Three Things to Watch This Season

September 16th, 2016 | by Clint Johnson
Rodney Hood (5), Alec Burks (10) and Gordon Hayward (20) of the Utah Jazz celebrate their win over Memphis during NBA basketball at Vivint Arena in Salt Lake City, Saturday, Nov. 7, 2015.

How will Quin Snyder divide minutes at the wing between this trio of Rodney Hood (5), Alec Burks (10) and Gordon Hayward (20) with free agent Joe Johnson and newly healed prospect Dante Exum also in the mix? (Ravell Call/Deseret News)

There’s a buzz of national anticipation about this Jazz season. A possible playoff push, veteran additions, the preamble to Gordon Hayward’s free agency, and the return of Dante Exum consume much of the conversation.

But this team presents fascinating and hugely consequential issues less frequently addressed. Sometimes history turns less on the content of the headlines than the footnotes. In that spirit, here are three areas to watch for this upcoming season.

A Major Positional Battle at the Wings

There is one certainty here: Gordon Hayward. The team’s offensive leader and possibly best overall player has played 34 or more minutes per game each of the last three seasons. While wing depth may lighten Hayward’s minute-load somewhat, I don’t anticipate much drop off. The Jazz have every incentive to win as many games as possible and make the most of their offensive centerpiece’s contract year.

Beyond Hayward, things get complicated with between 60 to 70 minutes to split between Rodney Hood, Joe Johnson, Alec Burks, and Dante Exum. Quin Snyder will be faced with a bevy of choices, and each represents to some degree a competing interest for the franchise.

Hood is the presumed starter. Last season as a 23-year-old sophomore, he played 32 minutes per game. Many nominate Hood as the Jazz player likely to take the biggest leap this season, moving from solid starter to developing star. There’s loads of excitement about the young Mississippian who made eight of nine threes and scored 30 points against the Lakers last season – in one half! How could the team limit the minutes of a young prospect who has already demonstrated possible star potential?

Because they signed a seven-time All-Star free agent, and such players don’t join teams for residual minutes. It’s true that at 35, Joe Johnson’s All-Star days are behind him. But after suffering through his banishment to Brooklyn, Johnson showed he has a lot left in the tank in his limited stint in Miami1: 52% from the field and 42% from three on more than ten shots a game is significant contribution. And consider: Johnson hasn’t played fewer than 32 minutes per game since 2003 as a 21-year-old.

Alec Burks complicates things further. After missing 106 games the past two seasons, it’s tempting to write Burks off. But for the last two seasons, Burks has shot the ball from three better than Hayward – and gotten to the free throw line at a better rate for the past three seasons. For a player already under contract for three more years at less than $12 million per, if Burks could carry those numbers throughout a healthy season he’d be one of the greatest bargains in the league.

Plus, he does this!

And this!

With so many quality contributors, Dante Exum throws a unique wrench in the works. Of the potential significant contributors at the wing, Exum probably offers the least competitive advantage currently. But he also possesses the greatest potential among the position group, and perhaps among the entire team. While Exum will certainly earn some minutes at point guard, some of the logic behind the George Hill acquisition was that the two could play together in the backcourt. With Hill in the fold, a significant investment in playing time can only be made if Exum plays some minutes at the off-guard slot. And substantial playing time, particularly on a likely playoff team, has been shown to make a material difference in the development of young players. Are wins this season more important than possible franchise-altering potential?

Who plays and how much will say a lot about the Jazz’s priorities this season and beyond.

Will Quin Snyder Again Be Withey-Washy about Big Jeff?

All signs suggest Utah is committed to its giant tandem of Derrick Favors and Rudy Gobert despite competing in a league of giant slayers. But to a large degree, that commitment is dictated by talent: Favors and Gobert are simply too good to keep off the court.

In those minutes where one or both rest, however, the Jazz roster presents Snyder with possibilities that will both challenge and reveal his priorities. Though it’s hard to see, at the heart of it all stands Jeff Withey.

Withey played only 658 minutes last season, an allotment typical of fringe NBA talent. But in those minutes, he was good. Really good, actually. Withey produced to the tune of 17.4 pts, 13.9 rbs, and 4.2 blks per 100 possessions. For perspective, consider that Gobert produced 15.2 pts, 18.2 rbs, and 3.7 blks per 100. Just as intriguingly, Withey added .171 win shares per 48 minutes of play. Gobert added .160.

