Shelvin Mack: Stopgap Starter, Not Savior

April 8th, 2016 | by Clint Johnson
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Opposing point guards find stiffer resistance against the Jazz than earlier in the season due to Shelvin Mack. (AP Photo/Hannah Foslien)

The most significant move of the NBA trade deadline was the Utah Jazz trading a second round pick for a career third string point guard. Yeah, that’s true.

When the Jazz brought Shelvin Mack into their deliberate rebuild, it wasn’t to reunite Gordon Hayward with an old Butler buddy or Quin Snyder doing a favor for his former player — it addressed a starting point guard problem so glaring you couldn’t look directly at it without being blinded.

Since inserting Mack into the starting lineup 23 games ago, the Jazz’s point differential has jumped from +0.8 to +2.3, 10th best in the league.  Even more revealing, among lineups appearing in at least ten post-All-Star games, the Jazz starters are tied for the fifth most potent in the NBA behind the starters for the Spurs, Warriors, Raptors, Thunder, and red-hot Hornets, who have won 25 of their last 34 games.

With Mack at the helm, the Jazz are really good.

There are a number of factors contributing to this. Perhaps the easiest way to sum them up is to say that Mack is a combination of the assets the Jazz’s other point guards, Trey Burke and Raul Neto, bring to the table without their glaring weaknesses.

Like Burke but unlike Neto, Mack is at least a moderately consistent offensive threat. He’s shown he can hit the three (39%, likely not sustainable) as well as penetrate and finish at the rim or with a little floater in the midrange. Unlike Burke but like Neto, at 6’3″ and just over 200 pounds, Mack has the size and athleticism to offer at least token resistance to starting-caliber NBA guards.

Mack has given the Jazz a starting point without glaring deficiency, and that’s all it’s taken to catalyze the team to wins in 10 of their last 14 games.

His impact has been notable enough that some observers have begun to wonder if the team wouldn’t be better off with Mack starting next year despite the return of Dante Exum from ACL surgery that cost him the entire 2015-16 season.

That would be a bad idea.

To understand why, it helps to examine one of the areas where Mack has most invigorated the Jazz offense: running the pick and roll.

The NBA is a pick and roll league, and the Jazz have a genuine roll monster in Derrick Favors. With his combination of strength, length, athleticism, interior finishing ability, and improving touch both from the midrange and out to about 17 feet, Favors is elite roll option.

Among the 20 players who have used the most possessions as the roll man following a pick this season, Favors is 5th in points per possession (1.1), 6th in effective field goal percentage (54.7), and scores more frequently than all but two other players (55.2 percent of chances). According to NBA.com, that puts him in the 69.7 percentile for roll finishers, good for fifth out of the twenty greatest roll weapons in the league this season.

Mack employs Favors’s lethality as a roll man far more than other Jazz starters. Burke’s and Neto’s substantial liabilities have often forced Coach Snyder to rely on his wings for offensive orchestration (particularly before the injury of Alec Burks). Yet Gordon Hayward and Rodney Hood, while both respectable in the pick and roll, have only managed to assist Favors once per game. That’s facilitating the Jazz roll-beast about every 26 minutes of shared play… after playing together for the better part of two seasons.

In only 21 games together, Mack has assisted Favors nearly twice as often, 1.8 times per contest, or once every 13 minutes of shared court time. Not all of these come in the pick and roll, but many do.

Favors is a P&R revolver with numerous bullets in the chamber, and Mack is the first capable starter of the year to figure out how to squeeze that trigger multiple times.

Combine this with Mack’s ability to up the pace, hit some big shots, and balance offensive and defensive contribution, and his impact has made such a substantial difference that it has obscured something important:

While a solid player, Shelvin Mack is not a good starting point guard by NBA standards.

This couldn’t be clearer when comparing him to players in a similar role across the league. For example, 36.2 percent of Mack’s possessions come in the pick and roll (177 possessions total with the Jazz). Often, that’s with an elite partner in Favors. How does Mack hold up his end as a ball-handling threat?

0.68 points per possession, an effective field goal percentage of 42.8, and a turnover on an astronomical 24.8 percent of those plays.

