Get it while you can, fans and friends of the Utah Jazz. It’s time for the 24th installment of our weekly wrap-up on all things Jazz, the last before we carefully power down the SC7 machine until next fall1.
This is supposed to be “big picture,” so let’s zoom out and look at the big picture. Let’s start 365 nights ago.
When the 2014-15 season ended, the Utah Jazz had as much momentum as a non playoff-bound team could have. They had just wrapped a 19-10 finish to the season2 and had become the talk of the NBA. Many of their young guys were anointed stars-in-the-making by national profilers, and they were a trendy pick in “team on the rise” conversations.
Fast forward to today, to a team that didn’t turn the corner quite as expected. The same guys are there will all the same tools and bright projections, but the team didn’t make the planned leap back to relevance. There were certainly some mitigating factors, but on the whole, last year’s 38-win turned into this year’s 40. Just two wins ahead of the team that was ostensibly poised for significant progress. Sure, the Jazz missed 82 games of Dante Exum, 51 of Alec Burks, and 20-21 each of Derrick Favors and Rudy Gobert. But at the end of the day, they weren’t ready to take the major step forward they hoped to take.
And, just like last year, they are cleaning out their lockers in mid April again.
So yes, there is some sense of disappointment, and that was evident when the Jazz fell to Dallas on Monday night and saw the writing on the wall. It continued on into Thursday’s exit interviews.
“On the plane last night home [from LA], there wasn’t one person that’s not upset that we’re not playing in the second season,” GM Dennis Lindsey said at locker cleanout day. “I think that was a reasonable expectation, and for a lot of different reasons that didn’t happen.”
Quin Snyder went even further. “I thought frankly it was going to be something we were going to be able to this year and it didn’t work out,” the coach said.
Yet it would be wrong to call the 2015-16 season a failure. Despite those 170+ player-games lost by top-six players, and despite a lack of realistic depth options to absorb all those minutes, the Jazz woke up on day 170 of the with their playoff hopes at least technically intact. That’s something.
In fact, let’s do a little thought exercise. Pretend Rodney Hood’s last-second three-pointer drops against San Antonio. Just change the outcome of that one shot, without even touching the Clippers or Mavericks games. Jazz now arrive to Kobepalooza having clinched the playoffs and in a position to play for 7th, so they probably play their guys and take care of the Lakers. 42 wins, and they’d be game planning for the first round right. Fans would be thrilled at the progress.
And they would be essentially the same dang team they are right now, just with literally 0.015% better shot luck.
Or hell, revisit any other outcome that came down to a razor’s edge difference between a shot falling (or a rebound bouncing the other way, or a ref seeing contact, or whatever) and not. Up two, Favors secures the rebound on a Cole Aldrich miss. Snyder ensures he has a rebounder in to collect Klay Thompson’s miss so that the Warrior can’t force overtime with a second-chance three. The refs call an inbound foul they were supposed to call against Houston3. Gobert doesn’t wind up in a heap in a winnable game for the sixth seed. Either Favors or Gobert misses one less game in that December/January slog where they go 10-16.
Flip any one of those outcomes and fans would be toasting their Jazz right now and painting their chests for Saturday’s playoff debut. Flip a couple of them and Utah’s the sixth or even fifth seed. Point is, in terms of process and overall identity, there’s actually *very* little difference between the Jazz whose fans are bummed today and the alternative reality Jazz who are preparing for their first round series in the Bizarro world.
But that’s not how the standings work. A team that underperforms its expected record4 by six wins should stop to contemplate why they’re so frequently being robbed by chance. Because there are plenty of answers there.
Late-game defense. Transition. Turnovers. Adjusting to physical play. These will all be themes we address as we deconstruct this season over the next few weeks. Or just finding that extra notch in intensity that playoff teams have and that we saw only on occasion from this year’s Jazz.
There is a lot to be positive about, too. Most players continued along their developmental arcs (albeit at different rates), health should lend reinforcements, and Utah’s asset possition will allow brass to address holes.
Outcomes matter, and not just for the sake of some arbitrary number of wins that would have given the season more meaning, but for the opportunities they beget. This spring could have been Playoff Basketball 101 for many Jazz players. That would have made next season 102, and so forth. Instead, they’re now 365 days away from starting that learning.
A year ago, they were widely regarded as ahead of schedule. 365 days later, the Jazz failed to reach the bar they raised.
Instead of sticking to some statty post mortem, let’s talk about a different set of numbers this week.
In max cap space, assuming a $92M cap and depending on what they do with their three non-guaranteed guys.
Picks in the next three drafts.
Lindsey admitted Thursday that it’s time to “speed up our progress” by being aggressive about roster building.
