Why This Season’s Jazz Will Be MORE Fun to Watch

July 23rd, 2017 | by Clint Johnson

Rick Egan / The Salt Lake Tribune

Jazz fans should be giddy at the prospect of the upcoming NBA season, which may well provide the most pure fun the fanbase has had in a long, long time.

To be clear: I am not saying this team will be better or win more this upcoming year than last season. Gordon Hayward’s awkward and destructively inept departure for Boston made such prospects slim – though not impossible. But while the team may not quite reach 51 wins, expect a respectable win total and a return to the playoffs… only this time done with some sexy!

The Jazz Will Play with Pace. No, Really!

When Quin Snyder took the reins to the team in in the summer of 2014, he announced – and frequently repeated – his intention to play with pace. In the three years since, the Jazz have played at the slowest pace in the league each season. The discrepancy between that original declaration of intent and what played out on the court has caused Snyder to quibble about the meaning of pace, defending the intent of Utah’s deliberate plodding and pointing out – rightly – that using speed opportunistically has been part of the team’s tactical approach even when it hasn’t approached anything near a full strategy.

But as has frequently been reported in Utah and national media of late, this newest iteration of the Jazz will face its greatest challenge putting points on the board. No longer will it make sense to run Snyder’s motion offense deep into the shot clock as frequently as in the past – if it made sense then. The personnel simply won’t be able to generate enough efficient points in such situations.

What current Jazz players can do is get up the floor. Fast.

Available minutes at the wing and guard positions1 mean Utah will not only invite but need increased scoring from Dante Exum. While the young Australian invites numerous questions as a player, foot speed isn’t one. Over 15 percent of possessions used by Exum last year came in transition2. That percentage tops by far any regular Jazz contributor last season, and as Exum rounded into shape toward the end of the season it was marked by plays like this:

With more minutes, greater confidence, and a serious need to prove himself, expect for Exum to put the team’s pedal to the metal this year.

If he’s actually anything approaching healthy, Alec Burks might even beat Exum down the floor. In his 653 minutes of play last season, Burks used a hair more of his possessions in transition (15.3 percent) than did Exum. Yes, it’s easy to scoff, but some of us brave souls dare to dream because we remember:

Joe Ingles and Rodney Hood project as starters, and each used more of his possessions in the fast break than any of Utah’s free agent defectors. And then there is Rudy Gobert, whose defensive super-awesomeness overshadowed that he ranked in the 99.1(!!!) percentile for per-possession efficiency on transition plays among all NBA players last season. Gobert is the best center in the league not only because he locks down the paint but because he’s a sprinting, snorting, full-on stampede of a giraffe-man on the break:

To this mix add the six-foot-three cylinder of nos octane booster known as Donovan Mitchell, who for the record bested both the combine sprint and max vertical marks of physical freaks such as Derrick Rose3, Dwyane Wade, and reigning league MVP Russell Westbrook. Yeah, the guy does stuff like this:

While it would be a bit much to expect Utah to play at the Warrior’s pace, the Jazz will have both the incentive and the gears to GO! And GO! they will.

Rubio’s Pass-magic Will Find the Perfect Home

Legend has it Ricky Rubio developed his passing skills as a fourteen-year-old prodigy in Spain, but that’s really just a cover for the real origins of his mystical ability – Hogwarts. It only makes sense given his ability to break out Distributus Impossiblinity when needed. Imagine Utah’s open court horses feeding on passes like this:

Last season Rubio notched 9.1 assists per game. To put that number in perspective, not only did George Hill and some guy heavily scented of hair gel combine for only 7.7 assists last year, but in Jazz history a player has topped a season assist average of nine just 16 times: John “Please Don’t Call Me God” Stockton did it ten times, Deron “Now Aren’t You Glad I Threw That Ball” Williams totaled five, and Rickey “I Really Made This List!” Green managed one.

Dennis Lindsey has gone on record with his belief Rubio may compete for the highest assist total in the league next season, and no fan base could appreciate that as much as Jazz fans.

