SC7: Quin Snyder’s Biggest Test Yet + Stats, Studs and Sets From Utah’s Week

January 26th, 2018 | by Dan Clayton

Melissa Majchrzak via utahjazz.com

The Jazz are 2-2 since we declared it a new season for them upon Rudy Gobert’s return to the lineup last week, and overall have evened off of late, splitting their last eight games. But wasn’t quite as emphatic a start for the Rudy-led Jazz as they needed to have, especially since the two losses came at the hands of lottery-bound teams. And since next on the docket is a pair of games against elite teams, followed by another 4-game road trip, the Jazz missed an opportunity to score wins that could have served to restore any waning hope of a winning season.

In other words, the 2017-18 campaign is quickly taking the shape of a very different kind of year than what the Jazz expected. And for one Jazz employee, it’s going to make the next three months a new kind of challenge.

 

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

Balancing a locker room full of egos has to be among the hardest parts of an NBA coach’s job description under even the best of circumstances.  An NBA team has 15 guys, each with a set of interests that may or may not overlap with the guy sitting next to him, and each with a personal belief that comes from being one of the best 2-3 guys in every gym they stepped into before they reached the NBA.

It gets harder when futures and livelihoods are at stake, and that’s where things start to get particularly sticky for the Jazz. Nine of Utah’s 15 guys don’t have guaranteed contracts for next season. If that sounds uncertain, consider that persistent rumors about no less than half of Utah’s roster means there are some guys who literally don’t where they’ll be playing basketball two weeks from now. The Jazz are said to have received calls about Raul Neto and Alec Burks, and a recent Hoopshype podcast said there was a “good market” for Ricky Rubio. That’s in addition to recent rumors about Rodney Hood, Derrick Favors, Joe Johnson and a number of other Jazz men.

If the Jazz were winning, it would be easier to quell the sense that Player X is worried about his next contract or Player Y is auditioning for a trade. But on top of everything else, the Jazz are now 7-17 since December 5. Some of that is due to injury, some to a murderous schedule, and some is due to inconsistent effort from players who have every right to be caught up wondering where their families are going to live.

All of which gives Jazz coach Quin Snyder his most intense and interesting test yet: how does he keep guys together in the midst of a season with shifting goals and unprecedented roster ambiguity?

Snyder’s four-year Jazz career hasn’t yet included a challenge quite like this one. The Snyder-era Jazz have experienced years with a number of ending contracts, but never with a trade deadline where almost literally every Jazz man is mentioned in rumors. And the club has certainly experienced losing seasons before, but those ones were part of the plan, a step in a calculated rebuild. This Jazz team was supposed to be good, and Snyder knows that the extended funk only compounds the difficulty of keeping guys together.

“I know how badly our players want to win. I know how hard they work,” Jazz coach told the Salt Lake Tribune in Tony Jones’ revealing article last week. “But when there’s losing, there’s going to be frustration. And there’s going to be frustration from everyone, and that’s OK. We have to understand that frustration, and then we have to channel it and play better.”

This rough month and a half has to have changed Utah’s short-term objectives. They’re not a team that’s culturally dispositioned to tie off half a season, but they will start to think more about setting up the 2018-19 campaign as this year’s playoffs get further from their reach. That could mean more time spent developing players who have a long future in Utah, or experimenting to gather information on certain players and combinations. But with 240 player minutes available in each game, it’s a zero-sum affair; giving Donovan Mitchell more responsibility could mean giving Rubio less. Finding minutes for Dante Exum, if he indeed returns from shoulder rehab this season, could siphon opportunities from someone like Burks. At the same time, Snyder doesn’t want to lose his veterans’ buy-in and engagement.

That leads to some very specific decisions for Snyder in the short term. For example, take a player like  Johnson. The 36-year-old is clearly not a part of the Jazz’s future (and often has a less than stellar impact on their play in the present). At what point do you move away from a player in that situation and start to gather data about other options and lineups? Or does reducing the seven-time All-Star’s role imperil team harmony to the point where it’s not worth the risk?

There will likely be a trade or two that resolve some of these quandaries, but this will still be a balancing act for Snyder beyond the February 8 deadline.

The measure of how Snyder and the Jazz respond to this challenge has nothing to with the outcomes of the remaining 34 games. This is an opportunity for the team to assert its character, regardless of their final win tally. They could lose every game between now and April 11 and still feel like they trusted their principles and stayed together as a team. Or they could win a bunch but let the environment worsen and trust deteriorate.

