SC7: Recalibrating Rudy, Bouncing Back, Assist History

October 26th, 2017 | by Dan Clayton

Andrew D. Bernstein via utahjazz.com

It’s time for the Salt City Seven, the weekly recap of all things Jazz, served up in seven capsules on topics big and small. As usual, we’ll start with a prominent big picture topic, which this week centers on, well, a big.

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

It’s probably too early to get overly excited or worried about any trends from Utah’s first week. They’ve played just 240 minutes, not nearly enough for things to even out in terms of anomalous performances, opponent noise and other outlying weirdness.

That said, five games isn’t an inconsequential sample. That’s 6% of the season, and it’s not like these games will count any less than, say, the final five when they tally up wins in mid-April. If nothing else, we have five more data points, which is better than zero data points. So if something is seriously out of whack from a statistical standpoint, it’s worth looking into it. And there are some things to look into as it relates to Rudy Gobert’s early impact.

It’s not like the seven-footer is embroiled in some sort of existential crisis. On a relative basis, it wouldn’t even be accurate to say he’s struggling: his early scoring and efficiency are even higher than year’s. But if we look beyond counting stats, some unexpected things jump out relative to Gobert’s overall impact.

He currently has the worst plus-minus on the team, with the Jazz having been outscored by 11.4 points per game in his minutes, and the team is playing better on both ends when he sits than when he’s in the game. Those are weird data points for Gobert, who has always been a big ingredient in the way coach Quin Snyder cooks up success. Perhaps most notable is the drop-off when it comes to his calling-card paint defense: foes shot 71 percent (15-for-21) at the rim in Gobert’s presence through the first four1. Opponents would have to miss 14 straight at the rim for Gobert to return to last year’s elite 43.8 percent figure.

So what gives? Why is this All-NBA stud, a top-10 player according to his general manager Dennis Lindsey, not dictating games to his usual degree? A few things to keep an eye on:

Slow Your Roll

Rudy is still an elite force when finishing out of the pick-and-roll. After finishing in the 95th percentile last year with 1.38 points on those possession, he’s at 1.41 right now, better than 87.5 percent of guys who regularly finish that way2.

But he’s not getting the ball as often as he’d like, or frankly, as much as people thought he would in Utah’s retooled offense. He has 15 attempts as the roll man3 over five games. That 3.0 per game figure is actually more than last season; but last season’s team was a bit different. Now that he’s paired with an elite pick-and-roll distributor in Ricky Rubio, and with the Jazz’s dearth of automatic scoring options, they would like to set those plays more often.

Rubio isn’t the same pull-up threat that last season’s primary P&R orchestrators were, so teams are able to guard more aggressively against the pass. We first saw Minnesota employee the strategy, gluing bodies to Gobert on every roll, and then the Clippers picked up that template in Tuesday night’s win. Watch both teams focus in on cutting off the pass to a rolling Rudy.

Minnesota would drop the big man back AND have a weakside helper run in to prevent the pass to Rudy — like Jimmy Butler does there. Think about that: a guy coming all the way from the weakside wing to the strong block to guard a guy who doesn’t even have the ball. The Clippers did a lot of switching early on, and when they weren’t switching P&Rs, they were doing what you see Lou Williams do above: cutting off the angle of the pass while Jordan deterred Rubio.

This is the kind of aggressive scheming Gobert should get used to now. He should almost take it as a complement that defenses now are primarily focused on not letting him catch the ball going toward the basket. But it’s also something he and the Jazz’s playmakers will need to adjust to.

There are a couple of ways to counter this. The most obvious is for Rubio to punish the defensive conservatism by hitting pull-up shots. He had eight straight points that way on Tuesday in L.A., then hit double figures the next night in Phoenix, largely by doing the same thing.

Rubio can also attack that empty space and force the defense to react to Rubio, which is either going to pull the big off Rudy or suck in help from another area of the court. Here, DeAndre Jordan tries to guard in the conservative, Thibsy4 fashion, but Rubio forces the Clipper big to slide over and guard him.

Turning P&R plays into Gobert attempts should absolutely be a priority for the Jazz. Those are some ways they can do it, but the bottom line is that teams are going to guard his rim dives very differently now than they did a year ago.

Physical Play

This is both a corollary of the last point and it’s own thing: teams are playing Rudy a lot more physically now, and there are times when it affects him.

Both on offensive catches and in the battle for boards, Gobert is responding to bumps and grabs like he used to as a younger player: as though there were a sniper in the building. Particularly if he’s bumped while fighting for possession or trying to reel in a pass, he sometimes flails in an apparent attempt to get the call.

Recoiling from contact is not the way to get 50-50 balls, so Gobert’s rebound rate is a tick lower than we’re accustomed to seeing. The bigger problem is — and this has been true since the advent of time, or at least the advent of NBA referees — it is hardly ever the way to get the whistle, either. One of the key statistical differences in Rudy’s game this year is a significant reduction in free throw trips. Before feasting a bit against Phoenix, Gobert had just seven FTAs in four games. Even after his eight against the Suns, his ratio of FTAs to FGAs is still less than half of his career norm.

