Happy New Year. Auld Lang Syne. All that stuff.
For the Utah Jazz, 2018 had plenty of highlights, but there’s still a long way to go. The playoff series over the Oklahoma City Thunder was nice, but the ultimate goal for an NBA player is 12 more wins after the first round.
It’s tough to just jump to that point, though. Little goals along the way should help the Jazz get there. And so, here’s one for every player with at least 100 minutes played this season.
Rudy Gobert - Protect that Defensive Player of the Year Award
Last season, the Jazz allowed 7.1 fewer points per 100 possessions with Rudy Gobert on the floor. This season, that swing is just 3.1 points.
He’s also not dominating the Defensive Real Plus-Minus leaderboard quite like he did in 2015-16 and 2016-17.
Gobert is unquestionably Utah’s most impactful player. This is the fifth season that’s been true. So, while he’s been stellar in 2018-19 (he’s posting a career-high Box Plus-Minus), it still feels like there’s another gear for him on defense.
Joe Ingles - Get Back In the Joe Ingles Club
In 2016-17, I coined the term “Joe Ingles Club,” when he had a .604 True Shooting Percentage, a 17.2 Assist Percentage and a 2.6 Steal Percentage.
To be in the club, a player needed to qualify for the three-point percentage leaderboard, have a .600-plus True Shooting Percentage, a 15-plus Assist Percentage and a two-plus Steal Percentage.
Ingles hasn’t been back in the club since.
Last season, he was a little short on the Steal Percentage. This season, it’s his True Shooting Percentage, which seems like it should be the easiest category for him.
If he can pull that up and get his second “Joe Ingles Club” season, he’d be just the 15th player in NBA history with multiple .600/15/2 seasons.
Charles Barkley, Brent Barry, Stephen Curry, James Harden, Magic Johnson and John Stockton are the only players with career averages that would qualify.
Ricky Rubio - Go On Another Second-Half Tear
Here are some Ricky Rubio numbers from before and after New Years.
- Pre-New Year: 7.3 PTS, 36.5 FG%, 27.8 3P%
- Post-New Year: 13.4 PTS, 41.4 FG%, 32.3 3P%
- Pre-New Year: 11.4 PTS, 39.1 FG%, 28.7 3P%
- Post-New Year: 14.5 PTS, 44 FG%, 41 3P%
- Pre-New Year: 12.7 PTS, 39.3 FG%, 33.8 3P%
- Post-New Year: ...
Donovan Mitchell - Think Pass
Over the course of Donovan Mitchell’s career, Utah is 12-5 (.706) when he has a 30-plus Assist Percentage. It’s 56-50 (.528) in all other games.
Jae Crowder - Hit Some of Those Threes
Jae Crowder is shooting 33.8 percent on 6.1 three-point attempts per game. If you take out his 39.8-percent season in 2016-17, he’s shooting 32.6 percent from three in the other six years.
The mere threat of his shooting and ability to attack a closeout make him a good fit next to Gobert, but it sure would help if he could pull that percentage up to around 36-37.
Derrick Favors - Dominate Second Units
For much of the last two seasons, Derrick Favors has started games at the 4, while playing a big chunk of his minutes as Gobert’s backup at the 5.
Last season, when Favors and Gobert were both on the floor, Utah was plus-8.3 points per 100 possessions (91st percentile). It was plus-0.1 (52nd percentile) with Favors at the 5.
This season, the Jazz are plus-2.3 points per 100 possessions (63rd percentile) when the Wasatch Front is in the game. They’re -3.2 (32nd percentile) when Favors is at the 5.
This isn’t all Favors’ fault, of course. But he’s a better individual player than most of the backup bigs he faces in his dual-role. And there’s reason to believe he should be able to carry bench-heavy units to more favorable differentials.
Royce O’Neale - Find 2017-18’s Magic
Among the 213 players with at least as many minutes, Royce O’Neale is currently 202nd in Player Impact Plus-Minus. He’s at minus-0.28 PIPM Wins Added.
His Net Rating swing is minus-eight, meaning Utah’s net points per 100 possessions is eight points worse with O’Neale on the floor. It was 7.5 points better last season.
So, what flipped?
It’s hard to put a finger on exactly why O’Neale’s impact is so much different this season.
Numbers like Steal Percentage, True Shooting Percentage and Defensive Box Plus-Minus are all almost identical. Do slight regressions in Assist Percentage and Rebounding Percentage, and a big one in Free Throw Rate really make this much of a difference?
