Schedule Spotlight: January Will Test the Surging Jazz

January 2nd, 2017 | by Clint Johnson
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Rudy Gobert has led the Jazz to a 21-13 record entering 2017, good for a tie with the Oklahoma City Thunder and former teammate Enis Kanter. They meet again on January 23rd. (Melissa Majchrzak/ NBAE/Getty Images)

State of the Jazz

2017 dawns with the Utah Jazz (21-13) threatening to join the NBA elite: winners of of ten of their last 14 games, in an early position for home court in the first round of the playoffs1, and boasting the seventh-best point differential in the league2.

While they let a winnable game or two slip in December, overall Utah did exactly what they needed to, ripping off win streaks of three, four, and three while, most importantly, achieving some semblance of health. Both George Hill and Derrick Favors are back in the starting lineup3, while Rodney Hood appears recovered from a touchy hamstring and prolonged bout with illness. Added to Utah’s All-Star hopefuls, Gordon Hayward and Rudy Gobert, the Jazz just might cross into truly healthy territory with the onset of 2017.

And just in time, because January starts with one of the hardest stretches of the season: a five-game road swing followed by a quick return flight to Salt Lake for a contest with the defending NBA champions.

Who’s Hot?

George Hill: It may seem presumptuous to put a player atop this list after completing only one game in the last 14, but not to do so would disregard Hill’s monumental impact on the Jazz. The team is 9.3 points per 100 possessions better with Hill on the floor than when he’s out, a mark notably higher than for even two serious All-Star contenders in Hayward and Gobert. It’s begun to look like the only way Hill can avoid playing well in a Jazz uniform is to not play. Even after missing 12 games with injury he picked up where he’d left off, posting the stellar line of 21 points, 8 rebounds, 6 assists, 3 steals, and a block in his first game back against Philadelphia while running up a gaudy plus 31 on the night.

Gordon Hayward: While Utah’s offensive leader has been fantastic all season, his production reached a new altitude in December. Soaring accuracy from the three point line (41 percent) and the field overall (48 percent) drove Hayward to the rare air of 22.8 points per contest. Yet even that number fails to communicate how good Utah’s captain has been on the offensive end because of the team’s league-slowest pace. Per 100 possessions, Hayward was in the top ten most prolific scorers in the NBA for the month. His suitability as a primary offensive option for a good NBA team has long been questioned. If he maintains his current play, that debate should quiet a great deal.

Boris Diaw: Injuries and adjusting to new teammates gave Diaw a well-documented rough start to the season. But the league’s most interesting man has quietly built up to the strong and consistent bench contributor Dennis Lindsey envisioned when he dealt for Diaw over the summer. His passing has remained stellar as the oft-reluctant shooter has shed some of his reluctance as a scorer. Not only did Diaw attempt an additional shot per game last month4, most importantly his accuracy from the three point line jumped from a horrid 20 percent to 39 percent throughout December. That ability to stretch the floor, especially in counterpoint to the gravity Gobert and Favors exert in the paint, is invaluable going forward.

Who’s Not Hot (Yet)?

Derrick Favors: No player has struggled transitioning back from injury to productive play on the court like Favors. In his eight games since returning from a knee contusion, the career 51 percent shooter has made only 36 percent of his field goal attempts. His ability to finish baskets this season is mired at a career-low by a gaping margin. While the defense is still there5, it isn’t enough to make up for the offensive liability Favors has been. Worse, Favors’ movement has been awful: jumping, running, shifting laterally, all accompanied by, frankly, sporadic effort. Some of this is certainly the product of a player returning from a leg injury out of shape. But note how far Favors’ athleticism has fallen by considering the elite, and I mean elite by NBA standards, athleticism he brought into the league.

Even a portion of that athleticism would be invaluable as Favors fights to establish tactical value of playing two bigs in a league going ever smaller. Will any of it return? Despite only being 25, there is reason to doubt. Favors will have to stay healthy in 2017 and play himself into prime shape for the first time in the better part of two years to even make it possible.

