The Utah Jazz (18-10) will be facing off against the Golden State Warriors (24-4) tomorrow (or today depending on when you read this). The Dubs made a lot of noise by stealing Kevin Durant from the small market team that drafted him, and are aiming for their third straight trip to the NBA Finals, and their second title in three tries. For most national writers the Western Conference is already all but decided. Unfortunately for those same writers who would which to speed up the ‘inevitable’ there are 82 games in a regular season for a reason.
One team that received some off-season pub, but wasn’t at all expected to make any post-season noise, was our very own Utah Jazz. The additions of George Hill, Joe Johnson, and Boris Diaw to a core of younger players inching towards their primes was something to write about. The “World-wide leader’ ESPN has been repping them on their website even if they don’t make a splash on their TV broadcasts or NBA highlights. Marc Stein’s Power Rankings for the first 10 weeks (training camp, included) suggest as much:
While the team isn’t Top 5 just yet (and it’s hard to be in a league where the Golden State Warriors, San Antonio Spurs, Cleveland Cavaliers, Houston Rockets, Los Angeles Clippers, and Toronto Raptors are all above .700 for the season so far). But it is nice that our guys are recognized.
For the season the team has the 8th best offense (110.1 ORTG) and 3rd best defense (104.0 DRTG), and with their slow pace (30th in the NBA) they are holding teams to just 94.6 ppg. Slow play and defense don’t sell jerseys or hats or shoes. But they do win games. The last time the team had a DRTG in the 104 range they either were going to the Western Conference Finals or NBA Finals. Now, we’re not expecting that this season, or even a 53-64 win season. But with about 30 games in the books this Jazz team has been making the NBA #TakeNote.
Outside of Sports Illustrated, most of the other places online that are putting out Power Rankings are seeing that the Jazz weren’t just an off-season “it team” and are an real deal this season. Even more impressive has been the fact that this is a team where their assumed starters (George Hill, Rodney Hood, Gordon Hayward, Derrick Favors, and Rudy Gobert) have played only 12 minutes together this year.
Quin Snyder has had to use 13 different starting line-ups this season, and that’s both cruel and unusual punishment for a head coach. Even with that obstacle he has clawed his way up to being 96-96 overall as an NBA head coach. I don’t know how long his .500 record is going to last, but right now he’s only the second coach in Jazz franchise history to hit that mark. Frank Layden is third with a .485 mark, but both are clearly trailing legend Jerry Sloan and his .623 quite a bit. (Last place would be Scotty Robertson, with his .067 win percentage as the Jazz head coach.)
This season’s on-court success is more than just coaching despite injuries. Utah has been having some great play this year from Gordon Hayward and Rudy Gobert.
Hayward is legit. He finishes with contact, draws fouls, plays on both sides of the court, and is almost better than vintage Andrei Kirilenko right now. (Sorry, I’m biased I guess. And/or do not want Vladimir Putin to hack my e-mail.) Gobert is, if we are counting head-to-head, the best center in the NBA right now. (The head-to-head thing was something we were very proud about back in the Chris Paul / Deron Williams days.) Combined the pair are averaging 34.8 ppg, 17.9 rpg, 4.7 apg, 1.7 spg, and 3.1 bpg.
That’s not really outstanding compared to some other tandems around the league. But A) that’s per game, and severely hampered by the Jazz’ slow pace of play, and B) you’ll be hard pressed to find better production from the SF and C spots in a Jazz jersey. Younger fans didn’t have to live through the David Benoit / Felton Spencer era like us old people. (19.7 / 12.8 / 1.3 / 1.0 / 1.6 combined regular season per game stats, for those who didn’t want to look it up for themselves.)
Even older fans than that did get to see some awesome SF / C play in the pre-Stockton-to-Malone era with Adrian Dantley and Mark Eaton though (36.3 / 17.2 / 4.9 / 1.4 / 5.7) Aside from the blocks, despite the ridiculous pace (2nd in the NBA that year with 105.1 possessions per game), those numbers are comparable to what the team is currently getting from Hayward and Gobert. Dantley is a Hall of Famer, and Eaton was a two time Defensive Player of the Year. Both have their numbers retired by the team. That’s good company to be in.
But it’s not just two people making good music for the Jazz right now. There are contributions coming from everywhere.
