Welcome to the 17th installment of the weekly modular recap of Jazz basketball. With 26 games to go, there’s a lot to talk about.
Suddenly, some of the intriguing second-half subplots for the Utah Jazz involve the point guard spot: who will play, how much and when? Two games into the Shelvin Mack era, it’s clear that Utah’s deadline-day trade has changed the calculus at PG.
Mack was a solid pickup, especially at the low cost of one of Utah’s umpteen spare second-rounders lying around Dennis Lindsey’s desk. But he’s not the type of acquisition that makes things obvious in terms of how the team plays going forward. Coach Quin Snyder now has three options there that are, broadly speaking, roughly equal in terms of overall quality.
In other words, there’s still not really a clear starter, despite what the early Mack narrative has suggested. And regardless of who starts or finishes games, there is probably not a way to maintain rotational roles for all three.
Two’s company. Three’s a crowd.
It’s hard to shuttle three guys through 48 minutes at a position. Right now, Snyder is finding a few extra minutes for this trio by playing one of them as a small off-guard1 for short stretches, but that option probably largely disappears whenever Alec Burks returns from ankle surgery. If anything, they’ll go the other way, with more “triple wing” lineups cutting further into Mack’s, Raul Neto’s and Trey Burke’s opportunities.
For now, Snyder has settled on Mack starting, which is a totally defensible position given his pick & roll chops and the way his size allows more defensive switching. But when you look closely at what the Jazz were getting before that change, it starts to feel a little like a solution without a problem. The starting lineup with Neto has been one of Utah’s best 5-man combinations, with a D-Rating better than the league’s stingiest team and a league-average offense. In the nine games before Mack showed up, Neto was contributing 10 & 4 on 52% shooting, including 61% from three. He was +55 in those nine games, and the Jazz were 7-2.
See what I mean about a solution without a problem?
The lineup of Mack + the other starts has fared well in its first 21 minutes together, too. But there are some offensive questions. The Kentuckian poses almost literally no threat from three (18% this season), which is a spacing issue next to Utah’s two traditional bigs. Mack’s pick-and-roll facilitation helps unleash certain weapons, like the lethal Derrick Favors roll. But the first unit has facilitators and needs spacing. Plus, the scouting book on Mack can only grow as he’s seen so little court time.
For perspective on how little Mack was used in Atlanta, consider that 24% of his 2015-16 minutes have come in the two games he’s appeared in Jazz colors.
And then there’s Burke, who had one of his best games in a long time on Tuesday, playing the most minutes he’s seen since January 20 at New York. When he’s making shots, he probably helps the Jazz from a depth standpoint more than anybody, plus there’s the question of how you keep a guy engaged for two more months when he’s already, by some accounts, interested in a change of scenery. Burke with the starters has never been a great fit, but there have been multiple games that the Jazz wouldn’t have won without the Michigan alum’s scoring off the bench.
Still, it’s almost impossible to play all three, so somebody’s role is going to diminish or almost completely evaporate. That’s really the tougher call for Snyder, more so than who starts. It seems obvious that Mack, as sub or as starter, is going to play a lot of minutes. But the precise timing and combinations that the Jazz unlock for 48 minutes a night is going to be the subject of intrigue over the team’s final 26.
“The ball-handling that we have out there on the floor is important. So it’s gonna be — I won’t say it’s by committee, but there are gonna be guys that have opportunities based on the game.”
Snyder on his PG situation.
In that specific interview2, he mentioned that Mack has quickly earned the confidence of the other guys, and he talked a lot about Burke’s confidence with the ball calming the Jazz down at times.
That’s Utah’s average opponent strength for the next 30 nights — brutal! They also play 10 of those 16 games on the road. Based on FiveThirtyEight’s game by game projections, they will be underdogs in 12 of them. So imagine a 4-12 stretch. Ouch.
If there’s any consolation, it’s that Houston’s opponents are .537 over the same stretch, Dallas’ are .556 (although home-heavy), and Portland’s are a whopping .574, with 12 of their 16 on the road. So this could get ugly for the the current six-through-nine teams. We’ll regroup in a month to see how bad the carnage was, but the playoff race will probably come down to who can sneak a few wins out of this murderous month.
For what it’s worth, 538 has Dallas and Portland going 7-9, Houston going 6-10. So Utah badly needs to outdo that 4-12 prediction to keep pace.
I decided to crowdsource the X & Ohhhh this week. I asked the Tweeps what they’d be curious about, and
@JamonWinegar said that he’d love to see what the Jazz do to create looks for guys that the defense is “trying to deny. Usually G and Hood. Or do we just go elsewhere?” Great question.
Let me wax philosophical for a minute to start, because most often, the answer is that last option. Snyder talks about how he wants his offense to flow like water, finding the cracks and openings. More often than not, if the defense is overplaying Hayward, that makes something else available. Some guys would say, “Screw it, I’m getting the ball anyway,” but Snyder has lauded Hayward over and over again for understanding what the Jazz are trying to build and being genuinely interested in making the right basketball play. Hood is figuring out that same recognition, which is why he’s suddenly become a player who, similarly to Gordon, racks up multiple assists most nights.
But there are some situations where they really want to find one of those guys, particularly late in games or when playing with bench-heavy units, and they have some ways to free one or both up. In clutch situations, they use a ton of staggered screens, pindowns, or off-ball picks where they change the angle of the screen at the last second.
Here are some other tactics they use throughout the course of a game.
Jazz 111, Celtics 93 – Favors
There wasn’t much debate on this one, which is what happens when you put up 23, 10 and 6, with three blocks to boot. Fav was +28 for the game, and was the perfect antidote to Boston’s approach of blitzing Hayward and Hood. Rudy Gobert also had a nice night, and Neto had another career high with 15 points.
Jazz 117, Rockets 114 – Hayward
No question, which is saying something since a LOT of guys played well. By the time Hayward missed his first shot of ANY kind, he had already played 32:59 and scored 26 points. His final damage was 28-7-5, and as SCH radio host Zach Harper pointed out, only one guy has scored more on seven or fewer attempts since 1983. Burke was also huge, leading a 4th quarter comeback and scoring 15. Hood had 18-4-5 plus five steals, and hit two insane threes off the bounce. Mack topped his season high. And Favors’ 19 & 12 undersell the impact he had, switching out all over the place and keying the defense.
— Utah Jazz (@utahjazz) February 24, 2016