The Jazz are winners of four straight, their two top scorers are finally healthy and hitting at the same time, and their big man is playing the best all-around ball of his career to date.
And yet the chatter among Jazz nation is largely focused on a minutes controversy.
We’ll start this week’s survey of the Jazz world with that hot topic, but don’t worry: we’ll have plenty of opportunities to celebrate a week of successes, too.
The discussion points about Dante Exum suddenly being glued to the bench have mostly centered around how much stock you put in on-court numbers. Exum’s on (and off) numbers have become Exhibit A in the case for making the Aussie guard learn by watching for a while.
So far this season, the offense dips (94.6, compared to 114.1) and the defense loosens (101.7, vs. 98.1) when Exum plays. Real Plus-Minus also has Exum as the worst so far of Utah’s four point guards, and the 74th-ranked of the 83 qualified points. If you believe in the absoluteness of what those numbers say about Exum’s 373 minutes, then this is an open-and-shut case: he makes the Jazz worse.
But hang on.
Quin Snyder certainly isn’t making or explaining this decision in terms of plus-minus numbers, that’s for sure. In fact, even during the same week when others have defended his decision using that broad logic, the Jazz coach panned that we shouldn’t pay those type of stats much mind1. Remember, this is the coach that frequently preaches process over results.
Moreover, plus-minus is just one way of attempting to measure a player’s macro contribution to team success, and a noisy one at that. Advanced stats like VORP, Wins Above Replacement, Box Plus-Minus and Win Shares, Exum grades out at least as well as the player who supplanted him in the lineup.
Which is all to say that it’s not about this metric or that metric, and in fact it’s not really even about Exum’s performance relative to Shelvin Mack’s. This is clearly about Snyder wanting to send his young point guard a message about urgency, as evidenced by this quote that comes via our good friend Angie Treasure.
“We have four points guards on our team… Everybody’s gotta be ready to go. The opportunity comes, and you take advantage of it. It’s that simple. I expect everybody to be ready to go, no matter the situation. Like I said, we’re going to play the guys that play defense, collectively. That’s the goal, and some guys are going to play more than others at various times.”
While Snyder went out of his way to avoid sounding like he was throwing Exum under the bus2, that’s a pretty clear edict on what the 21-year-old has been missing.
A close examination of Exum’s performance last Wednesday — the Denver game that apparently cost him the backup spot — is fairly damning. On his best defensive possessions, he was a non-factor. On the worst, he would completely lose his man in space, then just pick up a nearby opponent as though there had been a switch. On offense, he was as passive as we’ve seen him all year. It was a bad game.
Let me repeat that, lest anybody think there’s some selection bias going on here: He. Did. Not. Play. Well. Snyder hung with him for nearly seven scoreless, assistless, reboundless first-half minutes, and when he came back looking equally lackadaisical in the second half, the coach pulled the plug before 90 seconds had elapsed. Rightly. He should have been pulled from that game. He should have felt the branch creak a little. He should have had to run extra ladders in practice, or whatever. He played poorly, and Snyder was right to react.
Still, it feels odd to exile him altogether. Since that game, Exum has played little more than garbage minutes. He made a cameo at the end of the Atlanta blowout and got his first ever DNP-CD at Minnesota. His weirdest stint came against Houston, when Snyder put him in for 72 first-half seconds3. It was a nice gesture to give him the opportunity to start to earn some trust back, but how much confidence can a young guy play with when a coach is standing over him, ready to pull him after a single minute, as soon as he makes his first mistake?
That’s the weirdest aspect of this from where I sit: the sudden lack of patience with a guy who everybody knew would need some time to build up his confidence and assertiveness. Snyder told the DNews this preseason that “it’s going to take him some time to get more and more comfortable.” Over the course of Dante’s career, Snyder has repeatedly stated that he can tolerate a certain amount of mistakes in the name of growth, as long as the former #5 pick was playing assertively.
That was something he was finally starting to do. As we covered in the “By the Numbers” section of last week’s SC7, the five games leading up to that Denver goose egg were maybe Exum’s most aggressive five-game stretch ever. He was taking steps toward being the aggressive, assertive player his coach has always begged him to be… and then he had a clunker, and now they sort of lose that progress. A player that was starting to look more confident and comfortable is now looking over his shoulder, fearful of the quick hook.
Basically, Snyder is wagering the progress Exum made over that stretch to see if he can inspire a greater degree of focus and compliance on the defensive end. It may work out if the young guard embraces the challenge and address the specific defensive grievances of his coach and get back to attacking with confidence. Snyder obviously has an objective here, and Jazz brass has believed all along in Exum’s competitive will and desire to get better. So this will probably turn out all right, sooner or later.
Let’s get back to good news. The Jazz did just reel off four straight wins, after all.
“He’s really good. He’s a really good basketball player. He makes our team go to another level… when he’s out on the floor, the game is easier for everybody else.”
The Jazz are undefeated (5-0) when these two are both available, including the current four-game win streak. Utah is 8-3 when Hill plays.
But in a year when Hayward’s contract situation turns every utterance into a chance to glean some hint into his thinking, this quote is also here because it’s encouraging in that sense. I’m glad Hayward recognizes the “other level” the team has been playing at. They’re back to being favorites for a top-5 seed, at least by most projection models. FiveThirtyEight updated its Jazz forecast to 52 wins. Whether they realize that lofty projection or not, the “other level” thing is just plain factual at this stage, and it’s nice to hear Gordon recognize it out loud.
