It’s been a fairly positive week in Jazzland since our last weekly check-in via the Salt City Seven. The Jazz finished a successful trip, their star is looking plenty starry, and the squad is stacking up nicely as the Western Conference power structure begins to take shape.
But we start on a bit of a somber note this week. Because sadly, as we dive into the big picture, the most salient storylines are once again questions of health.
The Jazz have become pretty accustomed to playing games without a full roster, and even playing without some of their best players. So it’s hardly news anymore when another member of the team’s core shows up to the game in a sports coat instead of a jersey.
But there’s something different about this one — Derrick Favors, for almost a year now, just can’t seem to get healthy.
Back spasms kept him out for a solid month last season, then turned into knee problems. Whether related or not, he started this season with pain in his iliotibial band, a tendon that runs down the entire length of the leg, from the pelvis to the shin. It’s an annoying injury that doesn’t go away quickly, and just as Favors was rounding the corner on that, he began visibly laboring, hampered again by knee pain. Twice in the last week, he’s been shut down during a game.
The official diagnosis this time is a bone contusion, which on the surface is a good thing. No structural damage. Nothing that’s going to take a long time to heal. Bone contusion is the fancy term for “it hurts,” and it just gets better with time.
“It just keeps getting sore, really sore, on me,” Favors told Tim McMahon, our colleague over at the ESPN mothership. “It’s tough. I want to be there for my teammates, want to play, want to get wins. At the same time, I’ve got to be smart with it and just try to figure out how to make it better. Think about the bigger picture.”
The big picture is that Favors has been at something less than 100% for a solid year. Which is too bad since Favors at 100% is a pretty formidable force.
“Obviously there’s a fine line between being sore and being able to play, and then being ineffective,” coach Quin Snyder said at Wednesday’s practice. “I think he felt that he was ineffective (on Monday). Until he gets healthy, it’s going to be a challenge for everybody. Him first and foremost.”
This columnist is on record as saying that Favors is more impactful than most people realize. Missing out on his production — both in terms of statistical output and his rare blend of paint protection and defensive mobility that allows the Jazz to switch liberally while he’s on the court — is a real cost that is holding the 7-5 Jazz back. Every game he misses, or hobbles around looking visibly uncomfortable, the Jazz aren’t as good as they could be.
It doesn’t help that Utah’s other PF options haven’t exactly looked like seamless fill-ins. Boris Diaw has scored eight total points in his first four games as a Jazz man, and Trey Lyles’ early season performance has, perhaps predictably, been a bit of a roller coaster ride. Those two closed out Monday’s loss to Memphis while Favors ached and Rudy Gobert sat, and the Grizzly bigs repeatedly got over and around them for offensive rebounds and easy shots. The difference between Favors — or at least peak Favors — and that pair should be significant enough to give the Jazz a nice lift whenever the big man is ready to be more fully deployed.
So when will that happen? As has been the case for most of the last 12 months, it doesn’t seem entirely clear what Favors’ path to total health looks like.
“It’s a huge road trip for us. It’s been a while since we’ve been as successful going out east. That was a big win.”
-Hayward, to the Deseret News, after a 4-1 road trip
All the hand-wringing about injuries and a mild controversy about playing time in a letdown loss to Memphis may have distracted from the fact that this was a really good week for the Jazz. Utah hasn’t performed this well on a lengthy road trip1 since the fall before Jerry Sloan retired.
But that’s now why I shared that quote — I include that here for your consumption because it’s yet another example of how Hayward is beginning to internalize what it feels like to be part of a good team. He sounds like a guy who recognizes that his team is for real now, and that bodes well for the Jazz and their efforts to keep the free-agent-to-be next summer.
Basketball Reference debuted its playoff odds this week, including their rankings of teams by what they call Simple Rating System. SRS measures team quality by point differential and strength of schedule, two factors that have proved pretty reliable when forecasting ahead. That’s not to say that these numbers are a crystal ball — they fluctuate quite a bit, definitely reacting to the past more than they foretell an exact future. But it’s a balanced, objective way of measuring macro quality and sorting out what’s what.
Utah’s SRS is the fourth best in the Western Conference, and since SRS is based purely on statistical inputs, it doesn’t know that Utah’s 7-5 record has been built while missing a number of games from stars Favors, George Hill and Gordon Hayward, not to mention other role players.
This week’s games against similarly-rated Chicago and Houston will probably have a big impact on SRS, one way or another, so that’s a good one to keep an eye on as Utah’s sample size grows.
OK, not a statistic, but it’s a number. That’s the time (in Mountain Standard) of the SLC Stars’ home debut on Friday night. Go watch Utah’s D-League affiliate, including Jazz draftees Marcus Paige and Tyrone Wallace. SCH’s Spencer Wixom has been keeping tabs on the Stars so far, and he’ll be covering that home opener.
Out of market fans can watch all Stars games on Facebook Live.
Wins are usually team accomplishments, but we try to find the hero of each Jazz win, either in traditional terms of because of a storyline or moment that will define how we remember and talk about a particular game.
