SC7: Weighing Options for a Trio of Utah Starters + Six Other Jazz-Related Bits

December 8th, 2017 | by Dan Clayton

Melissa Majchrzak via utahjazz.com

The tough part of the Utah Jazz’s December is decidedly underway.

After opening the month with a pair of convincing home wins, Utah dropped back to the .500 with back-to-back losses to the Thunder and Rockets. There’s very little shame in losing a road back-to-back to a star-laden team1 or in falling prey to an elite team with an MVP candidate, a top-five point guard and 13 wins in their previous 14 outings.

Nevertheless, Utah’s recent play has brought up some existential questions, and that’s where we’ll start this edition of the Salt City Seven.

 

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

The Jazz got Rudy Gobert back from injury just in time to embark on a tough patch of the schedule, and that inevitably was going to lead to dialogue about lineups. After the Jazz got some offensive rhythm by playing stretch fours next to Derrick Favors during Gobert’s absence, the talk has naturally returned to whether those two behemoths can occupy the court together without grinding Utah’s offense to a halt.

Spoiler alert: they can.

Let’s be clear about this — the Jazz don’t have a Favors-Gobert problem. Nor do they have a Ricky Rubio problem, despite how vehemently the current fan chatter would indicate otherwise. All three are young veterans, smart and talented players who know the NBA game. But it’s getting harder to deny that playing all three at the same time leaves the Jazz offensively challenged.

Consider this: when any two of those three are on the court, Utah actually plays quite well. Their offensive ratings range from “slightly below team average” to “awesome,” but they play winning basketball overall.

Per Impact tool at stats.nba.com, as of 12/10/17.

The Favors-Gobert combo has actually been lethal while Rubio rests, outscoring opponents by 30.3 points per 100 possessions2. The Favors-Rubio duo (with no Gobert) has been potent offensively, and also outpaces the opposition. And Gobert-Rubio, while not quite as offensively punchy a tandem, still manages a triple-digit ORtg and still beats opponents by nearly five points per 1003.

The point here is that the Jazz are still a winning outfit with any two of the fellas in question, and the offense still produces.

And yet when all three are out there — no matter who the fourth and fifth guys are — it just doesn’t work. It’s the opposite of synergy: somehow the whole is far less than the sum of its parts. That’s especially true on offense, where the production plummets to 89.4 points per 100 possessions and the net rating is a disastrous minus-17.4.

It’s obvious why. Defenses have been sagging back on Rubio pick-and-rolls all year, and since Favors and Gobert still do most of their work in the paint, opponents can basically pack the lane and turn the Jazz into a jump-shooting outfit.

So what can the Jazz do about it? There are really only three options.

Option A: Send one of the three to the bench

The Jazz are all but doing this already. All three start, but Favors has been subbing out between two and five minutes into every half. The result is that the three never play more than a few minutes together in a game.

But those few minutes can still cost the Jazz. Against Houston, for example, the Jazz were outscored by 17 in the seven minutes that Favors, Gobert and Rubio teamed up, essentially costing them a chance to compete in the other 41. The team shot 4-for-11 (36 percent) with three turnovers in those seven minutes4.

Head coach Quin Snyder could just decide not to play the three together at all. But that means demoting one of the three to the bench, a move that could shake confidence and alter chemistry. All three are starting-caliber players who are at points in their careers where a decision like that could affect their earning potential going forward.

Favors, for one, is a pending free agent who has been eager to prove he’s back to his old self. Rubio has started 358 of 378 career games. And you don’t move a reigning All-NBA player to your second unit.

None of the options are great. Moving Rubio to the bench seems the most tempting, but then rookie guard Donovan Mitchell would likely shift to the point guard role, which would present some tough defensive work for him. He already has much of the ball-handling burden whenever he’s in, but moving him to the point full-time means he’s Utah’s first line of defense against guys like Steph Curry, Russell Westbrook and Kyrie Irving, three All-Star point guards the Jazz will face this month.

For what it’s worth, the team has performed well so far when Mitchell teams with the bigs during Rubio’s rests. It’s just a 35 minute sample so far, but those three5 have a 115 ORtg and an 83 DRtg, just smashing opponents by 32 points per 100 possessions. So it’s worth considering — but it wouldn’t come without costs.

