Utah stands at 11-8 entering the final month of the calendar year, and given all that has transpired thus far1, my statement from the last schedule look-ahead holds. Standing tied for sixth in the Western Conference with their preferred starting lineup sharing the court for only 12 minutes so far this year, the Jazz should feel good about their position entering December.
Particularly in the context of what is waiting for them there.
Where Utah faced a daunting first month-plus of the season loaded with road games and back-to-backs, December tantalizes with the prospect of wins in bunches. With a slew of home games, only two back-to-backs, and more than half the games on the horizon against opponents unlikely to make the playoffs this season, December will go a long way toward determining the team’s prospects of making the playoffs and climbing the seeding. If this is truly a good team, and their net point differential of +4.92 suggests it is, the upcoming month should be a display of winning, and sometimes dominant, basketball.
Rudy Gobert: In a start to the season with a number of positives but little consistency, Gobert has been a rare display of both, providing a defense-first squad with its beating – and sometimes strutting – heart. The only Jazzman to start every game, Gobert is averaging an eerily symmetrical double double with 11.1 points and 11.1 rebounds while being tied for 2nd in the league in blocks at 2.5 per contest. But as usual, the Stifle Tower’s impact is best represented by advanced metrics. With every other star missing at least some time and a team with multiple new pieces trying to gel, Gobert’s presence on the court has held opponents to 98.5 points allowed per 100 possessions, helping the Jazz to outscore opponents by 137 points total on the season. Gobert’s 66-percent shooting from the free throw line isn’t mere icing on the cake either; it’s a notable step on a journey toward becoming a defensive game-changer without offsetting offensive limitations. And lest any forget, he does this type of thing regularly…
George Hill: How important is the point guard to Quin Snyder’s system? The question was asked for two seasons and answered in ten games. Not only has Hill been arguably the best player on the Jazz, he has been one of the best players in the league this season, averaging 20 points on an insanely efficient true shooting percentage of 66.73 while producing nearly four assists for every turnover. The team is 8-3 with Hill in the lineup, he has already brought a Western Conference Player of the Week award to Salt Lake for the first time in more than three seasons. He is leading the Jazz vocally, by attitude, and in essentially every advanced metric: first in PER (25.5), and Win Shares per 48 minutes of play (.286) and second to Gobert in VORP (0.8) and Real Plus-Minus (3.08).
Gordon Hayward: While Hayward’s accuracy from the field has been less than desirable, a fact that he has repeatedly mentioned with frustration, his true shooting percentage has survived adjustment to a severely injured finger because of his career marks from the free throw line: 6.8 attempts a game converted at a 91-percent clip. But the true leap forward in his game hasn’t come in points but rather on the glass, where the team’s offensive driver has gathered in 6.9 rebounds a contest, a stunning improvement by nearly two full boards over his previous career high. He’s averaging 21.4 points, 6.9 rebounds, and 3.8 assists and has helped the Jazz outscore opponents by 116 points in only 13 games since returning. Just imagine when his shot settles in.
Power Forwards: While both Trey Lyles and Boris Diaw have played better the past few games, on the whole the four spot has been a definite weakness for the Jazz. Lyles has played the fifth most minutes on the season but the team has been outscored by 13 in that span, third worst mark on the squad. He’s shooting only 27 percent from three, and only three of his teammates have more turnovers. Meanwhile, Diaw is shooting even worse, 39 percent from the field and 20 percent from three. With Favors out of the lineup, Snyder has been forced to adopt a stretch four strategy. Thus far, his fours haven’t done much effective stretching.
Dante Exum: Jazz fans have multiple concerns about Exum at the season’s quarter mark. He is a clear competitive liability at this point, as the team has been outscored by 85 with him in the game, the worst mark on the team by a huge margin4. His defensive rating is the fourth worst on the team. Just when he started to up his offensive aggression, taking 54 shots in a five game span, he ended up on the bench for all but 27 minutes over the next four games5. Perhaps most acute of all is the fear that these problems could be causing Quin Snyder and the Jazz front office to reconsider the young Aussie’s long term role in the franchise. Fans need to take a collective breath. Chill. The franchise has been clear and consistent in that it has high expectations for Exum long term but doesn’t expect precipitous or steady improvement at this point. There will be times he struggles defensively, as he did in 35-minutes of play in the blowout against Denver, and Snyder will cut his playing time to re-instill focus. But Exum will again play meaningful minutes, as he did earlier in the season, and there will be a number of ups to go with downs such as the present. If the plan works, the ups will be more frequent and the downs a little rarer as the year goes along.
