Salt City Seven: The Jazz’s Sneaky Depth, Playoff Push & More

March 9th, 2018 | by Dan Clayton

(Cameron Browne via utahjazz.com)

The Jazz are once again rolling, taking a four-game win streak into their final stretch of games, which starts tonight in Memphis.

In this week’s Salt City Seven column, we’ll use our seven sections to shine a light on some of themes and heroes behind the 16-2 resurgence, and of course reset the playoff race in the West’s wild 3-through-10 chase.

 

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

The Jazz are undeniably, unquestionably good again. How good they are might be a question of their depth, and they have engineered their personnel in such a way that they’re getting good play throughout the rotation..

According to FiveThirtyEight’s team rating system, the Jazz are as good as they have been since the wheels started to come off the Deron Williams-era squad. Their CAR-MELO1 is at 1621, nearly equaling the post-DW peak (1633) that last year’s Jazz hit after round one of the playoffs. In other words, the current Jazz are as good as any squad they’ve put on the floor in eight seasons2.

Utah is 24-15 when Rudy Gobert plays, including 19-8 since they made Donovan Mitchell a regular starter 12 games into the season. Bottom line: they’ve found a really solid core, and when that core plays, they’re nearly as good as the group that forced the league to take note a year ago.

But their record in other games raises the question: what happens when that solid core sits down? Do the Jazz have a bench problem?

It has felt like it on some nights. There have been times when units featuring mostly reserves have felt clunky and challenged. But a closer look at lineup data shows that the Jazz’s second unit — as presently constituted — is actually performing better than the eye test might intimate.

Honestly, trades and the Jazz’s revolving door of injuries make it a bit hard to trust lineup data. Rotational lineups that on any other team would have already seen dozens of minutes together still have pretty small samples in this context. But there are 37 different 5-man squads that have played at least 15 minutes together, and even though 15 minutes is a pretty low cutoff for statistical significance, it’s a start.

Of those 37, 25 groups have included at least three of the regular starters, and those lineups are mostly positive. In fact the only lineups that feature 3+ starters and have a Net Rating that surrenders more than a bucket or so per 100 possessions involve Rodney Hood and/or Joe Johnson, two players the Jazz chose to move on from in a mid-season deal.

Minimum: 15 minutes. Source: stats.nba.com

Three-starter lineups that don’t feature either of those departed scorers have generally fared pretty well. The starting five as a group is plus-1.1, in itself an achievement given that the quintet was quite a bit underwater before their late January resurgence. Swap in Jonas Jerebko or Thabo Sefolosha in for Gobert it flips to slightly negative, but only by a point or two. And literally every other lineup featuring three or more of their starters is positive, most by a wide margin.

Gobert, Jerebko and the three starting smalls are +7.8. Make it Jae Crowder instead of Jereko and they’re +30. Or replace Ricky Rubio with Royce O’Neale in the original fivesome and you get +12. That same group with Crowder in for Derrick Favors and you’re still at +5.5.

And those are just the lineups with 40 minutes or more. When the Jazz go to a Mitchell-Alec Burks backcourt combo with Joe Ingles and Jerebko at the forward spots, they outscore opponents by a bunch, whether Favors (+22.3) or Gobert (+24.9) is the center. In the 21 minutes where Sefolosha joined the starters (in Gobert’s spot) before his injury, the Jazz were +41.

The further you go down the list, the more dubious the sample sizes become, but by this point the trend should be pretty clear: any combination with at least three starters and without the departed Hood or Johnson gives the Jazz a really good shot.

So what about bench units?

Once again, there’s a bit of a Hood/Johnson impact here. Any lineup that included Johnson and at least two other reserves was drastically negative, except for one group3 that saw action in just three games. Hood’s bag was a little more mixed; he was part of a very successful all-bench lineup before Sefolosha got hurt, as well as a different version that had Rubio at the point with four subs. He was also a part of a few groups with a negative rating.

