Jazz basketball’s back!
So is a fresh dose of the Salt City Seven, our weekly check-in on the world of Jazz.
When the Jazz resume their bid for a playoff berth by kicking off a three-game trip in Milwaukee on Friday, they’ll do so with 15 players available. Nobody hurt. Nobody sick. Nobody resting.
It will be just the fourth time all season that has happened: for three games in early January1, the Jazz had an empty injury report. The other 54 times they’ve suited up, at least one guy has had to stay on the sidelines for health reasons. And even in those three games, the recently recovered Alec Burks was really just testing himself out, a few minutes at a time. That means that this weekend will be the first time all year that the squad is really, truly all available.
That raises an interesting question, though. With everybody healthy and the getting better production from certain spots in their depth chart, the Jazz probably have more than two units’ worth of rotation-ready players. Coach Quin Snyder has favored a 10-man rotation (for the most part) during his Utah tenure. But even then, somebody has to sit.
The Jazz’s preferred starting lineup has still only played nine games together. Weirdly, that 5-man group has a negative net-rating even though the team was 8-1 in those games. That’s a tough one to explain, but that’s for another time. For now, suffice it to say that those 5 guys’ minutes and even starting spots are probably extremely safe.
It also would seem that Joe Ingles’ and Joe Johnson’s roles are secure. The lineup with Ingles joining the four non-Rodney Hood starters is +22 per 100 possessions on the season, and even otherwise he has been pretty indispensable this season. Johnson has been hot of late, shooting 56% on threes in February while averaging double figures. Lineups that feature the veteran as a small-ball power forward have also been effective.
How the Jazz fill in the rotation behind those seven now becomes the operative question for a coach who hasn’t yet had to worry too much about the problem of too many players available.
Here are the most obvious options.
Once Burks was ready to play real minutes — he played under seven minutes in each of his first five games — Snyder’s approach involved leaving his reserve point guards on the bench. When starter George Hill needed a breather, Snyder would mostly ask Ingles, Gordon Hawyard and Rodney Hood to handle the ball while Burks mostly guarded the PG spot on defense.
That could give an indication of how the third-year coach might approach his rotation. The Jazz legitimately have five good wing players, so allowing that group to spill over into the other guard spot is one way to find a way for each of those five to impact the game.
If that’s what he does, the rotation could look something like:
Pros: This rotation gives all of the Jazz’s wings an opportunity to play, and since Utah has plenty of facilitating wings, it’s doable.
Cons: It can lead to a little bit of defensive discomfort, although the offense is typically good enough: in the 46 minutes that Burks has been on the court without one of the point guards, the Jazz are +7.7 despite being a little more liberal on D. The real cost is that it delays the developmental journey of Dante Exum, who has been playing better of late.
The Jazz may just be at a point where Exum needs to play. For the seven-game stretch heading into the break, the lightning-quick guard had .583 true shooting2. He also started looking like his late-rookie year self in terms of defense, making reads and just choosing to be aggressive.
But if he plays, one of the 10 above has to sit.
If that comes at the expense of a wing, it seems as though Burks is the only answer. That’s a tough thing to say after Alec has worked to get back to this point, but the Joes are simply too important to the identity of the team right now. They’re also more consistent. Burks would still see time when someone got in foul trouble3, but here’s what this rotation might look like as a starting point:
Pros: This path is all about demonstrating a belief in Exum’s recent progress. At just about any point in the game, the Jazz would have no fewer than three guys who can create with the ball in their hands.
Cons: Even the most bullish Exum believers4 know that there will still be nights when he won’t have it. This lineup also costs the Jazz in terms of shot-making ability. Without heavy staggering the the Jazz’s bench units would struggle: who’s scoring in a lineup of Diaw-Lyles-Johnson-Ingles-Exum?
Of course, it doesn’t have to be an either/or option with Burks and Exum. They can both play, but it probably requires doing a lot more of something that’s been really successful in small doses: moving Joe to the four.
Snyder leans on lineups with Diaw and Lyles because he likes big men who can shoot from deep and make plays. The problem is that while both reserve bigs are willing to shoot threes, neither one is making a whole lot of them. Lyles’s percentage out there has dipped to 32.3%, and Diaw is at a lackluster 26.3%.
One solution: rely less on backup bigs if they’re not giving you what you need. Neither guy is a real paint protector, so if they’re not making shots, there’s only so much you’re getting there. Diaw offers some special vision and passing that gets the Jazz out of an occasional jam. But Utah has been crazy successful with Johnson playing there. If they make Johnson a full-time four, then there are opportunities for Burks’ athleticism and Exum’s speed to help the team.
Pros: At some point you have to deploy your best lineups, and Joe-at-PF units have been crazy good. Yes, there would likely be some diminishing returns if it’s something teams knew was coming for 5-10 minutes in every half, but those lineups have just been unguardable for Jazz opponents.