Option B: Trade one of the three

Trading Gobert is a total non-starter. He’s the player the Jazz chose to build around, the one who has come to define their identity. General Manager Dennis Lindsey frequently refers to Gobert as a top-10 NBA player, and even though he hasn’t looked quite that good yet this season, you just don’t trade an All-NBA guy who is the soul of your team. Unless you’re tearing it down again, and the Jazz aren’t in that kind of position.

Trading Rubio is an option, although his value might be in a weird place right now. The Timberwolves shopped him openly last summer before ultimately accepting Utah’s offer of a non-lottery draft pick, and it’s not like his value has shot up since then. A Rubio swap isn’t likely to bring back an impact player, so moving him just to move him would ultimately make the Jazz worse in most realistic scenarios. And that’s if the Jazz are even ready to give up on a player they acquired just months ago with the hopes of reviving his career in the mold of a modern Jason Kidd.

That leaves Favors. The 6’10” forward’s future with the Jazz is already murky, since he’ll be a free agent in seven months. There are teams currently shopping for a starting-caliber center, so anytime you hear the Clippers’ DeAndre Jordan come up in a rumor, pay attention to that team. That said, teams generally give less for an expiring player, and there’s no salary cap mechanism that would allow an acquiring team to lock Favors down at his market rate6.

Plus, Favors has been among Utah’s most steady performers so far this season. Gobert is still the team’s best player, and Mitchell’s rise has been the most exciting, but Favors has been solid. He averaged 16.5 points and 9.3 boards while Gobert tended to a bum knee, and he has developed nice chemistry with the budding star Mitchell.

In other words, losing Favors, the longest-tenured Jazz man at this point, would sting. If there’s a decent return out there, they’ll listen, especially if they think he’s unlikely to return next season.

Option C: Ride it out

If sending one of the three young veterans to the bench is too risky from a chemistry standpoint and the trade options don’t present a clear opportunity to get better, there’s one more thing the Jazz could try doing: nothing.

They could stand pat, and trust in the mental makeup of the players in question to figure it out. Maybe some of the problems the club has had in the trio’s first 240 minutes together are solvable. Maybe they opt to hope that Gobert’s impact normalizes as his rhythm returns post-injury, that Rubio starts to get his legs into his jump shot, or that Favors starts keeps developing as a weakside pressure release.

Perhaps they see have some faith that things will improve naturally as players around those three evolve. Rodney Hood has missed a big chunk of time, and Mitchell’s feel for the NBA game has improved substantially since the season started. Perhaps they trust Quin Snyder’s playbook to layer actions and confound defenses. Maybe they give Rubio the benefit of the doubt from a learning curve perspective; after all, the Spaniard has had a different coach and system in each of the past five seasons, and now he’s learning a whole new roster of teammates.

This might be the most painful option in the short term, the one that brings growing pains and rough stretches. But given where the Jazz want to get in the medium to long term, it’s an option. Giving up on really good players just 26 games into their season is precisely the way impatient teams screw up their building processes.

None of these options is great. None would come without costs. But whatever Snyder chooses to do with his rotation and Lindsey decides to do with the roster, they’ll do it with the future of the franchise in mind. The 2017-18 Jazz are good, but they’re not title contenders, so there’s not a huge rush to figure everything out today. If slogging through some droughts is the cost of testing players’ limits and sussing out future roles for when the Jazz are back in the upper echelon, that might ultimately be worth the few extra grey hairs Jazz fans are getting by watching the trio figure things out.

 

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

Speaking of lineup decisions…

“How we adjust and use those guys, and who plays, and who plays together — those are all things that show themselves to you. You know, we have some information on that, but we’re a different team right now than we were when we had Rudy at the beginning of the year.”

– Snyder, on how he’d manage rotations as players return from injuries.

We’ll see when the answer shows itself to Snyder.

It was interesting to hear him reference that Utah is different now than before the Gobert injury. Mitchell’s emergence is a relatively new phenomenon. Jazz moved him into the lineup as a full-time starter for the game in which Gobert was injured, so it’s possible that the starting group as presently constituted just hasn’t had that many games to establish a rhythm together.

 

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

30.8%

That’s how many of Utah’s game Hood has now missed due to injury this season. Over the course of his career, he has missed 24.2 percent of possible games. He’s having a career year from deep, as well as getting to the line and making his freebies. It would definitely help Utah to have their leading scorer available.

