Salt City Seven: Outside In, Playoff Chances, Midtown Mitchell & More

November 16th, 2017 | by Dan Clayton

(via Utahjazz.com)

The struggles continue for the Jazz, who since our last Salt City Seven lost three more games and—more importantly—their best player.

In this week’s modular recap of all-things-Jazz, we dissect the recent struggles a bit, and we also check out the playbook, relive a cool rookie moment, and give away one lonely little game ball from an otherwise unfruitful week.

 

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

As it turns out, smallball isn’t a cure-all. Neither is playing big, playing fast, or playing slow. The 6-9 Jazz have won just one game in their last seven times out, despite trying some new rotation configurations. The common denominator in their recent losses is obvious: Utah has protracted stretches where nobody can find the basket.

The early narrative made Utah’s big lineups a culprit of choice. In the dozen games that Rudy Gobert and Derrick Favors started together, the Jazz went 5-7 with one of the worst offenses in the league. It was easy to assume that the issue haunting the Utah offense was the combination of two behemoths lurking in the paint and parking opposing defenders near the rim.

Except that it wasn’t.

Utah has played small more in the past three games, mostly out of necessity with Gobert sidelined due to a knee bruise, but also in hopes of greasing the gears of their offensive machine. From the 35,000-foot level, you could even say it worked, at least as far as the offense is concerned1. Utah has had its two best performances in terms of single-game O Rating in those three games, and their overall shooting efficiency has been above average for a change.

But peel back the layers and the issues are still there. One of those performances came against Brooklyn, a bad defensive team that was tired at the end of a long road trip. Against New York on Wednesday, Utah’s hot first half was followed by a 93 ORtg after the break, including a five-minute scoreless stretch in the fourth quarter. Utah just can’t score sometimes, regardless of how many traditional bigs are on the court.

“We’ve got to make shots, that’s for sure,” guard Ricky Rubio told SCH after Wednesday’s loss. “But the thing is, when everybody touches the ball, we’re getting from the inside out, it’s better than any other shot. We’ve got to learn how to break the paint and put them in jeopardy.”

Too often right now, the Jazz are having to settle for playing outside-in. Opposing defenses are willing to grant Utah open jumpers so that they can wall off the paint and not allow the Jazz bigs to roll inside. And they’ll keep betting against the Jazz’s shooters until someone gives them reason to do otherwise. Utah takes the third highest percentage of their shots as open or wide open jumpers from outside 10 feet (51.9 percent), but their combined effective field goal percentage on those shots is the seventh worst in the league (.493). In other words, the Jazz’s core issue right now isn’t lineup-driven; it’s about knocking down shots.

“I really believe that we’ve had good looks all year. Obviously we need to make them,” said Joe Ingles, Utah’s best volume three-point shooter. “The way we play offensively, we’ve got unselfish guys and our system can get good looks, but obviously finishing that off is key.”

He added with a chuckle: “Obviously we’re not trying to miss shots.”

As a team, Utah gets only 0.75 points per play on plays that ends with the pick-and-roll ball handler using the possession, a bottom-10 figure. But that’s the shot defenses are willing to concede, and the Jazz have used 22.8% of their possessions this way (only Phoenix has used more); that means almost one in four Jazz trips ends with the defense telling Utah’s ball handlers, “Go ahead, take that shot.”

It’s hard to talk about this without addressing Rubio’s profile as a non-shooter. It’s probably not a coincidence that the Jazz amassed most of their wins during the early part of the season when Rubio was hitting those pull-ups. They’re 4-1 when Rubio shoots over 40% from the field, 2-8 when he doesn’t. They haven’t been beat in the four games where the Spaniard canned multiple threes, but are 2-9 in the games where he’s hit one or none. There are clearly other factors at play, but so far it’s not a stretch to say that part of the Jazz’s formula for success involves Rubio forcing defenses to reconsider leaving him wide open.

Not that Rubio views his role as being that one-dimensional. “I don’t think it’s just that,” he said on Wednesday. “I bring to the team a lot of things. It’s not just shooting.”

