An up-and-down week brought Utah two of its most convincing road wins of the year and then two discouraging losses that could impact the playoff race. This week’s all-things-Jazz recap will cover that, but we’ll also dig into a turnover contradiction, offensive droughts, and a discussion of why those who are still overlooking the club’s All-Star forward are wrong.
It’s been a tremendous February for Gordon Hayward.
He played in his first All-Star game, had his highest-scoring month ever1 and led his team to a career-high 15 games over .500.
And yet, weirdly, not everybody got the memo. Just in the last week, Hayward’s credentials have been debated by two pundits and a player who apparently haven’t been paying attention.
First, a column ran on The Ringer that used Hayward as exhibit A in what Juliet Litman called a lack of “bona fide celebrities” at All-Star weekend2. Then ESPN’s Brian Windhorst acted surprised on a podcast that Hayward was being mentioned in the same context as Paul George and Jimmy Butler. And finally, fellow All-Star John Wall complained about “no name guys” getting calls.
(To be clear, Wall didn’t mention Hayward by name, but since the forward and teammate Rudy Gobert combined for 22 of Utah’s 32 free throws against the Wiz, it’s a safe bet that’s who he was talking about.)
It’s a weird moment in Hayward’s character arc for so many people to be looking down their nose at his stardom. He literally has never played better, never been on a better team, never authored so many highlight plays in such a short stretch, and in general has never been as much a part of the broad NBA consciousness.
So why does everybody still discount Gordon Hayward, even at the acme of his career thus far? Probably because he’s a different breed of star. Hayward isn’t the type to demand shots or hijack possessions. He can take over when he needs to and, truth be told, should probably be a bit more assertive at times. But he really trusts the structure and flow of the offense in a very selfless way — he wants to make the right basketball play every time, and that looks different than what some people expect to see from superstars. But he’s also not merely a catch-and-shoot guy racking points as a system player. He’s more complex than either of those polar representations.
There are 15 wings in the NBA this season who average at least 20 points per game on 25% usage or higher — in other words, these are the league’s real star wings3. Hayward ranks precisely at the group’s mean in time of possession at 3.4 minutes per game and in time per touch at 3.2 seconds per touch. He’s not one of the ball-dominant star wings like LeBron James or DeMar DeRozan, but he’s also controlling the rock far more than Klay Thompson, Harrison Barnes and Jabari Parker.
The way he uses his possessions further speaks to his versatility as a main option.
In other words, he’s the Swiss Army Superstar. He can hang with the best of the league in just about every way. He’s not a full-time driver like DeRozan or Jimmy Butler, nor is he an exclusive sniper like Klay Thompson or Bradley Beal. He does all those things, and does them well.
Actually, the player who is most like him at the offensive end in that way — performing right along with this elite peer group in every way — is Kawhi Leonard. Like Hayward, Leonard is right in line with the performance of this group in (6.4 per 100 team possessions), points off the catch (4.5) and points assisted (9.5). That’s pretty special company.
Let’s not sugarcoat things: this week’s two losses could come back to the bite the Jazz.
Losing to Oklahoma City in their gym is understandable, but hurts given that Utah led by two possessions late and now needs a win on March 11 to avoid potentially sliding all the way to seventh. Losing at home to Minnesota, though… that’s a bit more disappointing.
Every good team loses some like that. Keep in mind that even 50-win teams — kind of the watermark of “hey they’re really good” — lose 40% of the time. Some of those are bound to be weird, inexplicable losses to bad teams. But it was a projected win, and when you cough one of those up, you have to get it back somewhere. The good (and bad) news is that the Jazz have plenty of chances with budgeted losses coming up; they have a whopping seven road games left against winning teams.
Their tiebreaker situation is the other disconcerting thing here. They already lost the season series to Memphis, and the best they can do against the Thunder or Clips is salvage a tie — and in both cases, they currently trail in the secondary tiebreaker. The only team in the 3-to-7 range they can still claim the tiebreaker against is Houston, but a) that requires winning in Houston next Wednesday, and b) it probably wouldn’t matter since it would be near impossible to catch the Rockets at this point anyway.
Most likely, the Jazz are going to have to finish AHEAD of whomever they want to beat.
Andy Larsen, our managing editor, had a great idea: instead of using this space to highlight a single nice bit of Jazz offense, let’s go diagnostic for a week. He asked me to look into what happens to contribute to some of Utah’s offensive droughts. Given that the group has suddenly lost five its last eight, now seemed like a good time to explore it.
One thing that occasionally happens is the Jazz shying away from a team just physically beating them to their spots. This isn’t just raw physicality – although that sometimes bugs the Jazz too. This is more specific than that. Watch as the Clippers rotate the helper into position BEFORE the ball arrives, so that there’s body in front of them at every turn. With enough energy and forcefulness, you can find counters to that kind of pressure, but some nights the Jazz just haven’t had it.
The Jazz won’t see that every night because it’s hard: the Clippers undoubtedly had to scout exactly where the Jazz’s offense would lead, and then come with the energy to anticipate and execute against it defensively. Teams can’t afford to invest that level of scouting and system memorization to every regular season game, but they certainly can in the playoffs. The Clippers clearly brought this as a game plan because of the importance of this game in the race for seeding.
