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Small Sample Size Theater: What’s wrong with the Utah Jazz?

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The Utah Jazz look disjointed on offense and their defense isn’t suffocating opponents.

NBA: Utah Jazz at Phoenix Suns Jennifer Stewart-USA TODAY Sports

The Utah Jazz’s quick two game road trip wasn’t supposed to go like this. After getting shellacked by the LA Clippers in LA, many thought that playing the Phoenix Suns would be just what the doctor ordered. After all, they had just fired their head coach and had their starting point sent home after stating he “didn’t want to be” there. Then Utah lost to Phoenix in a game they never were competitive in and one in which the Phoenix Suns, save for a few seconds at the beginning of the game, led wire to wire.

When the Utah Jazz started out the season 2-1 against three potential playoff teams seemed to be a self fulfilling prophecy. The Utah Jazz’s defense would be better than last year and keep the Jazz in games while their offense sputtered. Then games in Los Angeles and Phoenix tell a different story. A story of a team that looks overmatched on offense even when facing equal or inferior talent and a defense that does indeed have a breaking point when the offense sputtered.

So lets get to the base of this and go over what was wrong from the past few games.

Spacing

We knew this heading into the season that spacing would be an issue, especially because of the Rudy Gobert - Derrick Favors pairing. That already closes the paint, but in the past two games the Utah Jazz have shot 13 of 53 from 3 point land (24%). That has allowed defenses just to pack the paint. Saw many in the comment sections saying the offense was getting too cute and needed to go strictly pick and roll. Well ... let’s show you what happens when the offense goes strictly pick and roll.

Notice Joe Ingles’s man Devin Booker has completely abandoned him on the 3 point line. Ricky Rubio’s man collapses center and ignores him on the perimeter. Derrick Favors’s man? He’s given him 7 feet of space as almost the entire Phoenix Suns defense has focused on one Rudy Gobert. The sheer fact that Rudy Gobert has been averaging 14 points and 11 rebounds this year is remarkable. He has no spacing.

This is the part of the post that I say, once again, Derrick Favors and Rudy Gobert can’t play together, but here’s the problem: the Utah Jazz don’t have a better option right now. Joe Johnson is shooting 16.7% from 3 this year. It’s as though Father Time finally found a way to hunt him down in his hot yoga studio. Joe Johnson at the four was how Utah found spacing. This year? Not working. Jonas Jerebko? Hasn’t been seen off the bench once yet.

Here’s the other wrinkle to this problem. With Ekpe Udoh coming off the bench, if Favors is paired with Udoh, the problem just intensifies as Udoh is an inferior offensive player than Gobert. The Jazz have a redundancy with their big men. Derrick Favors seems to be letting the 3 ball fly so they can try to space the floor but he hasn’t connected from any of them.

One possible solution is moving Joe Ingles or Thabo Sefolosha to the 4 position. Yeah ... this is where it gets bleak but it may actually have the effect the Jazz want. Sefolosha at the 4 shooting the 3 is not that bad. Joe Ingles shooting the 3 from the 4 position is fantastic. Whoever is guarding Ingles on defense can’t leave him wide open in the corner as they would Johnson or Favors currently. Utah could then have a lineup of Rubio, Mitchell, Hood, Ingles, and Gobert. 3 shooters and two non shooters.

TAKE THE G*SHD*RN SHOT

This one has been extensively covered recently by Andy Larsen of KSL.com, but most recently covered by myself yelling obscenities at the television screen as Joe Ingles passes up yet another open look at three for an impossible two. As Andy Larsen pointed out in his Triple Team:

But I thought the Jazz's biggest shooting-related problem Wednesday night was that they ignored open shots in favor of contested ones.

Here's an example: Joe Johnson gets the ball after a screen, and has a wide-open look where neither of his defenders are within six feet.

He turns that down, and instead goes into posting up Dragan Bender to get a midrange turnaround fadeaway airball off. While it didn't count as a turnover, it might as well be one.

Again, Snyder wrapped up the problem well, though this quote is from this weekend: "If we turn down shots, the rest of the possession, you may as well not even watch it. You just know that it’s going to be ugly. You just can’t turn down open shots, and especially our team.”

This is painful for this reason that Utah’s shooters (Joe Ingles and Rodney Hood) are good shooters even when they’re getting covered.

Rodney Hood is a 41% 3 point shooter when wide open. When getting closed out that only drops to 36%.

Joe Ingles is a 52% 3 point shooter when wide open. When getting closed out that only drops to 37%.

So even if the opposing offense has a great close out on Utah’s main shooters, it’s still a better shot than if they take them off the dribble. Ingles’s fg% drops to 35% the minute he takes more than 3 dribbles. Rodney Hood’s? 38%. I think we can agree we’d rather have a 36% chance of a 3 pointer rather than a 38% chance of a two pointer.

