Before we get this out of the way, yes, we know. It’s preseason. It’s hard to extrapolate a lot of information out of a small sample size, but preseason stats can point to changes being implemented by the coaching staff, offseason training that has paid off, and some unique Utah Jazz lineup combinations paying off.
Last preseason the Utah Jazz boasted an offensive rating of 99.1. That was the same team that many pointed to as having a superior offense than the current 2017-2018 Utah Jazz. Some caveats with that rating: Gordon Hayward only played in two games in that preseason, Rodney Hood only played in three, and Derrick Favors only played in one game. So three significant Utah Jazz players missed time.
Cut to this preseason and the Utah Jazz boasted an offensive rating of 110.0, an improvement of 10.9 points per 100 possessions. Now the Utah Jazz had a healthy squad and played an NBL team, a team from Euroleague, the Phoenix Suns, and Los Angeles Lakers, not exactly the toughest of competition, but this was supposed to be an anemic offense. If there would be teams that could take advantage of a supposedly league worst offense it would be those bottom feeders and international teams. Instead Utah feasted and looked like a far superior team.
Utah had the preseason’s 4th best Effective Field Goal percentage (56.9%) and True Shooting Percentage (59.8%). Utah’s assist ratio was 18.3 and tied for the 7th most amount of assists per game with 25.0 assists. Utah shot 38.3% from three.
That 110.0 offensive rating was the third best in the league for preseason and was only bested by the Houston Rockets and Toronto Raptors. Rounding out the top 5 were the Spurs and the Warriors. Now this is where we tell everyone to take extreme caution because this looks like a big case of one of these things is not like the other ... but there’s a caveat to that.
Quin Snyder was part of the Atlanta Hawks coaching staff that turned a bunch of role players into a highly efficient offensive machine due to their depth and discipline. Looking back on that team they had high quality role players and undervalued players who were stars but generally overlooked. Could this Utah team be the rebirth of that anomaly?
It was easy to point to the loss of Gordon Hayward and George Hill then see the much shooting-maligned Ricky Rubio as a serious downgrade. Yet, health and even more increased depth could alter Utah’s offensive trajectory. Will Utah be a top 5 offense in the league? No. But will the Jazz be a bottom 10 offense in the league? Most likely not.
One of the league’s best defenses looks to be even better
The Utah Jazz had a Defensive Rating of 89.8, 5th best in preseason. That allowed Utah to have the second best Net Rating in preseason at 20.3. To put that in perspective, Utah had a Defensive Rating of 94.9 last preseason. In addition the Utah Jazz averaged 10.6 steals per game. Ricky Rubio led the team in steals with 2.2 steals per game which would work out to 3.6 steals per game over 36 minutes.
The Utah Jazz averaged 5.8 blocks a game in preseason and that was with Rudy Gobert only playing 25 minutes per game. The Utah Jazz’s defense is going to be a lot better—scary thought for most teams—this season due to Ekpe Udoh spelling Gobert in relief minutes, Thabo Sefolosha being able to pester opposing small forwards, and, you guessed it, wunderkind Donovan Mitchell.
The Utah Jazz allowed a preseason 2nd best of 32.4 points allowed in the paint per game. That strangles a lot of teams offenses and forces them to rely on the perimeter. Last year teams could feast on Utah from the outside when Utah closed down the paint due to the Jazz’s injuries depleting their perimeter depth and average perimeter defense from Rodney Hood and Gordon Hayward. George Hill last season was a minus perimeter defender partly due to injuries as well. He has been replaced with a healthy ballhawk in Ricky Rubio. It’s amazing what a little health can do for an already stellar defense.
Derrick Favors and Rudy Gobert shouldn’t play many minutes together
While Rudy Gobert and Derrick Favors can cause headaches for opposing offenses on the defensive end, this preseason showed that Utah’s offense struggles with both of them on the court at the same time.
According to NBAWowy.com, here’s what happens to Utah’s offense when they’re on the court together and when they’re on the floor solo.
