The book is closed on a transformative season of Utah Jazz basketball. Or, if you’ve been paying attention to head coach Quin Snyder, several mini-seasons.
On January 1, with exactly 50 games remaining, Snyder proposed to his pupils that they approach the rest of the season in 10-game increments.
“That was, to me, a valid enough sample that we could get an idea of how we were doing,” Snyder told AP’s Kareem Copeland. “But it also allowed us to kind of accept some of the progress we’ve made. To appreciate it. And also to recognize it as just that, a 10-game evaluation that can come and go. We’ll do that this last stretch of games, the way we have been, and try to finish the season in the same mindset.”
Makes good sense from a development perspective. Set goals, measure progress, and then move on from that to another period of setting goals and measuring progress.
On a broader level, the Jazz season divides nicely into three separate stretches. Through 25 games, they were hapless on both ends as they sputtered to a 6-19 start. Then they turned things around in mid-December and were basically a .500 team (13-15) up until the All-Star break. After a few days on the beach1 and an identity-shifting trade, the Jazz returned a different outfit, and played at an elite level (19-10 with the league’s best post-break defense).
But I’ll humor the coach if he wants to get more granular than that. Let’s revisit the memorable 2014-15 season 10 or so games at a time2.
Jazz Record: 4-6
Overarching narrative: Early, much of the talk centered around defense and pace. Both were focal points in training camp, yet the Jazz came out of the gate struggling in both. Their D rating in that first stretch was 109, and they played at a pace under 93.
Mini-season MVP: Gordon Hayward. Hayward established himself as the guy, averaging 20-6-5 over that first stretch while shooting 50-37-90. More importantly, he had the Cleveland game-winner3, a duel with Carmelo Anthony4, exploded for 30 at Indiana, and was one of three Jazz men to post a positive net rating.
Glass half full analysis: Hayward’s emergence as a bona fide team leading star (see above) was by far the most positive story in this stretch.
Glass half empty: The Jazz remained a poor defensive team without an identity, and the early struggles of both Alec Burks and Trey Burke was hurting efficiency on the other end as well.
Overarching narrative: Uh oh.
MVP: Snyder. This stretch’s lone win was Snyder’s “Wake Up” game, but more importantly, this was the stretch where you started to see the accountability, both real-time and in interviews. He was serious about establishing a competitive culture. Besides, we couldn’t give the MVP to a player during a 1-11 stretch, could we?
Glass half full: Let’s be honest. This particular glass was mostly empty. But the positive thing about this stretch was that you started to see who was going to respond. To wit, both of the clips I linked in that Snyder paragraph were him upset at Rudy Gobert over defensive issues. How much does it say about Gobert that he was challenged that directly by his coach and didn’t curl up and die? A lot of guys would wilt after two head-on confrontations with a coach like that; for Rudy, these moments became springboards for him. You learn a lot about how people deal with adversity, and maybe that was the lemonade we were supposed to make from this bunch of lemons.
Glass half empty: The Jazz defense got even worse, up to 111. Enes Kanter’s D rating was 121, and the Jazz had only one player (Gobert) post a positive net rating. As a team, they lost by 9 points per 100 possessions during this stretch. That’s… bad.
Overarching narrative: December 17 is widely used as the date that the Jazz’s season turned around. They had fallen to a season-worst 6-19 with three straight losses, and they were in the middle of a long road trip, so they wheels could have easily come off. Instead, the Jazz dug deep to defeat Miami and Orlando, and later on the same trip had the win over Memphis that I consider the moment you started to sense the Jazz were onto something.
MVP: Hayward. You’ll see his name a few times here because stars win games. Gordon was crucial in just about every Jazz win during this stretch5 and put up another 19-5-5, this time on 47-44-83 shooting.
Glass half full: Burke started to play better, Favors took a discernible step up, and Gobert was just starting to get some attention. It started to feel like the Jazz were moving, even though they lost Burks to injury during this third bunch of games. Speaking of which…
Glass half empty: Should it worry anybody that the Jazz gave virtually all of Burks’ minutes to a replacement-level NBA player in Joe Ingles6 and yet somehow magically became a .500 team at roughly the same point in time? Probably not, but it’s a good reminder that turning talent into wins is less about arithmetic than it is about alchemy. With Ingles, the Jazz have a player who often impacts possessions positively on both ends, and sometimes that’s more valuable than whatever raw numbers Burks’ injury cost the Jazz. Now the Jazz get to spend the summer figuring out how to work Burks back into that chemistry experiment — which, don’t me wrong, is a great issue to have to deal with.
Overarching narrative: The Gobert buzz was starting to grow at this point. He had already had stretches where he dominated defensively, but he was starting to get more comfortable all-around, and people were noticing. I wondered aloud if Gobert had crashed the “core,” and it wasn’t long before that question was a) answered and b) completely obsolete7. He is definitely a pillar, and this is when we started to realize that, quarters and halves at a time.
MVP: Derrick Favors. An undersung protagonist of a year-long leap we should all be talking about more, Favors came out remarkably strong to start the year. He averaged 17 & 9 here and upped his True Shooting (a rephrased version of point per shot) to 58%.
Glass half full: The lone quality win in the first three weeks of the year was against Chicago, but it was high enough quality to be really encouraging. Like the Memphis game, this was another one that the Jazz imposed their will defensively and completely smothered a very good team on their own court. Gobert got a lot of the credit for his haunting of Pau Gasol, but the trio of Favors-Hayward-Burke also had 57 points in the win.
Glass half empty: It’s probably not encouraging that Burke had some of his best games during this span from a counting stats perspective, and yet it was this batch of games that prompted Snyder to change the starting lineup. He had 17 at Chicago, 20 over LA, and averaged 15 points and 5 assists overall. And yet because of defensive and efficiency issues, Snyder chose to make the change. That caused Jazz fans to start to recalibrate their expectations for Burke, fairly or unfairly.
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That takes us to the halfway point in the season. Digest those 42 games worth of storylines and we’ll be back soon with part two of the 10-game season recaps. In the meantime, check out all the great end-of-season coverage by Andy and the gang in Salt Lake!