For what looked like a light week on the calendar, the Jazz got a lot done since our last installment of the Salt City Seven. They nearly came back against the two-time reigning West champs, won two straight games by 20, received the Zach Lowe treatment, got healthier and then got the good news that basketball won’t be interrupted this summer by arguments between millionaires and billionaires.
Dang, a lot to cover. Let’s jump in.
Don’t look now, but Utah just got a little bit closer to full strength.
Rodney Hood’s hamstring issues aren’t going anyway anytime soon, according to his coach, but they only kept him out of two games this time around. He returned on Wednesday night and looked, honestly, in better rhythm than when he went out. He enjoyed his best shooting night of the season1, with a healthy mix of catch-and-shoot threes, off-the-bounce pull-ups and paint attacks.
Just as importantly, the club got a 12-minute look at Derrick Favors. The two-way forward had missed 14 games, but also left two early due to knee soreness and was limited in minutes in several others. He has topped 25 minutes just five times this season, and George Hill was available for just two of those games. That’s especially disheartening when you consider that this was the year we were supposed to finally see Favors unleashed with a real pick-and-roll point guard.
Favors has always been a great finisher when he catches deep on a roll, and his burgeoning midrange game makes him a pick-and-pop threat to boot. That makes him pretty special when coupled with an elite defensive profile: he can guard in space on certain switches and is also an above-average paint protector.
That latter item is often overlooked because Favors plays next to the league’s premier rim denier. Rudy Gobert is so elite down there — and makes such a visible difference as a deterrent — that people often forget that Favors is an above-average big in terms of defending shots at the rim, too. That was true last season and again in his return, when he held Enes Kanter and the other Thunder to 36% at the rim.
Favors looked a little out of rhythm after going exactly a month between games, but his energy level was there, and at no point did he look like his movement was limited. The Jazz now have just one piece of the puzzle missing in terms of their preferred starting five.
Getting Hill healthy is the next order of business, and it sounds like that may yet be a few games away. The Hill-Hayward-Favors triumvirate have still only played in one game together: what turned out to be a quality road win against a now 14-11 Knicks squad.
The Jazz will also eventually work Alec Burks back into the fold as well, although ESPN’s Zach Lowe reported after his week in Utah that Burks’ return isn’t expected until after the new year. Burks may have to fight his way into minutes anyway, because of someone else we’ll talk about later.
But the bottom line is: the Jazz aren’t yet healthy, but they’re healthier. And at 16-10, they’ve done more than just hang on while waiting for the infirmary to clear out.
“I’m not curious anymore. I’m sure we can be a top team. Top four in the NBA. I feel like we could beat everybody. Why not?”
-Rudy Gobert, in the Lowe column referenced above
Gobert is a huge part of the reason the Jazz don’t have to be afraid against anybody now. The defense he anchors is the great equalizer and slows just about any team enough for Utah to have a window of opportunity.
A perfect example of that was in the first game of our SC7 week: the Jazz lost that game by seven, but they gave themselves a chance despite trailing the elite Warriors by 25. They did it with defense: a second-half DRtg of 83.6 against maybe the most lethal offensive team of our generation. They held GSW scoreless for four minutes in the third and another 3:53 straddling the 3rd and 4th. It’s more proof that Utah has a defensive gear that can keep then in any game where they choose to engage it; that’s not solely a Gobert accomplishment, but he’s a big part of it.
Now it’s time to back that statement up. As we covered in last week’s SC7, Utah has mostly won against non-playoff teams so far, especially in their conference schedule. The win over OKC was their third victory in nine games against teams currently in possession of a Western Conference top-eight seed.
Two wins means two Spaldings, and this week we welcome a new member of the Game Ball brotherhood.
Jazz 104, Kings 84: Rudy Gobert
The bench as a whole played really well in this one — maybe the most dominant and cohesive bench outing in a month for the Jazz. But if you’re looking for a headliner on this one, no need to overthink it. Gobert didn’t just totally outplay DeMarcus Cousins (17 & 14 on 6 shots2 compared to 16 & 10 on 22 shots), but he also blocked six shots and held another opponent to under 40% shooting on shots defended at the rim. Hayward (26-7-3) deserves some major credit, too.
Jazz 109, Thunder 89: Rodney Hood
This was another really balanced team win, but it was obviously pretty early that the Jazz were getting aggressive Rodney Hood. He was guarded mostly by Jerami Grant and Semaj Christon, and he treated that like an invitation to engage his attack mode. At one point, Hood scored nine straight Jazz points, part of an 11-0 run that put the Jazz up 19. The final damage: 25 points including five threes, and he finally lands on the Game Ball leaderboard. Also considered: Shelvin Mack played well, Favors returned solidly, and Gobert pulled in another double-double.
How good has Joe Ingles been lately? He has now made 19 of his last 28 threes (68%), and his overall True Shooting is at 87.3% over the last eight games. Eighty-seven!
Seemed like a good week to recognize Jingles, the NBA’s leader in three-point percentage going into Thursday’s games. On this one, Joe benefits from the attention paid to Hayward, the gravity caused by a hard Rudy rim roll, and some really bad recovery defense.