He’s right, of course, although right now opposing teams are making his role more about shooting than Rubio would probably prefer. More than half of his attempts come as pull-up shots2, and his effective field goal percentage on those shots has dropped from 55.1% to 34.7% during this 1-6 stretch.

“It’s something that I’m not worried (about),” Rubio said. “The work that coach asks (of) me is defense and try to control the tempo. The shots will come.”

 

A look at the Jazz’s postseason probabilities

At least for this week, we’re going to skip the usual “Road Ahead” section — after all, you know where to find the upcoming schedule on your own, right?

Instead, we’ll look a little further down the road and ask: are the Jazz’s playoff hopes disappearing?

With six losses in the last seven Jazz games, NBA forecasters are becoming increasingly bearish about the Jazz. FiveThirtyEight now gives the Jazz less than a 1-in-3 chance of qualifying… and they’re the most optimistic of the major projection systems. Basketball Reference’s SRS-based system, for example, says it’s a 9% chance,

Even if we stick to the rosier FiveThirtyEight odds, Utah’s projection there comes out as the worst in a group of six teams projected for somewhere between 38 and 46 wins. These are the six teams competing for leftover playoff spots, as the Warriors, Rockets, Thunder, Wolves and Spurs are all extremely likely to make it. So to make the playoffs, the Jazz will have to finish ahead of three of those teams, to say nothing of keeping teams like the Lakers on their back. That would require them to claw back to a projected record of 42-40, from their current forecast of 38-44. Four games they’d have to make up.

With 67 games to go, Utah absolutely can do that. Bear in mind that in actual win-loss count, Utah is only a game and a half behind the team that model projects as the No. 3 seed.

But they have to start winning. Stat. And four weeks of Gobert-free basketball will make it hard for Utah to rack up wins they’ll need in April. That’s true in general terms, and especially since they face the Nuggets, Pelicans and Clippers during the four-week time frame from Gobert’s original injury date. Those teams, along with the Blazers and Grizzlies, are the ones Utah is battling with in that sixth-through-eleventh scrum.

Losing games to these teams could be a triple whammy, because it puts a perhaps unexpected win in the pocket of their WC rivals, and could put Utah at a disadvantage in end-of-year tiebreaker situations. And all four are teams that start two traditional big men, meaning papering over Gobert’s absence with a smallball lineup might not get it done, as Utah saw when Minny’s bigs led a dominant effort in Salt Lake.

In all, it’s way too early to count  the Jazz out, but the odds are shrinking with each unbudgeted loss. They will have to find a way to win a decent number of these November and December contests, with or without their All-NBA anchor.

 

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

Speaking of Rudy’s timeline…

“Usually, I heal very fast. So I’m pretty confident, and we’re not going to rush it, and I’m not going to do anything stupid, but hopefully, I can be back before that.”

-Gobert, to KSL.com’s Andy Larsen

Utah’s December schedule is pretty feisty, so getting their All-NBA center back early could be an important development. “The main thing is that I know I’m going to return 100 percent,” Gobert added, saying that he’s working to stay strong and in game shape. For what it’s worth, Gobert appeared to have completed a pretty rigorous workout when your faithful SC7 scribe bumped into him in the locker room before Wednesday’s game.

In the meantime, Gobert and injured forward Joe Johnson are traveling with the team. Snyder says it is helping the two “stay connected to what we’re doing.”

 

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

103.7%

After focusing on the offense for our big story, let’s take a jaunt to the other end of the floor. The Jazz have often cited the mantra that “defense travels,” which reflects their belief that it’s easier for a team to sustain a defensive performance on the road than to uphold an offensive identity.

The thing is, so far it’s not true for the Jazz, who hold opponents, on average, to 94.7% of those teams’ usual ORtg in games at The Viv. When they travel, though, opposing offenses perform at 103.7% of their usual offensive output. That’s a 9% swing in how Utah’s defense performs by location, relative to the offensive quality of the teams they face. They allowed the Rockets to hit 117% of their ORtg, and the Knicks offense performed at 109% of theirs in Gotham this week.

