In this 19th edition of the weekly touchbase on all things Utah Jazz, we put on the stethoscope to assess what’s up with the struggling club.
The answer, or at least one of them: Utah’s best players haven’t had a ton of room to operate.
It’s probably still early to deliver the eulogy on Jazz’s playoff hopes. They’re three games in the loss column behind both #8 and #7, and they’ll have a good chance of winning in seven or eight of their final 10. It doesn’t look great, but if Utah can find a way to get half or so of the next eight, they’ll still be in the mix.
It is, however, not too early to get an overall sense of disappointment coming from the players1 about the season as a whole. Even the most bullish projections for the final 18 games leave them barely if at all better than last year’s 38-win team. For a number of reasons, it looks like this team won’t take the big step forward that they and their fans envisioned.
Utah has lost 10 of 13, and the varying explanations for why are all interconnected. Injuries. Depth. Fatigue on the part of the guys carrying too heavy a load in light of the injuries & depth. Today we’ll talk about another symptom that’s been all-too-evident during this now month-long drought2: spacing.
The defensive spacing Utah has had to work against has just been crowded and ugly since the break. The execution has actually been mostly OK, but with so few scoring threats, defenses just aren’t worried about guarding guys outside of the Jazz’s top four.
This has particularly hurt Rodney Hood of late. A large portion of Hood’s typical buckets come from play types that rely on having some room to work: either in-between pull-ups on the P&R or by taking advantage of the room defenders give him on the weak side to get a running start on cuts and screens. Lately, he’s not getting that, at least not when Hayward has the ball. Teams normally bring P&R help from the weak side, but lately they’ve been squeezing Hayward from the ball side because they’re not that afraid of a Shelvin Mack or Chris Johnson three. That allows Hood’s defender to mostly stay home, and keeps Hayward from having room to create3.
You can mitigate that by having Mack handle on the P&R — teams have to defend him if he has the ball. But that takes the ball out of the hands of Utah’s best shot creators. The other thing Utah has tried to force teams to play the non-Hood/Hayward perimeter players honestly is by involving them in off-ball screening action, which typically results in some level of defensive engagement. But look at Jeff Teague here, completely ignoring Mack’s screen for Derrick Favors.
Teague knows that with two defenders playing safety in the paint, there’s no angle to hit Favors with the pass while his defender recovers, and they’re just not concerned with Mack floating the corner after the screen. With extra bodies waiting for him in the lane and no passing options, Hayward settles for a tough pull-up with a guy on his hip, and misses.
Frankly, it doesn’t look too much better with Raul Neto; at 38.5% from three, he is theoretically capable of stinging roamers, but teams would still rather concede a Neto attempt than let Hayward or Hood get into the lane, and Neto’s release is slow enough that teams trust in their ability to close to him and complicate those shots. And things get far worse when either of those two is paired with Chris Johnson in Utah’s backcourt.
When the Jazz were forced to start Johnson on Wednesday night because of a Hood injury, the Warriors essentially had four guys playing a matchup zone while Klay Thompson or Draymond Green4 bottled up Hayward. On this play, Hayward hadn’t even started his drive yet, and look at where four defenders stand, waiting on him. He again had no options but the pull-up, and he missed.
This is also contributing to the turnover problem. Utah’s uptick in miscues5 comes mostly from passing mistakes. With so many bodies in the lane, the only available passes are either in tight spots or they’re dangerous skip passes.
The way teams are denying those interior passes has really compromised the effectiveness of Rudy Gobert. Favors has ways of getting his own shot and is also a better roll man, but Gobert is already somewhat uncomfortable in traffic, so pressure coming from the top and sides has made him less effective and more turnover prone. Utah’s smalls also have a bad habit of putting the ball down at his waist, which is an awkward place to catch a ball when you have arms that last for days.
The good news is that so much of Utah’s current problems go back to this issue, and that it’s a fixable issue. Get better players and defenses have to play you more honestly, which makes life easier for the core guys and cuts down turnovers.
The bad news is that, beyond Alec Burks’ return, they’re not getting that help anytime soon.
