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.