We have a lot to cover in this week’s survey of all things Utah Jazz. Big questions on the court. Big news off it. All-Star wait game, and All-Star weekend news. Plus, a pair of game balls, a coming homestand and — (stop!) — hammer time. Let’s dig in to what is, unbelievably, the 14th edition of our every-Thursday recap of 168 hours in the Jazz world.
Derrick Favors and Rudy Gobert are both very good basketball players. The latter has certainly surged in his fourth season to wrest from his elder the mantle of Utah’s second-best player, but they’re still both very good. They’re also solid together: in the 347 minutes they have played as a tandem, they have beat opponents by 5.1 points per 100 possessions. When they’ve played together in fourth quarters, they’ve walloped the opposition by 65.7. Utah has invested a great deal of time and precious late-game reps to ensure that both are ready to impact games even in fourth-quarter crucibles, and so far they do.
They’re both individually good in fourth quarters, too1, but together they’ve been a lethal combination on the few occasions they’ve been unleashed as a fourth-quarter duo.
And that’s why it’s puzzling that the Jazz still seem averse to pair the two bigs down the stretch. Utah has played 569 fourth-quarter and overtime minutes so far this year, 389 of which came in games in which both of their starting bigs played. And yet the two have played just 30 of those at the same time.
Early on, Utah’s starting power forward was in and out as he attended to knee pain. Then there was the minutes limit. But for a while now, the Jazz’s second-leading scorer scorer from a year ago has been available for the stretch runs of games. And mostly watched them.
This trend began to be evident even on last year’s significantly shallower squad. We visited this topic over the offseason after the pair had seen just 59 post-All-Star minutes together in fourth quarters and overtimes. That means that in the last 77 regular season Jazz games — nearly a full season — Utah’s two best bigs have played just 89 late minutes together, or 9.4% of all fourth quarters and OTs dating back to last February.
And let’s be clear: Utah has won a lot of games without deploying the duo. It’s not the answer to every stretch situation, but it works well enough to be implemented more than 9.4% of the time.
There are situations where Boris Diaw or Trey Lyles are viable options. Against Dallas last week, Utah’s playmaking had been stuck against the Mavs’ frisky defense, so Quin Snyder inserted Diaw to provide some extra facilitation skills, and the Jazz ultimately broke through the pressure and won the game. Lyles has hit timely threes in fourth quarters. Utah has also had success deploying a wing there instead of a second big. Again, all of those tactics work in different situations.
And Snyder insisted again to SCH on Thursday that he’s not shy about using Favors. “I feel comfortable with him on the floor. I feel comfortable with Rudy on the floor. I feel comfortable with Boris on the floor…” the coach continued through the laundry list of options, indicating he has faith in all of Utah’s traditional and situational power forwards. “Game to game, there’s times when you’ll feel it’s a better situation for a certain player, but that doesn’t reflect on your confidence with a certain player.”
Sometimes, though, you need to play your best players. Favors is one of Utah’s best players, and at this point it’s undeniable statistically that he and Gobert can work together as a tandem. Which leads to one of two conclusions about Snyder’s reluctance to use them.
Option A: He has convinced himself that they don’t work together even though numbers say that they do. I don’t think this is the case; Snyder is too smart to miss the clues left by on-court stats for both the offense and the defense when Favors and Gobert team up. Plus, he knows that those numbers probably undersell Favors right now, since the forward has had an up-and-down year due to injury.
Which leaves us with option B: he knows they work together, but he wants to play a different style than what’s available to him with those two on the court.
That’s 100% his prerogative. In theory, playing 4-out is a good way to take some defensive pressure out of the middle of the court, where a lot of Utah’s late-game sets operate2. So it’s not crazy to want a three-point shooting big man opposite Gobert when the game is getting mucked up by clutch defenses. That argument would work better if Lyles and Diaw weren’t both stuck in the lower 30s for three-point percentage, but they certainly have a bigger body of work at the three-point line than Favors.