After getting Atlanta and their penultimate Dubs matchup out of their way, Utah now has the easiest schedule by far of teams 5 through 9 in the West. The teams ahead of them have average opponent winning percentages ranging from .513 (Houston) to .573 (Dallas).
But most of Utah’s remaining games against bad teams come on the road, making them less of a foregone conclusion. Nobody else in the group has as many as Utah’s nine games left against bottom-10 opponents, but six are away games6. So as we said last week, to give themselves a shot to be in it coming down the stretch, Utah will have to beat some bad teams in their gyms.
“We’ve done enough talking…”
— Gordon Hayward (@gordonhayward) March 9, 2016
Nice to see a little urgency coming from the Jazz’s leader. Quin Snyder has been very even-keeled, which is a good thing overall and probably appropriate for a young group that’s trying to learn the process more than obsess about results. But because he’s that way (at least publicly), I have wondered who’s the guy who’s breathing a little fire among the team. It’s not that they haven’t been playing hard, but it’s still nice to see the urgency of someone saying, “C’mon guys, we really gotta get these!”
Because they really gotta get these.
Hey, it’s not all bad in Jazz land. I actually loved this play from Utah’s lone win in our 7-day stretch, largely because it’s just action upon action upon action.
Snyder runs a lot of out-of-bounds plays that involve a whole bunch of movement and screening before the ball comes in bounds. That’s the case here, which is why, even though only six seconds come off the clock, Utah has time for six screens and a bit of misdirection.
Three different guys use that same screen off the picket fence set-up: first Neto7 and Hayward, who follow the same course, and then Joe Ingles who uses it to pop up to receive. But instead of running through, Hayward stops and retraces his steps, and it looks like he’s going to use that Favors pindown to come get the ball. Instead, he’s actually there so that Favors can set the pick for Joe and then come off into his own screen to give him an unencumbered path to the basket.
It’s another one of those plays that breeds confusion. It’s not entirely clear who’s screening for whom, or who the designated target is.
Two weeks’ worth of Salt City Seven have yielded just a single game ball. Here’s the lone piece of leather from the last 14 nights, going to a unanimous selection.
Jazz 106, Pelicans 94 – Favors
Gobert actually deserves a lot of the credit for holding Anthony Davis to 11-for-318, but the cumulative effect was that the All-Star never got going. Favors, on the other hand, did: 28 points, 11 boards and six blocks. Hayward was awesome early, and Gobert held the Pels to 4/14 (29%) at the rim, but when a guy goes for 28-11-6, he makes my job easy.
Just three games before we meet again here at SC7 headquarters.
The Jazz host sub-.500 Washington without Bradley Beal on Friday, which turns that one into a must-win if they’re going to be serious about the postseason, or even about approaching 40 wins.
They are at Sacramento on Sunday, one of those six games on the road against bottom-10 teams. DeMarcus Cousins will be back from his one-game suspension in time for that one.
Then they host Cleveland, which is almost always a party. You’ve already heard all the “Cleveland-in-Utah games are the best!” stuff, so let me add a personal touch. When I was leaving my radio post to move to New York 2+ years ago, the January 7 OKC game was supposed to be my last as I prepared to move 2,200 miles. But I decided that since the Jazz would probably lose to the Thunder and I didn’t want to end my broadcasting tenure on a sour note, I’d also work the game on January 10 against the Cavs, then without LeBron and nine games under .500 coming into the game.
So what happened? Well the Jazz upset OKC behind a career night of 37 from Hayward, of course… and then lost to Cleveland without Hayward in my sad finale.
Stay weird, Cleveland games. Stay weird.
On Saturday, Trey Lyles and Trevor Booker suddenly launched into competing Twitter Q&A sessions. Lyles’ was much more entertaining — hey, he likes the mountains too! — but the Tweet of the night came when Booker poked fun at his coach’s appearance. OK, it was pretty much a lob pass from the fan who asked the question, but Booker punched the joke home on the alley-oop.
At least an hour https://t.co/5HhXAvkZLv
— Trevor Booker (@35_Fitz) March 6, 2016