When looking ahead to the playoffs in the bubble I assumed that Utah would need some unheralded hero like Kyrylo Fesenko to step up from the bench. But after a thought experiment, it didn’t look like Utah needed an unsung hero, just a hero that needed some louder speakers and a larger amp. That hero I assumed would be Jordan Clarkson. Utah needed scoring and a combination of Mike Conley playing like he was in August and Jordan Clarkson taking more minutes could solve the issue.
Never in my right mind did I anticipate that while waxing poetic about Fesenko’s performance against the Nuggets in 2010, that the Utah Jazz would be in the same situation one decade later but in more dire circumstances. Bojan Bogdanovic is still out for the playoffs, Mike Conley returned to be with his wife for the birth of their child (CONGRATS, MIKE!), and Ed Davis is out with a knee injury. The opponent? The Denver Nuggets. Utah is the lower seed just as before. Where does Utah even begin to fill in the vacancies?
Reviewing Utah’s options let’s look at their unknowns. The Fesenko candidates are REALLY similar to Fesenko in 2010. They have the physical and athletic skillsets to provide Utah some help in matchups. They also are as inexperienced and out of the normal rotation as Fesenko. The candidates? Miye Oni, Jarrell Brantley, Rayjon Tucker, and Juwan Morgan. So let’s go through their PER36 Bubble numbers.
12.8 points, 40% FG, 38% 3PT, 5.5 rebounds, 1.5 assists, 1.5 steals, 0.7 blocks, 1.1 turnovers
10.5 points, 35.7% FG, 23.1% 3PT, 6.5 rebounds, 4.4 assists, 1.3 steals, 1.3 blocks, 2.2 turnovers
18.5 points, 50% FG, 27.3% 3PT, 3.0 rebounds, 1.3 assists, 0.0 steals, 0.4 blocks, 2.2 turnovers
10.1 points, 66.7% FG, 66.7% 3PT, 5.9 rebounds, 2.4 assists, 0.6 steals, 0.6 blocks, 1.8 turnovers
So what does Utah need to fill? Like in the Fesenko scenario back in 2010, Utah has a chance to replace Conley’s production with a new wrinkle. A small backcourt can suddenly become a big backcourt. An undersized player at the four like Joe Ingles can turn into Jarrell Brantley or Juwan Morgan. While most likely this doesn’t work in Utah’s favor, it does allow Utah to throw an entirely new look at Denver. One in which Denver has little time to prepare for. So let’s look at the options.
Miye Oni, Utah’s new small ball four
This one seems to be the most likely scenario. Miye Oni has already filled some time in the starting lineup in other bubble games and he’s the most versatile. His three point shot is falling, he can switch on larger players because of his strength and wingspan (hello 6’11 length), and he’s extremely athletic. He adds a fun wrinkle to the lineup. He allows Utah to have someone who can match Michael Porter Jr, Jerami Grant, Torrey Craig, or Paul Millsap. He’s athletic enough to make them work on the defensive end, too.
The lineup would lean heavily on Miye Oni and Jarrell Brantley would take Miye Oni’s minutes off the bench as Oni had overtaken Emmanuel Mudiay off the bench. While the rotation looks haphazard with guys taking multiple roles—Miye Oni goes from small ball four to three two two back to four and so on—it shows that positions are pretty fluid with Bojan Bogdanovic out. Mike Conley’s injury only brings it to its extreme end. We should expect to see Utah throw out Houston’s defense this series. Utah very well could switch on EVERYTHING.
Georges Niang and Jarrell Brantley would have the same 15 minutes allocated but Quin Snyder would get the luxury of seeing which one of them had the juice for the matchup. If Niang’s shot isn’t falling, Snyder can lean on Brantley knowing that he’s going to get athleticism and defense bar minimum (with rookie mistakes, of course). If Niang’s shot is falling then ride that 3 pointer as long as you can and live with the average defense.
Jarrell Brantley to the starting lineup and let’s go FULL Fesenko
Here’s the crazy scenario. Say Snyder wants Oni off the bench as more utility. He knows he can handle the ball and provides Utah a more versatile guard along with Clarkson to fill in spots depending on who gets in foul trouble, you’re looking at the full Fesenko scenario. Big man who wasn’t even sniffing the rotation is now on the starting frontline.
