SC7: A 38-Game Season, Trade Season Looms, Mitchell for ROY & More

January 19th, 2018 | by Dan Clayton

Gene Sweeney Jr. via ESPN

The Jazz’s year hit something of a nadir this week, both in terms of record and broad sentiment. The team fell to a season-worst nine games under .500 with a lifeless loss to Indiana on Monday, and fan frustration with the mercurial Jazz reached a new level. It felt like rock bottom.

Utah stopped the bleeding with a convincing win in Sacramento, but the big picture remained bleak. Until now.

The Jazz get a new lease on life, starting this weekend. A triumphant return of a key player and a favorable turn of the schedule give Utah a chance to view the final 12 weeks of the season as an altogether separate entity.

 

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

To say the Jazz survived the 15 games Rudy Gobert recently missed would be generous. They made it through the stretch with a 4-11 record, falling to tenth in the Western Conference standings. But the All-NBA center hopes to consign those struggles to distant memory when he makes his return to the Utah lineup. He is expected to play Friday night in a nationally televised game against New York.

A new season starts now.

With 38 games to go, Utah gets a chance to reset. They’re just 7-11 in the games Gobert has played, but most of those games fell during two murderous stretches of the calendar. The schedule now owes the Jazz some easier fare, so with their best defensive player back in action, they’ll embark on a 38-game season that includes one of the easier opponent slates.

The news puts the Jazz season is in a weird place. Their playoff hopes haven’t completely vanished, but they’ve taken a big hit. (More on that in the “Playoff Picture” section.) Yet with Gobert back, they’re too good to full-on tank.

Beyond that, there are other reasons for the Jazz to want to play good basketball over the final 38. Their top priority at this stage, well above earning what would ostensibly be a brief postseason trip, is to provide an incubator for the growth of future stars like Donovan Mitchell. A player can learn winning habits even on a bad team, but as the Jazz learned by being in thick of playoff races in 2016 and 2017, there’s value in providing their players with reps in the crucible of meaningful games.

They would also benefit from putting Mitchell and Dante Exum, also hoping to return to action after shoulder surgery, in authentic situations. It would be an incredibly important outcome of the next three months if the Jazz could gather information on how Exum fits with the team’s new rising star, ideally before the former hits free agency.

So it seems logical that the Jazz will set out to be as good as they can, giving their young players a chance to reach for winning basketball. That may not result in a playoff appearance, but a half-hearted tank doesn’t take the Jazz where they need to go, culturally or functionally.

There are simply different goals for the rest of the season than focusing on a postseason berth. Utah needs to figure out its starting lineup, since the combination of Gobert, Derrick Favors and Ricky Rubio has just plain not worked so far. Trade season may provide Utah with some alternatives for solving the rotation questions, but it will be a huge issue starting on Friday against the Knicks. How many minutes with that space-challenged trio can Utah afford? Or, should they choose to mix things up, can they replace a starter without adversely affecting chemistry?

Still, Utah would rather face these questions about how to incorporate Gobert than not. Even in a year when the Stifle Tower hasn’t had his usual impact on the game as a whole, the club’s defense is still 5.4 points more stringent per 100 possessions with the Frenchman playing. He’s still an elite paint protector, and the rise of Mitchell to bona fide star status, a phenomenon that has mostly developed since Gobert’s injury woes started, gives Utah another option to tap into what used to be a lethal roll man.

There have been other, subtler changes to the Jazz’s rotation since we last saw Gobert stifling and swatting. Royce O’Neale has mostly supplanted Alec Burks as the fourth wing, and Joe Johnson, while struggling, has retaken his role as a stretch big off the bench. Simply put, enough has changed this season that we have never seen exactly this combination of pieces at work together. Thabo Sefolosha’s injury also makes one wonder if Utah will stay committed to the 4-out style of basketball they played by necessity during Gobert’s absence. Or will Favors still find himself playing next to Gobert at times?

There are more questions than answers, but a healthy Gobert gives the Jazz the chance to finally figure some fundamental things out about their team and future.

 

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

“I just don’t pay attention to it. I let everybody do all their talking, the reporters, the fans, the Twitter people.”

