Sunday SC7: Retooled Bench Lifts Utah, plus Playoffs, Game Balls, Rivalry Talk & More

April 8th, 2018 | by Dan Clayton

Exum and his colleagues on the Jazz bench are getting stops & playing the right way (photo from UtahJazz.com)

The Salt City Seven is our weekly1 place to recap all things Jazz with seven specially designed sections to distill all the big stories, pivotal performances and meaningful trends.

This week, you get a special Sunday edition as the Jazz prepare to face the Lakers in a game that could wrap up their playoff spot. We’ll get to the postseason situation in short order, but this week, we need to start by recognizing some of the key ingredients in what is now a 27-5 stretch for the clicking Jazz: a new band of reserves.

 

A quick(ish) exploration of a prominent theme from the week or the current state of Utah Jazz basketball.

As the Jazz approach a potential postseason trip, they do so armed with impressive, unexpected depth.

Each of the Jazz’s five starters have been so good since the Jazz turned their season around in late January that it can be easy to overlook how much steadier the bench play has been. Utah found ways to retool their rotation on the fly, aided by improved health, a midseason deal, and a decision to shift minutes in the direction of players who share the program’s mindset.

Since their January 24 renaissance, every single rotation regular has a Net Rating somewhere between Ricky Rubio’s +16.7 and Jonas Jerebko’s +3.3. Perhaps an even better measure of their improved rotational depth is this: in the last 32 games, they also play winning basketball no matter who sitstoo. They’re not great when Rudy Gobert sits, but they’re still very good, beating opponents by 2.9 points every 100 possessions. When Donovan Mitchell takes a breather, they’re still +3.5, and for Joe Ingles, it’s +3.7. Every single other Jazz player can literally rest easy, knowing that the team can still outpace the opposition by 5 or more points per 100.

What changed to make Utah’s depth get so good after a bumpy first three months? Gobert got healthy, Rubio turned a corner and Ingles caught fire, but that wasn’t all. The Jazz also quietly remodeled their bench.

Rodney Hood, Joe Johnson and Alec Burks are all good players in a vaccum, but something wasn’t quite clicking early on. All three are capable of impacting a game with their scoring, but sometimes the offense-starved Jazz bench would find itself relying on that ability instead of on good execution. And defense could be a challenge for any of the three on a given night. Ultimately, head coach Quin Snyder and roster architect Dennis Lindsey needed players who wanted to thrive within a system, even if they were less talented in overall terms than the players whose roles they would take supplant in the rotation.

Hood and Johnson were traded, and their minutes as bench wing and smallball 4, respectively, were assumed by Royce O’Neale and Jae Crowder. Burks started to recede from the rotation, too, at first replaced by Raul Neto at point (with Mitchell sliding back to more off-guard minutes) and then by the resurrected Dante Exum.

Now, that Exum-Crowder-O’Neale trio, along with rotation mainstay Jerebko, are the main bench corps. Usually playing alongside one of the starting bigs and with other starters staggered and sprinkled throughout, those four have all helped ensure that Utah’s defensive culture and offensive principles remain the same for 48 minutes.

Crowder’s outside shot still hasn’t quite caught on fire since his trade from Cleveland, but he plays hard-nosed defense and knows where he can get his shots with a well-time cut or spot-up. He has hit double figures in 18 of his 24 Jazz games, and a couple of specific quintets involving Crowder are among the best five-man units in the league. O’Neale, an undrafted rookie, continues to be a revelation as an on-ball pest.

Exum’s return and emergence is particularly significant. The former lottery pick gives the Jazz bench another dimension, because he’s another player who can create a shot for himself and others. After missing chunks of two seasons to injury, he somehow appears unafraid of contact now, and keeps pressure on the defense on every play. Longtime Exum observers can tell that he’s starting to realize he can get where he wants with the ball. His speed and sudden fearlessness make him a constant threat, even without a screen, but especially when you plug him into pet Snyder actions. Here he is attacking in the Spain pick-and-roll2. The Wolves just have no chance of stopped a player that fast on a play that potent.

Exum’s true shooting is terrific for a guard (60.8%), largely because all these decisive forays into the paint are resulting in 7.3 free throw attempts per every 100 possessions the Aussie plays. Only Gobert gets more freebies per offensive trip.

And even though we’re focusing on the guys who stepped into roles as part of the Jazz’s retooled rotation, it’s worth calling out Jerebko. The Swedish Swish has been doing solid work all season, but in the last week or so, he’s been particularly active. He had a pair of 13-point games this week, providing a spark off the bench to help Utah shift into another gear against Minnesota and the Clippers. He, too, has been attacking more, especially when defenders are sloppy in closing out to him on the catch. 

This quiet bench makeover was as much about mindset as anything. There just aren’t that many guys who get as excited about a big stop or a sweet assist as they do about scoring. That takes a special breed of NBA player, and the Jazz rotation is suddenly flush with dudes like that.

