From the moment Dante Exum went to the floor holding his knee with the Australian national team over the summer, the point guard position was going to be a hot topic for the Utah Jazz. Exum’s injury removed one of the pieces that helped make Utah’s lengthy defense such a force down the stretch last season, and worse yet at the position where his combination of size and speed were most unique compared with his peers. The decision from team brass to cut Bryce Cotton and roll forward with just Trey Burke and rookie Raul Neto further ignited speculation.
As debates raged on the merits of these two players and whether they’d be enough to keep the team above water given the immense talent at the 1-spot league wide, another narrative began to build: Why play a traditional point guard all the time anyway? Coach Quin Snyder has long emphasized “positionless basketball,” and while this is more a philosophy than a steadfast rule, the pieces lined up. Several Utah wings are very capable as offensive initiators, and at least a couple have similar (if not necessarily equal) physical tools to a guy like Exum – length, lateral quickness and a willingness to bring intensity on every defensive position.
“I think on some level Dante’s injury was a catalyst for some of that, just because some of the things we can do with that lineup we did with Dante, with his size,” Snyder said. “It’s such an important position. We’ve started rookies the last 3 years at the point — it’s hard to find another team that’s started rookies [even] two years [straight]… So a chance to take a little of that pressure off Raul and Trey is, I think, a good thing.”
Even as Burke has exceeded all realistic expectations to this point, with Neto starting strong and fading quickly, this noise won’t be going anywhere. Based on early returns, in fact, certain variations of the three-wing lineup — which Snyder and the team have come to refer to as “Wing-T,” another on a long list of football references Quin utilizes often — have been among the best on the floor for the Jazz. A miniature leap: There’s a burgeoning argument to be made that it should be the team’s starting lineup.
A big part of that discussion comes down to fit, and the (admittedly limited) evidence we have thus far is nonetheless fairly convincing. The Hayward-Hood-Burks trio has played a total of 69 minutes together in eight games, the most time any three-wing iteration has shared the court for the Jazz by a considerable margin. The contrast between how they’ve performed with a certain set of teammates versus without, though, is incredibly stark. Observe:
Hayward-Hood-Burks-Favors-Gobert: 26 mins, 131.3 ORtg, 90.7 DRtg, +40.6 NetRtg
Hayward-Hood-Burks with all other combinations: 43 mins, 94.4 ORtg, 108.1 DRtg, -13.7 NetRtg
If those wildly opposing sets of numbers aren’t enough, consider the general circumstance. As Utah’s starting and finishing big men, Gobert and Favors have opened and closed every game they’ve both played in — meaning a higher percentage of their minutes come against five-man opposing starting units. Further, Snyder has specifically deployed the three-wing with those two in high-leverage situations, including to close multiple games already. All this makes the gigantic success they’ve had as a unit all the more impressive, and more importantly suggests that they’re more than capable of holding their own and then some against top opposition.
Look, no one is denying the samples remain small and open to heavy swings based on opponent and situations. It’s important to consider, though, that the main three-wing group with Favors and Gobert has appeared to succeed in many of the exact ways proponents based their support on from the beginning. They may be confirming a bias to some degree, but it’s a bias that already existed with good reason.
The elements that made this unit theoretically enticing have been the same ones that have fueled its success. The group is right around where lineups featuring Exum instead of the then-injured Burks were defensively last year following the All-Star break1, and that includes nearly a quarter of their minutes on the year coming on the road against the high-flying Cavs2.
Their ridiculous length has allowed them to accomplish both of Snyder’s primary goals defensively: The wings are quick and smart enough to both contest shots and deny penetration, and when opponents do make it to the interior, they’re doing so via the preferred avenues that allow Favors and Gobert to swallow them up without leaving things open elsewhere. They’ve eaten on the glass, grabbing over 55 percent of all missed shots on both ends. They’ve even managed that suffocating defensive figure despite teams shooting over 41 percent from 3 against them, a rate almost certain to drop over time.