But that’s not the only kind of scheme that coaxes Utah into some bad decisions. Teams that play a “contain” style defense and wall off the paint are inviting Utah’s drivers into some pretty uncomfortable pullups. Too often, they’re accepting the invitation, even when the looks aren’t great. A lot of Utah’s cold spells have resulted from settling for too many of these types of tough, off-the-bounce looks.
And then there’s the item Quin Snyder likes to mention: passing. “I feel like our passing can help our shooting, which will help our execution,” Snyder said recently. “Usually there’s a high correlation between the accuracy and timing of our passes and our shooting percentage.” In this next series we see how much harder Jazz players find it to finish in rhythm when they first have to corral a pass that was a bit off target.
And then there’s the cold reality: sometimes they just miss. Sometimes the pass is on time, the beat the rotation, they execute well and a shot doesn’t go down. It’s inevitably trite-sounding, but this really is a league where games sometimes just come down to who is making and who is missing.
“Most of the stat sheet looks good tonight. The one, the turnover thing, isn’t as good. For us, we came to play and this is a tough place to play.”
– Snyder on Sunday, after one of the Jazz’s most impressive road wins of the season
In consecutive games, Utah committed a season-high 24 turnovers in a blowout win, and then a season-low seven giveaways in a heartbreaking loss.
The odd juxtaposition reminded me of a funky stat I’ve shared in social media discussions, but never here in the SC7. The Jazz are now 19-8 in games where they commit 14 or more turnovers, and 18-16 when they cough of 13 or fewer. No, you didn’t read that backwards. The Jazz record is better in higher turnover games.
To answer this, you have to remember that the thing that causes most of a team’s turnovers is the same thing that, generally speaking, leads to better looks within a team offense: passes that break through the defense. If a team plays without passing or only makes safe passes around the perimeter, they won’t commit many turnovers, but they’ll also have a stagnant offense that will lose a lot of games. In the Jazz’s case, fewer turnovers often means more isolation play, including with some of the ill-advised pullups we just looked at.
Remember that next time there’s a collective wringing of hands over TOs: they’re actually far more benign than we’ve been led to believe, and passing TOs specifically are actually same symptomatic of the same behaviors that fuel some of the best offenses. The two teams who commit the most passing TOs per game, according to NBA Miner’s TO detail, also happen to be the league’s highest-powered offenses, the Warriors and Rockets. In fact, with the exception of the iso-happy Raptors, the teams in the top 20% for offensive efficiency all commit an average to above-average number of passing TOs per game7.
Things may feel frustrating after an 0-2 showing in the back-to-back, but remember that this SC7 cycle included two very impressive road wins as well.
Jazz 109, Bucks 95: Hayward
So many of the Jazz’s most important players were the best realistic versions of themselves in the Jazz’s post-break debut that you could make a case for Favors, Gobert and Hill, too. But the way Hayward took charge at key junctures matters even more than his 29-point line. He scored (9) or assisted (3) more than half the points in the 20-4 run Utah used to get in the driver’s seat after a bad start, and the lead was never smaller than five from there on out. Plus he had multiple head-turning plays. When you’re the best player, the best narrative and the best highlight owner of the same game, it’s kind of a no-brainer.
Jazz 102, Wizards 92: Hayward
As has been the case in so many games, you could really almost flip a coin between Gobert and Hayward here. Do you go with Hayward’s tenth 30-point game, nine rebounds, four threes and nice defensive work against Washington’s much-improved wings? Or do you go Rudy for his 15-and-20, four blocks, general paint defensive influence and perhaps the best assist of the year? Ultimately I thought Hayward broke the tie with a commanding final three minutes. After the Wiz made it close, Hayward scored off a weakside rebound, nailed a three, and then iced it with a tough-as-nails straightaway stepback. Star stuff, in other words.
The Jazz tried something new this week: playing with all of their players.
Truth be told, there was a single game before All-Star break where no Jazz players were injured, resting or with restricted minutes. One. Now, with the whole team available in the first three post-break dates, Utah has enjoyed a grand total of four games with its entire lineup healthy.
Since much has been made of Utah’s lackluster record against .500+ teams, it seems fair to use the same injury info to qualify that a little. Of those 16 losses to good teams, Utah was missing at least one rotation player in 15 of them. In 10 of them they were short at least two players, and in nine of them they were down three to five guys.
We skipped the “Road Ahead” section this week to make room for everything else. Instead, check out Clint Johnson’s full March lookahead, and just know this: next Wednesday at Houston is a big game.
Instead, we leave you with this… It was too hard to pick one of Utah’s SportsCenter-worthy plays to close, so the parting gift is this list of links to the best five.
5. Hayward takes no prisoners, this time over two Wizards, with the double-clutch.
4. Dante Exum has been playing more aggressively of late and shows us by turning on the burners.
3. (Whispers) This might have actually been Hayward’s best dunk of the week. Alley-oop, contact, over two Bucks, had to turn/adjust in the air.
2. The Hayward dunk that got the most attention was him going right at Giannis Antetokounmpo and then one-arm hanging on the rim while he either glanced menacingly at the Greek Freak or guilt-tripped the refs about contact8.
1. Gobert gets fancy with the no-look interior pass to Derrick Favors, who finishes with the reverse jam.
Did I miss any that belong in the top five?