Eleven players in the league with 100 or more pick and roll possessions run P&R between 34 and 38 percent of the time. Of those 11, Mack ties for last in PPP, third-to-last in eFG%, and stands alone in carelessness with the ball. His overall percentile as a pick and roll threat (31.1) outperforms only one competitor, Orlando’s second-year guard Elfrid Payton.

For context, Trey Burke ranks in the 68th percentile1.

So… how to reconcile Mack’s individual ability as a player with his profound impact on his teammates?  For example, since the All-Star break the Jazz have outscored opponents by 3.6 points per 100 possessions with Favors and Hayward on the floor. In the same span they’ve outscored opponents by 9.5 when Favors and Mack combine minutes2.

How can a solid but unextraordinary player make such a difference?

It’s because Favors is great, as is Hayward. Rodney Hood is becoming great, as is Rudy Gobert. The young Jazz core has been a high performance engine missing a dependable spark plug. Adding serviceable Shelvin Mack provides more sparks and fewer fizzles.

But he’s far from completing an elite engine. Make no mistake, Mack’s limitations constrain his teammates much as Burke’s and Neto’s did, if not to quite the same degree.

Consider that the only players outperforming Favors as a roll man this season are Al Horford, Chris Bosh, Marcin Gortat, and Andre Drummond. It is certainly no coincidence that those bigs are paired with Jeff Teague (All-Star), Goran Dragic (All-NBA), John Wall (All-NBA), and Reggie Jackson (18.5 points, 6.2 assists, and a 19.5 PER higher than any Jazz player other than Favors).

Favors is elite playing with Shelvin Mack. Solid, respectable, average Shelvin Mack.

Pair Favors with, say, a Jrue Holiday or Mike Conley and what would happen? What would happen to Hood’s contested threes? Hayward’s double teams? Gobert’s lob opportunities?

No one knows the future of Dante Exum, but nothing about him — be it his height, speed, youth, or even surprising defensive potency last season — suggests “solid”, “respectable”, or “average.” Exum has a chance to be much better than average.  But more importantly, he has teammates who can take better than average and make it devastating.

Shelvin Mack has proven incredibly important this season as the piece that cracked open the door to the Jazz showing their “good.” But a quality NBA point guard — maybe in the form of a lanky Aussie — could break down the door to greatness.

Until then, the Jazz are grateful to have the starting services of Shelvin Mack.

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.

16 Comments

  1. LKA says:

    With his contract I think they will keep Mack at least the backup or third point guard. Like Trey Burke wish him well but I think he is done as a Jazzman. Think they will use him as filler or other along with Johnson at the draft or afterword. I don’t see Jazz keeping four point guards especially when Burke is getting DNP Coaches decison. I see them keeping Ingles as he is a fit it a lot of situations. As Snyder promised they ought to use Whithery more . I don’t see Booker retained with Lyles comming along so good either.

    • Clint Johnson says:

      I think Mack would make an above average NBA backup. I think that’s his likely roll on a good team going forward, and I hope that’s the Jazz. As for who will or won’t be on the roster next year, I think there are enough variables as to make it hard to say with confidence, though I do think Trey Burke and the Jazz will part ways, which is probably of mutual interest.

  2. Grandpa John says:

    Mack has helped the team in many ways but his number of assists are usually always substantially lower than his shots taken. He has helped the Jazz,, but the Jazz will never be great with him. Neto may not have the size but his assist per minutes always seem to be higher than Mack’s. In the long run, it appears to me that Neto may develop to the point where he becomes the backup to Exum instead of Mack.

    • Clint Johnson says:

      Actually, according to the numbers, Mack is assisting the ball substantially better than Neto. Mack is managing 9 assists per 100 possessions to Neto’s mere 5.9. Also, Neto is an offensive liability. His inability to be a consistent scoring threat in the pick and roll really hampers the offense. I think Mack’s overall proficiency at defense, orchestrating the offense, and scoring from different levels probably represents something pretty close to Neto’s ceiling. I would be surprised if Neto ever outstrips Mack as an overall player, personally.

  3. Don says:

    What about Neto? Right now Mack is clearly more effective than Neto, but Neto, although experienced, is an NBA rookie. Do you feel that he has a higher ceiling than Mack?