Rudy Gobert - Derrick Favors Combo
|Gobert, Favors On
|Gobert On, Favors Off
|Favors On, Gobert Off
Now let’s add some context to this table. The offense does what we saw in preseason when Favors and Gobert share a lineup: it grinds out points. They are beasts when it comes to defense, but on offense this is what it looks like to bleed a stone. When they are separated, the offense has a chance to breath because of better spacing due to Jerebko or Johnson sliding over to the power forward position.
Don’t expect Derrick Favors and Rudy Gobert to log heavy minutes. They might only play with each other max for about 5 minutes a game at the beginning of the 1st and 3rd quarter. After that, the Utah Jazz will go to their bench like a defensive skeleton key to shut down opposing offenses.
The interesting part of the stats above are Favors’s stats. You might be just as startled as I was when you saw Favors stats were more favorable on offense when Rudy was out. The team actually was better on offense when Derrick was on the floor alone compared to Rudy Gobert. There’s a couple reasons why.
The plays that normally go to Rudy slide over to Favors. But there’s another reason: Dante Exum and Donovan Mitchell. One piece of that combination is going to make you tear up, but the other ... well ... is going to remind you that the Jazz have a star on their hands. Donovan Mitchell when combined with Rudy Gobert has the same effect. Donovan Mitchell could be the Jazz’s contra code to any lineup. When he’s on the court the offense is good for 1.23 PPP and 1.25 PPS. Keep an eye out for him.
Donovan Mitchell is a star
You might be thinking that the Donovan Mitchell hype train has gone too far, but it is just getting started. Below you’ll find two players stats: one row belongs to Gordon Hayward from 2016-2017, the other Donovan Mitchell’s preseason.
Gordon Hayward vs Donovan Mitchell - PER36
If you’re struggling to pick out which one is which, remember that rookies tend to struggle from the 3 point line. Other than that detail, rookie Donovan Mitchell—yes, I said rookie—has the potential to replace All-Star Gordon Hayward. That feels blasphemous to even type, let alone believe, but here we are. Donovan Mitchell is displaying talents and abilities in the beginning of his rookie campaign that Jazz fans didn’t see from Gordon Hayward until his 4th to 5th years in the league.
That’s not a knock on Gordon Hayward. He worked hard and his hard work paid off into him being one of the best small forwards in the game today. This is yet another example of how Donovan Mitchell is just not your typical rookie. He’s displaying skills one would expect a top 3 pick to show. He’s displaying attributes and a feel to the game that took many NBA players years in the league to develop.
Will Donovan Mitchell inevitably hit the rookie wall this season? Yes, he’s a rookie. Of course, he will, but he’s going to be in the conversation for Rookie of the Year this season. The Utah Jazz haven’t had a player in the Rookie of the Year conversation since Deron Williams, and they haven’t had a player win the award since Darrell Griffith in 1980. Maybe it has something to do with Jazzmen who played for Louisville.
Utah won’t play the slowest
Write it down. The Utah Jazz won’t play the slowest pace in the league. They won’t be Golden State Warriors fast, but they sure as hell won’t be last in the league in pace like last season. Last season the Utah Jazz played at a 91.6 possessions per game pace. That won’t happen again, not this season.
In the preseason alone, the Utah Jazz averaged 102.5 possessions per game. Now, before some expect Utah to come flying out of the gate at that speed, it will slow down considerably. While Utah played 102.5 possessions per game in preseason—and that seems like a lot, especially when compared to their pace of 91.6—that speedy pace was only good for 21st in the NBA. So while Utah may be speeding up it’s not 8 seconds or less basketball.
The Utah Jazz were speedy in transition. With Gobert patrolling the paint, the Utah Jazz invested in defense, namely steals. The Utah Jazz had the 2nd most points in preseason off of turnovers: 25.4 ppg. Add in that 8.4% of Utah’s points came in transition, 10th in preseason, and you’ll see a very opportunistic Jazz team that feeds off of opposing teams sorrows and miseries while they play against Utah’s league best defense.