State of the Jazz
Utah nears the All-Star break boasting a top ten record (30-19) and point differential (+3.8). They also sit in the top 12 in both offensive and defensive efficiency1, a feat matched by only the veteran-laden Western powers: the Warriors, Spurs, and Clippers. There is plenty of reason to believe the Jazz are really good.
Now they get to prove it.
Utah should not be a significant underdog in any of February’s 11 games — yet they will only be a notable favorite in two or three. The month is tough. More games on the road than at home and a host of quality opponents. The Jazz have dominated inferior teams this season, racking up a stellar 21-3 record against teams currently positioned outside the playoffs. But they are only 9-16 against teams currently in position to make the postseason. The coming month is full of the latter quality of opponent with less than a handful of the league bottom-dwellers the Jazz have feasted upon so far.
February dawns with home court in the first round of the playoffs within reach of the break-out Jazz. But to earn it, they’re going to have begin winning a majority of their games against good teams, and they’ll need to start right now.
Gordon Hayward and Rudy Gobert: While Hayward earned his first well-deserved All-Star appearance and Gobert notched his first snub2, both deserve recognition for their remarkable consistency. Not only are each playing at an elite NBA level, they have been steadily throughout the season. Hayward has put up 21 points, 5 rebounds, and 3 assists every month of the season so far. If anything Gobert has topped that, increasing strong production to start the season to truly elite levels the past two months: 14 points, better than 13 rebounds, and at least 2.5 blocks per contest.
Alec Burks: It’s hard to imagine a better feel-good story than Burks rise to toasty status so soon after his return from multiple seasons of injury trouble, but here we are. Burks boasts the best plus-minus on the team in the last month of play (+10.2 per 100 possessions). He’s shooting 53 percent overall and a respectable 35 percent from three while doing what Burks always does, getting to the line more frequently than anyone else in a Jazz uniform (10.6 attempts per 100). Best of all, Burks’ irrepressible smile makes clear just how much he’s enjoying being back in the game.
Who’s Not Hot (Yet)?
George Hill: The Jazz have only been outscored in seven games this season with Hill on the floor. Five of those games came in January, including the last four, a stretch in which Utah went 1 – 3. It was likely inevitable that Hill would regress toward his career mean after starting the season with All-Star production and NBA elite difference-making numbers. Now that’s happened, largely due to his struggles from the three-point line. In Hill’s last eight games he’s gone 8-for-42, a distressing 19 percent. That will certainly rebound in short order given Hill’s career 38 percent mark from deep, but the player who once appeared invincible in a Jazz uniform has fallen back to earth.
Rodney Hood: While Hood played well in Utah’s recent loss to Memphis, notching 20 points on only 12 shots, he’s simply been unable to manage any consistency recently. Excepting a torrid two-game burst against Detroit and Cleveland where Hood exploded for 11 threes, he shot 11-for-38 in January (29 percent). This is becoming a trend in Hood’s career: despite exciting potential and perhaps more explosive scoring ability than any other Jazz player, he also displays more variable offensive production than his teammates. When the rest of the team is shooting well from deep, they can survive Hood’s cold nights and capitalize when he’s scorching the nets. But Hood and George Hill are two of the Jazz’s top three point volume shooters. When both struggle, as they have recently, Utah’s offense has a major battle producing enough points to win.
Back-up Point Guards: Since before the season opened, head coach Quin Snyder and general manager Dennis Lindsey have frequently stressed that one consequence of a deep roster is players that deserve time getting pushed out of the rotation. Since Alec Burks’ return in early January, this has happened to every point guard on the team not named George Hill. Out of 15 January games, Shelvin Mack played only eight while Raul Neto played only seven. Dante Exum played even fewer at six, though some of the games were missed due to injury. Points guards currently riding the pine are going to have to win their way onto the court, which may be a difficult task with Alec Burks looking like most competitive option entering a stretch of the schedule when the Jazz need to compete at a high level every night.