It’s just important to recognize that the choice can come with a cost; there have been games that the Jazz lost without the Fav-Rudy combo that they might have had a better chance at winning otherwise. This week provided two more examples of those “what if” games. They lost to Oklahoma City largely in a game where four late defensive rebounds fell to the Thunder while Utah played with smaller fours. And on Tuesday, Favors mostly watched while a late comeback fell short, despite the fact that he had been the hottest player in the game.
Favors had a seven-minute stretch in the third quarter where he didn’t miss as he unleashed a repertoire of midpost jumpers, short roll floaters and nifty hooks on Denver’s Nikola Jokic. From the 10:22 mark until 3:25, he racked up 16 points, a total he had only eclipsed in one game all season prior to his visit to Denver. Denver called time to regroup, and ostensibly to talk about how to slow Favors. When they returned to the court, though, Favors wasn’t there. After scoring 16 points in seven minutes, he had been subbed out. He came back briefly in the fourth, but never attempted another shot. And when Gobert got up to return to the game at the 8:34 mark, it was Favors who took a seat. Like ships passing in the night.
“We were playing the best we played all game,” Snyder said of his decision to stick with the fourth-quarter group while Favors and his 18 points sat. “Fav kept us in the game during that stretch in the third quarter. He was terrific. (Then) Boris came in, made a couple threes. Rudy came back and was much more focused than he was earlier in the game. Sometimes if your group is having success and you’re cutting the lead or building the lead, you may substitute… but in this case that wasn’t the situation.”
It almost worked. Utah got as close as four back of the Nuggets, but ultimately fell short. And to be fair, we don’t know if the Jazz would have won had gone back to their hottest guy down the stretch — but it would have been interesting to find out. Not just because of that game, but because the Favors question looms large as the team looks ahead in its process of building a contender.
The Jazz are in great shape overall. They’re on a 51-win pace, and the loss to Denver in the fourth game in five nights will ultimately be a footnote to an otherwise positive, stepping-stone type season.
Still, it’s worth assessing, if only because of what it means to the coming round of very monumental decisions the Jazz brass are going to face. If in a season’s worth of games you could only find 89 late minutes where you were comfortable with Favors and Gobert playing together, then you can’t afford to pay the pair a combined $50 million a year. This very question might be the catalyst to the whole next phase of Utah’s journey.
“Larry and I bought the Jazz for this community… Now more than ever, and for generations to come, the Jazz will belong to Utah.”
– Gail Miller, in a video announcing transfer of team ownership to a legacy trust
Some of the biggest news about the club this week came not from a basketball court or a locker room, but from a dais.
NBA franchises are a scarce resource with a booming value. Forbes last valued the Utah Jazz at $875 million, and based on recent transactions, the sale of the franchise could easily net the Miller family a billion or two. Slapping a “not for sale” sign on an asset like that is a sacrifice in and of itself; doing so in a way that essentially makes the franchise a community asset is pretty amazing. There are also tax benefits to what they did, and their other businesses will surely benefit from the Jazz remaining in Utah. But the bottom line is that they had other options — including selling the franchise, paying the taxes and still cashing a big ol’ check.
I don’t know all of the Millers. I got to deal with late Jazz owner Larry Miller a bit as a cub reporter, and I recently worked on a project with Larry and Gail’s youngest son, Bryan. Here’s what I know about them from those interactions: they’re sincere about their mission of service and their love of Utah.
This move should prove that.
Jazz 112, Mavericks 107: Rudy Gobert
Gobert became the first NBA player all season to achieve a 25-and-25 game (in his case, 27 points and 25 rebounds, with a pair of blocks to boot), and he did it on just 11 shots. He also had several key plays in the fourth and overtime: a putback that tied the game at 91 in regulation, a rolling layup that gave Utah a 3-point lead, and five free throws in OT. This one was easy.
Jazz 109, Pacers 100: George Hill
This wasn’t much more complicated. Hill had his best game in weeks and got bonus narrative points for doing it against his former team. Most notably, he went off in the third quarter right when the Jazz put the Pacers away for good. After Indy had pulled to within two, Hill fueled a 17-5 run that included 13 from the ex Pacer guard. He finished with 30, as well as six boards and five assists, and it’s also worth noting that fellow Indy native Hayward (27) was also stellar, especially early.