In this scenario, Miye Oni isn’t given the weight of the world to carry on his shoulders. Instead it’s spread equitably between Jarrell, Niang, and himself. The starting minutes are designed in a way that whichever out of those three is really in the groove they can shift minutes around to keep them rolling. Momentum is huge in basketball and it’s the life force of inexperienced players. Whoever starts to get a head of steam, it will be on Quin to ride that out.
It’s worth keeping in mind that Fesenko had a rough outing his first playoff game. Not exactly memorable. But he gained confidence as the series went on. Today’s game may not inspire confidence from Brantley, Morgan, Oni, or Tucker but it will be vitally important for Quin to go back to whoever fills these minutes and allows them the leash to try again.
Back to the scenario, Brantley in the starting unit allows Utah to play with size and athleticism. Brantley is a playmaker and could allow Donovan the ability to play off ball while Brantley initiates the offense a la Joe Ingles. If there’s any young player that should emulate Joe, it’s Brantley. Jarrell has the speed and playmaking ability to be special. If he gains Joe’s patience, he becomes special. In the starting lineup, he can be vital in making that one extra pass. Against San Antonio, Brantley was a pest to DeMar DeRozan. With the threat of so many athletic wings with length on Denver’s squad, Brantley seems like the choice to me to at least try out first. If the experiment works, the upside for Utah in this series is tremendous.
[Original story from June 2020]
“Fesenko. Fesenko. I mean... don’t get me wrong, he’s playing really well, but... Fesenko.”
When Carmelo Anthony uttered those words in the 2010 NBA Playoffs, anyone with a brain could tell what he was really saying, “How are we losing to HIM?” At the end of the first of of Game 1 in the 2010 NBA Playoffs, the Utah Jazz had lost big man Mehmet Okur to an achilles injury that would soon spell the end to his career. The Utah Jazz would lose that game and fall 0-1 in the series. Deron Williams would go on to say after the game, “He’s a guy you really can’t replace just because his inside-outside game is really unmatched.”
Enter Kyrylo Fesenko.
Fesenko had averaged only 2.3 points and 0.9 rebounds a game in a paltry 8.3 minutes a game during the season. If Jerry Sloan could have used literally anybody else, he would have. Fesenko was inserted to the lineup. The Jazz upset the Nuggets in Denver in Game 2. Deron Williams went off for 33, Carlos Boozer had 20, and Paul Millsap had 18. Fesenko had 4 points and 2 rebounds in 20 minutes but was a +12 while on the floor. Seemed like a fluke.
Game 3 in Utah, Fesenko began to step up even more. He had 9 points, 5 rebounds, and 3 assists. In Game 4 Fesenko had 6 points and 6 rebounds and have a +6 +/- while on the floor. It was after that game that Carmelo burst out with this “Fesenko pause Fesenko. pause I mean, Fesenko.” quote. Two games later, the Utah Jazz would complete their upset minus Mehmet Okur and go on to the second round.
Deron Williams was right when he said there was no way to replace Mehmet Okur. Okur was averaging 16.6 points, 8.6 rebounds and shooting 38.5% from three. The Jazz were not going to be able to pull a unicorn big man from street clothes to the game in the middle of the playoffs. Fesenko didn’t need to replace that. Instead he added a new dimension Utah hadn’t had prior to that series, an imposing defensive big man. That season Utah had traded Ronnie Brewer away in a cost cutting move to shed salary. After the trade Utah’s Defensive Rating went from 104.9 to 106.3. Utah’s starting lineup had a defensive rating of 109.5. When Fesenko was at center in the playoffs, that changed. Fesenko brought that defensive rating down to 106.5 against the Nuggets’ 4th best offense in the NBA.
Now as much as I love waxing poetic about Fesenko—it’s part of this website’s heritage after all—10 years later the Utah Jazz will be entering the 2020 NBA Playoffs in a similar way. Bojan Bogdanovic is out for the seeding games and playoffs. The Utah Jazz cannot replace Bojan Bogdanovic’s production with anyone on their roster, but by looking at the player’s they have waiting to go on the bench, Utah may be able to cobble together a winning strategy.
