Midway through the preseason, Utah Jazz head coach Quin Snyder is already hinting at lineup changes.
“We know our players and we’ll try different combinations,” he told Jody Genessy. “It’s important to see how guys play together.”
The Jazz coach hinted in the same article that he may need to spread out some of that quintet’s experience across the first two units. That’s a fair point, given that the bench squad has one veteran alongside a bunch of first1 and second2 year guys. But it also might be a euphemistic way of foreshadowing the change without pointing to the fact that there are some funky issues about playing those particular five guys together.
It’s an awkward conversation since each of those guys has earned the right to incumbency in one way or another. But there are some realities that need to be solved for if Gordon Hayward, Derrick Favors, Rudy Gobert, Alec Burks and Trey Burke are going to be Utah’s most used lineup3
Believe it or not, those five only played 11 regular season minutes together last year4. I imagine that, whether they all start or not, they’ll see more than that before November is over, so it’s worth looking at what about this group has presented obstacles.
Aside from some defensive questions, which we’ll leave alone for today, there are some very real offensive issues related to spacing and playmaking.
So far, the most evident challenge to this particular fivesome has been the way the floor gets crowded. The group includes only one really tested shooter with gravity (Hayward). so defenders are pretty daring when it comes to playing off of their guys and mucking up the middle.
In fairness, Burks is probably a better shooter than defenses give him credit for, but it’s not his first instinct, and everybody with even a cursory scouting report knows that. Favors made a huge leap forward in terms of midrange ability, and even Burke’s much-maligned shooting woes don’t appear that bad if you only look at catch-and-shoot, the type of shot he should get if defenses slack off of him. But the fact that neither guy is viewed as a threat is evident so far in the preseason film, as the halfcourt spacing has been pretty gummed up. And of course, whoever guards Gobert is given free reign to roam defensively unless they’re needed in pick-and-roll coverage.
All of that has manufactured some very stagnant moments in the halfcourt. Preseason tracking stats are hard to come by, but suffice it to say that the Jazz have looked electric when they can get out and run, and extremely uncomfortable when they have to play 24 seconds of 5-on-5.
Look at how unworried LA is here about anything happening outside of the immediate basket area. Rudy correctly executes a short-roll but has nowhere to roll to go given that two of his teammates’ defenders have completely stopped worrying about their assignments and are just crowding the paint. For what it’s worth, Favors and Burks are smartly in the process of cutting to open space here, but since their defenders don’t really care what they’re doing, it doesn’t open anything up.
Similarly, the Blazers give the Jazz very little respect on this play. Portland is guarding man-to-man on this play, and yet you’d never know it from this still, because the Jazz’s offensive configuration basically brought the defense into a perfect 2-3 zone, and every single defender is playing off their man in a prevent stance. Without forcing them to actively guard anybody, there are very few options here, and the angles are bad for passing to Gobert or either corner guy. The only viable option here is for Favors to reset back out to Hayward and start from scratch. That’s ultimately what he does, and with a dwindling clock, Hayward ultimately settles for an elbow pick-and-roll without much operating room and the Jazz come up empty.
The same thing happened in this Laker game — again, that’s man-to-man defense! — but this one illustrates even better how unconcerned LA is with Burke and Gobert. They keep one guy up there to essentially play safety, dropping Gobert’s man back about 15 feet from him. A Favors roll is now not an option, so his man can confidently wall Burks off from getting to the paint. The only thing that’s really left for Burks to do is pull up, which he does, missing a 27-footer about six seconds after this frame.
One more, just because the spacing and implications on this one are fairly painful. Except for the on-ball defender, nobody’s actively defending here. The Lakers are fine giving Gobert the freedom to roam wherever he wants while his defender stays glued to the restricted area. That means nobody can cut, and all those ballwatchers can get away with only passively checking whoever it is they’re pretending to pay attention to. Alec actually makes a great spin move here to get by his man, but the last line of defense is there to make the shot awkward, and Burks misses.
There are counters to all of these scenarios, and over time I expect the Jazz to get better at making basketball plays that force opponents to make decisions, regardless of who is in the lineup. But until someone beyond Hayward starts making enough shots to pull defenders out of a wait-and-see stance, this particular group is playing at a disadvantage on offense.
The other thing that stood out to me when I was looking for stills to make the point about spacing is how often there was a pass available that could have instantly thrown the defense into “Oh crap!” mode… but the pass was never made.
That’s because the other thing this group lacks is legit facilitators. Hayward is the best creator in this group by far, but he’s also the best scorer and needs to be the endpoint of some of those possessions. Last year, 22 percent of Hayward’s 19.2 points per game came from catch-and-shoot situations, so expect him to lose some efficiency unless the people around him (in all lineups) are occasionally setting him up.
Neither of his perimeter mates are particularly pass-happy, and in a different context that’s not even necessarily terrible news. So far, the Jazz have desperately needed Burks’s driving ability, and Burke made a name for himself at Michigan precisely by being a hungry big-shot taker. But it does lead to some sticky possessions when all those guys play together. It doesn’t help that Favors and Gobert, while both improved as interior passers, are still fairly average passing bigs.
None of this means that the Jazz have to do anything. They may decide to stay the course: give these five a chance to develop more than 14 total minutes’ worth of chemistry, and keep an eye on the spacing and passing concerns.
It does sound, though, like Snyder has some specific experimentation in mind with three exhibition games to go. I’m sure he realizes that every plausible alternative carries a caveat or two.
For example, starting Raul Neto probably helps in the facilitation department, but does nothing to improve spacing, and in fact probably makes it worse. Trevor Booker, Tibor Pleiss and Trey Lyles could ostensibly add a floor-stretching shooting threat, but playing any of them would require bringing Favors or Gobert off the bench. I doubt the Jazz would want to sit one of their best three players, and doing so would lessen the impact of Utah’s team-defining defense.
Ultimately, I think there are too few reasons not to at least try Rodney Hood or Joe Ingles at the two. Ingles with the other four made up a pretty successful lineup last year, plus-14.9 net in 128 minutes. With Hood instead, there were somehow minus-10.5, although again the sample is unreliably small5.
And over time, I also expect Neto to see more run with the Hayward-Favors-Gobert trio and whoever else, whether that means starting him or rotating him in early so they can get a peak at the synergy there. But if they start Neto, they almost have to bring Hood or Ingles to the starting five with him, or else they still have a shooting problem.
Whatever the plan, Snyder made it obvious that we can expect some tinkering.