You can see it in how they celebrate with each other after a perfect dish or a defensive shutdown. There are imperfect moments, sure, but the club now has a full rotation’s worth of players who genuinely want to do the right thing on every play, and who don’t care whose turn it is to shoot. They don’t define “good game” or “bad game” by how many points they scored, nor do they believe that’s the measure of their progress as individuals. That selflessness is yielding real results for Utah, even while the starters look on from the sideline. 

The Jazz still have flaws, individually and collectively. A playoff series will surely expose some of those liabilities, and there likely will be moments in which the raw scoring chops of a Hood or Johnson type player would come in handy.

But instead Snyder will go into battle with a weapon he values more: a rotation full of athletes who are bought in culturally and on the same page in basketball terms.

 

Keeping track of Utah’s playoff chances

It only took us until the 173rd day of the season to simplify this graphic by whittling the field down to nine teams.

The Clippers’ are out after consecutive losses to Utah and Denver, but very little else is set in stone, and there are just four days left to sort it out.

Going into day 174 of a 177-day season, much is still up in the air.

  • The Jazz and Spurs are the two teams with the most at stake, since both still have a path to the No. 3 seed and a path to an early vacation. 
  • The Thunder went from being slight underdogs @ Miami to being slight favorites: 51% to win. That’s huge, because they own the tiebreaker with Utah, so them reaching 48 would require Utah to win out to avoid slipping out of homecourt.
I’ll be tweeting another update to this on Monday, after the Jazz complete their final visit to the Staples Center.

 

Words from a Jazz player or coach about a relevant or timely topic.

“I said, ‘No chance I’m not playing tonight.’”

– Rubio, via the DNews’ Eric Woodyard, after hanging 23 on his old team in an impressive road in in Minnesota

The Ricky Rubio Revenge Game is even more impressive when you consider that it might be the single biggest NBA game the Spanish guard has ever competed in. He wasn’t involved in a lot of late-season playoff battles before this season, so for him to head into an opponent’s gym and suddenly become an unconscious shooter against him former team is especially impressive. This game clearly mattered to Rubio, and not just because Jeff Teague body-checked him last time they met. The ex Timberwolf had something to prove.

The division rival Wolves and Jazz actually have all the potential to become the next great Jazz rivalry. Both teams have stars who are young 20-somethings poised to get better, and Karl-Anthony Towns and Gobert are in a lot of ways natural foils for each other. On top of that, you have all the connections. Most notable is Rubio, who spent six seasons in Minnesota. But Teague was involved in the three-team trade that landed George Hill in Utah, and by common logic would understand that the Jazz weren’t as high on him as they were on the veteran Hill3.

Andrew Wiggins and Exum were selected a few picks apart in 2014, Gorgui Dieng became a T’Wolf via a draft deal with the Jazz, and Nemanja Bjelica arrived in Minny after the Wolves traded the Jazz’s 2010 pick4 for him. The trade history between these two teams includes names such as Trey Burke, Andrei Kirilenko and Thurl Bailey.

Then add in the fact that these two teams already don’t like each other much. Their previous matchup, March 2 in Salt Lake, resulted in three ejections, three technical fouls, a flagrant penalty two, a coach-player spat and a Twitter beef between Crowder and the injured Jimmy Butler, who attended Marquette a year apart. This more recent matchup was far tamer in that sense, but Towns confirmed the lingering tension when he answered a question about bad blood with a suggestively terse “What do you think?” These teams just don’t like each other.

But alas, we’ll probably have to wait until next season to see the animosity develop into a full-fledged rivalry. Since the Jazz and Wolves are currently tracking to the Nos. 4 and 8 seeds, respectively, chances are slim that they’ll encounter each other again this fall. But as long as both teams maintain their current course, they’ll be battling — on the court, in the standings and on social media — for yeeeeeeears.

 

Stats and figures that help tell prominent stories from the week.

10

The Clippers’ Tuesday win over San Antonio made it official: this year’s Western Conference will have 10 teams with winning records.

In the NBA’s history, there has only been one other season in which 10 teams from the same conference finished above .500. That happened in 2000-01, when the Seattle SuperSonics finished tenth with a 44-38 record. 

63%

Nearly two thirds of Utah’s buckets in the four games played since our last SC7 were produced by an assist. That’s further evidence of the team-focused play referenced in the top section. That figure was 56.3% during Utah’s first 47 games, and 61.3% since. They’ve gone from averaging 21 assists to 24.2, and they have consequently added about 4.2 points to their offensive rating. 

 

A quick dissection of an awesome bit of Jazz offense from the week.

Since we focused on the retooled bench above, let’s quickly dissect a play where two of those guys connect: O’Neale setting up a Crowder three.

What this play really shows is the value of flipping the pick. Royce first goes over Gobert’s screen from left to right, then changes directions, goes back over the screen, and sucks in the defense.