It isn’t hard to argue that Withey was as effective as Gobert last season on a per possession or per minute basis.

In the 882 minutes Favors and Gobert played together last season, they outscored opponents by 4.2 points per 100 possessions. Withey’s production in limited minutes suggest that if desired, Snyder could extend a twin-towers approach beyond the Favors/Gobert pairing.

But he has other options as well that may better fit his own philosophy of the game.

How important is spacing to Snyder in a league that fetishizes it? Last season Trey Lyles shot 38% on 1.6 threes attempted per game. When either Jazz starting big rotates off the floor, Lyles could enter as an instant floor spacer.

How important is ball movement and player awareness to the Jazz head coach? Boris Diaw – a power forward and spot center, mind – has posted a career 6.6 assists per 100 possessions. No Jazz player matched that last season other than Shelvin Mack. When subbing in a big from the bench, there’s a real possibility Diaw may present the best passer with the best offensive awareness of any player on the team.

But then how important is defense? Withey didn’t play much, but when he did teams scored 4.7 fewer points per 100 than when he was off the floor.

The Jazz’s starting strategy appears set upon doubling-down on size and defense, but it’s that first big off the bench that will reveal much of the team’s strategic approach.

Late Game Tactics

The team’s atrocious defense late in tight games last season has been thoroughly addressed on practically all fronts: 14 and 28 in closely contested contests, tied for third most such losses in the league, and a 121.3 defensive rating (-17.8 net rating), both of which also rank third to last, trailing only the Suns and 76ers. Yes, it was as bad as it sounded.

Many, including Salt City Hoop’s own Andy Larsen, have suggested improvement is likely and to some degree a natural expectation given the circumstances that created the late-game collapses. But two factors central to the team’s identity and philosophy also played notable roles, and any evolution – or lack of such – in these areas may make a significant impact on the team’s improvement in this area.

First is Hayward’s turnovers.

Hayward is the team’s closer, and its a role he’s filled admirably given the offensive metrics of last season. However, that respectable offensive production came at the cost of 20 turnovers in clutch situations late in games, tied for third most in the league with James Harden and one less than Russell Westbrook. Those turnovers create open court and other scoring opportunities with the Jazz defense not yet set, contributing to the Jazz’s horrid 2.6 points allowed per minute of play in these situations2.

Though respectable as a go-to closer, Hayward simply doesn’t compensate for so many turnovers through his offensive impact. Where Harden and Westbrook, two elite closers, both scored notably more clutch points than Hayward, their assists are where the story gets really telling: where Hayward tallied 18 clutch assists last season, Harden and Westbrook both racked up more than 30. Hayward’s assist to turnover ratio in clutch situations plummeted to 0.9, more turnovers than assists, the only major Jazz contributor to sink below a one-to-one ratio in the clutch. For the sake of comparison, Hood managed a 2.2 ratio in those moments.

If the Jazz continue to trust Hayward for late-game heroics, he’ll need to improve his ball possession. If not, defensive problems in closely contested games may be harder to correct than often assumed.

A similar problem afflicts Utah’s defensive anchor. While Rudy Gobert’s awesome attributes shine throughout most of an NBA game, down the stretch it is often his liabilities, lack of strength and offensive limitation, that defined his impact on the court.

Normally an elite rebounder, late in clutch games Gobert’s rebounding percentage plunged 31% last season. Opponents putting in full physical effort pushed him around, resulting in prolonged possessions for opponents and fewer possessions for the Jazz. When a game is decided by a single field goal, those lost possessions are massive.

This problem is compounded by Gobert’s inability to contribute on the offensive end. He registered a paltry 4.7 player impact estimate3 in the clutch last season, a fraction of his whole-game 12.6 PIE. To put this in context, consider that Gobert’s twin big, Derrick Favors, actually increased his rebounding percentage by 9% and registered a team-leading 15 PIE in the clutch.

If Snyder goes with only one big late in games, the numbers give little reason to choose Gobert. If the Stiffle Tower wants to stay on the court in winning time, he simply can’t allow himself to be out-muscled on the boards while contributing so little elsewhere.