But remove those Hood and Johnson lineups and you’ll find — perhaps surprisingly — that even lineups with mostly subs have been working. There are only three groups like this with 15 minutes or more, but they’re driving very positive results.

Minimum 15 minutes, source: stats.nba.com

So again, disclaimer: 15 to 30 minutes is not much in terms of sample, but given the injuries and the in-season acquisition of Crowder, this is what we have to work with. (Any time you see +117.8, you know we’re talking about a miniscule sample size. That number is, um, not sustainable.)

It’s interesting that all three of these positive groups include O’Neale and Jerebko. It’s just as interesting that any of Utah’s three centers can be a successful anchor to these bench mobs. Raul Neto appears in two of the three lineups. Crowder does too, and it’s meaningful that they’re getting a good impact from him even while he’s still struggling with his shot. They also could get a reinforcement in the days ahead as Dante Exum reportedly inches closer to his return from shoulder rehab.

But the most interesting thing about this exercise was the discovery that, with the Jazz’s current personnel, they can play winning basketball with a lot of different combinations. 

 

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

“I’ve said it multiple times, but I think it’s still the same thing: just getting to know each other. We had a lot of turnover from last year. Getting those guys in the system… we had injuries, we had the trade deadline, getting Jae. Now we’re getting healthy and we’re obviously playing well together and within the system. Just getting comfortable with each other.”

– Ingles on the Jazz’s improved road play (and play overall)4

The Jazz haven’t lost a road game since January 22, that lackluster outing in Atlanta that coach Quin Snyder used to call guys to repentance. Since then, they’ve won nine straight outside of Salt Lake, by an average margin of 13.6 points.

 

Keeping track of Utah’s playoff chances

The absolutely bonkers 3-through-10 race in the West hasn’t let up a single bit. At some point, a team or two may fall off, or someone may separate themselves from the pack with an extended win streak. But for now, it’s still just four losses separating these eight teams, and six of them are just two wins apart.

15 to 19 left.

Quick observations:

  • Portland looks legit, and if any team pulls away from the pack and settled into the No. 3 spot early, they’re the best bet. They have a tough schedule, but most of their games left against teams in this scrum are home contests.
  • Even though they have virtually the same record as Portland, I’m less convinced about the Pelicans. Their 10-game win streak is in large part a product of a soft patch, and they have a brutal stretch coming up. They play 10 games in the next 16 nights, and Anthony Davis is day-to-day with an ankle injury.
  • Minny’s playoff spot looked pretty safe until a Jimmy Butler injury and three straight losses. Their next four are the Warriors, at the Wizards and Spurs, then back home for the Rockets. In other words, they could be in some amount of trouble.

 

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

83.9

Jerebko’s DRtg during the current 4-game win streak, the best on the team among anybody who’s played all four.

116.2

Gobert’s team-leading ORtg during the same stretch. 

78.9%

Favors’ field goal percentage on paint touches since January 24. For an idea of just how good that is, LeBron James leads the league (minimum 30 attempts) at 78.3% for the season, followed closely by Kevin Durant and Giannis Antetokounmpo. Favors has just been beastly of late, as big an ingredient to Utah’s turnaround as just about anybody.

 

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

This week, let’s just take a quick look at a couple of tactics that have been working for the Jazz small forwards lately.

Let’s start with Crowder. Crowder is still struggling with his shot overall, with just 30 percent from deep and .478 true shooting since he joined the Jazz. But he’s found that’s been working: cutting from the left wing opposite a right-side pick-and-roll.

In all of these cases, it’s an outside P&R, with the ball handler going toward the right sideline. Crowder knows when that happens, his defender’s attention is going to drift to making sure help isn’t needed as the guard turns a corner. It may seem like a small thing, but this is a way for the Marquette product to inch back toward “Boston Jae.” Crowder scored in the 98th percentile on plays finished off of a cut in his last year with the Celtics, with 1.67 points produced per this type of possession. 