– Favors, to the Deseret News’ Eric Woodyward, on whether trade rumors are affecting the team

At this point, it’s impossible to deny that the possibility — even probability — of roster moves is hanging over the team’s collective head. These players know that changes are coming, and that can at least partially explain the inconsistent focus in some of their recent performances. The Tribune’s Tony Jones reports that players’ anxieties about looming roster moves, combined with mounting losses, have turned the Jazz locker room into an “unhappy place.”

“We see it. Everyone has their trade ideas,” Favors acknowledged in the Trib article. “But for me, I try not to pay attention. If it happen, it happens. If it doesn’t, it doesn’t. I’m going to play hard regardless.”

Favors’ name has been in trade rumors almost constantly in the last couple of seasons, and the big man has already been dealt once in career1. So he certainly speaks from an acute awareness of the need to block out that noise. But doing so is much easier said than done. Imagine how it might affect your focus at work if a possible life change was hanging over your head, the possibility of being forced to drag your family to another place on a moment’s notice.

Nevertheless, Favors isn’t the only Jazz veteran to insist that the uncertainty shouldn’t affect the team’s effort.

“Almost everyone in the NBA is tradeable,” Joe Johnson added in the Jones article. “It’s part of the game, part of the business. We have to be professional. We can’t cry about it. We have to go out and we have to play.”

 

A look at the Jazz’s postseason probabilities

OK, it’s time to be real: even with Gobert’s return, Utah’s playoff hopes have diminished to the point that they’re a long shot.

In dropping 15 of 19 games heading into Wednesday’s win in Sacto, Utah took their playoff odds all the way down to the teens in most projection models. But beyond those calculations, Utah just doesn’t look like a playoff team right now. They’ve looked hapless and uninspired in recent games against mediocre Eastern Conference teams, and more importantly, against teams like Denver and New Orleans that are ahead of them in the West.

So what would it take to make things interesting again?

Utah would have to finish 23-15 just to finish at an even 41-41 mark. That’s a .600 pace, and according to most models, 41 won’t even get it done. They probably need 43-39 at minimum, and that’s with some tiebreakers in hand. Teams that win 40 percent of their games usually don’t just start winning 65 percent of their games overnight (25-13 would be the required mark to hit 43 wins). The caveat here, of course, is that Utah has one of the easiest remaining schedule, having paid the piper early, and that their defense will get a lift with Gobert back.

It might take more than those two factors to magically convert the Jazz into a 25-13 team, though, so at this point Utah is more likely to watch the playoffs on TV than participate in them.

 

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

$2.625 million

The Jazz should receive an injured player exception after applying in the wake of Thabo Sefolosha’s injury. It would allow them to acquire a player — via signing, trade or waiver claim — making up to half of the Swiss forward’s salary.

However, the exception doesn’t create an extra roster spot for Utah, so they’d have to cut or trade a player to be able to use that $2.6M slot. There’s a separate rule that allows teams to temporarily sign a 16th roster player when four players are out with long-term injuries, but that doesn’t apply here. That’s one reason why it’s likely the exception won’t be used. The low amount — just a hair over the veteran minimum — is another.

So why did the Jazz apply for it? Because they can, and doing so doesn’t really cost them anything. It will most likely not get used, but you never know: it could come in handy in allowing the Jazz to take back an inexpensive player in a trade.

1345 minutes

Just a reminder that Joe Ingles still leads the team in minutes played this season. That can’t have been the plan, but injuries and inconsistency have made Joe an indispensable cog. The downside is that he’s clearly tired. Until he busted out a little on Wednesday, the elite marksman had been shooting 28 percent from deep in his previous 13 outings. He finally looked like himself in Sacramento, but keep an eye on Joe. He seems like someone who needs the All-Star break more than anybody.

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There’s a narrative circulating lately that teammates are robbing Mitchell of assists on sweet passes by missing shots. Luckily, NBA.com’s stats site keeps track of “potential assists,” passes that would have resulted in an assist if the teammate made the subsequent shot. Mitchell’s teammates are making 52.6 percent of the shots his passes produce. The team as a whole shoots .503 on potential assists, so it turns out that the other Jazz men aren’t disproportionately robbing the rookie of assists after all. Sometimes players just miss, even after a good setup.