I must I wasn’t being fully transparent when I say Fesenko turned that series around. He was part of that help, but there was another player that stepped up: undrafted Wes Matthews. He had averaged 9.4 points and 2.3 rebounds during the season. In that series with Denver he averaged 13.8 points, and 3.7 rebounds. In Game 4 he had 18 points then in Game 6 he had 23. The Jazz replaced Okur in the aggregate. Using that strategy, Utah has a chance to replace one Bojan Bogdanovic.
Here’s what Utah is trying to replace statistically and players on the bench who are capable of matching it:
- 20.2 ppg
- 45% FG%
- 40% 3PT%
- 90% FT%
- 4.4 FTA per game
- 4.1 rpg
- 2.1 apg
Here’s what Utah is trying to replace system wise and who fits that bill from the bench:
- Someone with gravity to give Donovan Mitchell a break on the offensive end.
- Someone who opens the floor from the four spot.
- Someone who can initiate the offense.
- Someone who can get to the line.
- Someone who can switch from big fours to perimeter players and back.
Here is what the typical rotation was looking like during the last 10 games before the stoppage in play.
Status Quo: Georges Niang to the starting lineup
A lot of possible solutions revolve around Joe Ingles moving to the starting lineup. Then reshuffling the bench behind him. But that is a gross oversimplification. Joe Ingles over the last 5 games for the Utah Jazz had already been averaging 30 mpg. Between Royce and Joe Ingles, the Jazz can only burden them with 4 additional minutes between the two to put them at the 33 mpg range. Utah still has 30 more minutes to fill. Utah can then give 8 minutes to Jordan Clarkson which now puts the remainder at 22.
The natural inclination is to have Georges Niang flex up and move into the starting lineup. Currently he is at 12 minutes. When Utah moves him up to 30, they score 111.6 points per 100 possessions with him on the floor. But on the defensive end, the Jazz give up 112.1 points per 100 possessions and are out scored by 1.2 points per 100 possessions. Utah does get good offense out him though. When Niang is paired with Jordan Clarkson and Tony Bradley, they turn into a powerhouse, but that should be taken with HEAVY grains of salt as a lot of that data was taken during Utah’s easy stretch of the season. Could Utah see big gains with Niang out with the starting lineup with Gobert covering his six? It is possible, but Niang does put much more pressure on Gobert to perform defensively. Does Utah want to stretch Gobert that thin? Niang has only played more than 30 minutes once in his career in the NBA in a game that was meaningless against the Clippers in the last game of last season. Niang would be close to fitting the Fesenko profile, but he’s much more vetted part of the rotation than Fesenko was at that time.
Offensive Firepower: Jordan Clarkson to starting lineup
This one seems ludicrous at first then it starts to grow on you. Instead of trying to replace Bojan at the four, we move Royce O’Neale down to the four and then work to replace O’Neale’s minutes at the three. Did you know that Jordan Clarkson is actually a bigger wing than O’Neale? Jordan Clarkson and Royce O’Neale are almost same height—Jordan is taller—and both have wild length for their size. Lineups that include Mike Conley, Donovan Mitchell, and Jordan Clarkson all on the floor at the same time have the Jazz scoring 117.9 points per 100 possessions with a super low turnover rate. Their points per possession is in the 97th percentile. Now the downside is the defense. On average those three give up 123.4 points per possession. Now this is only with a total of 78 possessions. Most of those minutes with Tony Bradley.
There’s a fun lineup that has only had 13 possessions together: Mike Conley, Donovan Mitchell, Jordan Clarkson, Royce O’Neale, and Rudy Gobert. That lineup in 15 possessions scored 133.3 points per 100 possessions and held opponents to 111.1 points per 100 possessions. Surprisingly, none of these lineups were killed on the defensive boards either.
In this hypothetical scenario, Joe Ingles would be the first sub for Donovan Mitchell, so he could get some quick rest before leading the second unit.