Utah’s Defense Will be Offensively Awesome

Ever since Gobert entered the starting lineup, the Jazz have smothered opponents. This year they’ll eat their faces off.

An already toothy defense gained new fangs this off-season, adding perennial lockdown wing Thabo Sefolosha and replacing Trey Lyles’ leaky D with that of a more dependable Jonas Jerebko. With an offense in need of open court opportunities, expect the Jazz defense to turn predatory.

Gobert will naturally lead the way. I truly believe he can’t stomach allowing an uncontested shot, even one from full court a full two seconds after the horn has stopped play. Open shots offend him.

Now surround the Stifle Tower with a gang of thieves – Rubio was ninth in the league in steals last season, Sefolosha 16th, and Ingles 42nd – and every time down the floor teams will struggle to keep the ball. When they do get a shot, Gobert’s length inside and that of any number of perimeter defenders4 should funnel attempts to players Utah wants shooting, and in areas where they invite shots5.

If Derrick Favors returns to form, the scenario becomes truly terrifying. As a staunch Favors fan, may I humbly remind that entering last season the Georgia product was widely considered a top-40 player and an uncommonly adaptable defensive force. Favors has posted a steal percentage of 1.8 or greater four of the last five years6 and has a career block percentage of 4.1, numbers only bettered last season by blossoming superstar Giannis Antetokounmpo. If Favors manages to drop some weight to re-invigorate his legs and stave off injury – his declared intention – he gives the Jazz a defender who could provide top 20 production in both steals and blocks.

Take these factors together and the team’s recently impenetrable defense should add substantially more big defensive plays, which will make watching the less glamorous side of the ball, well, glamorous.

In total, Jazz fans should enter next season on the edge of their seats, be those in the revamped Viv or at home via television or – finally! – a new online streaming option. Utah has speed, athleticism, and length. That physicality will be fueled by an attacking, entertaining defense and brilliant passing of a quality the franchise is known for but that has been absent for a decade. And with Gobert the team’s unquestioned leader and facing sudden national skepticism about the team’s competitive prospects, expect a team with a sizable chip on its shoulder.

While the wins from last season may be a challenge to match, the fun quotient this year should zoom easily by any recent year in Jazz memory.

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.

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8 Comments

  1. John Jenkins says:

    Clint, totally agree. Last year Derrick and Rudy were missed under the rim on numerous occasions by our last guards. Fast breaks were a novelty at best. The Jazz have speed to burn and can use it wisely for easy baskets. Dante would blow up the court and would find no one else across half court. Bet not this year. Offensive rebounding was nil except for Rudy. Easy scores to be had especially small team lineups. George took the clock down too many times just by himself and maybe he was not sought after for that and poor defense on quick guards. Rubio is known for ease of pace and making everyone else better. Fun times ahead.

    • Clint Johnson says:

      I’m interested to see how Snyder adapts his tactics. Previously getting back on defense has prioritized offensive rebounding, and it may still this season. But he’s also stressed ball possession and spacing. With this squad, I think he’ll have to adapt. Risk more turnovers if it allows more open court opportunities, for example. I also think he’s going to have to be creative enough to generate offense with Gobert and Favors on the floor without resorting to sitting Favors in the corner time after time. I think it can be done: quick post ups after rolls to the hoop, high/low post sets, using some of Sloan’s flex screens in the paint, and probably quite a few double screens high on the floor with one screen setter on either side of the ball handler. We’ll see.

  2. rvalens2 says:

    Great take on what I see happening with the Jazz. I hold the strong belief that this Jazz team is going to surprise a lot of people and be one of the better teams in the league — due mainly to their defensive capabilities.

    As much as I liked last year’s team, this one is going to be even more fun to watch. And if everyone can stay reasonably healthy, they could end up being a defensive nightmare for other teams.

    As the great Rick Majerus said when he was coaching at the University of Utah, “Defense is what wins championships.”

