Salt City Seven: Expectations for Exum, Playoff Race, Key Numbers and More

March 1st, 2018 | by Dan Clayton

Brent Asay via

Down the home stretch we go.

The Jazz are still on the outside of the playoff landscape and looking in, and a 1-2 week didn’t help matters. We’ll recap the key stories from the week with numbers, plays and more as we usually do. But first, it’s time to start talking about a name that’s been all-too-absent from the actual basketball conversation this season.


A quick(ish) exploration of a prominent theme from the week or the current state of Utah Jazz basketball.

March arrived since our last SC7 installment, which means it’s no longer crazy to start thinking about the impact Dante Exum’s return will have on the 31-30 Jazz.

General manager Dennis Lindsey has said that the Aussie guard is targeting a March return, and the warmup videos that surface every few days seem to corroborate the notion that he’s oh-so-close to playing actual basketball again. So, by popular demand1, let’s stop to imagine how the Jazz will reincorporate their former top-five pick and what other rotation adjustments that will require.

When the 6’6″ guard finally suits up for a game, the Jazz will get an infusion of raw talent. While it’s safe to say that Exum is still figuring out the NBA game, he undeniably possesses unique tools. Even as his development curve has been constantly interrupted by injuries, he has established himself as a plus defender with occasional bursts of offensive ability that harken back to his pre-draft profile. His jumper could still use some work, but his decision-making and floor game looked miles better, both in last July’s Summer League and in the preseason.

Look, anybody who purports to know exactly the impact Exum will have on this particular Jazz team is just guessing. Yes, Exum believers, he could immediately complement Donovan Mitchell’s growth as another zippy and daring ball-handler who can bottle up opposing guards on defense. And yes, Exum pessimists, he could come back completely tentative and spend the last month of the season feeling his way around the court with two hands and a flashlight. Both scenarios are fully in play, as are a million gradations in between.

But I know two gentlemen who sound like they are optimistic: Lindsey and Jazz coach Quin Snyder.

Lindsey has said in multiple interviews that Exum’s extended absence affected the Jazz’s plans nearly as much as Rudy Gobert’s. That’s partially a commentary on positional need and how Exum’s tools fit Utah’s preferred style of play, but it’s nevertheless a big compliment to the rehabbing youngster. And Snyder, in his weekly appearance on team radio, again effused praise, even if it came with a (fair) criticism of Exum’s intermittent focus last season.

“Dante’s a guy that I was pretty hard on. I’m not talking about screaming and yelling, but… we felt like there were times he didn’t recognize the opportunity to compete,” Snyder told 1280 the Zone as part of a broader discussion on how he decides when to be tough with guys. “Dante’s such an intelligent guy that we tried to hold him to a high standard and felt like he could do that. Now, if I felt like he wasn’t capable of that, I don’t think I would have been as stingy on him in those situations.”

In other words, Snyder demands a lot from Exum because, as he has told us in the past, “I believe in his insides.” So expect Snyder to find opportunities to unleash the 22-year-old’s talents and resume his developmental plan — even if that requires adjustments to the rotation.

Minutes in Utah’s backcourt are already a hot commodity. Mitchell and Ricky Rubio will both continue to play close to their 30-32 minute averages, overlapping some at the PG spot but with Mitchell bleeding over into shooting guard minutes. And Royce O’Neale’s emergence has made him a fixture of the guard rotation. 

Exum could usurp some of Alec Burks’ minutes. The latter has a minus-5.2 Net Rating in 2018, even as the team has surged. His thee-point shooting is down to 21.6 percent since January 1, and he has more DNP-CDs in that span than 20-minute games. But that’s the problem: Burks was already on the fringe of the rotation, and mostly found his way back onto the court when Raul Neto got hurt. Simply planning on sliding his minutes over to Exum doesn’t work, because those arguably aren’t really his minutes to begin with. If everybody in this discussion is healthy, then two of the O’Neale-Burks-Neto trio have to sit for Exum to inherit a steady role. (Exum could also share time with Neto as the backup PG, although Mitchell already eats up some of those minutes.)

The Jazz will make it work, though, in part because they want to see how much Exum can nudge them forward as they compete for a playoff spot, and in part because they need to see how he fits with Mitchell. The two showed off some fun chemistry in summer and exhibition games, but the Jazz need more information than that before they contemplate locking the pair up as the backcourt of the future.