Joe Johnson: Johnson’s strong three point shooting, 39 percent on the season, has somewhat masked a recent malaise. Remember that Johnson isn’t a bench shooter for Utah but a bench scorer. Specifically, Quin Snyder often relies on Johnson’s astute post up game to manufacture points when the offense isn’t humming. With Favors struggling so mightily on the offensive end, Johnson has served as the team’s only legitimate option for producing points in the post, and his ability to do so is heavily reliant on a traditionally strong mid-range game. That shot abandoned him in December, plunging his accuracy between eight and 16 feet from 52 percent to 30 percent and making Johnson the only player whose presence on the floor consistently hemorrhaged the team points6.

Dante Exum: While Exum’s first month-plus of the season caused much contention among Jazz fans, who argued frequently about his role and minutes, at least he was consistently on the court. Toward the end of December an all-too-likely challenge of returning from major knee surgery reared in the form of tendinitis that has kept Exum on the bench for Utah’s last five games. The pain reared at a particularly problematic time. Not only have George Hill and Derrick Favors returned from injury, allowing Snyder to begin to establish preferred rotations for the first time all season, but the rest interrupts a subtle resurgence by Exum. Where the lanky Australian proved an indisputable competitive liability through the first month-plus of the season, in December he became a slight net positive, largely on the strength of re-dedication to defense7 and improved shooting8. Hopefully, he can return soon and without another setback to what has thus far proven a difficult season.

Schedule Breakdown

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(NBA.com)

Games: 15 (7 home, 8 road)

Back to Backs: 5 (2 road/road, 1 home/home, 1 road/home, 1 home/road)

Key Stretch: 6 games in 9 days, 5 on the road, starting with a back to back and ending with Cleveland at home

Likely Wins: 9 — @BKN (1/2), @MIN (1/7), DET (1/13, ESPN, first game of back to back), ORL (1/14, second game of back to back), @PHX (1/16), @DAL (1/20, first game of back to back), IND (1/21, second game of back to back), @DEN (1/24, second game of back to back), LAL (1/26, TNT)

Likely Losses: 3 — @BOS (1/3, second game of back to back, NBA TV), @TOR (1/5), CLE (1/10)

Toss Ups: 3 — @MEM (1/8, second game of back to back, NBA TV), OKC (1/23, first game of back to back), MEM (1/28)

Must-Win Games

Brooklyn on the road (1/2): Psychologically, this game entails a lot of add-ons: the first contest of a new year as well as the opening stanza of the first prolonged road test the team has faced since the third week of the season. The results of this game cannot help but set a tenor in the locker room that will be reinforced by questions from the media. Materially, the Jazz will certainly remember a devastating two-point loss to the Nets last February at home, arguably their worst loss in a season ultimately one loss short. Utah brings a massive talent advantage to this game, and every such game should be seen as a must win.

Minnesota on the road (1/7): Despite being the first game of rough back-to-back set to end the road trip, this is easily the most winnable game of a brutal four-contest stretch: at Boston and Toronto before this game and an always physically demanding match up with the Grizzlies the day after. Minnesota glitters with potential, which in the NBA typically means gathering losses by the bushelful, which is exactly what the young Wolves have done. Next season, this may be a must-watch game with seeding implications for both teams. Now, the game is Utah’s best protection against a potential January losing streak.

Memphis at home (1/28): While the Jazz aspire to challenging the Rockets and Clippers9 for a place in the Western Conference’s second tier, the objective of the day is to shoulder their way to the top of a scrum with the Grizzlies and Thunder. Memphis and Utah have already bested each other on the other’s home court. Giving up both home contests to a primary conference rival simply isn’t acceptable given Utah’s goals this season.

