While last night’s loss to the New Orleans Pelicans exposed some of the Utah Jazz’s readily apparent warts (redundant at Point Guard and Center, lack of one on one scorer aside from Donovan, tendency to play down to competition), it also showed off one of Utah’s strengths since the All-Star break: their depth. Utah’s bench has been absolutely fantastic in the six games after the break. This is incredibly good news for a Jazz bench that struggled early on in the season and had many questioning if Utah truly had good depth.
In the past 6 games, the Jazz’s bench has been shooting an NBA 6th best 39% from three. They also own the NBA’s best +/- since All-Star break at +3.9. That’s amazing considering their bench is only playing 16.7 minutes out of the 48 minutes of the game (9th fewest).
The Utah Jazz’s individual performances from the bench have been startling in that time.
Jae Crowder prior to All-Star break was averaging 11.3 points, 4.7 rebounds, and 1.7 assists on shooting splits of 39/33/69 has upped his game. He’s now averaging 13.5 points, 5.5 rebounds, 2.0 assists on shooting splits of 41/37/78 with an even lower usage rate. He’s taking more 3 pointers since All-Star and spacing the floor even better. Since All-Star he has scored 20 or more points in 3 games and been a stellar super sub.
Not to be outdone, the 37 year old Kyle Korver has been trending up as well. While his shooting splits have stayed the same (shooting 41% from three before and after All-Star), he’s scored 20 or more points twice in the Jazz’s past three games. He has been a great presence off the bench and he’s gunning it from three—as he should—at every opportunity.
Royce O’Neale who bounces between starting SG and “whoever gets in foul trouble first in the backcourt” guard, is the only one who has been struggling shooting wise since All-Star break. Even as his shooting has taken a hit in that time, he’s still averaging a +/- of +8.7 for Utah.
I had mentioned that Utah’s bench averages the 9th fewest total minutes in the NBA since All-Star break. That’s because Derrick Favors essentially works as the backup Center. While he does get the starting nod, he mostly plays with the bench unit. The league best +/- for Utah’s bench can easily be attributed to Derrick Favors going beast mode in that last six games. In Utah’s loss to New Orleans, one of the key questions that Utah had to ask themselves was, “Did we take Derrick Favors out of the game in the 4th quarter too soon?” His numbers since All-Star almost make it look like he’s underpaid. He’s averaging 21.3 points, 14.3 rebounds, 2.9 blocks, and—this seems blasphemous to type—has been Utah’s best center. He’s doing this with a ludicrous +/- of +15.9 in those minutes. PLUS FIFTEEN POINT 9.
The only problem with the bench is not really even their fault. You can’t play the bench more minutes right now because injuries have held them back. Injuries to Dante Exum and Raul Neto throughout the season have limited the positive side effects of letting the Jazz’s star players rest. Rudy Gobert gets the extreme luxury of having a possible All-Star center (in the East anyway) play behind him. He gets that rest. Donovan Mitchell and Ricky Rubio? They’re having to pull extra duty. Joe Ingles? He’s having to fill in a lot of minutes as the Utah Jazz’s primary playmaker.
But there’s help on the horizon.
Dante Exum—god rest his soul—is set to be re-evaluated on Friday. The hope will be that he can return from injury—FINALLY—and provide the Utah Jazz with valuable playmaking and one on one abilities. If he returns to just 75% of how he was playing before the injury, Utah gets a valuable backup. If he comes back and plays to 100% of what he was doing before the injury then Utah has another problem—but a good problem to have—with how to manage and balance Rubio and Exum’s minutes. If anything else, Dante Exum will provide immediate rest on the bench for Donovan Mitchell, Ricky Rubio, and Joe Ingles as Utah looks to keep those three fresh for the NBA playoffs.
While last night’s loss is going to stick in Utah’s craw probably for a few weeks, Utah’s bench is trending in the right direction and surging at the right time to keep the Jazz’s starters healthy and rested for a strong playoff run.