    • Clint Johnson says:

      As I said in my reply to Grandpa John above, I don’t think Neto’s ceiling is higher than Mack’s, or even than Mack’s present ability. I think if Neto became comparable to what Mack has given the Jazz since joining them, that would be very good development from him as a player. There are of course possibilities I find unlikely. If Neto can maintain his 40% shooting from three while Mack’s 38% regresses, for example, that would change their relative values. The biggest difference to my mind is Mack can score at the rim, from the midrange with his little floaters, and from three. Neto isn’t much of a threat other than at the rim or three point line, and then largely only when he’s open.

  4. Grandpa John says:

    Very good Question. Mack is clearly better right now. He is bigger and is an adequate defensive player. He is a pretty good shot but needs to learn to be more selective in his shooting. I don’;t know how big his hands are but he has more turn overs than he should.have; especially in critical situations. Perhaps with experience, he will solve this problem..
    Neto hasn’t yet developed his shooting skills like Mack has but does exercise better judgement in his shot selections. Neto isn’t as big but to me, he appears to be a little big quicker than Mack even though he is a little bit more cautious in his offensive game, Neto has good eyes and quickness and is very good in setting up his teammates, better than Mack. Also, I think that Neto could make up for his lack of size on defense with his quickness.. In my judgement,. Mack has the size so if he could get his assists and shooting percentage up and turnover rate down,, he would be pretty darn good; Again, I don’t know how big his hands are, which could limit him, and could be the difference between who has the higher upside. Off the cuff, it appears to me that I think Neto has the higher ceiling because of his natural ability in setting up his teammates but his size works against him; so the jury is still out. Exum, of course, has unlimited upside. What do you and everyone else think? .

    • Clint Johnson says:

      As a prospect, Exum is in his own category. Neither Mack nor Neto is likely to become even an average NBA starting point guard (arguably the strongest position in the league). Exum has already shown the ability to be a difference making defender at the point of attack. Given his speed and stature, if his ball handling and shooting reach even average levels of proficiency for his position, he’ll be hard to handle, especially in the pick and roll. Pair that with Favors… With even moderate development, Exum should be the best point guard on the Jazz roster.

    • jerry says:

      think you need to consider that mack is a late season acquisition when you talk about his turnovers. nothing about his previous time in the nba suggests he turns the ball over a lot. that said, being traded late in season to a new team~~he needs to learn new teammates. it will be natural for him to turn the ball over more in that situation. i would guess close a quarter of his turnovers have been when the roll man stops rolling. as he understands his teammates better, the turnovers should drop. (starting role is new for him, too. he is facing top tier players often now)

      i am not sold on exum as a nba quality point guard, and suspect he winds up as a 3 and d wing. that said, clint is likely correct in suggesting that mack is probably not a starting point guard on a good team. mack has given the team a much needed burst of energy, the flow of the games has improved markedly with him at point guard. his pushing the ball gives opponents less time to set up as well.

      • Clint Johnson says:

        There’s definitely truth to what you say about Mack’s turnovers, jerry. He had 4+ turnovers in 7 of his first 18 games, but hasn’t done that in his last 8 games (which happens to coincide with Quin Snyder discussing the turnovers with him). As for Exum, even if he ends up a 3 and D player, it will probably be as the a de facto point, where his physique will give him the most advantage. I do think he can become an effective point guard in a holistic sense, but he’s going to have to work on his ball handling. The shot will come, at least to a respectable level. But to orchestrate the offense, he’s going to have improve significantly as a ball handler.

  5. joshg says:

    I agree Mack is a back up PG, but he could improve with only 23 games with his current team. Mack did not always play under control and had way too many turnovers. I am worried about Exum as a PG because he can’t shoot. I would hope his shooting percentage would improve FG% 34.9, 3pt% 31.5 FT% 62.5. Not good numbers. He will improve, but the pick and roll is not nearly effective if the ball handler can’t shoot. Mack’s contract is not guaranteed at 2.43, while Neto will make .937. I guess the Jazz could not get anything for Burke or Booker at the trading deadline that made sense for the future. The front office really should have made a move earlier to get another PG. I would like to see a PG that can tutor Exum, I don’t think Mack is that guy. We are locked in the 12-14 draft pick, I don’t think the Rockets lose to the Kings. The Jazz might also lose to the lakers tonight with them not momentum, no Rudy and the lakers wanting to win for Kobe.
    The Jazz have 10 players under contract for next year. Maybe we will get a Free agent. Maybe we can get a quality player in the draft. I think Hood and Lyles are both legit players. We simply will not have enough money to pay all of our players.

