SC7: Free Thabo, Road Defense and Rookie All-Star History

January 5th, 2018 | by Dan Clayton

Thabo Sefolosha

Welcome to a very rookie-heavy edition of the weekly Salt City Seven.

Donovan Mitchell is central to more than have of the week’s sections, and with good reason. The 21-year-old is now leading the Jazz (and the rookie class) in scoring, garnering attention from around the league, and even mounting an All-Star bid.

But before we get there, we’ll take the temperature of the struggling Jazz, and suggest one player who could help them turn around their winter malaise.

 

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

Any time a team loses 11 of 14 games, it’s OK to start to revisit some decisions.

Utah is now a season-worst six games below .500, and while much of that has to do with injuries to key players like Rudy Gobert and Dante Exum, it’s still an appropriate time to put their tendencies and philosophies under a microscope. Nobody is immune from analysis when things are as rough as they’ve been over the last 30 days in Jazzland, and that includes guys who wear both sneakers and suits.

At 3-11 since December 4, there are no sacred cows. Everything should be up for discussion, even decisions that seemed smart when the context was different.

For example, turning Thabo Sefolosha into a full-time stretch four was a good decision when the Jazz shifted him up from the wing during Joe Johnson’s extended absence. It made sense given Gobert’s injury for the Jazz to start playing more 4-out basketball, and the 33-year-old had slowed just enough that a move to power forward would protect him from quick-footed perimeter players.

Then Johnson got healthy and Jonas Jerebko broke out, and suddenly there aren’t minutes available for all the guys Quin Snyder would like to deploy as smallball 4s. The result is that Thabo has sat two of the last four Jazz games, both losses.

Snyder was right to rethink Sefolosha’s position. But not playing him at all is hurting the Jazz.

The Swiss forward is too smart and valuable to watch from the bench as the Jazz lose important contests with fellow Western playoff aspirants. He has the highest net rating of any regular Jazz rotation player (plus-6.2), and the Jazz defense holds opponents to a stout 101 points-per-100 when he plays. That’s a hair better than even Gobert’s, and way better than any Jazz player who has Thabo’s minutes.

That’s the macro level. From a micro skills perspective, it feels even weirder to leave Thabo in warmups. For example, Sefolosha has a better defensive rebounding rate than either Jerebko or Johnson, despite the fact that many of his minutes this season came at small forward. He’s an attentive and fundamental rebound-seeker, with 20 boards in his last two outings. So why didn’t Utah think to deploy him against New Orleans, in a game where Utah saw a lead evaporate while the Pels scored nine second-chance points in the fourth quarter alone?

He’s also a .452 shooter on the corner three, a key ingredient in Utah’s 4-out, cut-and-pass offense. Jerebko’s better in the corners, but Johnson has made just 21 percent out there — just four corner threes all season.

And sure, trade season might be motivating the Jazz to play Johnson more than his recent play would otherwise warrant. That’s fine. But that doesn’t mean that the Jazz can’t play Sefolosha. Remember, until a month ago, he had played virtually his entire career at the 31. He’s a recently converted PF with 11 years of experience on the wing. He might have slowed a fraction of a step when guarding quicker wings, but he still plays better defense overall than some of Utah’s younger reserves.

Sefolosha is simply too smart, too experienced and too savvy a player not to be playing at all.

It’s not the only topic the struggling Jazz should be revisiting as they look for ways to end a month-long funk, but it’s a start.

 

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

“There’s been some games where we’ve played really good defense on the road… so the fact that we’re able to do it should tell us that we’re capable, there’s just gotta be another level that we find on the road as far as our commitment and our focus on the defense, on not having breakdowns.”

– Snyder, on what the Jazz need to do to be successful during a road-heavy January

Eight of Utah’s next 11 games are outside of Salt Lake City, so it behooves the Jazz to find a way to start playing better on the road.

They’re 3-15 when they travel this season, and they own the third worst road defensive rating in the entire league. Only the hapless Bulls and Kings defense worse as visitors, and the Magic share Utah’s abysmal 110.8 rating.

That said, the opponent slate during this road-heavy stretch does present Utah with some winnable games if they can correct the defensive issues. They won’t face a team with a record above .600 until January 26. In the meantime, they’ll face five teams with losing records2, four teams with winning marks3 and one team at exactly .5004. Then they’ll end the month with a lethal pair of games: at Toronto and then against Golden State.

 

A look at the Jazz’s postseason probabilities

The top four in the West are starting to separate from the pack, and the Thunder might have finally started to figure things out.

So Utah’s playoff hopes are now likely tied inversely to those of the Nuggets, Pelicans, Clippers and Blazers.

That makes Wednesday’s loss to the Pels sting even more, but Utah could still even up that season series as long as they steal one of two remaining games in NOLA: Feb. 5 and Mar. 11. Other games that become massively important now:

  • The Jazz have three left against Portland, the team FiveThirtyEight sees as the most likely eighth seed. The good news for Utah is that all of their remaining bouts with the Blazers come after February 11, meaning they will likely have a healthy Gobert.
  • Both of Utah’s remaining games against the Clips (1/20 and 4/5) at home games, which puts the Jazz in a great position since they’re currently tied 1-1. Blake Griffin is back and the Clips have been playing better, winning six of their last eight.
  • And of course… the one right in front of them! Believe it or not, Utah and Denver wrap their season series on Friday, and Utah could sew up a 3-1 series advantage if they surprise the Nuggets in the Pepsi Center.