There are still teams intrigued by Exum’s talent, so securing his long-term involvement with the program could still require a significant investment. The Jazz can control his market by submitting a qualifying offer that would grant them matching rights, although that wouldn’t preclude an interested team from bidding up the price. Promising guards have been pulling eight-figure salaries since long before the recent cap explosion; way before they were sure things, Jrue Holiday, Kemba Walker, Ty Lawson and Steph Curry sign four-year deals somewhere in the $40 million range. Adjust that for cap inflation and that’s equivalent to a $13-15 million per year salary.

Now, none of those four quite experienced Exum’s combinations of multiple long-term injuries plus mercurial play when he was available. Exum might more reasonably consider Shaun Livingston. Like the Australian, “Liv” was a top-five pick whose early career was derailed by injury. He played in just 145 games by then end of his rookie contract (Exum has played in 148 as of right now), and once he came back from a gruesome knee injury, he eventually caught got back to the NBA by signing a deal at the midlevel exception. The modern-day equivalent of Livingston money is something around $9 million.

Depending on what he shows over the last 15 or so games this season, that negotiation could be fraught. There’s a big difference between the $15M range and the more realistic MLE territory, and in a cash-constrained 2018 marketplace, there’s not even a guarantee of MLE money. Only a handful of teams are expected to be able to offer more than the midlevel, and not all of the teams who have that exception available will want to use it, because doing so puts a hard limit on their spending for the coming season. Finding middle-ground in this micro cap reality could be a stark prospect.

(One thing he almost certainly won’t do is take the one-year qualifying offer. Because he was a high draft pick who won’t have met the “starter criteria” for draftees2, his QO will be adjusted downward. Instead of a $6.6M offer the Jazz would otherwise have to present him, the required offer to retain his rights will be just $4.1M — literally less than his current salary. That number barely matters on a practical level since the QO has nothing to do with his free agent hold amount, but it does reduce the likelihood of Exum accepting the one-year contract to something close to nil.)

It’s not crazy to think that a player with his injury history might value security and scoop up a fair offer. This is especially true if he believes in the spirit behind Snyder’s tough-love coaching and senses the organization’s belief in him. But first things first: he gets a chance to bolster that faith with a few spring performances.


Words from a Jazz player or coach about a relevant or timely topic.

“These teams in front of us, the Clippers are winning, Denver’s winning, you look at New Orleans right now, they’re winning. It’s going to be tough,” he added. “That’ll make it even more satisfying if we can get it done. We’d all like to think that we’re capable of that as a group. We just have to control what we can control and grind away.”

– Snyder, in the 1280 interview linked above, on the intense playoff race

Make no mistake about it, Snyder still feels like his team can make the postseason. But he’s also acutely aware of the challenge at hand. Without trying to throw “cold water” on the teams hopes, Snyder issued a reminder that even during the club’s hot streak, it’s not like they did much more than put themselves back in the conversation.

“Ironically, we won 11 in a row and didn’t move up in the standings,” the fourth-year coach said. “Now, we made ourselves relevant, but that’s what we are right now: we’re relevant.”

Moving from playoff-relevant to playoff participant will require more work, the coach explained. It starts with reinforcing the defensive identity of the team, and playing with sharpness on the other end. Snyder thinks they can do it, and he’s impressed by what the team has weathered just to be in this position.

“What this group has done up to this point, frankly, is pretty impressive… It’d be a great story for this group to get in the playoffs given everything that they’ve been through as a team.”


Keeping track of Utah’s playoff chances

So what will it take to finish up that “great story?” The Jazz need to put together the wins to knock out at least two of the teams ahead of them.

Heading into the weekend, 8 teams within 4 Ls.

A few quick observations on this 8-team mess:

  • With so few games left and with a tiebreaker advantage over Utah, Minny would have to really collapse to fall past Utah. But a collapse is, you know, possible.
  • Nobody has more games left against top-10 teams than the Spurs and Thunder, followed by NOP and LAC.
  • NOP keeps scraping out wins, but their Net Rating is actually negative since the Boogie injury despite being 8-5.
  • OKC has been winning, but they just squeaked by in their last three vs. bottom-dwellers (@DAL, ORL, @SAC).
  • The Nuggets’ home loss to LAC after leading by 19 is as devastating as they get — and it cost them the season series.


Stats and figures that help tell prominent stories from the week.


That’s the amount of points Mitchell needs to make up to average 20.0 for the season. If he plays all 21 remaining games, he would need to average 21.04 in those games to make it there. Why does it matter? It doesn’t really, unless you’re someone who’s obsessed with the Rookie of the Year race. No modern rookie has averaged 20+ for a season and lost the ROY race to a player who was under 20.