26.1

Speaking of scoring, Mitchell is on a tear since Thanksgiving. That’s his scoring average since Nov. 23, and he has done it on 52 percent shooting and 48 percent from three. If he has another 24+ performance his next time out — he’s had nine of them so far — he will officially take over as leading scorer7. The Jazz are 7-4 when he goes for 20 or more.

 

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

Without a doubt, one of the storylines of the week has been Alec Burks’ apparent return as a legit bench scoring threat. Burks slid into Hood’s role as the primary option in the second unit, and he looked the part. He put up 19.8 points per contest this week, and he did it from inside, outside and the line.

Here he cutting from the weakside for two dunks in the span of about a minute to keep Utah close on TNT.

The first one is why Snyder talks so often about wanting ball handlers to “attack at the 45,” refer to drives start at either side out front and then break the paint at a 45-degree angle. Because Mitchell does that, the defense flattens out; notice how at the :07-:08 mark, there are four Rocket defenders busy guarding two Jazz men, leaving just one visitor looking after the other three. Mitchell whips a great pass to Joe Ingles, and while Slo-Mo is faking his way into the lane, Burks realizes that James Harden is guarding nobody. He has to leave the corner anyway so that Mitchell can space out there, so he cuts middle before anybody realizes he’s free.

The on the second one, Houston hedges the P&R, so Favors cuts early to force the switch. That gives Mitchell the opportunity to attack at the 45 again, and — you guessed it — at the :26 mark there are four Rockets touching the paint. Normally Chris Paul would be the designated help here and Harden would slide down to “zone” cover the two weakside guys until Paul could release. But neither happens, so Burks just shoots the gap while Harden stands at the top of the key thinking about which beard care product he’s going to try next.

Burks still tries to do too much at times, and the defensive focus comes and goes. But this slash-cutting, spot-shooting,  mentally engaged version of AB has helped the Jazz out of late.

 

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

Maybe giving out a couple of basketballs will help take readers’ minds off of Utah’s two straight losses.

Jazz 114, Pelicans 108: Donovan Mitchell

Forty-freaking-one. But it wasn’t just the raw scoring, or that 17 of them came as the rookie took over down the stretch. It was the craziness of watching this kid in his 23rd NBA game realize that he couldn’t be stopped. Favors (18-11-5) and Alec Burks (24 off the bench) also played well, but c’mon. Easy call.

Jazz 116, Wizards 69: Quin Snyder

I believe it was @Silverarrow82 who first had the idea to give this one to the coach. And it makes perfect sense. The pre-game narrative was all about how Snyder would handle the rotation, and he answered by orchestrating a total shellacking of the John Wall-less Wiz. Burks got some consideration, although he poured on many of his 27 late in the blowout, and Mitchell had — ho-hum — just another 21. But let’s get Q on the board.

 

A look at the Jazz’s postseason probabilities

At .500, Utah is in position of one of the top eight WC records, and most rating systems say they’re still in good shape.

FiveThirtyEight gives them an 81 percent chance, and Basketball Reference calls them a virtual playoff lock at 93 percent, based on their simple rating that’s third best in the conference. ESPN’s BPI model says they’re 87 percent likely to play past mid April.

With the season nearly at the trimester mark, the haves and have-nots are definitely separating, and we see clear tiers forming. Most models agree that nine teams have a legit shot at the postseason out West: the Warriors, Rockets, Spurs, Wolves and Thunder8 as relative playoff locks, then the Jazz, Pelicans, Nuggets and Blazers as four bubble teams fighting for three spots. The other six teams are six to 10 games under .500 already and most are trending the wrong direction.

 

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

We could make a recurring segment out of crazy Quin Snyder looks9. But this was a particularly fun week for odd gestures by the intense and demonstrative fourth-year coach.

Check out this gem of a GIF created by KSL’s Matthew L. Glade.

 

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

2 Comments

  1. John Jenkins says:

    I think that Quin will make a decision on the starters soon. Hood has to stay healthy to end up with the Jazz. He can jot play only 2/3 of the games. Hope Quin figures a way to keep Favors. Miss Dante.

  2. Pingback: As Rubio Lineups Continue to Struggle, the Guard Remains a Focal Point | Salt City Hoops

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