Rodney Hood is having a career year, not crazy for a third year player, but what’s been great wasn’t that he just made his strengths stronger -- he worked on what he needed to do in order to stay on the court when he his isn’t falling. (And we’ve covered how streaky is he on this site before.) His rebounding is what I’ve noticed the most this year. He’s playing fewer minutes than last season but hitting the glass harder. The results are that the Jazz are collecting a few more boards a game that are in out of the paint. That’s important. His defense is still not great, but he’s making efforts. And while his efforts don’t always show up on the box score if you re-watch games and focus on him (like some crazy Alfred Hitchcock character, which I apparently am becoming...) you see it. Everyone sees the jumpers and game winners. But his game is blossoming right now.
The 24 year old has room to grow, and it’s going to be great seeing him do that in a Jazz uniform in this system. (Imagine how poorly he would be playing if Tyrone Corbin was the guy in control of his playing time and confidence with what we know about how streaky he is?) On the opposite side of the spectrum, we have “what you see is what you get” Shelvin Mack. Mack isn’t my favorite player. But in some of the Jazz’ best wins he has been a significant factor. Hopefully he’s not just doing a ‘contract year’ boost in production, but I don’t know if the Butler guard is really going to be a rotation player on a team that aspires to be a Top 4 team one day. He has been given an opportunity here with George Hill and Alec Burks being out so much this season. And he is making the most of it.
Another guy who is making the most of it is Joe Ingles (also in a contract year as well). Ingles is playing over 18 minutes a game right now, and shooting .522 / .553 / .739. I’d love to see him shoot better than 80% from the line, but if he’s shooting over 50% from downtown maybe it doesn’t matter? Ingles has been asked, at times, to defend PG, SG, SF, and PF this season. And he hasn’t shied away from the task. If Joe was getting starters minutes he would be putting up 12.1 / 4.3 / 3.4 / 1.4 while dropping 2.4 threes a game. That’s impressively ideal from someone who could, depending on how you slot things, be the team’s 5th wing on the depth chart.
Steady but unspectacular Jeff Withey is another bench guy who has had to pull more of the team’s collective load with the injuries this year. It’s not been the best year of his life, but at least on the court Withey can focus on what he’s great at — playing defense, getting rebounds, and finishing near the rim. If you project his numbers to starter’s level he’s producing 11.0 ppg, 9.6 rpg, and 3.2 bpg while shooting .575. And if you are the General Manger that’s what you want to see when your team isn’t at full strength — guys stepping up.
It hasn’t been a perfect season though.
I think we all expected probably a little too much for second year players Dante Exum (missed a year due to injury) and Trey Lyles. But then again, perhaps it’s still way too early to even have an opinion of two 21 year olds who have played a grand total of 4,362 total career minutes? For this season their PERs are 8.3 and 12.6 respectively. Their BPM and VORP are either in the negatives or non-existent. Both don’t even have 1.0 Win Shares accumulated yet despite suiting up for every game this year. (Yes, Dante got a DNP-CD.) But what I do see are a lot of glimpses of two guys who WILL be solid NBA players with more experience and confidence.
With the way the next CBA is set out to be, and with their current situation on rookie contracts, the Utah Jazz will have the first right to refusal to keep these two guys in Utah for a long time, if they so desire. I think that this could be one of those cases where guys who maybe don’t take that step during their Utah rookie contract days can actually stick around long enough so that the team can get a return on their lotto pick investment!
That’s not the most usual thing in Utah (most lotto picks who don’t impress early rarely stick around). Another unusual thing this season has been the team’s focus on three pointers. Right now the team is taking 26.5 threes a game and making .366 of them. There are three point makers on the squad now, and that’s how the NBA game is going. But it’s still strange to see the team be able to take and make these ‘riskier’ shots for those of us still stuck in the 60s / 70s / 80s era of basketball.
There are 10 teams taking more threes per game (the Houston Rockets are firing off 38.9 threes a night!), but only six shooting a better 3PT%. Over the last three games the Jazz are dropping 40.3% from deep. With no legit back-to-the-basket post up threat (Walt Bellamy, Truck Robinson, Dantley, Karl Malone, Carlos Boozer, Al Jeffferson . . . and now I guess Joe Johnson?) the team IS taking more threes. And that means more long rebounds. And in the case of the Jazz, this actually means a lower ORB% than winning Jazz teams usually have. Moving from related rates, this is actually the WORST ever per game offensive rebounding Jazz team. Ever.
It’s a brave new world for us older Jazz fans, for sure.
It’s also a brave new world for the National Media as well, they haven’t had to #TakeNote of Utah for about a decade.