Here’s your Thanksgiving Salt City Seven: seven heaping helpings of Jazz topics and talking points, ranging from macro to micro.
The particular 168-hour period we’re encapsulating with this edition of the SC7 had more negative notes than positive ones, but we already did the worry-fest in a Monday night podcast. Since then, the Jazz finally righted the ship and gave us, at least for the moment, some positive vibes to dwell on as the stuffing bowl completes another orbit of the table and the pies cool on the windowsill.
The Jazz returned to precisely .500 just in time for the Salt City Seven, pulling to 8-8 with a wire-to-wire win over Denver. More importantly, that 8-8 record means they survived a tough opening stretch and can now think about making hay as the schedule turns more favorable.
So far, Utah has played the eights hardest opponent slate1, second-most amount of road games2, and have done it all with a revolving door of players coming and going with a variety of maladies. If it doesn’t feel like we should be throwing a parade for 8-8, just realize: it could have been a lot worse.
And now the schedule pays them back. Wednesday’s walloping of the Nuggets started a stretch that will see Utah play 14 of 19 in their gym between now and New Year’s Eve. Ten of the same 19 are against teams that didn’t make last year’s playoffs3.
It could be where the Jazz make their run: pad the W column with some games that could be harder to come by later. Or, and hear me out here… it could mean a chance to hang on while getting the roster right.
Utah will still have 48 games remaining after that stretch comes to a close, and it seems pretty unlikely they arrive at January 1 anywhere under .500. So the question becomes: would they rather start 2017 at .500 and fully healthy, ready to make a push over the final 3.5 month? Or A few games above .500 and still with several of their principals teetering on the edge of the injury cliff?
Maybe they can have this particular cake and eat it, too. Maybe guys are getting better from a health standpoint and they can both charge through this soft stretch and pick up some wins and be ready to head into those last 50-or-so games at full strength. In an ideal world, there’s no need to choose. But if injuries are going to linger on, it’s at least worth considering.
This was a more acute sentiment a few days ago when it sure seemed like Gordon Hayward’s left ring finger was getting in the way of him being, you know, good. But even now with Hayward looking like himself again4, the Jazz have enough lingering health things plaguing them that they could use a softer sked to strategically give their guys a chance to heal without watching the record go the wrong direction.
So maybe Hayward is fine after all. George Hill is back, but visibly winced when a blind screen caused him to bang his sprained right hand on Wednesday. And nobody’s quite sure what’s going on with Derrick Favors. Alec Burks is finally back to running and cutting during pregame warmups, but his timetable is unknown. Spending the next 5 weeks getting those guys ready for the final 48 might be a bigger priority than rushing guys through the process to be at full strength for, say, a December home game against the Suns.
“I think he just gives our other players confidence because there’s a stability when you have somebody that is a floor leader. At the beginning of the year, they felt that. And then, when that’s gone — we have to be able to be better with him not on the floor or him out…
“You have to appreciate every minute that you get a chance to play this game. We have to play like that. It has to be important all the time.”
-Jazz coach Quin Snyder’s postgame comments on the effect of having Hill back
Snyder then specifically mentioned the impact Hill had on Gobert, who had a much better game on Wednesday than just three days earlier against the same opponent.
The Hill effect is a very serious thing. The Jazz outscore their opponents by 9.5 points per 100 possessions when Hill is on the court, the best of Utah’s rotation players. When he sits, they’re basically a dead-even team (+0.8). With Hill back on Wednesday, guys like Hayward and Rodney Hood also benefitted from an easier path to getting things done. The game, especially during a 14-0 surge, just looked far more effortless than it had been while the Jazz toiled through Hill’s absence.
Gobert, Boris Diaw, Joe Johnson, Hood and Hill have played 45 total minutes together. Here’s the crazy part: that’s Utah’s most used 5-man lineup so far, at just 45 minutes. By contrast, the Clippers have a quintet that has seen 329 minutes of action together. Nearly two thirds of the league’s teams (19) have at least one lineup with 100 minutes. As of this writing, only Denver (44) and Brooklyn (42) have a most-used lineup with fewer minutes than this Jazz fivesome.
It’s a good reminder of just how little continuity the Jazz have had. It’s not just their best guys who haven’t had a chance to play together — even their provisional lineups have not yet had a chance to log the kind of minutes together that other teams’ core guys have put together.
