By now, you probably know that the Salt City Seven is meant to be a survey of a bunch of different important topics and data points surrounding the Utah Jazz. But suddenly there’s one storyline dominating the Jazz conversation, so prepare yourself for a very Rudy Gobert-centric installment of our weekly round-up.
The news rolled in like a dark cloud late Wednesday afternoon: Gobert, the league’s best rim protector and a vital key to Utah’s defensive identity, is on the shelf indefinitely while he recovers from a grade II MCL sprain.
The injury reportedly occurred in Utah’s Wednesday practice, although the eagle-eyed Ben Dowsett also noticed a collision on a Gobert foul in the third quarter of Monday’s close loss to Golden State where the big guy appears to hit his left knee. I checked both teams’ broadcasts, and it does seem as though Rudy was in some discomfort after colliding on a blocking foul. At the :10 mark of this video, you can see Rudy visibly limp and then grimace and look down at his leg. Then at :24 or so, he bends over and reaches down to his knee just before the cameras cut away.
Maybe that crash was the start of something that was aggravated in practice1. But no matter exactly when the injury occurred, Rudy will miss a chunk of time, likely about 20-25 games if we look at the recent average for similar injuries.
So what are the Jazz’s options over that stretch? Well it helps that they have a guy playing All-Star caliber ball up front. Derrick Favors is also an elite-level defensive player who also offers a bunch more than Gobert at the other end. Deploying Favors for more power forward minutes has played to his strengths in some ways, but at 6’11” he can definitely play plenty of center minutes. That said, Favors already plays 31 minutes per game. I’m not sure how much higher the Jazz would want to push that.
The Jazz could also go smaller. In this space last week, we talked about how three-wing lineups don’t always have to be used in lieu of a traditional PG. Utah’s backup big play has been such that Utah could benefit from smaller groups stealing minutes away from guys like Trevor Booker, Trey Lyles and Tibor Pleiss. For that matter, throw Joe Ingles or Elijah Millsap in there and you could create some four-wing lineups with Favors that could switch all over on defense.
They could see what’s available on the trade market, although it probably makes more sense to do so after December 15, when the NBA trade market really opens up2. Even then, the issue is that the Jazz aren’t going to react to a short term need by ditching their plan, so I don’t expect to see them throwing in pieces they like just to weather a short-term absence by Gobert. Could they get a decent bench contributor without giving up one of their promising youngsters? Maybe, but it would probably be someone with a lot of money owed and a less-than-perfect game. Think someone like Channing Frye, who might solve a need but would also cut into cap money when Gordon Hayward’s next contract is kicking in and Gobert’s getting an extension.
There is another option: they could just tough it out. Booker is having a rough year, but statistically speaking, it’s not very likely that he remains a 33 percent shooter after five years of consistent true shooting in the 50s. None of Lyles, Pleiss or Jeff Withey have seemed very impactful, but they could help cover minutes over the next 20-30 games, a home-heavey stretch anyway, if that’s what it takes.
Either way, this injury news changes expectations a bit for Utah. The playoffs should still be within reach assuming Gobert only misses around the 20-game average, but they’ve got a tougher road ahead than it seemed 24 hours ago.
Utah’s net rating with Stifle off the floor. Somewhat surprisingly, the defense holds up OK — 97.7 compared to Utah’s DRtg of 101.2 with Gobert3. It’s on the offensive where Utah gets worse, falling from 105.9 with Rudy to just 92.8 without him. Yikes.
That’s the most minutes that any Rudy-less lineup has played so far this season. Translation: we can don our chemists’ robes and guess, but we don’t have enough sample to have any clue how the Jazz might cobble together a winning rotation without #27.
Let’s assume for a second that Rudy’s injury means more small-ball for the Jazz. Here is the type of offense we can probably expect to see generated by one-big lineups.
You’ll notice how similar the configuration is on all three plays, even though they have different outcomes. In each one, there’s a handler, a screener, a weakside wing and two guys in the corners. This is textbook 4-out basketball, nothing special about it. The three defenders on the outside have to be careful how much they help, which is exactly why this spacing works.
You’ll also notice that these are significantly simpler plays that the ones we’ve been dissecting lately in this section of SC7. These are two-read plays. Either one of the two guys involved in the P&R is going to get an advantage because the help isn’t coming, or one of the three guys around the perimeter has an advantage because the roll action drew help.
It’s not terribly sexy, but it might be the shape the offense takes for a while if 1-big lineups become a necessity.
“Thanks for your support everybody. I will work hard to get back on the court stronger and as soon as my knee is ready to go! I also have 100% faith in my teammates to overcome this, nothing will slow us down. #gojazz”
First of all, this is the same guy who was tweeting about seeing “GREATNESS in our future” two nights earlier, so the confidence and leadership here is pretty inspiring. And really, the Jazz should be able to survive this hurdle and still be in a position to earn a playoff spot. Based on point differential adjusted for opponent (SRS), the Jazz are much better than their 8-8 record. In fact, predictive math sees them as roughly on par with the Clippers and on the right side of a pretty big gap before you get to the Suns/Wolves/Mavs/Grizz/Blazers/Kings melee. Those indicators won’t look as strong after 20-25 games sans Rudy, but the point is that they have actually given themselves a head start when you factor in opponents and home/away load.
And, they have a favorable stretch coming.
If there was ever a stretch the Jazz could ostensibly survive without one of their top three guys, it’s this one. Utah’s just kicking off its longest run of home-heavy play4, and while this next week’s opponents are perhaps better than expected, there are some vulnerable ones in there as well.
Orlando, tonight’s opponent, was supposed to be looking up at the Eastern playoff field again but instead comes in two games over .500. Indiana was expected to be where Orlando is, and instead the Pacers are leading the East in schedule-adjusted point differential.
Sacramento is roughly the mercurial mess people expected5, but then it’s right back to facing a Knicks team that is outperforming expectations. Nobody is mistaking the Knicks for a playoff team, but thanks to stellar rook Kristaps Porzingis and a rejuvenated Carmelo Anthony, they’ll be tough as well.
Still, these are games Utah needs to hang onto if they’re going to prevent too big a setback during Rudy’s sabbatical. A 3-1 week should be attainable, and anything less than 2-2 should make us worry what the next month is going to be like.
We’ll take a quick break from this all-things-Rudy episode to dole a Spalding for the Jazz’s only win in the last seven nights.
Jazz 101, Pelicans 87 – Burks
Booker seemed to rock the narrative vote, and it’s easy to understand why; he finally had his first really good game of the season6 exactly when the Jazz needed him the most. But watching that fourth quarter live, this was Alec’s game. It’s a closer call than I’m probably making it out to be, but “helpful spark from an energy guy” isn’t really what game ball is about to me. It’s about who owned the win with star-level play and/or transcendent storylines. With that in mind, here’s a 4th quarter reel that shows Burks continually fending off the Pels by making big play after big play.
Also considered: Booker did have the game’s best +/-, and Gobert was sneaky important in this Favors-free outing with 14 rebounds, 4 blocks and a number of moments that made me think, “Damn, the Jazz are lucky to have that guy.”
— Rudy Gobert (@rudygobert27) November 29, 2015