You’ve waited all summer, but one your favorite things finally returns this week.
No, not just NBA basketball… The Salt City Seven.
Last year, we started the tradition of a weekly check-in on all things Jazz. Every Thursday1 during the season, we recap seven days in Jazzland by looking at Utah basketball through seven different lenses. We (usually) start with a macro view of the Jazz universe, which this week — stop me if this sounds familiar — is largely about health.
The 2015-16 Jazz lost the ninth most player games to injury and illness, per analysis by In Street Clothes, a website that tracks and analyzes injury histories. What cost them more than those 183 missed games was the lack of depth behind the banged-up players.
Utah went shopping over the summer to address that problem, but nobody along the Wasatch Front wanted to test the alleged depth this early in the new season.
Gordon Hayward (broken finger), Derrick Favors (iliotibial band syndrome) and Alec Burks (knee) all remain on the shelf for the Jazz, who started their 2016-17 season with a loss at Portland. Hayward and Favors are, by many measures, Utah’s best two players, and Burks offers a dynamic bench scoring option because he can get where he wants to go with the ball. Spreading those minutes around isn’t the tough part for head coach Quin Snyder — it’s the fact that, improved depth or not, you can’t just replace what those players offer.
It’s easy to underestimate the impact that injuries have on everybody’s role. Take a look at how many guys’ job descriptions have changed just as a result of those three injuries.
Even the roles that stayed the same didn’t really stay the same. Rodney Hood has become a primary offensive option and will be forced to guard bigger wings while Hayward is out. Rudy Gobert is getting more minutes and touches. And everything’s new for George Hill, acquired this summer via trade.
That’s why the season opener followed an uncomfortably familiar script: the Jazz played roughly even with their starters (whose net ratings ranges from -3.6 to -0.1), but the wheels came off when they went to reserves (-35.2 to -93.1).
It’s not necessarily because the Jazz bench lacks quality: everybody who played on Tuesday night in Portland is at least a rotation-tiered NBA player. But while Portland’s subs spent October preparing for the roles they performed that night, just about everybody in Utah’s bench corps is taking on provisional responsibilities.
Snyder admitted Thursday that he “absolutely” needs better play from his bench. “They have to play better. Defend better is the main thing. We’re going to have times when it’s hard to score. But one, you can’t make mistakes in situations that you can control. And then you have to give effort in situations where you can give effort.”
The third-year coach rattled off a wish list of defensive execution improvements, and then summed it up: “Focus and effort. I’ll live with mistakes.”
Even with the rotation in flux and roles being redefined on the go, Utah gave playoff-bound Portland a tough game on the road. That effort and output will win them a lot of games, especially when Utah’s stars are healthy again.
In the meantime, it will continue to feel a little bit like last year — sure it’s a deeper team, but guys are still stretching to fill bigger roles than intended.
There’s a light at the end of at least one injury tunnel: Favors will test his leg at Friday’s shootaround and then decide whether to return to action against the Lakers.
So is Snyder worried about reintegrating Favors?
“Yeah, we’re happy to have that problem. Just that: elated. Integration for us is a question of having a bench…
“Even if he’s rusty, it’s good to have him back.”
That was the Jazz’s offensive rating with Hill on the floor, literally twice as efficient as when he sat (54.8). After enduring shaky point guard play for years, that’s a good sign of just how valuable the Hill addition could be. Hill did that without even playing his best basketball — he had an impressive first half, but finished 7-for-18 from the field and made just one of six three-pointers. Imagine the impact he’ll have on the Jazz offense when he’s making shots at his usual clip.
Turns out that Joe Johnson’s memorable second-half outburst in Portland was also historic. No Jazz player has ever scored more in their Jazz debut than Johnson’s 29. Four players hit 29 or more in their season debuts: Pete Maravich (3 times), Adrian Dantley (6), Karl Malone (7) and Carlos Boozer (once). But all of those were in at least the player’s second season with the franchise. Joe, welcome to Jazz history.
As we have for the past two seasons, we’ll use this space to recognize the hero of each Jazz win. Snyder would rightly point out that wins (and losses) are a team affair, but we like to identify the person whose performance, narrative or defining moment somehow shaped the game. Most nights it will just be the guy who played best for longest, but occasionally we’ll recognize an unexpected outburst, an unbelievable individual accomplishment or a compelling storyline that will be important in how we recall that game later.
But, since the Jazz are 0-1 as of this writing, you’ll have to wait to see what I mean. Check back next week, when the Jazz will have had four shots at earning a precious Spalding.
When the Jazz acquired Hill, Johnson and Boris Diaw this offseason, the idea was it would bolster the depth for a team that lacked it a year ago. Who know that all three would play major roles right from day one? Diaw’s debut could have been better, but the other two combined for 48 points and nine assists.
Here they are connecting on a pick-and-roll play for what might have been the biggest bucket of the game. On the road against a playoff team and they go up inside the 6-minute mark. That’s go-get-a-bucket time, and that why the Jazz brought Hill and Johnson.
This is actually a really simple play, but the reason I liked it enough to feature it here is because it’s obvious that it was a read rather than a set play. You can tell because Joe doesn’t immediately space to the three-point line, but rather does so when he sees Hill’s reaction to the defense.
Normally when the Jazz put a wing in late game pick-and-rolls — or, as in this case, in horns2 — it’s to free up someone like Hayward for a catch and maybe create a mismatch. That appeared to be the intent here, as you can see Johnson step toward the elbow to go to work.
But Hill realizes that the big has jumped out for a weak trap, so he attacks it, pulling three defenders with him. Johnson and Gobert both figure out what his read was and react without prompting: Joe steps back to the three-point line and Rudy gets in position to set the pick. This play worked precisely because three guys all quickly, correctly and tacitly arrived at the same decision.
It will be a busy seven nights for the Jazz before we drop another SC7:
Friday vs. LAL: The reinvented Lakers — new coach, new veterans, and another #2 pick thrown into their mix of young talent — looked good in a season-opening win over Houston at home. We’ll see if that energy travels well or if it’s just an example of a lottery-bound team playing beyond their level to start a season. Also… HOME OPENER! Also… BLUE OUT!!
Sunday at LAC: If the Jazz were healthy, this would be an interesting test. And with Favors a possibility to return by then, it could still be a better battle. But since LA has won 15 of its last 16 meetings with Utah, it seems like a lot to ask for on the road without the Jazz’s best player. That lone win came behind Hayward’s 33 points in an 11-point road win last November.
Tuesday at SAS: The Jazz haven’t won a game in San Antonio since January 20, 2010, when they still employed Deron Williams, Carlos Boozer and Jerry Sloan. If Kawhi Leonard is going to vault himself into the MVP discussion — as he appeared to do on Tuesday night — that streak of 10 straight defeats at the Alamo might not end anytime soon.
Wednesday vs. DAL: Dallas is one of those teams nobody can quite figure out. They’re a popular pick to drop out of the playoffs so that rising teams like Utah and Minnesota can push in, but underestimating the tandem of Dirk Nowitzki and Rick Carlisle usually doesn’t end well. Williams also looked like his Jazz-era self with a 25-point, 7-assist performance in Dallas’ opener (a road loss to Indiana).
Since October is all about resetting things, let’s quickly refresh where we’re at with Rudy’s block list, a phenomenon we’ve tracked since last season in this space.
You can find our full SC7 archive to date by clicking here: 2015-16 posts