The chemistry, competitiveness and maybe even talent level of the 2020 Utah Jazz could look different depending on what happens today in the locker room, on the bench and in the game. There’s a lot at stake for the Jazz to foment the right culture and habits, and a lot at stake for Snyder personally. Already respected as a brilliant basketball thinker and excellent in-game tactician, Snyder’s handling of these next 12 weeks could fortify his résumé as a culture constructor and one of the league’s best all-around coaches.

Or not… but either way, this is likely the biggest test Snyder has faced so far as the Jazz’s head coach.

 

 

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

“He’s that guy to keep the energy going, to keep up jokes and be funny. He’s always been that guy. We love him. He keeps the same energy whether we’re up or down. He keeps the same energy, and that’s one of his best locker room attributes, to be able to keep everybody up with a positive vibe.”

– Mitchell, to Tribune’s Kyle Goon, on Joe Ingles’ playful nature

Jazz players are never safe from ribbing in the presence of known jokester and fourth-year pro Ingles. Slo-Mo Joe has been in rare form this week. He harped on Mitchell for wanting the last shot in Detroit and teased Neto for missing a layup after a sweet dribble move on Wednesday. According to Mitchell and others on the Jazz, Joe’s needling provides some welcome levity during a long and pressure-filled NBA season.

His candor in social media, of course, stands in sharp contrast to his reported refusal to talk to the media after the Jazz defeated the Pistons. Can’t be playful all the time, I guess.

 

A look at the Jazz’s postseason probabilities

At this point, it doesn’t even make sense to look at the teams above the Jazz. Unless Utah reels off an extended string of wins, talking about their playoff odds is a waste of my keystrokes and your retinal movements. Their postseason percentages are down to the teens or single digits in every major model, so let’s not sit here and parse the Western playoff race.

Instead, let’s look the other direction. Many are wondering aloud whether the 20-28 Jazz should start to prioritize their 2018 draft selection. So let’s look at what that would mean.

Right now, there’s a pretty clear gap in win projections after the worst eight or nine teams in the NBA. For example, the FiveThirtyEight projections currently have eight teams winning 31 games or fewer, then two more medium-bad teams before you get to where the Jazz and Hornets are tied for the 11th-worst record at 37. Six games is a pretty huge gap in the projections. The pro-tanking crowd says that it’s not that hard to lose six additional games, but those eight other teams are going to be losing, too.

Some of those projections might even be a little high. Just as the Jazz are not far removed from their rock-bottom moment, some of the other lottery teams are playing their best basketball of the year. The Grizz have won five of eight, the Lakers have won seven of nine, and the Bulls and Mavs are both .500 over their last 10. As those teams return to their expected win percentage, at least a few of them will see their projections will drop back into the high 20s.

Frankly, the Jazz just aren’t bad enough to cross that divide unless they do something drastic, like shutting down a healthy Gobert or Mitchell. And those would be completely out of character moves for Utah. The highest they will realistically get in the pre-lottery draft order will be No. 9 or 10, up from their current spot at No. 11 or 12. How much of your identity and habits are you willing to change for that two-slot difference?

The habits question leads into a discussion of what we actually mean by tanking, which is too broad a topic for this space. The quick version is this: if you’re rooting for the Jazz to “tank,” then that either means that you want them to intentionally take their foot off the pedal — meaning tell players to play less hard and instruct your coach to strategically manipulate the team’s chance at winning — or you are hoping that guys like Mitchell and Gobert and Snyder will just be bad at their jobs.

Barring lottery luck or serious injury, the Jazz will pick ninth or later in the upcoming draft. Embrace that and you can go back to guiltlessly hoping your team plays well. Whether the Jazz win 34 or 39 or something in between doesn’t really matter in the long-run; whether they give Mitchell, Gobert and others authentic opportunities to experience success might.

 

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

13%

Joe Ingles’ tying layup in Detroit was a glorious outlier for the Jazz this season. Utah has made just two tying or go-ahead buckets in the final minute of the fourth quarter or overtime all season, out of 15 tries. Ingles is now 1-for-2 on such shots, and the only other player to make one is Gobert, who’s 1-for-3 on the season. All other Jazz men are a combined 0-for-10, including Mitchell’s four misfires and three by Joe Johnson.

Last year’s Jazz were 10-of-24 in similar situations, led by… not the player you think. Gobert made all five of his last-minute attempts to tie or go in front, and the departed Gordon Hayward made one of his nine.