After Rubio caught fire offensively with .642 true shooting during Utah’s streak, he’s down to .452 since the All-Star break. For better or worse, it feels like Rubio has become a bit of a bellwether for the Jazz. They are undefeated (9-0) when the Spaniard hits the 20-point mark, and they’re 14-4 when he knocks down at least two triples. He’s shooting a respectable 37.5 percent from three in three post-ASB games, although he didn’t attempt a single one in 20 minutes against Portland. 


It’s so easy to take Gobert for granted while he quietly sends frightened drivers U-turning away from the paint. But even as the Jazz went 1-2 this week, Rudy’s defensive presence was elite. The bench unit also had a great defensive showing in these first three post-break games, led by Jonas Jerebko (87.0 DRtg) Jae Crowder (89.4). Jerebko was the only Jazz player with a positive Net Rating for the week: plus-26.7!


A quick dissection of an awesome bit of Jazz offense from the week.

Jazz-Rox was hardly Utah’s signature offensive performance of this SC7 period, but they did find a few things that worked. Among them, was a right-side pick-and-roll towards the baseline, followed by a quick reversal to the left side, where the weakside spacers either took open shots or punished frantic closeouts.

That recipe generated a bunch of Utah’s first-half offense against the league-best Beard Buds, and they got a little extra mileage on this play thanks to a wrinkle called a ram stagger.

Jae Crowder is ultimately going to set the ball screen for Ricky Rubio, and “ram screen” refers to the action where a second screener — Derrick Favors in this case — sets a pick on Crowder’s guy. Because of that initial screen, Crowder’s guy is not in position to pick up Rubio per the Rockets’ scheme. You can actually see Luc Mbah a Moute hesitate a little, unsure for an instant whether to pick up the Jazz guard or follow Crowder.

Then Favors shifts to where he’s setting another screen for Rubio — turning it into a “staggered screens” play for the Spaniard. All this screening action makes it so that Favors’ man has no choice but to step out onto Rubio, leaving Favors an open roll into wide open space. His roll sucks in the weakside defender, and Rubio delivers the pass right over the defense. Trevor Ariza tries to recover, but Burks made a good, quick decision to read the defender and attack off the bounce.

The ram stagger setup worked on that particular play, but this basic recipe created Jazz buckets for much of the evening. Watch as Jazz ball handlers go toward the right side on different variations of the pick-and-roll, and then quickly reverse the ball to the left to stretch the defense thin.

In general, the Jazz offense is much better when they get this side-to-side motion, and it’s easy to see why here. Whether it’s the big relaying the pass (first clip), the direct skip pass (second clip), or the ball coming left and then a smart cutter finding a seam to attack (third clip), good thing happens when you make the defense shift back and forth.


Doling out credit for Jazz wins, one imaginary Spalding at a time.

This space was a virtual Game Ball factory for several weeks heading into the All-Star break. But with the Jazz at 1-2 since the NBA schedule resumed, there’s just one to give out this week.

Jazz 97, Hornets 90: Donovan Mitchell

Joe Ingles was the Jazz’s designated clutch facilitator, and after he checked into a tie game with 5:34 left, Utah finished 12-5. He also had a beautifully complete line (12-4-8-2-2) and five of his eight dimes came in the fourth. But we’re going Mitchell here. The last one we gave the rookie was after his 40-point game in Phoenix, despite being a candidate just about every time he goes out. In this one, he had probably his best line since that Phoenix game: 25-6-5 with two steals. He and Gobert shared the game-best +16.


Because, at the end of the day, this should be fun.

Since I’ve spent the week calculating and recalculating playoff odds and tiebreakers with each night’s plot twists, let’s end with a quick look at the five most important remaining Jazz games — especially since one of them is hours away.

5. 4/5 vs. Clippers: A home game against the team currently in 9th, and a chance to grab the season series.

4. 3/28 vs. Celtics: Even though it won’t be a Gordon Hayward reunion, a home game against an elite team is the type of game the Jazz need to win but could easily lose.

3. 4/11 @ Blazers: Only ranks this low because we don’t know what exactly will be in play by the final night of the season.

2. 3/11 @ Pelicans: The Pels are vulnerable, but can’t seem to stop winning close games. This would also sew up a tiebreaker.

1. 3/2 vs. Wolves: That’s right, that’s how big I think Utah’s next game is. They can still get in without this one, but winning it would really take some heat off, and would make the 4/1 rematch in Minny pretty big, too.

Salt City Seven 2017-18 Archive

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

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