 

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

21.2 points, 10.1 rebounds, 3.8 assists, .147 WS/48

Those are the combined season averages of the only three lottery-era rookies to ever qualify for an All-Star game in their first season: Grant Hill in 1995, Tim Duncan in 1998 and Blake Griffin in 2011. Duncan and Griffin were reserves voted in by their coaches in their respective rookie seasons, while Hill actually led the fan vote as a rookie, the only player in NBA history to do so.

So is Donovan Mitchell’s 18-3-3 average line with .073 win shares per 48 enough to make him the fourth rookie ever to crash the midseason party? Probably not.

Don’t get me wrong, Jazz fans should absolutely keep repping their guy! It’s fun to do so, and a totally acceptable part of fandom to hope that the prodigious 21-year-old earns that early recognition. Just don’t be shocked if it doesn’t happen this first year.

Making it as a rookie is extremely rare, with just three youngsters achieving the feat in 33 lottery-era seasons — about 0.16 percent of the rookies who debuted in that time period.

The current landscape in the West makes it seem like an even longer shot for Mitchell, who plays in a conference where Steph Curry, James Harden and Russell Westbrook hold down three of the four to six guard spots. Three-time All-Star Klay Thompson has slightly better stats than Mitchell, and Western Conference transplant Jimmy Butler may get votes as a guard5 so that the WC coaches can make room for a slew of talented forwards. Past All-Stars Damian Lillard and Jrue Holiday are also having seasons that compare favorably to Mitchell’s. Chris Paul probably hasn’t played enough to garner a selection, but his name recognition and his importance on the league’s second-best team could get him in.

Either way, Mitchell will spend All-Star weekend on Los Angeles. He’s a shoe-in for the Rising Stars Challenge and there’s already some talk to suggest that he will participate in the dunk contest if invited. And keep voting for him to make the main event, too! Just know that it’s a long shot.

 

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

The Jazz start a lot of their offense in “1-2-5 horns,” which basically means a big and a wing screening for the ball handler at the top. One of the most common ways they initiate their offense is to have the point guard dribble to one side and then the wing pops out to receive the ball. But sometimes, they get an advantage right away off of the 1-2-5 horns setup, and they just roll with it. Lately, Mitchell has had a lot of success attacking in this configuration.

Take this play. The Jazz run that same basic action: Mitchell is the 1, and Joe Ingles pops out. The Cavs decide to switch when Jingles goes, so that lead Mitchell and Derrick Favors into a simple high pick-and-roll with two guys Mitchell can beat with speed. He splits the two defenders and goes all the way in for a bucket.

On this one, Rodney Hood pops out early, leaving Mitchell with a straight isolation play against a defender he can beat. Jeff Green isn’t in a help position because he has to respect Hood’s flare cut, so Mitchell is able to beat Dwyane Wade with a wicked hesitation move and get into an open middle.

And then there’s this nasty specimen of a play. In this one, Mitchell is actually the 2 in the “1-2-5,” and it’s not exactly horns because Ricky Rubio comes across the top, making it more of a stagger. But the idea is the same: Mitchell is supposed to rub his guy off of Favors’ man and pop to the outside to take control of the ball. But JR Smith knows this, so he tries to overplay it by “icing” the pick — standing between Mitchell and the Favors screen. Mitchell makes a very good read here and just goes for it instead, with a hard back-cut that results in a dunk.

What all three of these plays have in common is that the Jazz never got to the meat of the “horns flare” action because they recognized an advantage and, to steal a football term, called a quick audible instead. This is what a good offensive flow looks like: they have offensive principles and well-designed actions, but they’re ready at a second’s notice to take what the defense is giving them.

 

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

The Jazz are 1-1 since we last met, so let’s dole out some recognition in the form of a shiny game ball.

Jazz 104, Cavs 101: Donovan Mitchell

Rubio’s near triple-double (16-10-8) and Favors’ efficient 19 (on 11 shots) were both indispensable, but here’s another game where Mitchell took over in a close fourth quarter against one of the best. LeBron James even switched onto the rookie for a couple of late possessions, and Mitchell just kept piling it on. He finished with a line of 29-4-5, along with three steals and a block. He and Ingles led the way in Utah’s go-ahead third quarter, combining for 15 of the club’s points in a 28-15 frame. And then in the fourth, Mitchell added 11 more to hold the King at bay.

 

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

Well, we might as well stay on the topic of Mitchell to close.

There remains a ton of positive vibes around the newly minted Western Conference Rookie of the Month. The mantle candy is nice, but I was just as impressed by this high-powered endorsement from a former Utah resident.

Happy 2018, everybody!

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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  1. Pingback: SC7: Bold Second Half Predictions, Mitchell’s Hype Train, Hot Rod & More | Salt City Hoops

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