saw the value in logging some minutes and being a more central part of the Stars’ approach than they currently are with the parent club. Of course, there’s a lot to unpack here; Wixom and I discussed the Jazz-Stars relationship, the recent assignments, and the pros and cons of someone like Exum partaking more fully in the D-League.
Only three games show up on this week’s docket, and all of them are against teams currently on track to miss the postseason. The Jazz need to demand a lot out of themselves this week — a perfect week would be ideal.
Friday vs. Pistons: Utah’s toughest opponent of the week is a team that is a 50/50 bet to make the playoffs, per sites like B-Ref and FiveThirtyEight. Detroit is primarily a defensive outfit, but their defense gets more than 5 points per game worst when they travel. They do win on the road, though: 8-12 overall, including a double-overtime win at Portland on this same trip. In other words: the Jazz need to be ready, but if they have the right mindset coming in, they’ll be heavy favorites.
Saturday vs. Magic: How do you make the only no-travel back-to-back of the season a little bit more miserable? Make the first one a late game. Friday’s ESPN coverage of Jazz-Pistons means the home team will tip off against the Magic about 20 hours after wrapping up work against Detroit. It might or might not matter. The last time the Jazz played Orlando, they held them to an 81.9 ORtg in an 87-74 road win in November.
Monday at Suns: Alex Len, confront your victim. This will be the Jazz’s first encounter with Len since the Ukrainian put an extra hole in George Hill’s head. It’s Utah’s final meeting with Phoenix and a chance to sweep the season series with a 14th-place team that somehow finds itself just three games in the loss column out of 8th7.
Favors got a three-year head start on Rudy, and has similar rim denial chops. So I figure the number would be similarly impressive.
So what’s your guess? You have until the end of Saturday’s game against Orlando to register a guess on the number different NBA players Favors has blocked in his career. For a frame of reference: Gobert, drafted in 2013, has been credited for blocking 242 different guys. The person who guesses the closest — by commenting below or hitting me on Twitter — will earn Twitter cred galore, mention in the Salt City Seven, and I’ll say at least one nice thing about them. If anyone can correctly guess the player Favors has blocked the most, I’ll compose a special haiku for that winner.
Go to town, folks.
Update: And the answer is…
Favors has blocked 289 unique NBA players as of the close of the Jazz-Magic game. Tweeter Ash, a smart and passionate Jazz fan, came the closest with her guess of 304. You must all now praise her wisdom.
Nobody guessed Favors’ most blocked, which is good news because it gets me off the hook from having to write a haiku.
Nine times in Fav’s paint,
The Beard hath approached to score,
And been turned away.
That’s right, James Harden has been blocked by Favors nine times. Tyreke Evans and JJ Hickson have each been denied eight times.