Games: 15 (11 home, 4 road)
Back to Backs: 2 (2 road/home)
Key Stretch: 6 Games (1 road) in 10 days, 5 games Jazz favored to win
Likely Wins: 9 — MIA (12/1), DEN (12/3, NBA TV), PHX (12/6, second game of back to back), SAC (12/10), DAL (12/16, ESPN), SAC (12/21, second game of back to back), @LAL (12/27, NBA TV), PHI (12/29), PHX (12/31)
Likely Losses: 2 — GSW (12/8), @GSW (12/20, first game of back to back)
Toss Ups: 4 — @LAL (12/5, first game of back to back), OKC (12/14), @MEM (12/18), TOR (12/23)
Phoenix at home (12/6): On the second night of a back-to-back and with the team’s first contest with the Ultimate Warriors looming, this may be a trap game. The Jazz have been awesome in back-to-backs this season (8-2) and there is really no reason they should lose to a clearly inferior Suns squad at home. A loss the night before in LA, while not probable, could at least be understood; a loss to the Warriors should be expected. There is one game in this stretch that would be an unacceptable loss, period, and this is it.
Thunder at home (12/14): As of November 30, the Jazz and Thunder sit tied for 6th in the West. With the loss of Kevin Durant and Utah’s ascension up the NBA ranks, these two teams appear plausible candidates to battle out playoff position throughout the season. Utah is the deeper team and will be playing at home. If the Jazz aspire to really challenge for home court in the playoffs, they must win games like this.
Sacramento at home (12/21): The stretch at Memphis and Golden State then home versus Sacramento and Toronto, all in six days, is easily the toughest stretch in the month. While the Jazz’s talent (assuming at least respectable health) is such that three losses in the span is unlikely, that equation changes if they let one slip to the Kings. This is a bulwark game against sliding into a true bad stretch at any point in December, which could strain team confidence and enthusiasm.
Warriors at home (12/8): While no team in the NBA can really be called a favorite against the Super Friends–Gold Edition!, the Jazz are uniquely suited to cause Golden State heartburn- especially if Derrick Favors is available and healthy enough to be effective in combination with Rudy Gobert. Utah has the length, athleticism, and defensive chops to at least resist the skill, cohesion, and offensive firepower the league’s best team deploys. It’s one of those unstoppable force meeting immovable object situations, a must-see.
Thunder at home (12/14): The first “must win” and “must watch” game of the season brings Russell Westbrook and his 30.9 points, 10.3 rebounds, 11.3 assists, and 40.7 percent usage (!!!) to Salt Lake in his first bid to single-handledly triumph over the deepest team in the league. Too bad the Jazz don’t have a classic marquee like the old Madison Square Garden where they can announce “R Westbrook vs Jazz.” Oh, and take the opportunity to lustily boo Enes Kanter in his 19 minutes a night, which is only eight fewer than he had been playing with a certain unprofessional former organization.Toronto at home (12/23): Shy of Golden State, the Raptors boast the most potent guard twosome in the NBA6. Scoring guards have scorched the Jazz in past seasons, but the addition of George Hill and continued development by Rodney Hood, particularly on the defensive end, suggest Kyle Lowry and DeMar DeRozan may find more resistance than normal in a wintry SLC. Also, Ute fans can witness firsthand Jakob Poeltl’s quietly solid rookie season.
While this reflects what I see as the central question of the Jazz’s future, it will also have significant impact on how December unfolds. How long will Favors be out? When he does return, as appears likely as he is now running and shooting before games, how effective will he be? Will knee problems, which often indicate the stress of overuse, afflict Favors throughout the season? What about his effect on the rotation? Will Trey Lyles’ minutes drop precipitously, as Exum’s have in the return of George Hill? How much of Favors’ play will spell Gobert at center, and how often will Snyder combine Utah’s Rim Reapers in defensive lockdown together?
For a team already playing at a high level, inserting a player the caliber of Favors – and his troublesome body – poses both tantalizing benefits as well as risks.