Teams usually set their defensive schemes based on which side of the court the ball screen is going to. Because the original screen was designed to let O’Neale attack down the right side of the floor, Taj Gibson is the guy in the “weakside” corner who should make himself available to show on the roll man if necessary. But when the Jazz flip the pick the other direction, Gibson is now on the strong side, and should scoot back toward Crowder. But since O’Neale engages him directly, it freezes him for a second, and as a result he’s way too far from his man when Crowder gets the rock for a catch-and-shoot.

X-and-O people frequently talk about how you should never help from one pass away. This is why, but it was a simple rescreen that engendered that confusion in the first place.

 

Doling out credit for Jazz wins, one imaginary Spalding at a time.

The Jazz are once again rolling… which means we once again have a lot of work to do in the Game Ball department.

Jazz 107, Grizzlies 97: Dante Exum

Exum gets back-to-back GBs after his best game as a pro. He’s had great two-way performances before, and he has put up similar numbers before, but he’s never done both in the same game in the midst of a playoff race. In this one, his aggressiveness and energy led to a game-best +24.9 Net Rating. The offense looked best when Exum was running it5, producing 1.18 points per possession. He had 21 points (on 10 shots), but mostly it was the way he made good decisions, defended, and balanced aggression with calm confidence. After Memphis took a 69-66 lead, Exum scored 10 (and assisted 3) of the Jazz’s points in a 19-9 run to get out of trouble.

Jazz 121, Timberwolves 97: Ricky Rubio

Derrick Favors would rival Rubio here if this was purely a game MVP recognition. Fav scored an efficient 16, but more importantly, he was primarily responsible for limiting Karl-Anthony Towns to just 13 shots and 20 points. The Wolves lost by 21 in KAT’s minutes, which was predictably a recipe for disaster. Game Ball is at least partly about narrative, though, and so the fact that Rubio carried the Jazz offensively (23 points, five three pointers, 82% true shooting) and was the protagonist in the’s primary storyline moves him in front of Favors by a nose. See the “Quotable” section for more on that storyline. Mitchell came on late and Exum sparked the bench again, too.

Jazz 117, Lakers 110: Ricky Rubio

Mitchell blew up late for his 26th game with 25 or more points, and Gobert had a straight silly stat line: 12 points, 16 boards, 5 assists, 2 steals, 3 blocks. But Snyder said it: if Ricky hadn’t made a boatload of shots, the Jazz would have been in trouble. With 31 points on 16 shots, he had his fourth 30+ game as a Jazz player, and added six boards and eight assists. He was the only thing working for the Jazz early, including a seemingly unconscious stretch in the second quarter that landed him at 25 points at the break.

Jazz 117, Clippers 95: Quin Snyder

Utah’s very balanced win over LA is a perfect excuse to finally get the overdue Snyder on the board. But don’t get me wrong: we’re not just handing this one to the coach because there was no runaway favorite among the players. This was the consummate coaching win. Snyder and his staff drew up the perfect defensive game plan to defang the Clippers’ drivers. Just as importantly, they shifted their plans without a hiccup when two key players exited the game just minutes apart. Snyder had his guys prepared and engaged from the jump, perhaps after an impassioned call to arms two nights earlier. “We need to play with more urgency and more focus,” he said after some defensive mistakes made Tuesday’s contest with the Lakers uncomfortably close. They were ready: every player that stepped out there had an impact on the game. Blowout minutes limited some of the starters’ statlines, but they all played well. O’Neale, Exum and Jerebko provided their usual sparks, and even Burks, pressed back into duty by injuries, scored 13 points in 17 minutes.

 

Because, at the end of the day, this should be fun.

My brother likes to tell the story of how Hor Rod Hundley used to get all excited telling viewers about the time he and Elgin Baylor combined for 78 points while playing for the 1960-61 Lakers. “It was amazing,” Hot Rod would say about the pair’s performance in Madison Square Garden that November. “We were unstoppable.”

Baylor had 71. Hot Rod scored seven.

When David Stockton banged down a three-pointer to the delight of the home crowd on Thursday, I chuckled and thought of that Hundley anecdote. David Stockton and his Hall-of-Fame father John have now combined for a crazy number of Jazz three-pointers — even if, like the Laker teammates of 58 years ago — one of them has pulled most of the weight.

So with a Hot Rod-esque tongue-in-cheekness, here’s some NBA father-son history to chew on.

A pair of Stocktons making history

 

Salt City Seven 2017-18 Archive

Dan Clayton

Dan Clayton

Dan covered Utah Jazz basketball for more than 10 years, including as a radio analyst for the team’s Spanish-language broadcasts from 2010 to 2014. He now lives and works in New York City, but contributes regularly to Salt City Hoops, FanRag and BBALLBreakdown.
Dan Clayton

3 Comments

  1. Spencer says:

    I know David has an assist, what about the highest assist total for a family in league history?

  2. Spencer says:

    I know David has an assist, what about the highest assist total for a family in league history? What about steals?

  3. Pingback: Recurring Rivalries of Yesteryear Suggest Jazz, Thunder Just Getting Started | Salt City Hoops

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