It’s also worth noting that in each of these plays, Crowder is the nominal second big on the floor. This works precisely because the middle is wide open — Derrick Favors is the lone true big, and he has his man occupied guarding the P&R.

And then there is Ingles, who has been doing a bit of everything lately. Watch the opportunities he’s able to create by exploiting his own “gravity.”

Ingles is the second best long-range bomber in the league right now5, which means that often he’ll have a defender or two running right at him when he catches. In each of these plays, a defender closes out sloppily on the Aussie shooter, and he gets around them and forces help. From there, it’s just careful dissection of a scrambling defense. Each time, the Jazz get an attempt at the rim — including Joe’s third dunk of the season!

 

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

Just so you know, “ballon de jeu” is game ball in French. That information could come in handy this week.

Jazz 116, Timberwolves 108: Rudy Gobert

Plenty of folks joked that this one should go to Karl Anthony Towns, or to referee Kane Fitzgerald for somewhat arbitrarily dismissing him from the contest. The fact is, the Jazz were well on their way to a win before KAT’s mild tantrum and quick dismissal, or before Jeff Teague sent Rubio flying into the bench. Gobert was the main reason why the Jazz were in great shape even before KAT hit the early shower. The big man scored 26 points on just NINE shots, and he added 16 boards and 4 blocks, keeping Minnesota in first place as the team most often rejected by Rudy throughout his career. Mitchell had another 26, and Favors was under-the-radar great with 15 on 7-of-8 shooting.

Jazz 98, Kings 91: Donovan Mitchell

A lot of guys were sneaky good on Saturday. Rubio’s shot was off, so at first glance his production doesn’t stand out to stat-watchers, but his fingerprints were all over the game. His 10-8-6-4 line bears that out, and Favors was again beastly inside on the way to an efficient 15 & 8. But this came down to The Don and Stifle. Pick your poison really: Gobert sported a do-everything line (16-12-2-3-3) and had a palpable impact defensively, while Mitchell had just another quiet, steady 27-5-5 outing. Flip a coin, but I went with Mitchell, if only for variety’s sake. The 10-for-10 night from the line was big, as well.

Jazz 94, Magic 80: Rudy Gobert

Rudy just did whatever he wanted to against Orlando. Town and Dwight Howard are the only other players this season to match Gobert’s 21 & 17 on 10 or fewer shots, and Rudy is one of just two Jazz players (Carlos Boozer) to accomplish such a feat. But if you watched the game, you don’t even need the stats. He was just dominant. Finishing through contact on pick-and-rolls, vacuuming up loose balls, and even knocking down an off-the-glass jumper from angle left like some sort of Tim Duncan impersonator. Also considered: Ingles was unstoppable early and finished with 18 points, 7 boards, 8 dimes and 3 steals.

Jazz 104, Pacers 84: Rudy Gobert

Rubio could have easily claimed this one. He had his best game since the break, in terms of process being joined by results. He has been playing great and putting pressure on defenses, so his fingerprints have been all over games, even as his shot has been off. In Indy, Ricky stayed aggressive and actually got to see his shot go down, too: 18 points, to go with six boards, seven assists and three steals. But how do you deny Rudy, who dominated every facet of the game. He was unstoppable on the P&R, and it wasn’t just dunks either; he finished with finesse a few times, and even nailed a one-leg pull-up from 10 feet. The final damage: 23-and-14, and the best O-Rating among the starters. Yeah… offensive rating. Also considered: Ingles had the first double-digit assist night by a non-Rubio Jazzman this season, and led the team in Net Rating.

 

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

There were so many fun things to choose from this week. A front-row Utahn reacting to Crowder’s cursing, Ingles punctuating a big road win with some towel-throwing antics, or Mitchell making a kid’s night in Indy.

But let’s end with a taste of the Jazz’s hilarious Insta-battle from this week, the one that prompted Gobert to proclaim that the rookies are getting “too comfortable.” SCH alum Spencer Wixom captured the highlights in this thread:

Salt City Seven 2017-18 Archive

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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