By now, coaches’ ballots are in and some graphics guy at TNT is sitting there with the list to build packages for tonight’s reveal on NBA Tip-Off. So the time to influence the All-Star vote has passed. But for the record, both Gobert and Gordon Hayward have solid cases to appear in their first All-Star games.
21 points, 5 rebounds, 3 assists, .590 TS
Hayward is one of seven players in the NBA hitting those performance thresholds this season. The other six are All-Star starters. He’s also enjoying a career year in efficiency (.599 TS), free throw rate (.444), rebound percentage (9.4%), usage (27.3) and win shared per 48 (.207). He’s on pace to shatter previous highs in advanced macro stats like BPM and VORP.
On shooting possessions, Gobert is the most efficient player in the league this season at .682. That means that the average possession that ends with a Gobert attempt or free throw trip is worth 1.36 points, an insane number for someone who has played the ninth-most minutes in the association. He’s also #1 in blocks per game, defensive win shares, and ESPN’s defensive real plus-minus stat, plus he’s a much improved offensive threat.
If you heard our latest SCH podcast, you know that Ken Clayton has been keeping track of national writers’ picks. He informs me that there’s starting to be some consensus around eight guys who, per the punditry, look poised to be 2017 All-Stars (7 via the coach vote, and one as a replacement for Chris Paul): Paul, Russell Westbrook, DeMarcus Cousins, Marc Gasol, Draymond Green, Klay Thompson, Hayward and Gobert. Columnists aren’t coaches, though; we’re hours away from finding out how close their consensus is to that of the 15 Western Conference coaches.
Have we really never talked about hammer? Can’t be, right? The Jazz actually use this action a lot, as do the Spurs, Hawks, Warriors, Thunder, Grizz, Nuggets… basically everybody pulls this trick out now and then.
There are a ton of variations and versions of the hammer, but the basic definition is this: it’s when someone cuts from the weakside wing to the weakside corner, mirroring a simultaneous baseline drive by the ball handler on the strong side.
It’s great for creating open looks in the corner, especially when they throw in the back screen from Favors to punish Hill’s defender for momentarily glancing away toward the Joe Ingles drive.
The hammer can be run to either corner. In this case it works well for Ingles, a lefty, to complete the whip pass down the baseline.
After splitting the dreaded 4-in-5 stretch, the Jazz get somewhat lighter duty in this next seven-night period. There are just three games between now and next Thursday, all at home, and Utah will enjoy three straight days off to end January.
Thursday vs. Lakers: The Lakers looked legit early, hanging onto a .500 record 20 games into the season. They’re 6-23 since, largely because of defensive inattention that has them dead last in DRtg. The game follows the All-Star announcement on TNT, so the story of this one is bound to be either the celebration or snub reaction around Utah’s two best guys.
Saturday vs. Memphis: Hard to believe that this is the last game against the Grizzlies all year, but that makes it an important chance to even a season series with a squad likely to be in the four-through-seven scrum with Utah. The Jazz lost the other home game against the Grizzlies his year while they were battling major injuries, but split the two in Memphis. They need to treat this one as must-win, even though it’s far from a foregone conclusion3.
Wednesday vs. Bucks: Circle this one on your calendar: these are two of the most fun, upstart teams from each conference. Milwaukee is still in the process of living up to their hype, as they have spent the season playing jumprope with the .500 line and are currently looking up at the Eastern Conference playoff spots. But Giannis Antetokounmpo is playing like an MVP candidate, and Jabari Parker looks for real as he finally steps into his imagined role after ACL surgery. These guys are entertaining as hell.
While we await news on the All-Star front, at least two Jazz players are sure they will be headed to the Big Easy next month.
Congratulation to two Trey Lyles and Dante Exum, who were selected to participate in that weekend’s BBVA Compass Rising Stars Challenge. Both will compete for the “world” team in the challenge, which features the best first and second-year players as selected by assistant coaches around the league. (Exum in his third season as a pro, but was included as an exception since he missed all of 2015-16.)