Sacramento decided by this point in the night to trap Hayward on the pick-and-roll. Which is an OK decision except that Gobert was expecting it so he dives hard. Joe Johnson’s cut to the strong side means there’s only one guy left to help on Rudy: the weakside corner defender. Ben McLemore leaves Ingles for that purpose, and the Jazz work it around for the wide open three.
This clip could alternatively be titled “why it’s hard to build a winning program around DeMarcus Cousins.” He makes very little effort on the play overall, but he especially checks out after stepping out on that half-assed trap. Between that moment and the time Ingles lets his shot go, five seconds elapse and three passes happen, yet Boogie is still not back in the defensive picture. Watch him from the :05 mark, after Hayward passes out of the trap: he just kind of stands for there 2-3 seconds watching before jogging leisurely back towards Gobert. It is… not great defense, but credit the Jazz for exploiting it, and especially Joe for continuing to torch the nets.
The Jazz never trailed again in this game after Joe’s triple.
Usually this area is dedicated to stats, but today we’re going to broach some different numbers of interest.
The league and its players managed to stave off a potential 2017 lockout by agreeing to a collective bargaining agreement that will kick in after this season. While certain components of the 2011 pact will carry over — such as the size of the revenue pie that the owners and players each get3 — there were some other material changes to the salary and contract rules. Let’s examine a couple and how they might impact the Jazz.
Salaries at the top of the league continue to skyrocket because they’re tied to a cap that has inflated rapidly with new TV money. But at the bottom of the NBA food chain are players making salaries based on fixed exceptions: midlevel, biannual, rookie scale and minimum exceptions, to name the most common. Since those didn’t move with the cap, the salary chasm between the haves and the have-nots was getting wider, with some players making north of $30 million this year while certain rookies made just over a half a million. Those set figures, multiple reports say, will be bumped up by nearly half for the rank-and-file NBA players.
It makes absolute sense to adjust those salaries up, but for the Jazz, that could compress the salary situation even further. Whatever you think Ingles’ market value was as a free agent-to-be just went up by 45%. Think the Jazz should keep Jeff Withey or Shelvin Mack around? 45%. Will they need some mid-level role players as some point in their quest to contend? 45%. Utah’s two 2017 first-round picks? Yep, them too.
This all further illustrates a growing worry that the Jazz can’t indefinitely keep their entire core intact.
The new deal will allow teams to extend up to two veterans for a total of six years. That completely changes the range of options we’ve discussed around how the Jazz might structure a renegotiation + extension deal with Favors and Hill. But the Jazz still have to figure out just how much money they can guarantee those players over the long haul given pending raises for other young guys.
One of the cooler aspects of the new deal is the expansion of rosters to 17 to allow for two players that can be shuffled between the Jazz and their D-League club.
This is great news. I complained in an August column about how counterproductive it was for the league to require NBA teams to make a bad decision with their draft-rights players: either invite them to camp and be forced to keep or waive them… or don’t bring them to camp and they don’t get exposed to your system. Imagine if, instead of waiving Marcus Paige and losing his rights, the Jazz had been able to simply keep him on a two-way contract, something that will be allowed next year. Players who accept those deals will make top D-League money while they’re in the D-League, but then make the prorated NBA minimum for any portion of the year they’re called to the parent club. That could be really helpful during injuries.
The Jazz will play four times before our next SC7 update, including what is undoubtedly the toughest stretch of what has otherwise been a breezy December.
Friday vs. Mavericks: With former Jazz players Deron Williams and Wesley Matthews back in action alongside Harrison Barnes, the version of the Mavs that visits the Wasatch Front this week is better than the 6-19 squad that has sputtered to the league’s worst start4. But with Dirk Nowitzki, Andrew Bogut and noted Jazz-killer JJ Barea still out, this feels a game the Jazz should control if they show up mentally. They should be motivated to do so: ESPN is somehow in the house for this battle between the two slowest teams in the league.
Sunday at Grizzlies: If Memphis weren’t missing Mike Conley and Chandler Parsons, this would be one of those you hope the Jazz could steal. Without those two, it more or less becomes a game they have to find a way to win. But be warned: injuries notwithstanding, the Grizz had won six straight and 13 of 16 before splitting a home-and-home with LeBron. And now there are rumors Conley might try to make his return this weekend.
Tuesday at Warriors: It would be nice if a more complete Jazz squad could produce 48 minutes of good basketball for this nationally-televised5 affair, as opposed to the 24 minutes of solid effort they gave in Salt Lake City. But just remember that there are a number of reasons why Golden State has lost just six games at home since the start of the 2014-15 season.
Wednesday vs. Kings: That feeling of deja vu you’re getting is because we just did this: the Jazz beat the Kings last weekend, which means that this is already Boogie Cousins’ final trip to SLC this season. Sacramento has improved it’s offense and defense enough6 to sneak into the 9th spot in the West, but they’re climbing more by default than for any other reason. They’re 2-6 in their last eight, including that 20-point drubbing on their last visit.
Jazz history alert!
Barring something crazy happening, Hayward will crack the franchise’s top-10 list for all-time scoring on Friday night. He needs just five points to tie 10th-place Rickey Green, and six points to pass him. If he maintains at least a 20.0 average all year and doesn’t miss any more games, he’ll easily pass Memo Okur and Deron Williams into 8th.
He’s already top 10 in assists (1581, 10th) and steals (474, 10th). He’s exactly 20th in rebounds and blocked shots.