As Ken Clayton and I have been discussing on the Salt City Hoops podcasts of late, Gordon Hayward hasn’t had too many mornings when he woke up as a 20.0-ppg scorer. In fact, before this calendar year, he only had one game that he closed with a season scoring average of 20.0 or higher4.
But already this year, Hayward has closed 10 games with an average in the 20s, and as long as he scores a single bucket against Miami on Thursday, he’ll already match the 11 such games from last year.
As with any statistical cut-off, there’s some inherent arbitrariness here. How do we know that 20.0 is more significant in terms of the respect and attention it commands than 19.6? Or that we shouldn’t measure 21.2 as the statistical turning point for an elite NBA scorer? We don’t. Twenty-point-zero is just a conveniently round number… although to some degree, the premise for this was based on erstwhile Jazzman Richard Jefferson telling us that there’s a difference in the league once you’re a 20-point scorer.
The way things are going. maybe we should just start rotating these around among Hayward, George Hill and Rudy Gobert. Those three seem to be dominating the game ball discussions after every game, and a more democratized process would make the selection process easier on your faithful columnist. In the meantime, here’s how I’d parse the heroics from the Jazz’s wins this week.
Jazz 95, Hawks 68: Rudy Gobert
I hate the mental shortcut that any win driven by the defense is automatically a Gobert haul. That discounts the great D work being done by others. But Gobert was just nuts defensively. His 10 & 10 constituted the most modest of his 11 double-doubles so far, but he completely took Dwight Howard (2-for-9) out of his comfort zone. The visitors shot 22% at the rim with Gobert nearby and he blocked five shots by four different Hawks. During the middle quarters, when Utah held Atlanta to 25 points in 24 minutes, Gobert’s DRtg was 52.0, as the Hawks simply could not score with him in the game in those quarters (21% FGs, 4 TOs). You could also make a case for Hill, Hayward or even Rodney Hood, who blanketed Kyle Korver defensively.
Jazz 112, Timberwolves 103: Gordon Hayward
You could make a decent case for Gobert in this one, too, and many of you did. Another great defensive outing, total control of the boards, and a meatier double-double (16 & 17). To this eye, Hayward was simply the most important person in this game. Utah’s scheme from the start was to have Hayward smother Andrew Wiggins with minimal help or switching, and Gordon made the strategy look smart, holding Minny’s leading scorer to 13 on 6-for-16 shooting. More important was how in control Utah looked whenever Hayward was on the court and how lost they looked whenever he sat. Utah won each of Hayward’s five stints on the floor by a total of 93-67, and lost or tied every time he sat. Hill shook off a slow start for a stat-line that probably trumped G’s (24-8-4 vs. 24-5-2), but Hayward was the key player on both ends.
Jazz 120, Rockets 101: Gordon Hayward
I was kidding about rotating this fake award among the Hill-Hayward-Gobert triumvirate, by the way, and for a while it looked like Tuesday’s Spalding belonged to Hood. He had his best game in a long time, starting with a dominant 13-point first quarter. But he exited early, and Hayward’s fourth (14 points on 6 shots, 2 assists) was just as special. When you have a fine line like Hayward’s — 31-5-7 — you’re going to get the game ball unless someone else did something REEEEEEALLY interesting.
I had another play all ready — a cool loop play where Gobert & Hayward faked the dribble hand-off and then capitalized on a weak-side collapse.
But then I realized this SC7 needed more Rudy.
Gobert has just been phenomenal all season. He’s at another level, and I didn’t want the Exum polemic and Hill and Hayward’s performances to preclude us from highlighting him in some way. So I give you two great Rudy rolls that led to pretty layups.
The plays have roughly the same set-up: it’s a counter to the big man hedging on the high pick-and-roll. Because the big steps out aggressively, Gobert winds up with both of the defenders on one side of him. But the angle is tough for a direct pass, because the ball handler would have to pass across those two bodies to get him the ball.
So the Jazz incorporate the same logic behind the hi-lo pass for post entry: they quickly relay a pass to a player who has the best angle to hit Gobert’s rim dive. And he finishes both plays with touch and finesse.
Thursday vs. Miami: A rare Thursday game in SLC will see the Jazz wrap up their season series with the Heat. Utah beat Miami by 11 down in Florida not three weeks earlier, and now they should be able to hold court against the 4th-worst offense in the league. Plus: another Gobert-Hassan Whiteside grudge match!
Saturday vs. Denver: The third matchup with the Nuggets in a matter of two weeks. Denver will be coming from playing Houston a night earlier, but as back-to-backs go, a Denver-SLC flight is pretty non-invasive. If you’ve heard the way Quin Snyder talks about this Nuggets team, you’ll know this isn’t a group Utah can look past.
Monday at LA Lakers: Speaking of teams you can no longer overlook, the Lakers are a .500ish team with a puncher’s chance at the playoffs. They’ll face the Jazz in the come-home game after their current 4-game trip.
Tuesday vs. Phoenix: The Suns will be waiting in Salt Lake while the Jazz play the Lakers in a dreaded West-to-East back-to-back. But that’s about the only reason to worry about this one. Phoenix is a mess, with a bottom-10 offense AND defense. Their only road wins so far were against the underperforming Pelicans (in OT), Pacers and Magic.
— Scott Sommerdorf (@ScottSommerdorf) November 26, 2016