Superlatives at the Quarter Pole

December 8th, 2015 | by Ben Dowsett
(AP Photo/Alan Diaz)

(AP Photo/Alan Diaz)

The Jazz may not technically be there yet as of this writing, but the majority of the league has hit the quarter pole of what’s been a fascinating season so far. We’re just about to the point where results for the season can be taken seriously in several areas, a fun landmark for those of us who care about such things.

With that in mind, and because superlatives are so much fun to speculate about, let’s run through a few Jazz awards at the quarter point – some real NBA accolades, others invented for the fun of this column.

Most Valuable Player: Derrick Favors

There’s really no question here to this point, though Gordon Hayward has come on in a big way recently and has spent the entire year flying under the radar quality-wise in certain less visible areas. Favors leads the team by a mile in every relevant one-number category from PER to RPM, and has to be in the conversation for among the most consistent star-level players in the NBA – outside a sickness he still tried to play through, the guy hasn’t had a single true off night in 17 games he’s suited up for.

As of Monday, Derrick sat third in the entire NBA for Win Probability Added, per inpredictable.com, trailing only Steph Curry (of course) and Dirk Nowitzki. Even more impressive has been his performance in the clutch; he trails only Curry for Clutch WPA, putting up per-36-minute rate stats of 30.5 points and 9.2 rebounds on over 60 percent shooting from the field with the score within five points and under five minutes remaining in regulation or overtime.

Basically everything about Favors’ game has been impressive, but a particularly nice bit of minutiae has been his play under pressure with the ball. His post game has taken yet another step forward this year, to the point where he’s a viable volume option on the block and has started to draw more frequent double teams – and his response to these situations has improved exponentially.

Where last year hard doubles in the post caused Favors to cough the ball up on nearly 23 percent of such possessions, per Synergy, he’s sliced over two thirds of that number away, turning it over just seven percent of the time when teams send help his way. The sample is still very small for the year here, but it matches the eye test; Derrick is more patient and more capable of finding the open man, evidenced by gaudy early shooting numbers for teammates following pass-outs from Favors double-teams that weren’t showing up in previous years. These figures are made all the more impressive by the at-times precarious spacing the Jazz play with, something coach Quin Snyder references often that can at times make finding the right pass even more difficult for Favors.

Defensive Player of the Year (relative to expectations): Gordon Hayward

On a team that was perhaps dependent on him to an unhealthy degree for offense night in and night out last season, it was understandably tough for Hayward to give 110 percent on every defensive possession. That’s not to say he was lazy by any stretch, but he certainly wasn’t one of the premier defenders on a team that boasted several, and would at times be placed away from opposing star wings defensively both to save his energy and get a better matchup like defensive specialist Elijah Millsap.

Whether through a conscious process or simply a realization that other guys are now more capable of picking up some of the slack on offense, Hayward’s defensive game has taken a big leap so far this year. He’s demanded big matchups on multiple occasions and been up to the task, and has been by far the team’s best matchup for bigger opposing star wings like Paul George and LeBron James. Saturday against the Pacers, Millsap was repeatedly roasted by George; Hayward clearly outplayed him in this regard, at times making it nearly impossible for PG to even get his hands on the ball. Gordon’s compete level has never been higher, and while metrics are still coming around to quantify his improvement, there’s no doubt it’s there.

Pleasant Surprise: Alec Burks

Like his brother-from-a-similarly-named-mother Trey Burke, Alec has been vital to propping up a bench unit that’s mostly been putrid beyond these two. Both have on-court negative net ratings per-100, but these are misleading – the Jazz might have the worst bench in the entire NBA were it not for their presence, and eking out only mild negatives has to be considered a win.

In Burks’ case specifically, his health has allowed him to go right back to his whirling dervish 2013-14 ways off the bench. He’s using over a quarter of all Jazz possessions while on the floor, easily a career high, but has a career-best in efficiency and a career-low in turnover percentage to go along with it. He could still do more here, but he’s cut a portion of his longer midrange 2s and turned them into 3s, which he’s shooting at over a 40 percent clip on easily the largest number of per-minute attempts in his career. Like Favors, he’s gone gangbusters in crunch time, averaging roughly 30-4-3 extrapolated per-36-minutes while canning 60 percent of his shots1.

Burks leads the team in fast break points, and is second only to Favors for per-minute points in the paint among rotation players. His ability to finish at the rim isn’t all the way back after shoulder surgery, and he could be even more menacing as a penetrator once it returns, an area where he’s already back among the league’s elite2. Alec seems to have put some of the puzzle together mentally, and still may have another ceiling to bust through if he can continue to learn and progress.

