State of the Jazz
Six games and three teams left with home court in the West at stake. To your gates!
In gate one: the 47-29 Utah Jazz.
In gate two: the 47-31 Los Angeles Clippers.
In gate three: the 43-32 Oklahoma City Thunder.
Odds: FiveThirtyEight currently projects the Jazz to finish in the fifth seed, tied with the Clippers at 50 and 32. ESPN BPI Index agrees where BasketBall Reference’s Probability Report thinks the Jazz will beat the Clippers by a nose, 50 to 49 wins respectively – which is exactly what they’ll need to do to open the playoffs in the friendly confines of the Viv.
And they’re off!
Rudy Gobert: In March, Gobert averaged 17.3 points, 13.5 rebounds, and 2.9 blocks. He hasn’t averaged less than 11 points, 10.9 rebounds, or 2.5 blocks in any month this season. Gobert’s explosion this season has seen him become the best and most important player on the Jazz, a true franchise player. If he doesn’t earn serious consideration for the leagues Most Improved Player and Defensive Player of the Year, and easily lock up All-NBA and All Defensive First Team honors, then it will be a travesty.
Joe Ingles: After a significant dip in shooting to start the calendar year, Ingles zeroed in right when the team most needed him in March. He shot nearly 47 percent from behind the arc in a month where Rodney Hood and George Hill, two of the team’s three highest volume three-point shooters, struggled with injuries. Set to close the season shooting 45 percent from range, Ingles has earned – and will get – a massive pay raise this offseason.
Raul Neto: With Hill absent from the lineup or less effective than throughout the season due to groin and toe injuries, Quin Snyder has been searching for spark from the point guard position practically night by night. Neto, who has gone throughout huge stretches of the seasons without seeing any game time whatsoever, has succeeded at the challenging task of being ready when called for. In 10 games in March, not only did he shoot 47 percent from the field, 44 percent from three, and 80 percent from the line, he notched a much needed positive plus-minus of 2.1. Unfortunately, a groin injury has put him on the bench with Hill recently, a development that cannot last if the Jazz realistically aspire to earn home court.
Who’s Not Hot (Yet)?
Power Forwards: Derrick Favors’ season-long struggle with injury (which continued with 12 missed games in March) has resulted in a positional problem for the team. Power forward has been a liability all season and persisted as such in March. Boris Diaw and Trey Lyles continued their poor perimeter shooting (22 and 23 percent from three respectively) and an exhausted Joe Johnson, who has played far too many minutes recently, didn’t do much better (29 percent). With a right Favors paired with Gobert, the team can generate enough interior points to stabilize the offense when threes aren’t falling. With him out of the lineup (which also compromises the defense, as noted recently by Snyder himself), the offense has little ability to overcome poor perimeter shooting. With essentially three stretch fours backing up Favors, it’s obvious what the team needs at the position: made shots. If the Jazz don’t get better production from this position starting immediately, they won’t make it out of the first round of the playoffs.
Starting Guards: For the first time all season, March saw both George Hill and Rodney Hood post negatives in plus-minus. That this is the result of injury is hardly comforting. Not only are they the team’s second and fourth leading scorers, combining for nearly 30 points per game on the season on 24 combined field goal attempts, but each fills an essential role that is greatly missed. Utah has struggled to control the wealth of dynamic ball handling guards the modern NBA boasts, and Hill’s absence or compromised health greatly hampers the team’s defense. Just as importantly, Hill’s steady ball handling and decision making, particularly down the stretch of close games, has been invaluable to the team’s 24 and 17 record in games contested in the last five minutes of play. Meanwhile, no Jazz player is as explosive offensively as Hood, as illustrated by the 12 games in which he has made four or more threes this year, as many as Gordon Hayward and George Hill combined. Utah desperately needs its starting backcourt to round back into shape to compete in the playoffs.
Games: 6 (3 home, 3 road)
Back to Backs: 1 (1 home/road)
Key Stretch: April 4 through 8 the Jazz will play three games as likely favorites to win, the only games in the month they play against a team outside the top two in the league.
Likely Wins: 2 — POR (4/4, ESPN), MIN (4/7, first of back-to-back)
Likely Losses: 1 — @SAS (4/2, ABC)
Toss Ups: 4 — @POR (4/8), @GSW (4/10), SAS (4/12)
Portland on the road (4/8): On Oct. 25th, the Jazz opened the season with a hard fought loss to the Blazers in what many expected to be the first battle in a close-fought contest for playoff position. The Blazers disappointed that expectation where the Jazz did not, but as the season wraps up the Blazers are looking more like that team that earned pre-season buzz as a contender for home court. Winners of their last six games in a row and nine of the last ten, fighting full-out for the final spot in the playoffs, and led by one of the most dynamic guard tandems in the NBA with Damian Lillard and CJ McCollum, the Blazers will be tough to beat on their home floor. But the Jazz have been the better team all season. With three games in the month against the league’s most dominant two teams2, Utah must win this difficult road contest to have a real shot at locking up home court in the first round of the playoffs.
Portland on the road (4/8): Yes, the month’s must-win is also it’s must-watch. The month’s final two contests at Golden State and against San Antonio are looking like strong prospects for the opponents to rest stars, given the Warriors’ three and a half game lead over the Spurs in the standings. The Jazz should win their home tilts against Portland and Minnesota. But in the Moda Center, with home court on the line for the Jazz and a spot in the playoffs at stake for the Blazers, this has all the components of a playoff intensity contest.
It is frustrating though appropriate that Utah’s sprint to the regular season finish line, as well as their performance in the playoffs thereafter, will turn largely on the team’s ability – or inability – to transcend injuries. It’s all in the numbers.
With George Hill in the lineup, Utah is 31-16. That’s a 66 percent winning percentage or on pace for fourth best record in the NBA. Without Hill, the Jazz are 16-13 (55%). That’s the difference between a contender and a likely playoff exit.
Meanwhile, Favors has endured the most difficult season of his career, missing 29 games and playing hobbled in contests where he did compete. Yet when he has played, Utah has reached that same level of excellence: 31-16.
When both Hill and Favors take the court, which has happened only 31 times all season, Utah is 22-9 (71 percent winning percentage). Only the Warriors and San Antonio have bettered that pace this season.
Hill’s groin and problematic toe and Favors’ seemingly inescapable knee problems aren’t going away, certainly not before this season comes to an end one way or another. Add in Rodney Hood’s not infrequent foot and knee issues, and his sometimes hesitant returns to the court once healthy again, and without question injury may play a deciding factor in how, and how early, Utah bows out of its first playoff appearance since 2012.
But the Jazz don’t need to be injury free to have a puncher’s chance in the NBA’s big dance. The simply need to find enough health to get their guys on the floor to compete. Because when their best players compete, even at less than 100 percent, the Jazz win. A lot.
When Hill, Hood, and Favors all play in a game, Utah owns a 14-4 record (78 percent).
Add the Jazz’s stalwart stars, Rudy Gobert and Gordon Hayward, to that mix and the record is even more gilded: 11-2 (85 percent).
Utah has never been healthy this season, but when they’ve been healthy enough they’ve been great. So that’s the question: will the Jazz find enough physical stability at the close of the season to capitalize on what has been, by nearly measure, a fantastic year?