Turkey Eve saw a Jazz losing streak end, but it also brought the end of a positive streak: Dante Exum had scored nine or more in five straight games until dropping a goose egg in just eight minutes of play. The encouraging part of that stat is the five straight — during his rookie season, he never had more than two such games in a row.
On the flip side, though, Exum is also going to need to figure out how to have a role in the offense when Hill is around. Some of that is undoubtedly on Snyder, who seemed to have little patienct for Exum on Wednesday, short-circuiting his second-half stint after less than 90 seconds… in a blowout win. That felt odd. But mostly, this is a Dante thing to sort through. With Hill healthy, Exum can’t expect time to ease himself into games. If he’s going to find ways to make an impact and enjoy gratifying steps forward, he’s going to have to be far more assertive than he was on Wednesday.
Just one game ball this week, but the Jazz made me work extra hard on this one, because it was a tough call.
Jazz 108, Nuggets 83: George Hill
If we’re honest, Hill had a bit of a head start on this one just from a narrative perspective. The Jazz lost four straight without him, and while that’s a gross oversimplification, his return coinciding with a palate-cleansing win would make this a convenient choice. It also just so happens that he played really freaking well. Beyond his 22 points, his play, leadership and emotion helped the Jazz respond when their lead was challenged. After Denver pulled to within two, Utah went on a 21-3 run, and Hill accounted for 10 of those.
But that’s not to say this was easy. Gobert had one of his meatiest double-doubles ever: 19 and 13 with a pair of blocks, and keyed an impressive defensive second half. Hayward was extremely important, especially during the pivotal first quarter. He finished with 22-5-7 and a game-best5 +28.
We usually use this space to look at a particular play the Jazz used to score in the preceding week, but since ’tis the season for gluttony, I’m going to give you three plays. They all have a common thread: each involve a guy getting open because the Jazz use the defense’s aggressiveness against them.
We talk a lot about pick & roll in this space, because it’s the basic form of currency around which most NBA plays are built. Set a screen, make the defense choose which way they want to help contain the guy the pick was set for, and then punish them for that choice by attacking the proverbial chink in the armor.
Problem is, the armor is getting better. It’s been a pick-and-roll heavy league for long enough now that teams have a variety of tools to pick away at the efficiency of the play. But that’s harder to do if you’re confused about what action is coming and who it is intended to help.
One way to throw the defense off kilter is to confuse them as to who is to run stuff that’s not for the screenee at all, but rather for the screener. The Jazz do this with Hayward a lot. Watch this play from Wednesday. Hayward’s man gets way under the screen because he’s worried about containing Joe Johnson’s cut. But they play isn’t for Johnson at all; as soon as the two defenders are preoccupied with the decoy, Hayward (the screener) pops back for an open three that Jameer Nelson can’t possibly recover to guard.
Another way is just to fake the screen altogether. That’s what happens in both of these plays. In the first, they run Hayward off a FT line screen, and then make it look like they’re going to do the same with Hood. His guy tries to take the angle away on that screen6 and Kenneth Faried is fairly static, so Hood just cuts. And on the Hayward alley-oop play, he never even gets to the point of faking the screen — he just jukes in that direction, and it’s enough for his man to grant him a wide open boulevard.
In all three plays, the guy that scores doesn’t actually do so using a screen. But the defense doesn’t know that, so they guard the screen — and Utah simply waits for them to commit and then takes the opening created by that defensive jumpiness.
Friday vs. Atlanta: The Hawks are for real. They have the second-best defense in the league through their first 14 games, and they’re doing it with depth and balance: eight guys are averaging 21 minutes or more, but nobody more than Paul Millsap’s 32.5. They’ve feasted on a soft schedule so far (5th easiest), but they’re 4-3 on the road.
Monday at Minnesota: The Wolves captures a lot of people’s excitement early this season, but the 4-9 record could suggest that the hype-to-substance ratio is a little out of whack. The offense looks OK, but the defense is struggling. Key to this one: keep it close. Minny is 0-6 in games decided in the clutch, and their net rating in those situations is a league-worst -44.
Tuesday vs Houston: When the Jazz visited the Rockets, they did so without Hill and Favors, and with Hayward at the depths of his (purportedly) finger-related slump. Utah has to hope this one will have a different feel to it, because this is the type of game that will likely decide seeding. FiveThirtyEight’s projections have these two teams finishing just a game apart.