Unpleasant Surprise: Rodney Hood’s shooting

Rodney continues to play miles above where most had expected him out of Duke as a defender and a pick-and-roll operator offensively, but he just can’t seem to hit water from a boat this year from distance. He’s down to just over 27 percent from deep on the year after a 40 percent pace after the All-Star break last year, mostly due to a huge drop in his catch-and-shoot figures – per SportVU, a snazzy 38.8 percent figure on all catch-and-shoot 3s has plummeted to 27.3 percent this year. His open shooting numbers are way down, and his confidence seems sapped as a spot-up shooter.

The Jazz and their fans will be hoping this is a temporary blip, and it easily could be. Hood continues to work hard elsewhere, and remains extremely potent from the in-between areas in pick-and-roll and at the rim. He could give a big boost to the team’s spacing if he were to reclaim his outside form from last season.

Most Interesting Lineup: Neto-Hood-Hayward-Lyles-Favors

The group that functioned as the team’s starting lineup against the Pacers Saturday night had good reason to be out there – the sample is still small for five-man units across the board, but these five have been destroying teams in the brief time they’ve spent together. They’ve been Utah’s second-most efficient lineup that’s played at least 10 minutes on the year, outscoring teams by 35.3 points per-100-possessions.

This is small sample theater, of course, but one can see the outlines of a capable group here even as Hood has struggled and Lyles has only begun to find his footing in the NBA. The Favors-Lyles combo is likely Utah’s most versatile all-big frontcourt defensively – both can stick with wings or bang down low, and Lyles in particular has been more impressive on the defensive side recently than we might have expected3.

Neto is also a plus on this end, and the 84.0 defensive rating this group has put up, while unsustainable, doesn’t feel like a total fluke. They’ve also been fantastic on the glass, and could be even more efficient down the line when Hood finds his stroke. We may see this exact group for only limited stretches as soon as Rudy Gobert returns, but they’ve done a fine job to this point and seem a viable starting unit in his stead.

Bonus Pleasant Surprise: Open shooting

Most figured canning the open looks they found from deep would be a rough spot for the Jazz this year given personnel, but the opposite has been the case thus far. Utah is collectively shooting 38.2 percent on open 3s4, per NBASavant, good for fifth in the league. Burks (42.2 percent), Burke (40 percent) and especially Joe Ingles (53.9 percent) have all been knockdown guys from range when left open.

Bonus Unpleasant Surprise: Lack of frequency of open shooting

The above would be much more encouraging if it were a bigger part of Utah’s offense. Just 20.7 percent of the team’s total shot attempts have been open 3s, 23rd in the league and easily the lowest of any team who shoots as high a percentage as the Jazz do.

Some of this is personnel-driven, of course. The Jazz play with two traditional big men as much as any team in the league, and one of these is commonly a non-threat spacing-wise in Gobert. That doesn’t account for all of it, though – the Jazz are far too comfortable passing up open 3s for good shooters to pursue looks that almost always end up worse later in the possession. Their guards, the Burkcourt in particular, have really improved at drawing help from the perimeter and picking out the right shooters. Guys need to have more faith in their form and the underlying numbers in these situations.

Ben Dowsett

Ben Dowsett

Ben Dowsett is a life-long Jazz fan and current in-depth analyst based in Salt Lake City. He also writes for Basketball Insiders and BBallBreakdown, and can be heard on SCH Radio on ESPN 700 weekly. He can be found on Twitter at @Ben_Dowsett.
Ben Dowsett
Ben Dowsett

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One Comment

  1. IDJazzman says:

    Good write up, really appreciate the Hayward accolade with his defense improvement. I swear, 95% of fans want defense, but don’t see the individual improvements of players when they make that step and complain about all the other aspects of his game. Haywards step up in defense with his offense now returning, is helping change this team along with all the other improvements from other players.
    I don’t know about the surprise with Burks, I think a lot of fans knew he had a special offensive game in him. Maybe the surprise is that his defense is improving, but I think he’s got step or two of improvement left yet to come in the next few years. Offensively, he could be a lot more fun to watch the second half of this season. I really wish he would shoot a few more 3’s each game, especially if he can hold that 40% stroke.
    For me, two good surprises. Trey Burke, he’s becoming valuable to this team. Whether he gets traded or not, he is starting to prove that he has an NBA game. I was having real doubts. Next surprise, that Favors took such a BIG step in performance this year. If he continues as he has been this year and if he doesn’t get invited to be an All-Star, the NBA will lose a lot of credibility with Jazz fans around the world.
    My biggest, unpleasant surprise, is the one you mentioned also. Somehow, someway, Hood has got to find his 3 point shot and the Jazz could make some noise in the playoffs. If Hood had hit his 3 point shot at the same rate he did at the end of last season, this team could of had 2 or 3 more wins, in the win column this year.

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