The Starting Lineup

In preseason, the Utah Jazz’s starting lineup gave us glimpses of the future. The starting lineup struggled to get going and we dismissed it as just them learning. They had just started training camp. We’re now 5 games into the season and the Jazz’s most used lineup of Ricky Rubio, Rodney Hood, Joe Ingles, Derrick Favors, and Rudy Gobert is not doing so hot. In 45 minutes of play, that’s 15 minutes more than the second most used lineup, they have a -15.6 Net Rating and own a Defensive Rating of 105.1.

That starting lineup is supposed to be the Jazz’s strongest defensive lineup, even more so it’s having trouble scoring. That lineup has an offensive rating of 89.5. That’s going to lose you a lot of games. This gets into that Derrick Favors could be the odd man out in the Jazz’s plans. He’s a luxurious redundancy for Utah.

The Jazz have already committed long-term to Rudy Gobert and have much cheaper +/- all-star in Ekpe Udoh potentially for this season and the next. That’s before Tony Bradley starts developing and inserts himself into this mix. Derrick Favors is a really good player and finally looks healthy. But the Jazz’s spacing suffocates his strengths. Unfortunately those same strengths are shared with Rudy Gobert; both great roll guys on the pick and roll. That means when the choice is between Favors-Rubio PnR and Gobert-Rubio PnR, it’s going to be Gobert.

Making matters worse, the Utah Jazz have the league’s 28th worst offensive rating. Utah’s best offensive lineup to date so far is Alec Burks, Donovan Mitchell, Thabo Sefolosha, Derrick Favors, Ekpe Udoh, but, honestly, finding a solution for a better starting lineup from stats is very small sample size theater as most lineups other than the starting one have only played 4-8 minutes together.

Knowing there’s a problem with the starting lineup is becoming as regular as a Utah Jazz turnover. Which brings us to ...

League Worst TOV%

This is probably the worst self inflicted wound thus far in this young season. It was a Rudy Gobert turnover that lost the Minnesota game. The Utah Jazz have a league worst 18.2% turnover percentage. Even worse, the starting lineup has a 23.4% turnover percentage. Meaning when the starters are in, there’s a better than 1 in 5 chance that they’ll turn it over. ONE IN FIVE.

Ricky Rubio is averaging 4.6 turnovers per game. He’s one of only 9 players who are averaging 30 minutes per game and more than 4 turnovers per game. If you look at that list, it’s a lot of star players. They also are all elite scorers. Ricky Rubio is not. He’s a facilitator. If he’s turning the ball in bunches, the Jazz offense is crashing.

Right now there are only 56 players in the NBA who play 20 mpg or more than average more than a 17% turnover percentage. Even worse three of those players are in the Utah Jazz’s starting lineup: Ricky Rubio, Joe Ingles, and Rudy Gobert.

The Utah Jazz’s anemic offense can’t afford unforced errors and they’re making them more than Donald Trump’s twitter fingers. If they don’t fix this and pronto it doesn’t matter what they do in any other part of the game, they’ll be a lottery team.

Silver Lining

The Utah Jazz are still the league’s 7th best defense despite looking completely overworked in Los Angeles and Phoenix. The Phoenix game is worrying since it is a lottery team. But it is early in the season and Utah’s defense doesn’t show signs of being bad. It’s just the offense that’s giving out more turnovers than an Arby’s at rush hour that’s not giving the Jazz’s defense a chance to be competitive.

There’s also the Home / Road disparity. The Utah Jazz still haven’t won a road game, but they’ve looked pretty good at home.

Team Splits Table
Place Home 2 2 0 39.5 79.0 9.0 26.5 12.5 14.5 6.5 38.5 25.0 10.0 4.5 16.5 19.5 100.5 34.0 77.5 12.0 30.0 11.5 15.5 7.5 38.0 18.0 9.0 3.5 19.0 17.0 91.5
Road 3 0 3 34.3 77.7 7.3 25.0 13.7 17.7 7.3 41.0 21.0 8.3 8.3 20.3 21.0 89.7 39.0 86.7 7.7 23.3 14.0 18.7 12.3 47.7 18.7 10.3 3.7 14.7 19.3 99.7
Provided by Basketball-Reference.com: View Original Table
Generated 10/26/2017.

There’s also the inevitable returning to the mean. Donovan Mitchell isn’t always going to look like a rookie. Rudy Gobert will sooner or later go beast mode. The Utah Jazz don’t have a lot of players capable of taking over a game offensively and slogging through defensive battles is going to be mentally draining on this team. But, on the other hand, it’ll be mentally draining on opposing teams, too.

The other silver lining is one we talked about before the season began. This team has a lot of players on expiring deals or about to enter restricted. Joe Johnson, Derrick Favors, Ekpe Udoh, Jonas Jerebko, Thabo Sefolosha, Raul Neto, Dante Exum, and Rodney Hood. They have valuable contracts that can help a team looking to escape salary cap hell. The Jazz can be an attractive trade partner or facilitator this season. The problem with that is the trade market might not be as hot as last season.

The Utah Jazz face off against a couple more lottery teams when they face the Los Angeles Lakers and the Dallas Mavericks. We’ll see what comes of that.