Putting the Stifle Back in Stifle Tower

The rim protection stuff is probably the easiest to write off as just small-sample weirdness.  but there have been some times when Gobert’s timing was just a fraction of a second off when challenging shots. Drivers are also getting creative about getting Rudy off balance with jukes and Euro steps.

Utah’s perimeter defenders are also taking more risks, going after the ball in front more often. That’s probably the right thing to do in a macro team sense given the personnel, but it’s going to put Gobert in some stickier situations where 2-on-1 attacks result from a defensive gamble out front.

The good news is, Gobert is wired in such a way that he won’t be satisfied with any of this stuff. His unrelenting competitiveness will force him to find ways to impact games. The sooner he does, the sooner the Jazz will be able to wield the top-10 weapon Lindsey and others foretold.

 

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

5

That’s how many times in the last three NBA seasons a team has given away at least 24 turnovers and 16 offensive boards, like the Jazz did in Wednesday’s loss at Phoenix. Five times in the last 2,327 games, four visitors and one home team. None of those teams won the game in question. “You spot a team 40 extra possessions, you’re going to to have to have a monumental night shooting the ball to win,” Snyder told the Salt Lake Tribune. “We obviously didn’t have that either.”

The losses at Minnesota and L.A. were more understandable; both are talented teams that project to be in the thick of the Western Conference playoff race. But gift-wrapping 40 extra possessions to a team entering the game with the worst net rating in the league has to weigh a little heavier on the now 2-3 Jazz.

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

“We’re obviously pretty upset and disappointed with how we played the last two games on the road. I think we’ve got a bit of a nice stretch at home now, so we’ve got time to get back to the team we should be, which is that defensive, aggressive, getting out and running, and playing together… I think we can, I think we will..”

– Joe Ingles, on his weekly show on team radio

A macro pulse on the team from Jingles. Perspective for the win.

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

Only one to give out this week, and so far Game Ball is a very Joe-centric exercise.

Jazz 96, Thunder 87 – Joe Ingles

Gobert was the other sane choice here, with a 16-and-13 double-double. But instead we’ll award the leather to the guy who, according to Twitter’s @randychipman contribution to our GB convo, “rented space in (the Thunder’s) heads all night.” Indeed, Jingles’ mark was all over this game from a personality standpoint, to say nothing of his season high 19 points and five three-pointers. He defended well, shot when open, and let every Thunder player hear all about it.

Like I said, it’s a Joe thing:

The game ball tally at 2-3.

 

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

Since we put Rudy under the microscope up top, let’s dedicate some space here to magnifying some nice rim attacks from the big man’s week.

These two plays are similar in set-up, similar in structure, and similar in terms of the trio involved.

Rubio to Jingles to Rudy, then Jingles to Rubio to Rudy.

The first one is basically a “pick and pick and roll” play. The Jazz are trying to make Russell Westbrook guard multiple actions. He gets over the initial Gobert screen pretty well, but the quick dribble pitch to Joe weaving toward the top now means Westbrook has to change directions and deal with the impending Ingles-Gobert screen. That one never even really happens though, because Gobert sees that Steven Adams is already cheating up high because he knows Westbrook is now trailing the ball. So he slips the pick and the help defender never really has a chance.

The second one is a bit more of a bang-bang play, a traditional P&R with a small wrinkle. The Thunder hedge hard on this simple Ingles-Gobert P&R, so Rudy does the right thing and dives to the paint. Ingles doesn’t have the angle to pass, so he uses Rubio to relay the pass via the wing. Patrick Patterson should be helping here, but he inexplicably released early, leaving Gobert with two of his easiest points ever. The trio strikes again.

 

Games coming up in the next seven days.

Saturday vs. LA Lakers. Nothing but home games on the slate for Utah this week. After a couple of days off, they host the talk of the rookie class, Laker guard Lonzo Ball. The Lakers aren’t to be trifled with, having just knocked off the contending Wizards on national TV.

Monday vs. Dallas. Before they finally picked up a home win over Memphis, Dallas looked as bad as anybody during an 0-4 start. Only the hapless Suns and Bulls had a worse net rating going into Wednesday night, but the Mavs might have finally found something in splitting two close ones in a home-and-home set with the Grrizz.

Wednesday vs. Portland. The toughest test of the week comes in the form of a visit from Damian Lillard. The former Weber State Wildcat has started the season out slow shooting the ball, but his Blazers are still 3-1, and CJ McCollum is averaging 25 points per contest. This is dynamic a backcourt as you’ll find, and they’re currently on the inside lane in the race for Utah’s Northwest Division.

 

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

Rubio is the first Jazz man since the 2010-11 season to open with 41 assists or more over the club’s first five games, and the only player ever to start his Jazz career that way. Only three players in franchise history had previously dished 41 in the first five games of any season: Ricky Green did it twice, Deron Williams three times, and John Stockton did it an astounding 12 times, including in 1989-90, when he opened with 81 assists.

So who is benefiting most from Rubio’s generosity with the ball? Hint: there are a couple of big men who should probably consider buying the Spanish guard’s dinner.

Ricky making historia

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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