While other factors certainly influenced the late game losses last season, these two core pieces to the Jazz roster will need to improve notably in these areas for the team to find late success – that or the coaching staff will need to adapt its late game tactics to account for what two of their best players cannot do.

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.


  1. One of the problems with the Jazz in close late game situations is the doubling of Hayward causing erratic passes, not pore ball handling. With more options the Jazz could use Hayward as a shooter on the side and let the better ball handling and passer in George Hill create. Even with Gordon handling the ball late, with more shooters available the doubling would be less effective. I would not like to be in Quinn’s shoes due to when the Jazz lose a close game, and they will all teams do, the fans might be all over him. The life of a coach and player always brings in arm chair quarterbacks.

    • Clint Johnson says:

      You’re right. If the Jazz can make double teaming more difficult by punishing it, that will help. But in watching all Hayward’s clutch turnovers, 12 of the 20 weren’t on the pass at all. Most were him penetrating into a double or triple team position, and that includes many of his turnovers off the pass. Probably 25% to 35% were produced by a defense initiating a double team and Hayward either throwing it away, mishandling the ball, or having the ball stripped.

  2. Diggin' it says:

    About late game tactics:

    The Jazz had all of these incredible net ratings last year. I don’t remember exact numbers, but the unit of Gobert/Favs/Hayward/Hood had something like the 7th best net rating in the league, REGARDLESS of who was playing point guard.

    So why didn’t they make the playoffs? It was because they could not win close games in the final minutes. In fact, if they had sealed ONE MORE SINGLE VICTORY than they did, they could’ve made the playoffs. I can think of several games where they were one basket or free throw or defensive stop away from a win.

    I blame that on injuries and youth. This year, they shouldn’t be in those late-game situations as often as last year, because the 2nd-unit won’t surrender the lead. And if they are in those late game situations, Quin Snyder can plug in several capable veterans to hit some clutch shots.

    So in a way, Dennis Lindsey has solved 80% of the clutch-wins problem. The other 20% of that problem must be solved by taking better care of the ball.

    • Clint Johnson says:

      It’s true that a stronger bench should make some of last season’s clutch games clear wins. However, that also suggests that some of their clear losses may shift into clutch games. The team’s defense-first style suggests that they’re likely to have more such contests than the average team because that defense should keep them in games even when they aren’t scoring very well. Greater maturity should help as well, but to my mind, as long as the above mentioned issues are in play, the team will be more vulnerable than they should be in tight contests.

  3. Justin Pearson says:

    I love your analysis. Sometimes I feel like Coach Quin is clearly a basketball genius, and other times I feel like he is missing some pretty obvious things, like the effectiveness of Withey and the ineffectiveness of Hayward as a go to in late game situations (vs Favors, who was incredibly effective). I know he’s seen the stats to support the points you’ve made, and yet I’m willing to bet that Withey still won’t get minutes, and Hayward still will be the go to guy at the end of games. Why do you think there’s this discordance with Quin in these two points?

    • Clint Johnson says:

      One reason for both your observations is Snyder’s philosophy of the game. He likes all-around perimeter players to key his offenses and his offenses to include a lot of ball movement and options. I remember watching his Missouri teams 15 years ago, which were always driven by perimeter players like Kareen Rush and Clarence Gilbert. The same was true of his D-league days with the Toros, where his top three or even more scorers were perimeter guys. Remember that he was himself a point guard. He coaches like a former point guard.

      So Hayward closing games makes a lot of sense given his philosophy. He’s the team’s best scorer but also capable at other offensive facets and a smart, aware overall player – exactly the type Snyder has always depend upon to drive his offense. I think Snyder trusts Hayward to make a play more than an entire five-man roster to run his system against determined defenses in the clutch.

      Also, Snyder, like most coaches, loves spacing. His system thrives in it. He also dislikes when the ball sticks. Playing two traditional bigs hurts in both areas, which is why I think he’s been so Withey resistant. I think it’s also a reason why getting Favors more offensively involved, especially late in games, is tricky. If he isn’t getting opportunities in the pick and roll, the options are to post him up or let him operate facing up in the mid-range. Not only is he less efficient in these situations (like pretty much all players), but it’s easier to double team and the ball is more likely to stay put.

      In sum, I think Snyder’s default setting is to error on the side of offense over defense, space and motion over set and static, and perimeter rather than interior focus.

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