An extended All-Star break is perfect not only for the players, who get more time to rest their ailing bodies, but for those of us covering them as well. Writers and bloggers alike need a reset button too, and what better time to step back and take stock of a partially-finished season?
With that in mind, let’s dive right in to what’s been an exciting and eventful first half (plus a little) for the Utah Jazz. There have been a solid share of ups and downs, and a few surprises among many expected outcomes. How does the team compare to this point last year? How have their future prospects changed, for better or for worse? Let’s run it all back.
For a baseline, first a look at how the Jazz compare quantifiably with last year to this point. Utah has played 53 games thus far, so we’ll use that same barometer for last season’s numbers also – though in nearly every case, their full-year stats from last year were nearly identical. Though it’s certainly far from the most important metric, it turns out the Jazz have the same record through this many games as they did last year, at 19-34 overall.
In the most general sense, the Jazz have improved markedly. They rank 15th and 27th in offensive and defensive per-possession rating, respectively (102.9 per-100 scored and 106.1 per-100 allowed) after rating 23rd and 30th here respectively through 53 contests last year. Their net efficiency is accordingly more positive, a cumulative minus-3.2 net that doesn’t cause any parades but also more than chops last year’s minus-7.5 figure in half.
There are positives as we delve into the details, as well. Rudy Gobert’s success coupled with a departure from the small-ball lineups Ty Corbin began to favor in big minutes last year has elevated Utah from a borderline bottom-10 rebounding team to one of the league’s very best. They’ve collected 52.3 percent of all available boards on the year, second in the NBA behind only Sacramento by mere decimals. They’re first overall on the offensive glass, grabbing nearly 29 percent of their own misses. And as a result, Utah has seen their share of second-chance points take a sizeable leap, up to third in the league at 15 per game after finishing in the middle of the pack last season.
Things haven’t been rosy all around, though. Shooting is clearly the largest concern for this team both currently and going forward, and though the Jazz have taken small strides here, they’re still well below par league-wide. Their True Shooting Percentage1 is up to 17th in the league from 23rd to this point last season, a step in the right direction. But Utah’s free-throw shooting has tumbled, down nearly two full percentage points – this may seem miniscule, but it’s the difference between 19th and 27th in the league. It’s been an especially noticeable problem recently, with the Jazz going seven straight games before the break without cracking 70 percent from the line even once.
Depth at the shooting guard position is absolutely a cause of some of this, but the reality is that the roster still lacks the shooting skill necessary for the elite team they aspire to be. To this point last season, the Jazz were shooting 38.3 percent on all open jumpers2 outside 10 feet from the hoop, good for just 24th in the league…but they’ve actually regressed so far this year, down to 37.1 percent and actually generating about three fewer such shots per game. Someone like Elijah Millsap, forced into a role that extends beyond his skill set, works hard on both ends but lacks the jump-shooting prowess or confidence to maintain the spacing the offense needs. Shooting at the point guard position has been really disappointing, with Trey Burke and Dante Exum combining to shoot an awful 36.3 percent from the field and just 31.2 percent from 3.
Overall, the numbers show us a mixed bag. But the larger per-possession figures are quite encouraging, as is the fact that Utah’s offense has improved as much as it has despite their continued struggles shooting the ball. When one considers that the Jazz are actually far younger and less experienced than last season, plus adds in several untimely injuries3, it’s hard not to be encouraged by their improving overall numbers here.
In addition, several of these raw figures almost certainly understate many of the most important factors in the team’s development from last year. They don’t consider, for instance, the fact that a very young group has been learning a complex new offense from scratch and in many ways on the fly – with success. They ignore bits of context that only regular viewing can tell us: items like a resilience through bad stretches that seemed to be sorely lacking last year4, a camaraderie that seems more noticeable, and most of all a general air among fans, players, coaches, and executives alike that this year is simply going in a more positive direction.
Some of this is surely the ship’s navigator, and Quin Snyder has already earned Jazz fans’ trust at the helm. His guys are responding quickly to many of his points of emphasis, such as a transition defense that now allows only the 18th-most nightly points on the break after giving up the fifth-highest figure here last year5. There have been hiccups along the way, to be sure – Quin’s team has fallen short of his stated goal with regard to pace, for example, and has struggled to move beyond the more basic elements of his motion offense and will occasionally bog down for stretches.
But his ever-present theme of process is in full effect. We’re seeing speedbumps and often the team’s attempted navigation above or around them, but more importantly, we’re seeing the why behind the kinks in the process. They may frustrate us at times, but we get the reasons for them – we get why Dante Exum is struggling with aggression, why shooting has been such a concern around an offense that functions very well beyond that one large factor, why the group has struggled to push the pace as much as we had hoped. We see these issues, but we understand them and, best of all, see the outline for how things will look once a few pertinent tweaks are made.
Which leads us conveniently to…
All eyes are still here, though the time for a transition to “now” mode is nearing.
And like the areas above, and nearly any realistic NBA environment, there have been ups and downs. Firmly in the latter category would be Enes Kanter, who touched off All-Star weekend with some ill-advised comments that threw his presence in Utah’s future even further into doubt. The young Turk is suffering from the frustrations many guys his age struggle with, and combined with a team structure that he appears somewhat unhappy with and an agent who seems inexperienced at the very best, the pressure seems to have gotten to him.
As far as pieces who care to remain in town voluntarily, there are mixed reviews. One can’t fault Alec Burks or Rodney Hood in the slightest for their injury woes, but the team is missing out on valuable time to see them alongside the rest of the potential core. This issue has been magnified some by Utah’s combined play at the point from Burke and Exum, neither of whom has quite impressed at the level many had hoped they would. Trey has flashes where he looks promising, but still far too many others where he appears both limited and, far worse, unaware of said limitations. His size is never changing and his overall defensive potential remains quite low. Exum’s ceiling is miles higher but his floor appears to be well lower, and though he has plenty of time to build comfort and confidence, some parts of his game have been worryingly timid.
The drawbacks mostly end there, however, and it’d be quite tough to argue they outweigh all the progress being made in Salt Lake City. Gordon Hayward and Derrick Favors both began their first non-rookie deals this year, and both appear to have fully avoided even a whisper of “overpaid” right out of the gate, a huge plus for the franchise. Hayward has been an absolute revelation of late, putting the team on his back for long stretches and seeming unbothered by the physical load that appeared to slow him down some last year. Favors has taken offensive leaps that few had forecast for him, and a pairing with a certain Frenchman soon to be mentioned has worked out as well as anyone could have hoped on both ends.
And then, of course, there’s the Stifle Tower. He’s not yet quite as integral to Utah’s future as Gordon or Derrick, but as far as value above expectation, Rudy Gobert might already be towering over them in more ways than just his stature. For a late first-round pick like him to already be representing such tremendous value is just massive for the team-building trajectory, and softens much of the sting of Kanter’s apparent sunk cost.
These personnel boons underscore the general feeling that true progress is being made. The Jazz have their man behind the bench, a solid foundation including at least one borderline All-Star caliber player, several other young pieces with lots of upside still to be potentially realized, and another lottery pick on the way. They’re stocked with a number of assets in future years, with management who has committed to the process and has the respect of the league’s top thinkers.
The Jazz may sit in the same place record-wise as last year, but that’s really one of the only similarities. The future seems exponentially brighter as we roll into the home stretch.