    • Clint Johnson says:

      It’ll be interesting to see what type of defensive upgrade Rubio/Exum/Sefalosha will be on Hill/Mack/Hayward. Hill and Hayward were good defenders but I do think their replacements are better, and if he’s disciplined and focused Exum is miles better than Mack. Personally, I think a healthy, jumpy Favors is defensively transformative as well (not sure how likely that is though).

  3. Paul Johnson says:

    If Rodney Hood, Alec Burks, Joe Johnson, Derrick Favors and Donovan Mitchell can provide some reliable offense for the team this upcoming season, watch out!

    If Rodney Hood, Alec Burks and Derrick Favors can be fully healthy this season, it would seem that a combination of a healthy Rodney Hood, a healthy Derrick Favors, a healthy Alec Burks and the rookie version of Donovan Mitchell–all of whom the Jazz either did not have at all or only had on a partial basis last season–should be able to pretty much replace the point production the Jazz lost with the departures of Gordon Hayward and George Hill (who was only healthy half the season), especially with a maestro like Ricky Rubio orchestrating the offense.

    If the team can be fully healthy and those four players at full health (Hood, Favors, Burks and Mitchell) can combine to replace the offensive production lost with Hayward and Hill (neither of which is a sure thing), the Jazz could actually be better than last season, because their defense will most likely be significantly improved.

    • Clint Johnson says:

      Karma says the Jazz have earned a truly healthy season, but that doesn’t mean it happens. Whatever the situation, I do think scoring will be an issue. Losing your top two highest scorers – and two highest usage players – is a massive shift. Hood’s ability to fill Hayward’s scoring role is a significant question, and neither Rubio nor Exum can create needed points individually the way Hill did at times last season. Usage will have to jump for Hood, Favors, and Ingles for the Jazz to be a playoff team. Even then, for the team to be really good they’ll need one unexpected scoring threat from the guard position, be that Exum or Mitchell or maybe even Burks. If Rubio suddenly shot 35% from three it might be him, but we have a lot of evidence that’s unlikely. One of those players will need to provide three to five points more per game than expected if the Jazz are going to be really good.

  4. James Johnson says:

    The way I understand the concept year is based on a Spurs model. Rudy Gobert can be the most impactful player on the floor, just like Tim Duncan was, even if he isn’t your leading scorer night in and night out. You just need above average defenders, efficient scorers, and one or two players who can light it up for a night. We need our Manu Ginobili, which probably has to be Rodney Hood.

    Things I’m worried about:
    1. It took our players a really long time to learn Quin’s offence last season and one of the reasons that good teams stay good is because they come into the season without having to learn new schemes, only fine-tuning for individual opponents. If Quin really scraps and rebuilds the offence, I wonder if we’re going to have that continuity advantage.
    2. Can we have a top-5 defence if missed shots force us to play in transition off of long rebounds? Personally, I can see a number of situations in which our offence is bottom 10 and our defence is maybe #8th because of it.

    • Clint Johnson says:

      Gobert makes every bit the defensive impact Duncan did. However, Duncan has a career usage of 27%. Hayward barely matched that last year, his highest usage season in Utah. Duncan provided an elite two-way difference maker, and the Jazz lack that. Gobert might find a greater parallel in someone like Ben Wallace, though Gobert is already better offensively than Wallace. But I think the point about systems is apt: Gobert isn’t good enough offensively for Snyder to build around him.

      You’re right about Snyder’s schemes requiring a lot of learning and cohesion. I think we will see a continuity cost, especially early in the season, but having Rubio should mitigate that some. Rubio should fit well in Snyder’s scheme and he’ll learn quickly.

      As for defense, I don’t think there’s much chance the Jazz fall outside the top three. Their personnel is too good and the defensive emphasis in the culture is too firm. They won’t lessen the import of things like ball possession, rebounding, and walling off transitioning offenses. I do think they’ll work on getting into sets faster and, especially, having guards start the break off of rebounds more often, which is where much of the speed will appear.

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