On the other hand, Utah’s offense also takes a bit of a dive outside of SLC, but a slightly smaller one. At home, Utah scores at a rate that is 97% of its opponents’ DRtgs, and on the road they produce to the tune of 92%.

 

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

One of the ways Snyder has been combating the offensive stagnancy is with brilliant set pieces that layer action upon action. Frequent readers of this space know that those plays frequently end up getting the “Playbook” treatment, because they’re just so dang fun. Snyder can’t call a set play every trip down, but Utah does extremely well in this situations, because the defense rarely has any clue what’s actually coming.

Watch this Alec Burks dunk that combines three pieces of action we’ve talked frequently about in these X&O highlights.

The three main components that make this play work won’t feel new to SC7 aficionados.

  1. Horns for the wing pop-out. We’ve shown you a lot of plays like this, where the Jazz put two screeners — a wing and a big — up high with the intention of having the wing come get the ball off a down screen from the initial ball handler. Minnesota has seen the play too, because Jamal Crawford starts to sag way back to protect against the Hood curl. But wait — this is more Snyderific trickeration. Because this is actually going to flow into the next action for Burks, and by the time Crawford realizes that, he’s already way behind the play.
  2. DHO. Burks, with his defender in another zip code, shoots behind a dribble hand-off. DHOs can basically be used the same way as high screens, and Utah uses them a ton.
  3. Spain P&R-esque back screen. As we detailed last week, the Spain pick-and-roll involves a second screener keeping the big man from being able to sag back on the drive. By now, Hood has relocated himself to where he can set a nasty backpick on KAT.

There’s no real name for the totality of what happens here. You could call it a “horns to Spain DHO-roll” if you wanted, but “Spain DHO-roll” is something that doesn’t really exist. Spain P&R exists and DHO exists as an alternative to running a straight high ball screen. But combining these actions is actually really novel, especially with the preceding action designed to get Crawford off the scent.

It’s stuff like this that makes Snyder a favorite of many an X&O hipster around the league.

 

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

Only one game ball to give away this week, but we add a new face to the Game Ball leaderboard.

Jazz 114, Nets 106: Derrick Favors

For an evening, Jazz fans got to remember what Favors used to be like rolling into an empty middle with a unique blend of explosiveness, touch and finesse. Sliding to center in Rudy Gobert’s absence, Favors mostly played with four-wing lineups, and used that extra space to bully his way to a 24-and-12 outing. He got to the line, blocked a pair of shots, played solid defense inside and out. Also considered: Mitchell had another 26, Rodney Hood led the Jazz’s second-quarter spurt to take control (14 in the quarter, 19 overall), and Joe Ingles had an all-around night (17-6-5).

 

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

Mitchell remains the silver lining as the Jazz continue to struggle, and it was fun to chronicle his trip home to New York on Wednesday. He grew up in Westchester County, a short train ride from Madison Square Garden. He had attended games there as a fan, but had never been on the floor level until Wednesday’s shootaround.

About 200 people he knew came to see him play, but Mitchell said that he only arranged tickets for the six closest family members. “The rest just bought tickets,” he laughed. “That’s too much.”

For his first career MSG bucket, on his first career MSG play, he snuck backdoor and threw down an alley-oop off a pass from Rubio. It wasn’t by coincidence: “That was the play,” he said afterward. Snyder drew up the play specifically to get Mitchell a memorable first moment, which is its own kind of cool. Mitchell said his first basket usually helps him calm his nerves a bit, but not this time. “I was so nervous,” he admitted.

“It was an amazing feeling.”

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:

    This is what it takes fir the Jazz to be successful. They need to get their bigs involved early. Derrick has to have meaningful touches, not just catch and hand off. For the guards and wings to have success they he rim must be attacked by the guards and especially the bigs. This is hat lost the Knicks game. The Jazz forgot to attack the rim. Threes are fine, but the ability to attack the rim opens the floor. Too lit le movement toward he basket and few inside touches. They also went back to running to the defensive end with zero offensive rebounding. Hard work on the offensive glass stops more fast breaks than everyone just leaving the offensive end.

  2. Pingback: Salt City Seven 2017-18 Archive | Salt City Hoops

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *