Salt City Seven: Defense Wins, Rubio Dishes, Exum Decides and More

October 20th, 2017 | by Dan Clayton

Melissa Majchrzak via

And we’re back in business.

Basketball that matters resumed this week in the world’s best league, and that means the Salt City Seven returns to the Jazz online community.

The SC7 is our place to relive the previous seven days in Jazzland vis-a-vis seven recurring categories. We usually drop every Thursday or Friday1, with a macro theme from the week as well as the stats, quotes, and other tidbits that best recap the previous 168 hours in Jazzland.

This week we have light work, as the 1-0 Jazz have just 48 minutes of basketball under their collective belt. But there’s still plenty to talk about, starting with a look at the end of the court that powered Utah’s season-opening victory.

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

With one down and 81 to go, this much seems pretty clear early on: as expected, the Jazz’s defining characteristic this season will be their defense.

Denver projects to be a good offensive team, with skilled and smart decision-makers at every position. For two and a half quarters, they hot-potatoed the ball to the right spots and drilled open shots while taking a double-digit lead.

But eventually the Jazz figured them out, taking control with a 31-5 run spanning the late third and early fourth quarters. 31-5! During that 8:46 stretch of play, the Nuggets shot 2-for-11 from the field and committed seven turnovers.

The fact that Utah can just hang a “closed” sign on a quality opponents’ hoop for nearly nine minutes is exactly why most forecasts peg the Jazz as a .500-plus outfit even without a clear #1 scorer. The stretch vindicates Utah’s off-season philosophy. Instead of reacting to the loss of their two top scorers by overpaying for somebody — anybody! — who could produce points, Jazz brass decided to dig in their heels and embrace who they are. They signed players known for their defense and sent a message that they’d win games precisely the way they did on Wednesday: by making their foes’ lives miserable for long stretches at a time on that end.

Two of those signings were Ekpe Udoh and Thabo Sefolosha, and both were terrific on defense in their Jazz debuts. Sefolosha prompted mistakes with his pressure and forced the ball out of the hands of the previously red-hot Will Barton. Udoh protected the paint by shadowing ball-handlers and moving his feet on defense both on and away from the ball. Two two were plus-25 and plus-24 in plus-minus, respectively, the highest marks on the team.

But it wasn’t just the defensive prowess of the newcomers. Joe Johnson — usually an offensively-oriented protagonist — bodied up Nikola Jokic in the paint, and Alec Burks was credited by his coach for solid defensive decision-making.

Those four, along with rookie Donovan Mitchell, were the group that spurred the bulk of the big comeback run, while defensive studs Rudy Gobert and Derrick Favors rested. Then the two bigs returned and put the proverbial nail in the coffin.

Simply put, the ability to shut a team down almost completely for nine minutes is going to get Utah some wins.

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

$35.3 million

That’s the amount by which the Jazz would be over the salary cap next July 1 if they did nothing but kept the free agents to their existing players. Utah could obviously pare that down by not keeping certain FAs2, by not bringing back non-guaranteed guys 3 or by trading players. But the point here is that it would be pretty difficult to get under the cap.

That’s relevant given the number of people framing the decision not to extend Rodney Hood as one motivated by a desire to create cap room for next summer. More than likely the Jazz will operate as an exceptions team, and having Hood slotted at his hold amount of $7.16 million at the start of free agency probably won’t actually create an opportunity for the Jazz to do anything they couldn’t have done with him signed at $15 to 18 million.

So why wasn’t the extension given then? Probably for the obvious reasons. Hood likely wanted to get paid like Gary Harris, who received $74 million over four seasons, with another $10 of incentive-based compensation. And the Jazz probably want to be sure Hood is that consistently good before making that kind of investment.

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

“I’m confident with the decision I made, that’s why we took a lot of time to make the right decision for me. For this year, for long term. And that stuff rolls around, we’ll deal with that. For right now, it’s about getting better after surgery, and from there, rehab and getting stronger.”

– Dante Exum, as relayed by the ever hustling Andy Larsen, on his decision to undergo shoulder surgery. Exum and the Jazz announced his decision this week, and his timetable for a return to basketball is uncertain.

Some day, we’ll be able to produce a SC7 that isn’t at least partially about injuries. Today isn’t that day.

Exum’s decision to go under the knife makes sense. There was a non-surgical option that could have gotten him back to the hardwood earlier, but it involved allowing the separated shoulder to heal out of place. “The bone would still still be sticking out,” Exum said.

