The Utah Jazz are below .500.
Sure, it’s only been 15 games. Sure, we all knew this opening chunk of the schedule was going to be a problem. But there are some issues with this team that might not just go away. And some of them were there last season too.
Of course, last season, Ricky Rubio suddenly figured out how to shoot at the end of January. Utah played a ton of minutes with the newly-acquired Jae Crowder at the 4. And the Jazz went on a miraculous 29-6 run to close the season and make the playoffs.
But even in a state that talks as much about faith as Utah does, expecting that kind of miracle in back-to-back seasons might be more of a stretch than feeding 5,000 with five loaves of bread and two fish.
(OK, not really, but you get my drift.)
So, what’s going on with the Jazz? And what can (or should) change?
First off, the starting lineup isn’t working. The five-man lineup of Rubio, Donovan Mitchell, Joe Ingles, Derrick Favors and Rudy Gobert has logged 112 minutes in 12 games. Its point differential in those minutes is... one. Not terrible, but you’d certainly hope your starters can perform better than a plus-one (or plus-0.4 per 48 minutes) over 12 games.
But that’s not even the whole story. It actually gets worse. Three of Utah’s seven wins have come against the Houston Rockets without Chris Paul, the New Orleans Pelicans without Anthony Davis and the Boston Celtics without Kyrie Irving. The starting lineup was plus-21 in 27 minutes (plus-37.3 per 48 minutes) against those three teams.
Take those games out of the first stat and things get ugly.
In the other nine, the starting lineup is minus-20 in 85 minutes (minus-11.3 per 48 minutes). It was minus-13 in just seven minutes against the Philadelphia 76ers. It was -18 in seven minutes against the Sacramento Kings.
Generally speaking, that group is struggling.
And the reasons aren’t hard to find. Opponents are just leaving Rubio alone on the perimeter. Favors deserves credit for trying to mold his game to the new NBA, but one corner three a game isn’t doing a ton to space the floor. And neither Utah nor its opponents expects Gobert to shoot jumpers.
All three players have their strengths. It’s just that shooting isn’t one for any of them. And playing three non-shooters together in 2018 is just begging for trouble. While opponents run up the score in first and third quarters, Mitchell and Ingles can’t find any space to try to keep up because they’re getting all the attention on the perimeter.
The obvious swap seems to be Favors to Crowder. His three-point percentage isn’t inspiring. In fact, 30.2 percent is just bad. But he’s still making almost two a game, and that forces defenders to at least pay attention. Plus, he’s a little better equipped to attack a closeout and possibly drive, draw a defender and dish. That, and he makes the defense a bit more switchable too.
Those incremental improvements in fit have manifested themselves in the numbers ever since Crowder joined the Jazz. Last season, the Rubio/Mitchell/Ingles/Crowder/Gobert lineup had a Net Rating (net points per 100 possessions) of plus-29.9 (almost 20 points better than the starters). This season, that lineup is plus-10.6 points per 100 possessions (just over 10 points better than the starters).
It gets a boost from the absences of Paul, Davis and Irving too, but not enough to make up the kind of difference described above. We now have several months of evidence that Gobert is better alongside more of a small-ball 4.
And this season, the evidence is kind of alarming. SLC Dunk’s Jordan Cummings pointed out the difference between Gobert’s numbers when he’s sharing the floor with Favors and when he’s not.
Through 15 games, Gobert’s averaging 11.4 points (on 61.3 percent shooting) and is minus-0.5 per 36 minutes when Favors is on the floor. When Favors is off the floor, Gobert averages 19.5 points (on 72.9 percent shooting) and is plus-3.8 per 36 minutes.
But that’s not the only elephant in the room.
After one of his better games this season (13 points on .543 True Shooting, four assists, three turnovers and minus-15), Rubio is now averaging 10.8 points on 34.2 percent shooting from the field and 27.4 percent shooting from three. That is, at best, problematic.
How, in 2018, do you survive a point guard who averages 10.1 field goal attempts and has a True Shooting Percentage almost 10 points below league average?
Well, you can hope three out of every 15 opponents are missing their best or second best player. Or, you just might not be able to survive. Overall, Rubio’s now minus-14 in 453 minutes (minus-1.5 per 48 minutes). Take out those games in which Utah caught the big injury breaks and Rubio’s minus-77 in 353 minutes (minus-10.5 per 48 minutes).
Again, all this got better in time last season. Eventually, and seemingly out of nowhere, Rubio started making shots. And the difference between three non-shooters and two non-shooters in a lineup was massive. But if the Jazz want to make the playoffs in an even more competitive West (how are you doing this, Sacramento Kings and Memphis Grizzlies?), they may not have the luxury of being able to wait till almost February for Rubio to turn it around. Especially when a possible solution is already on the roster.
Last season, they didn’t have Crowder till the middle of February. He’s here now. The lineups with him at the 4 are one of the bright spots in an underwhelming season (so far).
At least for a few games, see what you have with some different lineups. Crowder’s the easy one. And that’s kind of unfortunate, because Favors is still very good in a vacuum (11.3 points on 57.9 percent shooting in just 22.9 minutes). It’s just not the right fit. Over the years, it’s worked, but the game moves further from traditional alignments every year.
The move that might get a little more push-back would be Dante Exum for Rubio. Right now, he has a worse Net Rating than Rubio, but he’s had almost no chance to play with the starters. Exum, Mitchell, Ingles, Favors and Gobert is a lineup that’s even in five minutes. Swap Crowder for Favors and that group’s plus-seven in 15 minutes. So, yeah, almost no chance.
With Rubio’s contract expiring, and Exum under contract for two more seasons after this one, you might want to see what you have in those lineups.
And to add even more to the argument, Exum is averaging around three more points and half as many turnovers per 36 minutes. His True Shooting Percentage is four points better. He’s more switchable on defense. And the Exum/Mitchell (more please) pairing has about the same Net Rating as the Rubio/Mitchell pairing.
Ricky Rubio: 13 PTS, 8.4 AST, 3.9 REB, 1.8 STL, 0.2 BLK, 3.9 TOV per 75 team possessions, .466 TS%, -2.6 Box +/-, .004 Win Shares per 48 MIN— Andy Bailey (@AndrewDBailey) November 17, 2018
Dante Exum: 16 PTS, 4.6 AST, 3.4 REB, 0.4 STL, 0.4 BLK, 2 TOV per 75 team possessions, .507 TS%, -4 Box +/-, .046 Win Shares per 48 MIN https://t.co/1hPEA7zDnL
It’s time. At least for a few games. Just see what you have when you start Exum, Mitchell, Ingles, Crowder and Gobert. All five are under contract for next season. That has the potential to be the more forward-looking lineup. And if it doesn’t work, go back to the original alignment.
And if that doesn’t work, maybe do something even more drastic when Favors’ January 15 trade restriction lifts...