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!
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.