  6. Clint Johnson says:

    I’m not too worried about Exum’s shot. His mechanics look solid, though I don’t think he’ll ever be dangerous making highly contested jumpers. Even an average jump shot would be sufficient with his speed and stature. Think of the shots Tony Parker got in his prime given his speed. Exum will have similar opportunities because his quickness and length at the hoop will induce lots of defenders to leave him open.

    As for how the roster changes, Dennis Lindsey has never hidden that the plan was to be patient and develop the players they had until it enough maturation took place to compete, at which point they would leverage assets to maximize wins. They nearly made the playoffs with a lean bench and significant injury hardship. The team is at compete-now level, and I expect the front office to react accordingly.

  7. Pingback: Goodbye, Good Riddance 2015-16: Lakers 101, Jazz 96. | Salt City Hoops

  8. Ryan McElmurry says:

    Clint Johnson is not a professional writer. He obviously wrote that background info about himself, himself lol terrible.

  9. Ryan McElmurry says:

    Hayward is not “great” whatsoever! He’s below league AVERAGE. Being below average means you are bad, by definition. Hayward is only great if you are comparing him to the public. Yes, he’s great against your average weekend-warrior at the park. But when he’s below average in nearly every single area thay you can help or hurt your team, vs NBA SFs, that’s about the only way he’s “great”. The NBA average for points per shot or FT possession is 1.05. Hayward gets 1.09 on his 17.9 possessions per 36, which equates to +0.7 over average that way. Rebounding, NBA SF average per 36 is 6.0. He gets a terrible 4.9, costing the Jazz -1.1 that way(1.02 points per possession). The average SF gets 3.1 assists while Hayward gets 3.7, helping his team +0.6(assists on average net a team 0.98 points more than they would’ve scored anyway). But he turns it over 0.3x more than average for his point/assist totals(1 per 12points+1 assist is average, and that’s why there’s a difference in shot possessions and regular possessions with those included). Due to the fastbreaks turnovers cause, they are worth 1.4 points each, so Hayward loses the Jazz -0.4 that way per 36. Steals/blocks average is 2.0. Hayward only gets 1.5, and since steals are worth 1.4 each, for the same reason as turnovers, and blocks are 1.0,since teams get many of those possessions right back, he hurts the Jazz -0.7 vs. average that way. The average player gives up 102.8 points on D per 100 possessions. Not Hayward! He gives up 105, and when Favors and Gobert aren’t out there to save him, it jumps to a Near league-Worst 113!! But we’ll just call it -1.6 anyway, since those guys bring it down to that 105(since Utah plays 72 possessions per 36….
    So in all, Hayward is -2.5 points BELOW NBA SF AVERAGE per 36, yet the media pounds it into all your heads that somehow he’s good, since they had such crappy players the last few years that they had to force a star out of something! Or really out of Nothing, I should say!

  10. Ryan McElmurry says:

    If Hayward were really even above average, with near All-stars Gobert and Favors,and then Hood and Mack being awesome,like all these idiots in the media keep saying, they would be At THE TOP OF THE LEAGUE!! With THAT many good players, they’d just dominate everyone! The fact of the matter is that Gobert and Favors really are very good, Hood is average, and Mack’s near average, and their bench is slightly above average. So if NONE of those things are below average, yet THEY are extremely average(40-42 on the year.. and 13-15 with EVERBODY healthy almost the entire time since Mack’s arrival), then Hayward MUST really NOT BE AS GOOD AS EVERYBODY IN UTAH FANTASIZES, RIGHT!?!? I’m so sick of hearing how great he is, when the numbers show that he’s clearly well below even being average, and Gobert is their best player, BY FAR(+7 per 36) and then Favors is well ahead of the rest! Hayward doesn’t deserve crap! He doesn’t deserve to be respected like he is, just because he scores 19.7 because he uses up so many possessions that ANY average player would score that same amount if they took that many shots. And he doesn’t deserve TO BE scoring that many points in the first place, since he can’t even score much above average PER shot! And his defense is just horrendous, to go alongside his very average offense!

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