After Tuesday’s surgery, Exum will immediately start rehab, although it will be a while before he does any court work. It remains to be seen exactly how much of the current campaign the young guard will miss, or if he’ll be able to return at all this season.

According to the 22-year-old, “We’re just focusing on the rehab and seeing where it takes us.”

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

Jazz 106, Nuggets 96 – Joe Johnson

For those that are new to the exercise, we try to find the chief protagonist of each Jazz win. After some discussion, your SC7 scribe ultimately decides which performance to reward with an imaginary game ball. It’s usually the MVP of the game, the person who mattered most in the decisive stretch, or the guy whose storyline for the evening most aligns with why the Jazz won.

Johnson powered that Jazz comeback we covered in the “By the Numbers” section, both by displaying his professional bucket-getting skills and by defending well against Denver’s bigs. His lunging, leaning, banking, buzzer-beating shot to beat the third quarter buzzer was probably the most memorable bucket of the night, but he also scored nine of his 13 during a 13-2 push that brought Utah to within one, and he had several key defensive stands while guarding the post. Also considered: Alec Burks announced his return with an exciting fourth-quarter scoring spurt, Ekpe Udoh helped turn the momentum with great defense, and Rudy Gobert was solid on both ends.

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

The idea here is to take a cool Jazz scoring play and look at the anatomy of the play. Since the Jazz played the entire 2016-17 regular season without a player logging 10 assists4, it seems only right to look at one of the dimes dropped by Ricky Rubio in his Utah debut.

The bulk of the play starts at the :06 mark of the video, with Derrick Favors at the left elbow. Rubio cuts up to take a dribble hand-off (DHO) and then rubs right off of Favors and into the lane in what it essentially pick-and-roll action.

But what makes the play potent is actually all the misdirection over on the right side. Gobert looks to be setting a screen to the outside for Ingles, but he then flips it for staggered screens for Hood, and then Hood tricks his defender (who followed him over the screen) by cutting through the screens instead. There’s enough happening that those three defenders are worried about all of that, and the result is that nobody’s really in position to show on Rubio’s drive. Paul Millsap has to show hard, and then Favors has just to score a layup over a tiny defender.

The meat of the score is just a simple DHO-roll, but if Quin Snyder had just called for a DHO-roll, a Denver defender would have been around to help. The weakside drama occupied would-be helpers and gave Rubio and Favors space to create a wide open bucket.

Games coming up in the next seven days.

Friday at Minnesota. One of the intriguing questions in this year’s Western Conference is how real the Timberwolves will be with their retooled roster. They added star power with the Jimmy Butler trade, but do they have enough shooting on their roster to make it work? And will their young stars Karl-Anthony Towns and Andrew Wiggins commit on defense? The Jazz get an early look at their divisional foes.

Saturday vs. Oklahoma City. Another divisional opponent that got better via trade this offseason, the Thunder are supposed to be good. Russell Westbrook, Paul George and Carmelo Anthony each scored in the 20s in the debut of their new big three, and their trip to Utah gives them a chance to test their new star triumvirate against a playoff-quality opponent.

Tuesday at L.A. Clippers. The post-Chris Paul era has begun in L.A. Projections for the Clips are all over the map, but this much is clear: Blake Griffin is going to be doing a lot of work this season. The All-Star posted 29 and 12 in his season opener, and the Clippers have a number of intriguing lineup possibilities with combo forward Danilo Gallinari and All-Star DeAndre Jordan around him.

Wednesday at Phoenix. Already Utah’s second back-to-back of the young season. The Jazz already spanked the Suns twice in the preseason, and since then Phoenix dropped an embarrassing and historic loss in their home opener.

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

Now that more fans are becoming aware of what Udoh can do, it’s an appropriate time to highlight just how interesting a person he happens to be.

Back in June, the New York Times profiled Udoh and his unique efforts to engage with Turkish culture during his championship-producing stay with the Fenerbahce basketball club. He delved into relevant social dialogue, held cinema nights with a group of fans, and even started a book club. He still does the book club; he and a group of 25 people are currently reading Americanah, a love story by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie that delves into issues of race and identity against a modern backdrop. His book club website reports that it’s the 82nd book the group has read.

“If I can play in the NBA and still find time to read,” Udoh’s website says to visitors, “so can you.”

This past week, Udoh decided to start a conversation among his Twitter followers. He started with these two tweets, and then spent most of Thursday evening retweeting the replies.

How many NBA players spend their free time starting conversations about childhood literacy and the importance of reading? At the very least, it should be interesting to see all the unique ways Udoh finds to connect with people in Utah this season.

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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