Jazz 87, Magic 74: Rudy Gobert
Rodney Hood’s fourth-quarter explosion was vital in the come-from-behind win, and Favors had one of his nicest games of the year. But this one came down to Gobert & Hayward for me. With 20-10-8, the latter came close to the first Jazz triple-double in more than 8.5 years. He scored 20 and assisted 19 of Utah’s 87 points. But this one goes to Gobert: 13 & 13, with three blocks, but it was more than that. In a game that was defined by defense, Rudy was the most dominant player for large stretches, especially at the rim where he held Orlando to 1-for-9. During his 7.5 minutes of fourth quarter action, Utah held Orlando to four points total.
It also helps that last week’s SC7 focused on the Jazz closing with the Favors-Gobert pairing, and in this game they did just that, to positive results.
Jazz 102, Heat 91: Gordon Hayward
I agonized over this more than a person should agonize over an imaginary award. Sometimes the MVP of a game and the storyline of the game are the same person. Sometimes they’re not, so once again I’m stuck debating Hayward-Gobert. The Stifle Tower got the better of his rival Hassan Whiteside, had another double-double (12 & 12) and a game-high +22. Utah’s third-quarter defense was the key, and Miami scored just four points in Gobert’s 8:15 that quarter. But how do you look past Hayward’s 25-9-4, or the collection of crazy and-ones, or the fact that his own defense was stellar all night long? You don’t. He scored or assisted2 all the points in the decisive 10-0 run in the fourth quarter.
Hayward’s first five games back included a 24-8-4 stat line and a near-perfect road trip. It also included this fun drive-and-dunk that has perhaps been overlooked both in terms of importance and play design. The Jazz were tied when Hayward threw it in another gear and took the ball to the rack with the help of a pair of screens. Moments later, he added a triple to make it 52-47, and the Jazz got to go the locker room up five instead of in a dead heat. It was an important momentum-changer.
It was also a clever play, for reasons that may not be that obvious. Take a look.
Running a guy off two successive ball screens isn’t exactly a new basketball invention. It’s called staggered screens — or just “stagger” in the parlance — and teams including the Jazz use it all the time. Defenses have to guess which screener will do what3 so it’s a good starting point.
But you don’t usually see teams run a stagger going down the side of the court, and that’s not precisely what this is. It’s really two separate screening actions: a high ball-screen followed by what’s called an alley screen: that blind backpick in the lane. It’s often used to backscreen for someone away from the ball, leading to a wide open alley-oop4, but it worked here as an on-ball tactic because of who specifically Hood screened out.
Watch the second freeze-frame: he’s not worried about screening Hayward’s man at all. The play was designed5 knowing that Hayward could beat his man with the help of the initial screen at the top. Instead, Hood screens the big, the guy who in theory dropped back to contain Hayward’s drive. It breaks Miami’s preferred helping scheme, and Justise Winslow never realizes that he needs to break out of the planned scheme and help.
It works because of Hayward’s speed and Hood’s good timing on the screen. It also works because the Jazz prey on the fact that a lot of teams can defend a single action well, but struggle when things are piled on top of one another.
Thursday vs. Chicago: The Bulls had a bumpy start, but have won four of their last five, including a blowout victory at Portland that made the world take note. That’s their only quality road win, though. In terms of tendencies, Chicago is one of the least three-reliant teams in the league, and they’re good at defending (9th in DRtg) without putting their opponent on the line (#1 in opponent FTr).
Saturday at Houston: If George Hill is back by Saturday evening, then this game will feature the two most recent Western Conference Players of the Week. This will be Utah’s first look at the Mike D’Antoni-era Rockets, led by James Harden who is averaging 30 points, 13 assists and eight rebounds. Houston, unsurprisingly, is in the bottom third of the league’s defenses (108.5 DRtg), and surprisingly is smack in the middle for pace.
Sunday at Denver: Denver used a visit from Phoenix on Wednesday night to break a 4-game skid and, weirdly enough, score their first home victory6. They’re still a bit of a mess, but it’s a road back-to-back for Utah, so there’s no taking this one for granted.
Wednesday vs. Denver: While this looks like a classic home-and-home set, the Nuggets actually have Chicago in between the two Jazz games. That also makes Wednesday a back-to-back for them, just their third of the season7.
Let’s end with a game this week. This is our version of a baby shower game, except that instead of an actual baby, we get to forecast the arrival of a different bundle of joy: a non-losing record for the Jazz’s coach.
Snyder currently sits at 85-91, a pretty good record considering where the club was when he took over and how Utah rebuilt ahead of schedule thanks to developmental leaps. But it’s still a sub-.500 record, and Jazz nation will feel a bit of relief on his behalf once he inches past that mark.
When will that be? Get your guesses in. Enter a comment with when you think Snyder hits .500 for the first time. If the Jazz were go to on a tear, he could do it as early as 11/28 with a 6-0 stretch. More likely, it’ll take something like 7-1, 8-2, 9-3… or so on. It could take another 50 games (28-22) for all we know. Maybe it doesn’t happen this year at all8.
So what’s your prediction? The stakes are high, people: the person who gets it right will earn bragging rights among Jazz fans and my undying respect.