Cons: The guy who loses out on development in this scenario is Lyles. He has struggled lately, and would have pulled a DNP-CD5 in the final game before the break if it weren’t for blowout minutes. But is it smart to essentially shut him down altogether? Also, is Joe as a full-time four sustainable for major minutes?
If the clipboard were in these hands, I’d mostly opt for C. Lyles just hasn’t been enough of a positive impact to justify letting Exum or Burks sit, and I’m ready to see if the crazy success of the small-ball lineups can hold up to more extended use. However, the prediction here is that Snyder will land on a combination of A and B, depending on matchups and who has been playing well.
And while Raul Neto, Jeff Withey and Shelvin Mack have all had their moments, they’ll now likely return to what they were supposed to be all along: situational options. Joel Bolomboy will continue to work with the SLC Stars, where the staff has been testing the boundaries of his skill set.
We’re close enough to the finish line that I’m repurposing one of these seven sections to keep an eye on the race for playoff seeding. You’re going to start seeing a lot more of graphics like this one (click to expand).
In other words, it’s now time to just flat out start winning games. The hope to balance out those sobering facts is that maybe now that they’re all ready to play, they’re good enough to maintain their current .600+ pace even as the competition stiffens and the travel intensifies.
“Basketball instinct doesn’t even necessarily kick in, ’cause you’re not really basketball too much… It’s almost like the last game of pickup at the Y when everybody’s going home.”
– Hayward after his first All-Star game
Hayward’s tone was lighthearted, but he inadvertently let slip the sad truth about the All-Star game: it’s not even really basketball. Even the TV guys who were covering the game spent much of the broadcast talking about how uncompelling it was.
But it was still fun to watch Hayward get in the action with the league’s best! He had eight points, four steals6 and two assists.
The growing awkwardness of his shifting role with the Jazz made it seem feasible that the big man might not have made it past the six-year anniversary of the trade that brought him to the Jazz back on February 23. But he did, and now the Jazz can focus on getting him fully healthy and ready to impact playoff series. Utah isn’t going to stand up to the Blake Griffin-led Clippers without some help from both of their starting bigs, so having him in the fold is good news. Consider this: the Jazz are on a 50-win pace coming out of the break despite the fact that Favors has missed a third of the season and played the other two-thirds at less than 100 percent. Imagine how good they might be if they got him back to something resembling last season’s level.
So let’s celebrate his extended stay in Utah by watching him score buckets.
What he’s doing here is called slipping the pick. A player approaches as if to set a screen, but especially if the screener’s man jumps out around to aggressively hedge, the picker can simply drop back and find himself alone in space. Favors sometimes relies on a refined pull-up game and sometimes he attacks the lane instead. but either way this is a skill and a play type he’s really good at.
No new games means no new game balls. Here’s where things sit, though, after 35 Jazz wins.
The Jazz only have two remaining homestands, of two games each. That means that from here on out, every single Jazz game will be either preceded or followed by a plane ride, and all but two of them will be both preceded and followed by a plan ride. In other words, it’s about to get nutty.
Friday at Bucks
The Jazz dominated the matchup in SLC on February 1, baiting Milwaukee’s hyperactive defenders into mistake after mistake after mistake. That was one of 10 losses in 11 games for Team Brewtown, and even though they started to turn things around by winning four of six heading into the break, they still have a defense (#21 in the league) that can be exploited. Beating a team like this on the road is tough, but given what lies ahead, this is pretty much a must-win for Utah.
Sunday at Wizards
Holy hell, have the Wiz turned it on or what? They’re 18-3 since January 6, the best record in the association over that stretch. They may have gotten a little better at the deadline, too, adding shooter Bojan Bogdanovic at the expense of two guys — Marcus Thornton and Andrew Nicholson — who weren’t playing much and who averaged a combined 9.1 points. This might be the toughest game of the 3-game trip, which is saying something since the next one is against a top-five MVP candidate.
Tuesday at Thunder
OKC’s remaining schedule is marshmallow soft: an average .477 opponent and more home games than road games. That means the Jazz can’t expect other teams to do their bidding for them — this is opportunity to deal a loss to a team that probably thinks it can catch the Jazz. A win at Bricktown would be huge in terms of the tiebreaker, too, since the teams are currently 1-1 with both remaining games to be played in Russ’ house. OKC got better this week, too. They traded three guys who were all 9th or lower in both minutes and scoring, in exchange for Taj Gibson, who I assume will start for them7.
Wednesday vs. Wolves
Utah has already made both of its trips to Minneapolis and come away with two wins. Andrew Wiggins, though, has been on a tear, averaging 33.6 in his last five games, which included back-to-back 40+ games. The only other guy who’s had 40 on both nights of a back-to-back this season is James Harden. However, the Wolves are still mired well below .500, even though their fairly average net rating (-0.8) says they should be better than that.
Oh Rudy… never stop being Rudy.
I can’t hear them where i’m at right now https://t.co/KOuP7iVWq5
— Rudy Gobert (@rudygobert27) February 20, 2017
Glad to get back to basketball. Here we go.