Maybe, but it feels like more of an intangible thing. Cliche as it sounds, O’Neale was one of those consummate hustle guys. It seemed like he made all his defensive assignments uncomfortable, had a nose for the ball and was always in the right spot.
This is a hard one. Maybe that’s why I titled it “magic.” Whatever intangible energy is missing, O’Neale needs to find it.
Dante Exum - Keep It Up
Dante Exum has tantalized us before, but this recent stretch feels different.
After going for 13 points and 13 assists in Utah’s last win, Exum is now averaging 19.5 points, 7.7 assists, 2.8 rebounds, 1.2 threes and 1.2 steals per 36 minutes over his last 13 games.
That feels so much closer to the potential so many saw in Exum when he was drafted in 2014. Now, he has to find a way to go from “tantalizing few games” to consistent production.
It certainly helps when he’s alongside players who benefit from his strengths, so hopefully Quin Snyder will continue to play Exum with shooters.
Few players can bend a defense inward quite like Exum, who seems to get to the paint whenever he wants. And when he has a shooter to kick out to, the Jazz become pretty tough.
This season, when Exum is at the 1 and either Ingles or Kyle Korver are on the floor, Utah is plus-7.4 points per 100 possessions (87th percentile).
Kyle Korver - Keep Movin’ On Up
This one feels like a bit of a cheat, because it’s inevitable, but Korver is just 12 threes shy of Jason Terry for third all time.
Now, Stephen Curry is only 13 threes behind Korver, so he’ll likely still be in fourth by the end of the season, but he can at least pass The Jet.
Thabo Sefolosha - Seize that Rotation Spot
It took Thabo Sefolosha a while to crack back into the rotation this season, but he’s been excellent over this same 13-game stretch in which Exum’s come alive.
Since December 4, he’s averaging 12.1 points, 8.3 rebounds, 3.3 steals and 2.3 threes per 36 minutes, with a .732 True Shooting Percentage and a 15.5 Net Rating.
For the whole season, he’s 12-of-24 from three. Remember that hypothetical in the Crowder section about a small-ball 4 who actually hits threes?
Georges Niang - Stay Ready
Georges Niang appeared in each of Utah’s first 14 games, averaging 7.9 minutes and shooting 41.7 percent from three.
As long as Crowder and Sefolosha are healthy, though, it’s hard to imagine Niang appearing that consistently.
But one of the luxuries of having Dennis Lindsey is really good third-stringers. Niang didn’t play a ton when he was in the rotation, but he showed some flashes of a Kyle Anderson-like combo forward.
He’s not the defender Anderson is, but Anderson isn’t the shooter Niang is.
If injuries lead to his number being called again, he’ll need to be ready to come in and drill some threes.
Grayson Allen - Dominate the G-League
Among the 356 players with at least as many minutes this season, Grayson Allen is 356th in Box Plus-Minus.
Now, if you expand the search to include the entire three-point era, Allen is 14,160th out of 14,245 individual seasons.
Of course, Allen’s Box Plus-Minus would change drastically with a couple good performances. That’s the nature of a sample size as small as his is right now (165 minutes).
But it just doesn’t look like he’s ready for NBA action yet.
In his six G-League games, though, Allen is averaging 15.7 and three threes per game, while shooting 39.1 percent from deep.
The more reps he can get there, the better.
Raul Neto - Stay Ready
I actually feel pretty good about it taking me this long to repeat a goal, but this feels right for Raul Neto.
And it shouldn’t be too hard. Staying ready would be a good way to describe Neto’s entire NBA career.
He’ll never blow you away statistically. He’s a little too small, especially on defense. But he always competes when he’s on the floor and can reliably run an offense.
You can’t ask for too much more than a replacement-level Box Plus-Minus (minus-2.1 for his career) and a near-average True Shooting Percentage from your third-string point guard.
Ekpe Udoh - Stay Ready
Alright, so much for that originality I just touted in the last section. But this is probably a good spot to talk more about what a solid third string Lindsey has assembled.
Among players with at least as many minutes over the last two seasons, Ekpe Udoh is 12th in the entire NBA in Box Plus-Minus.
How many third string centers in the NBA can provide that kind of impact?
Now, if we go back to the original premise for a moment. All of these goals are individual. In concert, they can carry this team to a closing kick similar to the one it had at the end of 2017-18.
Another 29-6 run probably isn’t in the cards. But this season, that might not be necessary. With as deep as the West is, these teams beating up on each other all season could lead to a lot of playoff teams being in the mid-40s for wins. And the Jazz have one of the easiest remaining schedules in the NBA.
Here’s to 2019!