Depending on your opinion of incoming rookie Grayson Allen, the 2018-19 Utah Jazz have as many as 13 players who could make the rotation for plenty of teams all over the league.
That’s the good news.
Now, the challenge, at least for those of us who analyze this team from outside the organization, is sorting out which of those players make this rotation. Who will get minutes? How many minutes will each player get? And how much does this depth affect the minutes of Rudy Gobert, Donovan Mitchell, Joe Ingles, Ricky Rubio and Derrick Favors?
It may be an exercise in futility, but let’s try to figure this out now. At the start of this season’s training camp, how should a fully-healthy rotation look?
Guard/Wing: Ricky Rubio (28), Dante Exum (20)
Wing/Guard: Donovan Mitchell (34), Alec Burks (14)
Wing/Guard: Joe Ingles (28), Royce O’Neale (20)
Forward/Wing: Derrick Favors (8), Jae Crowder (20), Thabo Sefolosha (20)
Center: Rudy Gobert (32), Derrick Favors (16)
This is a 10-man rotation, probably deeper than a lot of teams throughout the regular season. And definitely deeper than most playoff rotations.
Still, there is at least one pretty significant omission. In the most recent episode of the Salt City Hoops podcast, Jazz reporter Tony Jones said the team is planning to find minutes for Allen. That, of course, would either completely eliminate Burks (who I admittedly still have a soft spot for) or cut into the already-sparse minutes of Rubio, Mitchell, Exum or O’Neale.
This is what I was alluding to earlier. When you have this many good players, trying to figure out who’ll actually make it onto the floor is tough. And I’ve already completely eliminated Raul Neto, Ekpe Udoh and Georges Niang from consideration (at least in this “fully-healthy” hypothetical). All three of those guys could play decent minutes for lesser teams. And you could make the argument each of the five starters needs more minutes. Again... tough.
So, with all that in mind, let me try to justify the rotation above.
This might be a good spot to explain why I listed the positions the way I did. Traditional classifications are out. Or, at least they should be. There will be plenty of stretches this season when Utah has four wings and a center on the floor. But there are three players who don’t quite fit the position-less mold. And they just happen to be three of the Jazz’ best.
Gobert is obviously a center. Favors is a power forward who will get most of his minutes at center (and might just be a straight-up center on a lot of teams). And Rubio is a point guard.
He took a step closer to position-less in his first season with the Jazz, but it’s hard to imagine any lineup configurations in which he wouldn’t be the 1. I mean, Neto/Rubio minutes just aren’t happening, barring injury-related disaster. So, you have to slot all of Rubio’s minutes in at the “point guard” position.
And that’s probably fine.
Rubio played 29.3 minutes a game last season. And that was actually down a bit after the trade deadline, when he really appeared to figure out his new role. From that point of the season till the end, Rubio averaged 28.8 minutes, 14.6 points, 5.6 assists, 5.2 rebounds and 1.6 steals, while shooting 43.6 percent from the field and 40.4 percent from three.
If he was able to maintain that level of production for an entire season, it would probably be hard to justify keeping him at just 28 minutes. But, at some point, Utah needs to figure out just how good Exum can be. Especially now that he’s on a three-year, $33 million contract.
Last season, Stephen Curry, James Harden, LeBron James, Nikola Jokic, Kyle Lowry, Chris Paul and Russell Westbrook were the only players who matched Exum’s per-possession averages for points, rebounds, assists and steals. And Exum defended Harden as well as anyone in the postseason.
Granted, all that evidence comes from an extremely small sample, but if Exum takes another step forward this year, he’s a player that will be hard to keep at 20 minutes a game.
That makes two players at this position who probably deserve more time than I’ve allotted them, which is going to be a running theme in this article.
One way to do this exercise would be to just list four spots. Combine “shooting guard” and “small forward” and allot 96 minutes there.
If I’d done it that way, the spot would’ve looked like this: Donovan Mitchell (34), Joe Ingles (28), Royce O’Neale (20), Alec Burks (14).
In the case of the Jazz, you might even be able to get away with combining 2 through 4 and splitting up 136 minutes (three times 48, minus Favors’ eight nominal minutes as a power forward) between Mitchell, Ingles, O’Neale, Exum, Burks, Crowder and Sefolosha.
None of that makes getting everyone the minutes they deserve any easier, but it may paint a clearer picture of how Utah will play.
Ultimately, no matter how it’s laid out, Mitchell probably gets the most minutes.
Last season, Utah’s Net Rating (net points per 100 possessions) was 5.5 points better when Mitchell was on the floor. And if you limit the sample to January 24 (when the season turned around) till the end of the season, that Net Rating swing balloons to 11.9.
That Mitchell was already that much of a plus as a rookie is astonishing. His likely progress could make him a top 15-20 player as early as this season. He’s already started himself out on a nearly unprecedented developmental curve.