The reality is that a player’s percentage of potential assists converted will never stray too far from the team norm, because shooting has a lot more to do with the shooter than the passer. To wit, Utah’s main ball handlers all have a very similar percentage. Rubio’s potential assists turn into buckets 49% of the time, Ingles’ 53% of the time and Hood’s 56% of the time. (Side note: another reason the Jazz will miss Sefolosha is for his precise reads: teammates shoot 66% after receiving a Thabo pass. Johnson passes only result in a bucket 41% of the time.)

 

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

Since Mitchell averaged 30.7 points since our last Salt City Seven, there’s no way we could highlight anybody but the star rookie in this week’s X-and-O breakdown.

Mitchell has a ton of tools that allow him to confound schemes and frustrate defenders. Today, we’ll look at two: his ability to split picks, and his knack for freezing the help defender with a tiny change of pace.

The rookie’s ability to slice between defenders out on the perimeter completely blows up the opponent’s defensive plan against the pick-and-roll. Most P&R schemes rely on the supposition that one of the two players directly involved in defending the P&R action is going to be able to stay in front of the ball handler. By perfectly timing his lunge right in between them, Mitchell puts the whole defense in a lurch. If the backline defender is slow to react, Mitchell gets to the rim, as in these two clips. Otherwise, that helper steps up and Mitchell has an open man somewhere, the result of a 4-on-3 that his pick-carving drive has created.

That one’s obvious, though. A much subtler trick Mitchell is using a lot lately involves a little stutter that renders a would-be helper completely ineffective.

Notice how on both these plays, a defender considers sliding over to stunt Mitchell’s drive — George Hill on the first one, Willie Cauley-Stein in the second case. Both times, Mitchell slows up for just a second, lulling the helper into a false sense that he was contained for the moment. Then Mitchell throws the burners back on and zips right by the suddenly static defender.

Those are just two of the ways Mitchell is killing people lately. He also has a pretty spin move, killer crossover, and he’s getting smarter at P&R reads. We’re witnessing something pretty special.

 

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

Just one to give out this week, as the Jazz had a 1-2 showing since our last installment.

Jazz 120, Kings 105: Donovan Mitchell

This was a tough one because there was a clear MVP in this game, someone who was clearly the best and most impactful player on the court. And then there was a clear narrative guy. In many ways, Hood’s week was a perfect metaphor for the Jazz’s. Like his team, he put forth an uninspiring performance on Monday — and he heard about it from fans. And like his team, he came out with a completely different energy at the Golden1 Center. But Mitchell just did too much to give it to Hood symbolically. It’s not even about his 34-point night, the historic efficiency, or his highlight dunks and the national buzz they generated. It was the way he took over the second half. At one point in the third he scored eight straight Jazz points, and then in the fourth he scored nine quick ones again, aided only by buckets from Rubio and Favors. It was part of a 23-point half and a performance that had NBA Twitter abuzz.

 

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

For most of the season, Mitchell has been mentioned as a long-shot contender, but not a favorite, for Rookie of the Year. As recently as last week, I have predicted that the rookie would finish second to Ben Simmons. But the tide may be turning. Here are some national accounts and pundits who are starting to float Mitchell’s name as the league’s best newbie.

There’s still a lot of basketball to be played, but Mitchell is very much in the #KiaROY conversation.

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

4 Comments

  1. Pingback: Salt City Seven 2017-18 Archive | Salt City Hoops

  2. John Jenkins says:

    Tonight maybe the proof of the pudding. Would be nice if the starters are not Rubio, Mitchell, Favors, Gobert, and Ingles but…..

  3. Spencer says:

    Looks like Hood, Favors, Burks Johnson and pretty much anyone not named Gobert and Mitchell are available. Goal:
    Two lottery-talent young players or lottery picks. Can we get that?

  4. Pingback: SC7: Quin Snyder’s Biggest Test Yet + Stats, Studs and Sets From Utah’s Week | Salt City Hoops

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