“With a bigger lineup, we’re able to switch [defensively]. We did that some last year,” Snyder said. “The most important [thing], frankly, is defense. That helps us.”
It’s been effective on the other end also. We’ve discussed how the Jazz have struggled to generate points on the break, but this unit hasn’t. They’re generating over double the Jazz’s overall per-minute average for transition points scored, while nearly cutting in half the number of per-minute points the team has allowed via transition while they play. They’re creating over triple the number of points off opponent turnovers as they’re allowing. And of course, in true Favors-Gobert fashion, they’re dominating points scored in the paint by roughly a 3:2 margin.
Potential issues with comfort were always a point of concern as well — each of these three wings has spent the vast majority of their career next to a traditional point guard on the floor, and while each are capable as initiators themselves, it’s still an adjustment period. Snyder doesn’t think it’s been much of an issue, though.
“It can be beneficial, it’s just different,” Snyder said. “There are multiple threats on the floor, which makes it harder for defenses to match up on the same level. If there’s a guy that has a matchup advantage, it allows us to take advantage of that… I think we’ve found a good balance.”
Doesn’t all that conform pretty well with what early supporters of the three-wing assumed would be their strengths?
Their overall offensive figure will be impossible to maintain, of course. They won’t keep up a 67-50-913 shooting split, or anywhere close. They’re not drawing quite enough fouls and are taking too many of their own, though many Jazz fans might have a question or two about those making these calls while the sample remains low enough for a few bad ones to impact things heavily. They’re only assisting on 48 percent of each other’s baskets while on the floor together, a bit of a worrying mark and one that’ll have to rise.
A primary point of concern for some has been minutes distribution. How to balance a desire to keep as many above-average players on the court at a time as possible with the need to support the team’s ineffective depth by staggering starters, all while refraining from over-taxing any of the top guys?
“Starting groups always impacts combinations and matchups, and playing time,” Snyder said. “So a decision like that has a manifold impact, so it’s something you look at.”
The task may seem daunting, but it’s really quite doable once you break it down. Here’s a rough sketch of what one half of play could look like rotation-wise:
And here’s how a minutes distribution would look given that alignment:
The specifics can be altered for any number of reasons, be it matchups, fouls, rest, or simply Snyder sticking with a hot hand (or pulling the plug on a cold one). But nothing in there seems too unreasonable, does it? Look carefully: That arrangement would see the Jazz spend just two minutes per half without at least two of their best players on the court together, this while maximizing the minutes the five spend together and keeping them well within a reasonable per-half minutes limit. In fact, there’s enough of a cushion minutes-wise that Snyder could run something like this in the first half of a given game, then tighten things up and lean on his studs even a little more in the second if the situation called for it.
Other three-wing units have been a generally mixed bag, and in many of these cases the sample truly is too small to even make vague conclusions. We’ve seen a bit less small-ball from Snyder than we may have expected after he toyed with it for longer stretches in preseason, though the occasional four-wing unit (or three wings and a point guard) has been spotted. The efficacy of various lower-volume units of this ilk will be situational and depend on large doses of context throughout the year.
It’s becoming tougher and tougher to argue against this primary unit seeing more time, though, and quite possibly anchoring the team from the starting slot. They’re pretty clearly Utah’s five best players4, so why keep them apart for longer than necessary if they continue to prove that they’re capable as a unit?
Snyder has considered such a move, but he’s known at this point for considering every option at his disposal — it’s tough to gauge whether it’s a truly legitimate possibility or just one of the thousands of smart basketball things that float through his head on a daily basis. He’s certainly far from ready to look past what Neto and especially Burke have brought, and knows mixing things up would have a trickle-down impact on both.
At some point, though, he might have no choice. The unit has been that good against great opposition, and doesn’t show many signs of slowing down. Keep an eye out for more and more “Wing-T” in short order.