The only rookies in NBA history who matched his per-game averages for points, rebounds, assists and steals were Larry Bird, Ron Harper, Allen Iverson, LeBron James and Michael Jordan. The only rookie to match Mitchell’s per-possession averages for those categories was Jordan.
Utah has a truly special prospect on its hands. The rare player who manages to achieve star status right out of the gate.
But it doesn’t stop there for the Jazz. After Mitchell, there’s plenty of wing depth with Ingles, O’Neale, Exum, Crowder, Sefolosha and Burks.
In that same post-trade deadline stretch mentioned for Rubio, Ingles averaged 14 points (on 47.4 percent shooting), a team-leading 6.2 assists, 4.5 rebounds, 2.6 threes (on 42.5 percent shooting) and 1.2 steals. And he’s often tasked with defending the opposition’s best perimeter player.
As for O’Neale, the only rookie in NBA history who matched his per-possession averages for rebounds, assists, threes and steals was Joel Embiid. He’s already one of the league’s best perimeter defenders, and if his offensive consistency improves in Year 2, he’s yet another Jazz player who probably needs more playing time than I’ve set aside.
Unfortunately, minutes are a finite resource in basketball.
Next, there’s Crowder, whose work as a small-ball 4 last year made him a plus-minus star. When Crowder was on the floor, the Jazz outscored opponents by 10.3 points per 100 possessions. When he was off, that number dropped to 3.4. The Rubio/Mitchell/Ingles/Crowder/Gobert lineup was one of the best in the NBA, outscoring opponents by 27.4 points per 100 possessions in its 194 minutes.
The return of Sefolosha will allow Utah to play more of those small-ball lineups. He was a top-100 player (82nd, to be exact) by Real Plus-Minus. And he was one of the team’s bright spots during a tough start. From the start of the season till Sefolosha got hurt, Utah’s Net Rating was -0.8. It was plus-4.7 when Sefolosha was on the floor.
With Favors getting most of his minutes at the 5, there is at least rotation-level time available to Crowder and Sefolosha at the 3/4 spots.
And that brings us to Burks, the last player I have getting some minutes on the wing. Plenty of Jazz fans and writers have him out already. And I get it. But there are still those intoxicating Burks stretches that keep me on board.
Last season, there were two. In November and December, Burks averaged 17.8 points, four rebounds, 2.2 assists and 1.3 steals in just 25.8 minutes over 10 games. He shot 53.8 percent from the field and 43.9 percent from three. Utah outscored opponents by 15.2 points per 100 possessions when he was on the floor in that stretch.
Then, in the postseason, he averaged 24.6 points, 7.2 rebounds and 5.1 assists per 36 minutes, with a .581 True Shooting Percentage. His playoff average of .169 Win Shares per 48 Minutes was second only to Rudy Gobert among Jazz players.
But, of course, those two stretches made up just about a month of a season that lasts most of a calendar year. Consistency has been Burks’ issue for most of his career. That’s why it’s tough to give him more than 10-15 minutes a game. That limits the lows, while still granting access to those occasional highs.
Technically, Crowder and Sefolosha should get most of their minutes here, but they were detailed among the wings. So, we’ll just focus on Favors.
He’s one of the most selfless players on the Jazz. He was the No. 3 pick of the 2010 draft, and the centerpiece of the return in the Deron Williams trade. He patiently waited out the Paul Millsap/Al Jefferson era, then averaged 30.9 minutes, 15.2 points, 8.4 rebounds, 1.5 blocks and a steal over his first three seasons as a starter. And now, he’s being relegated to a smaller role, and one that’s fairly unusual league-wide.
Favors is the starting power forward, but he may not log more than 10 minutes a game there. The bulk of his time will be spent as Gobert’s backup. And since Gobert is arguably the best (or, at least, most impactful) center in the NBA, there aren’t a ton of backup center minutes available.
Favors made the most of that role last season, though. In the 1,230 minutes he played with no other centers on the floor in 2017-18, Favors put up 17.5 points 10.6 rebounds, 1.7 blocks and one steal per 36 minutes.
There isn’t much more to be said about Gobert that hasn’t already been said. He’s the reigning Defensive Player of the Year, and as long as he’s on the floor, Utah’s one of the toughest teams in the league.
When he was paired with the team’s other star, Mitchell, the Jazz scored 105.8 points per 100 possessions, while giving up just 95.3. After just one year together, those two already make up one of the league’s top duos.
And Gobert, individually, is a borderline top 15 player (despite what the average fan on Twitter might tell you). Over the last four seasons, among players with at least 4,000 minutes, Gobert is 11th in Box Plus-Minus and ninth in Win Shares per 48 Minutes.
If he can stay healthy, anchoring a team with this much depth, Utah has a chance to rise as high as second in the Western Conference this regular season.