Games: 11 (5 home, 6 road)
Back to Backs: 1 (1 road/road)
Key Stretch: 6 games in 10 days leading into the All-Star break
Likely Wins: 3 — CHA (2/4), @NOP (2/8), POR (2/15)
Likely Losses: 0
Toss Ups: 8 — MIL (2/1), @ATL (2/6), @DAL (2/9, second game of back to back), BOS (2/11), LAC (2/13), POR (2/15), @MIL (2/24), @WAS (2/26), @OKC (2/28)
New Orleans on the road (2/8): There isn’t a single truly easy game on the schedule the whole month, so that makes this the nearest thing. Yes, it’s a road game, but it’s against the 16th best three point shooting team in the NBA who also asks Anthony Davis to hold down the interior by playing center. It’s a formula that has helped the Pelican’s tread water in the modern NBA. But Utah’s tough interior and stingy three point defense (second lowest attempts allowed per 100 possessions) makes the Jazz a bad match up for the Pelicans.
Portland at home (2/15): The Blazers may not be the most disappointing team in the league this season, but there may not be a city as rife with disappointment at the moment as Portland. Not only do they sit outside the playoffs after a summer that broke the bank for a host of role players, but Damian Lillard again leads the list of All-Star snubs despite being seventh in the league in scoring. Portland always gives the Jazz trouble on the perimeter, but Portland’s defense is awful and the Jazz are simply better than the Blazers. This is a game they should win to enter the All-Star break on a high note.
Milwaukee on the road (2/24): The first three games exiting the All-Star break are all winnable, but this contest against Milwaukee is the most attainable. While Giannis Antetokounmpo and Jabari Parker bring young star power to the table to at least match Utah’s own, they also shoulder a huge scoring burden for their team while combining to make only two threes per game. That’s barely more than DeMarcus Cousins by himself. Perhaps more than any team in the league, Milwaukee is poorly constructed to combat the Jazz’s nasty interior defense. They haven’t beaten Utah since the Jazz roared to the top of the league defensively with the rise of Gobert.
Boston at home (2/11): Utah versus Boston really has a lot going for it. A clash of styles with Isaiah Thomas and the Celtics stable of excellent all-around guards versus Gobert and the Jazz’s dominating size. Defense-first systems orchestrated by two of the best young coaches in the league, Quin Snyder and Brad Stevens. The multiple-year storyline of Hayward’s free agency and the hypothesized draw of playing for his old college coach. Finally, of course, revenge for Utah’s last loss in Boston when Thomas went nuts for 29 points and 15 assists in the absence of George Hill.
Portland at home (2/15): A rare must-win/must-watch game, this contest feels way more important than one game in an 82 game schedule. Record-wise, Utah has hung with veteran contenders through the first half of the season, but the pressure will build as the playoffs near. The Jazz are notoriously susceptible to dynamic scoring guards, and you can count on two fingers, at most, a pair better than Lillard and McCollum. The Jazz don’t give fans a whole lot of offense most nights, but this might be a night when the first team to 115 wins.
Oklahoma City on the road (2/28): As if Russell Westbrook isn’t must-watch enough on his own, through his first two games against the Jazz the OKC cyborg has scored 20 combined fourth quarter points. The Thunder look to be a team Utah will wrestle with for playoff position down to the wire, and Westbrook’s past performances suggest the same will be said about any game the two teams play, particularly at home. It’s hard to see the MVP candidate letting this become a blowout, so the prospects look good for another close, high-stakes game.
For several months, the Hill-led Jazz were nearly unbeatable. But his recent struggles from three combined with an oddly disconcerting litany of injuries this season presents a question: how good are the Jazz, really, with a healthy George Hill?
In large part, that will be answered by Hill himself. If he was playing somewhat above his head to start the season, what kind of a difference maker is a more sustainable George Hill? Can he stay healthy for the rest of the season, allowing him to gel with a finally complete roster?
With a month stocked with solid competition, Utah will depend upon Hill’s veteran leadership as well as his court generalship to keep the team riding high in the standings. Hill’s health and shooting will determine how fully he will be able to meet that call.