Must-Watch Games

Boston on the road (1/3): There are story lines galore whenever the Jazz face their Eastern Conference Bizzaro-selves. Just how good are these young upstart teams climbing the NBA rankings despite lacking a prototypical superstar on their rosters? In a battle of the league’s brightest young coaches, Quin Snyder or Brad Stevens, who will outfox who? How will Boston’s perimeter depth counterbalance the Jazz’s dominant front court? Will either Dante Exum or Marcus Smart show flashes of fulfilling the potential that saw them taken as the top two point guards in a historically lauded draft?

Cleveland at home (1/10): The NBA champions will come to Salt Lake once this season10, making that game a must watch – assuming Cleveland’s stars see the court. Tyronn Lue earned widespread11 condemnation for his decision to not even travel his stars LeBron James, Kyrie Irving, and Kevin Love to the road portion of a back-to-back series with Memphis. The Jazz’s lone home shot at the champs is the first game of a back to back that is itself smack in the middle of a week and half sojourn on the road for the Cavs. While Lue certainly won’t fly his stars back to Cleveland for a little R and R, resting players isn’t out of the question. After all, the Cavs will be heavy favorites in four of the other five games, and that exception will be their second clash with the Warriors. Lets hope the Jazz meet the champs with both at full strength.

Indiana at home (1/21): In the off-season, the Pacers essentially swapped George Hill for Jeff Teague to compliment Larry Bird’s grand vision of playing basketball at warp speed. How has that worked for Indiana and Utah respectively? The Pacers have floundered in mediocrity, losing more than half their games while posting an ugly point differential of minus 1.7, while Hill has settled the Jazz among the league’s top teams while playing like an All-Star. There’s always juice when Gordon Hayward and Paul George, players from the same draft class often measured against each other, square off. But this game is all about Hill welcoming his older squad to his new home for a demonstration of just what they’ve lost.

Variable

How will Alec Burks rim attack accent Joe Ingles league-leading three point shooting ? (Tom Smart. Deseret News)

The bench.

Health appears to be a perpetual question for the Jazz. But if Utah’s recent trend toward a fuller compliment of players continues, it unleashes a potential advantage that has been much talked about but never yet realized this year: depth.

Utah’s bench hasn’t been bad, but it hasn’t been a notable advantage either. That should change, but will it and how quickly? The potential is tantalizing. Alec Burks adding bench scoring. Derrick Favors’ defensive prowess backup up Gobert at center. The ability to scheme for shooting – Hill, Hood, Ingles, Hayward, and Lyles versus small lineups – or defensive oppression – Hill, Exum, Hayward, Favors, Gobert. It’s all there in theory.

Utah’s bench should be in the elite class of the league, around the Bucks (plus 4.9 points per 100 possessions) or Rockets (plus 4.7) or even Raptors (plus 12.7) or Spurs (plus 11.3), rather than merely good (plus 1.2 currently). How that does or does not materialize will go a long way to determining how the Jazz launch themselves into 2017.

Clint Johnson

Clint Johnson

Clint Johnson is a professional author, writing educator, and editor. He teaches writing at Salt Lake Community College. A frequent presenter at both writing and educational conferences, he writes about the Jazz as a break from his other writing work.

2 Comments

  1. John Jenkins says:

    Nice column Clint. The analysis of the up coming games is spot on. If the Jazz can come out of The with a 2/3 win total it would be terrific. I hope with Hill out they do not fall into the same hole of going ahead and then having to try to save the bacon. The Boston game could be the tale of how the month goes.
    If Lowery does not go off and Hill and Exum are back Toronto could be a win for the Jazz.
    Memphis is such fun to watch vs the Jazz. Two teams that just play the game the right way.
    Would like to see Gordon come out like he did against the Lakers each game.

    Go Jazz.

    • Clint Johnson says:

      I think the Jazz should expect to win three of the next six games and (excepting Hill being out longer than expected) should target four wins. I think they’re better than Memphis, even on the road, and while Boston and Toronto on the road and Cleveland at home are all tough, none are games Utah simply should not win. There are relatively few of those games given how good the team is.

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