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Utah Jazz Small Sample Size Theater: What can we learn from just 4 games?

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The Utah Jazz are 2-2, with a couple stinkers and an amazing performance against the Golden State Warriors to their name. Do we know anything now that we didn’t before the season?

NBA: Golden State Warriors at Utah Jazz Russ Isabella-USA TODAY Sports

It could be worse, I suppose.

And with an opening slate that included the Sacramento Kings, Golden State Warriors, Memphis Grizzlies and Houston Rockets, 2-2 was probably the expected outcome for a lot of fans.

It’s just the way they got to 2-2 that was weird.

They snuck by the Kings, one of the only teams we can definitively rule out of the Western Conference playoff race, at this point. They probably should’ve beaten the Warriors. If anyone on the Jazz even gets a finger on that final rebound opportunity, there’s no game-winning tip-in by Jonas Jerebko. Then, they lose to the Grizzlies, who are probably somewhere between playoff contender (what their fans will tell you) and whatever tier the Kings are in. Either way, not a game the Jazz should lose in Utah. And finally, they were fortunate enough to catch the Rockets on a night when Chris Paul was suspended and James Harden left early with hamstring issues.

Phew.

So, all in all. It hasn’t been a disastrous first four games. But again, it would be fair to have some level of concern over the path to 2-2.

Looking forward, there are some trends we should continue to monitor. And there are a few we probably shouldn’t worry about.

Donovan Mitchell’s Slow Start

NBA: Memphis Grizzlies at Utah Jazz Chris Nicoll-USA TODAY Sports

File this under “a few we probably shouldn’t worry about” and take that subheading with the appropriate amount of salt.

Donovan Mitchell is averaging 23.8 points, four assists, 3.3 rebounds and 1.5 steals per game, after all. But his scoring average and shaky shooting splits (40.7 percent from the field and 31.6 percent from three) are heavily reliant on one game (the 38-point outburst on Houston’s dreadful defense).

The biggest problem may be the “floater zone.” Nearly a quarter (24.4 percent, to be exact) of Mitchell’s shots this season have come from the range between three and 10 feet from the rim. And he’s shooting 28.6 percent on those shots. Out of the 73 players with at least 10 attempts from there, that 28.6 percent ranks 58th (ninth out of the 11 players with 20-plus attempts).

Other than this just being a cold stretch (which is certainly possible), we could be looking at a couple factors here. First, especially in the pre-Rockets game, Mitchell appeared determined to score once he started his drives. When there’s two or three defenders collapsing on him, he has to be able to identify and connect with his outlets. And it appears that may have clicked already.

“The past few games, I’d been struggling because I’d been kind of pressing the issue,” Mitchell told ESPN’s Tim MacMahon. “I came into [Wednesday’s game] with the mindset of just finding the open guy. That was really my biggest thing. Last year in the playoffs, there were games where I got too deep or too whatever, just kind of not making the right plays. To me, just being able to make the right reads early just allowed me to settle down and relax a little bit.”

The results spoke for themselves. Mitchell dished out seven assists and went 14-of-25 from the field on the way to 38 points. But Utah might not see a lot of defenses worse than Houston’s this season. And when opponents are tougher on that end, he’ll need to remember those principles he talked about with MacMahon, plus get a little help from his friends.

And that brings us to the second factor. So far this season, Utah’s really struggled with Mitchell as the primary creator. Cleaning the Glass has classified him as the point guard for 154 possessions, and their points per possession in those situations would rank in the 15th percentile league-wide. With Rubio there, it’s slightly better (20th percentile). And finally, with Exum at the 1, it closes in on average (38th percentile). That, and when Rubio’s on the floor, Mitchell’s True Shooting Percentage is significantly better (53.9, compared to 40).

This is probably a good time to remind you (and myself) that it’s only been four games. Another hot or cold night would skew all these numbers pretty significantly. But, at least for the time being, playing Mitchell with multiple creators is probably the way to maximize his abilities.

Ricky Rubio’s Woes

NBA: Memphis Grizzlies at Utah Jazz Chris Nicoll-USA TODAY Sports

Another season. Another borderline panic-inducing start for Ricky Rubio’s shooting numbers.

In 2017-18, from his first game to his 46th (on January 22), Rubio shot 38.4 percent from the field and 29.2 percent from three. Within that sample, there was a 31-game stretch when he shot 37.5 percent from the field and 24.7 percent from three. The offense ranked 21st during those 31 games.

Now, four games into 2018-19, Rubio’s shooting 21.9 percent from the field and 28.6 percent from three. Surprisingly enough, it’s actually the Defensive Rating (team points allowed per 100 possessions while that player is on the floor) that’s suffering most when Rubio plays, but those shooting numbers are going to be hard to survive if they last much longer.

Last season, Snyder exercised an abundance of patience with Rubio. And it paid off. He was ridiculous from January 24 to the end of the season (16 points per game on 46.2 percent shooting from the field and 43.8 percent from three). But with a healthy Dante Exum and a confident Grayson Allen on the bench this year, one can’t help but wonder if he’ll have a little less leeway now.

The Wasatch Front

NBA: Playoffs-Utah Jazz at Houston Rockets Troy Taormina-USA TODAY Sports

It seems like this question has been around for three or four years now. And the answer almost always ends up being, “Yes, you can play Derrick Favors and Rudy Gobert together.”

But that combination is off to a dreadful start. According to Cleaning the Glass, Utah’s point differential is in the 11th percentile when Favors and Gobert share the floor. The 88.7 points per 100 possession Utah puts up when they’re in is actually below the first percentile. As good as the defense may be (88th percentile), there’s just no way to be successful with an offense that bad.

Now, here comes another disclaimer. A few strong stretches from the starting five and those numbers will change dramatically, but it’s looking like Snyder might not be willing to wait.

Utah has played 203 possessions with Favors at the 4 this season, according to Cleaning the Glass. It’s played 509 possessions with Jae Crowder there (plus another 94 with Georges Niang). And oh, Thabo Sefolosha’s suspension will be up after Game 5 against New Orleans on Saturday. So, there’s another small-ball 4.

As was the case last season, the lineups with Crowder at the 4 have been great (plus-11 points per 100 possessions). And if the starting frontcourt struggles much longer, it’ll be harder and harder to find minutes for the Wasatch Front. With Favors already sixth on the team in minutes per game (he’s at 23 right now), it might be hard to cut many more without losing him.

Favors has been a loyal soldier as his role has diminished over the years. But if it’s reduced much more, the natural inclination for a player making almost $20 million a year might be a touch of wanderlust.


For the (I don’t know how many)-th time, all of this analysis is subject to demolition by a few good or bad games. That’s the nature of this point in an NBA season.

But for a team that’s mostly the same as it was in 2017-18 (at least, roster-wise), it’s a little easier to justify reaction. The problems detailed above aren’t revelatory. In some form or fashion, they were all seen and addressed last season.

Does that mean more or less patience from Snyder? Check back in a few games.


Unless otherwise noted, stats courtesy of NBA.com, Basketball Reference or ESPN.
Andy Bailey covers the NBA for SLC Dunk and Bleacher Report. Follow him on Twitter (@AndrewDBailey) and listen to his Hardwood Knocks podcast, co-hosted by B/R’s Dan Favale.