13

When the Jazz face the Raptors on Friday night, Rodney Hood will miss his 13th game of the season. Hood is averaging a career high 16.7 points as the primary scorer of bench units, but he’s once pace to miss more than a quarter of the season for the second straight season and the third time in his four-year career.

13th

Utah’s defensive ranking is just about as low as it has been all season. They briefly bottomed out at 14th last week, but have had the 10th best defense since Gobert returned. It should continue to creep up if the Jazz remain healthy, which is important — 13th is just plain not good enough for a team that has Utah’s problems scoring the ball.

 

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

Without a doubt, the biggest bucket of the week came when Rubio and Ingles connected for a late layup to stave off regulation defeat. They prevailed in overtime after Ingles swished another pair of triples and then got a scrappy steal that led to a Mitchell bomb, capping a 9-0 run and setting the table for the club’s sixth road win.

It was a big moment. But when you break apart the play that got Ingles his cutting deuce, it’s even more impressive.

The meat of the action here is actually the “double stagger into side elevator doors” that they run for Mitchell. The rookie’s loop around the screens and back into side elevator doors1 occupied a lot of attention, because it takes a lot of people to really guard it well.

If neither screener’s man helps around the elevator doors, then Mitchell gets a wide open catch-and-shoot look. If one of those two defenders scoots around to contest Mitchell and no help comes, then either Gobert has en unencumbered roll to the paint or Johnson can slip to the side for an open look. The guy guarding the inbound knows that his job is to prevent the corner catch-and-shoot. Drummond chooses to hang way back off of Gobert, but that means he has to be ready to respond if the Stifle Tower dives to the rim. Because of that, he never commits to stunting Ingles’ route like he did when he showed pretty convincingly on Mitchell. He can’t be available to help guard the 3-man elevator doors action AND protect the basket, so he has to choose. (And honestly, he kind of chooses wrong.)

Snyder told Goon that this wasn’t the play design, but rather a read. That makes sense. They probably expected Drummond to instinctively protect the cup, in which case one of Gobert, Johnson or Mitchell would have been free for the catch, and Ingles would have probably cut all the way to the weak corner to take his man out of the play. But when Drummond hesitated for a half second, Rubio smartly pulled the trigger on a pass to the paint.

 

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

For the first time since Christmas, the Jazz locked up two game balls in the same week. Let’s see who gets them..

Jazz 125, Clippers 113: Joe Ingles

Jingles edges out Mitchell, whose eight fourth quarter points helped Utah outlast the Clips. This game was won early, and the first-half performances of Ingles, Favors and even Alec Burks are the reason the Jazz had a cushion to begin with. Ingles’ five triples tied a season high, and his 21 points match his career best. He also had four steals, and his aggressive nature helped the Jazz starting unit play net positive ball for a change.

Jazz 98, Pistons 95: Ricky Rubio

A far harder call on this one, especially between Rubio and Ingles, who teamed up to put the game in overtime (see above). Initially I had Joe for the late heroics. He had the game-saving bucket at the end of regulation, then keyed a 9-0 overtime run with his two triples and a steal that led to a third by Mitchell. But ultimately enough people talked me into Rubio, including people who have at other times been critical. Their endorsement was particularly convincing. His line (11-10-5) was nifty enough, but it was more about the impact he had on the game. He had a team-best DRtg, and not by coincidence. He was peskily aggressive all night, but without departing from the Jazz’s schemes. And he made a literal blood sacrifice in this one! When he left to get a cut closed, things fell apart for the Jazz2, but shortly after he returned, the Jazz reeled off their 10-1 spurt to tie the game. Favors also deserves a ton of credit in this one for his defensive tenacity.

 

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

So it sounds like we won’t get to watch Donovan dunk in the February 17 Sprite Slam Dunk Contest. But don’t worry: you’ll still get to see him dunk.

Actually, Mitchell’s 23 dunks on the season3 are the most by any player under 6’4″. It’s a far cry from league leader DeAndre Jordan (121), rookie leader Ben Simmons (80) or even the Jazz’s top dunker Favors (77), but it’s a lot for a player of Mitchell’s size and for someone who gets as much of the defense’s attention.

And at any rate, Mitchell was selected for the February 16 Rising Stars Challenge. That makes the rookie Utah’s only participant in All-Star weekend.

But for dunks, you’re going to have to “settle” for this stuff for a while:

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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