“I’m most repsonsible… relative to roster construction,” the GM said. “I think some of the criticism that’s been out there is fair. I welcome all those questions and I’m eager to jump into analysis.”
Much more to come on this topic over the course of the next few months.
“Going from 20 to 30 to 40 wins5, we’re trending in the right direction. I just want to win and be a part of a winning team and I think we’re headed that way. I’ll cross that bridge when I get there as far the contract and everything… I’ve got to control what I can control and that’s becoming a better basketball player, and this offseason will be another big, big offseason for me.”
This Gordon Hayward quote should make Jazz fans happy. First, he indicates that he’s happy with the general direction of the team, which is good news since he will almost certainly enter free agency next summer. Second, it shows that the right things matter to him. Third, he’s talking like a guy who wants to keep getting better.
“I’ve got to become a better player so we can be a better team,” he added later.
This probably isn’t really where the collective mindset is right now, but here’s a quick little wrinkle the Jazz have been throwing into pick & rolls lately.
The Jazz’s usual P&R formation is a big coming high to set a screen, the other one in the dunker, and two guys in the corner. Or they’ll run horns, which is two guys6 coming up to set screens on either side, and one of them usually slips it, or leaks out to the side to set an off-ball screen.
Lately, they’ve been keeping that second screener around more often, or even bringing a wing up from the bottom just as the screen is set. With a third guy around, it’s a little crowded compared to a standard P&R, but it has some benefits. In this case, because both Hood and Hayward are pull-up threats, the Nuggets are so worried about anticipating their P&R action that they completely ignore Rudy’s roll to the basket. It also brings defenders out away from the basket, so Gobert has only two guys back to beat.
That third guy allows the Jazz to throw a quick sequence of picks — in this case, three screens in the span of about four seconds — and the defense has to decide which one(s) to pay attention to.
Sorry, no first-round series schedule to share in this space. Instead, some key dates to watch for.
May 17: NBA Draft Lottery
When I spoke to Dennis Lindsey at last year’s draft lottery, my first question for him was whether he hoped that was the last one of those he’d do for a while. “You would hope so,” he replied, “but you never know.”
Now we know.
The Jazz have a 2.5% chance at getting into the top three, but don’t get too hopeful. No team that went in ranked lower than #9 has moved into the top three since the NBA adopted its current format in 1994. Assuming that trend continues, the Jazz will pick 12th again.
June 23: NBA Draft
Keep your eyes right here for the next 69 days for a whole lot more coverage leading up to that day.
July 1: The start of NBA free agency
The only players the Jazz signed last July were guys whose rights they already held: free agent Joe Ingles and draftees Raul Neto, Tibor Pleiss and Trey Lyles7. I wouldn’t expect the same thing this July.
July TBD: Jazz Summer League?
No details out yet, but we’ll keep our ears open for you.
July 4-10: FIBA Men’s Olympic Qualifying Tournament
Gobert said Thursday he’s not sure if he’ll play the OQT. He said he intends to play at the Olympic Games in Rio de Janeiro, but France only gets to Rio if they come in first in a six-team tournament with Turkey, Canada, New Zealand, the Philippines and Senegal. Team Canada may include Lyles and rights-held player Olivier Hanlan.
August 6-21: 2016 Summer Olympics
It could be Exum’s (Australia) first organized basketball. Ingles (Australia) and Neto (Brazil) will likely be there, and Hayward is still in the Team USA pool. Plus, ONE of France/Canada may earn a spot in July.
August 10?8: 2016-17 NBA Schedule Released
There’s always next year.
We also need to dispense with some final game ball business.
Jazz 100, Nuggets 84 – Gobert
Before Sunday’s game, Rudy reportedly told Favors that if he needed the night off in advance of Monday’s colossally important Mavs game, that he and the team could handle the business at hand. Then he handled the business at hand, with maybe his best game of the season. The cumulative impact he had on the defense was enormous, going far beyond the eye-popping 2-for-11 rim defense. He also had 16 points, 14 rebounds and 6 blocks, four of which came in that historically good 24-0 run the Jazz used to take control. His D-Rating in that quarter was 30. THIRTY!! This after Quin Snyder pulled him early in the quarter for some on-the-fly coaching. Also considered: Hayward was also magnificent in that 3rd quarter run, and finished with another very Haywardesque line: 22-9-5-2-1. Trey Lyles (career high 22 points) would have ranked higher, but the game ball needed to go to one of the chief protagonists of that 24-0 run, and Lyles sat for all of it.
Here’s where we landed on Game Ball after a 40-42 season.
It doesn’t feel like it’s been a very “fun” week in Jazzland, but let’s at least end on a positive note, courtesy of Gobert’s Instagram.—