Likewise, Emmanuel Mudiay would be the first sub for Jordan Clarkson. This allows Mitchell and Clarkson to keep the bench strong without Gobert and Conley on the floor. Utah can push Emmanuel Mudiay into the fold and keep Georges Niang’s minutes the same. With Clarkson taking 8 more minutes and O’Neale/Ingles take 4, Utah can push Mudiay up to 23 minutes per game.
For those scared about Mudiay minutes, there’s a silver lining. When Donovan Mitchell, Jordan Clarkson, and Mudiay share the floor, the Jazz outscore their opponents by a margin of 6.8 points. Utah had found something with that lineup with Mudiay/Clarkson on the wings.
If you’re still worried, don’t be. In the playoffs, this lineup can minimize Mudiay even further and take his minutes and boost the starters and Joe Ingles up to 35-36 minutes a game. Shorten the bench and bring him down to 13. Niang, Mudiay, and Tony Bradley can then have minutes that are available to be earned if they’re on a roll to give the Jazz’s starters extra rest, but if not, Snyder can get his tried and true guys back in to pick up the slack.
Jordan Clarkson seems like a very good option to move to the starting lineup. It makes even more sense if Utah has to face their kryptonite, the Houston Rockets, in the playoffs. But Clarkson isn’t a Fesenko type move. He’s a proven scorer and player.
Juwan Morgan, Fesenko of Stretch Fours
If you’re looking for the “Let’s get wild” scenario for the Utah Jazz. This is it. Jarrell Brantley could also be a candidate here. He is a strong candidate for Utah signing him to a two way deal during the grace period at the end of this month if the Jazz decide not to pursue a free agent. Juwan Morgan played in 16 games this season. Of those 16 games, he only played in two games that were not blowouts. A combined 20 minutes total of actual meaningful game experience.
Prior to being signed by Utah, he was a big part of the Salt Lake City Stars success. He averaged 14.3 points, 7.7 rebounds, 2.2 assists, 1.7 steals, and 1.4 blocks a game in the G-League. He shot 31% from three and played most of his minutes at Power Forward and Center.
When Morgan was on the court during those brief times, the Jazz outscored their opponents by an average of 19.5 points per 100 possessions. Their defensive rating was 95.7 points per 100 possessions. BUT THIS IS A TINY SAMPLE SIZE.
So what would this crazy scenario look like?
Juwan Morgan plays through the 3rd quarter while Georges Niang picks up some additional minutes to carry the team into the 4th. He’s been in some high pressure situations so it makes sense to have him carry those backup four minutes into the fourth and help space the floor so Mike Conley and Joe Ingles have space to get to the rim. Jordan Clarkson picks up some minutes as well going up to 30.
This is the Fesenko scenario. An unknown throughout the entire season called up to do heavy lifting in big situations. It fits the Fesenko scenario as Juwan Morgan changes the dynamics of the starting lineup. He’s a good defensive player and a better rebounder than Bojan Bogdanovic. He can guard all five positions on the floor as well. That gives Utah a wrinkle they haven’t had since Derrick Favors left.
Bringing in Juwan Morgan also allows Utah to keep the power forward spot to some stalkier players that wouldn’t get pushed around by players like Robert Covington, P.J. Tucker, Danilo Gallinari, Darius Bazley, or Dorian Finney-Smith. Just as Fesenko entering the starting lineup was unlikely in 2010, it’s unlikely now.
Joe Ingles and Royce O’Neale carry the burden
Utah most likely goes with Joe Ingles and Royce O’Neale in the starting lineup. That doesn’t mean Quin Snyder won’t experiment with some of the prior choices, but this seems like the one he lands on. If Utah faces Houston, this starting lineup is all but guaranteed. Utah is able to match the small ball and Jordan Clarkson is able to come off the bench to match Eric Gordon’s firepower.
In this lineup I have Jordan Clarkson finishing the second and fourth quarters in order to give Donovan Mitchell some daylight. While Mike Conley started to turn it on before the break, Jordan Clarkson showed the ability in almost every game to get buckets. Putting Clarkson in those situations where teams are starting to make adjustments on Donovan allows Utah to have someone—who like Bojan—can just get buckets.