When the Utah Jazz traded Dante Exum and two future second round picks to the Cleveland Cavaliers for Jordan Clarkson on December 23, my thoughts could be summed up in one word: Meh.
I didn’t think Clarkson could be a winning player. Now, I was never a resident of Exum Island, so I thought the player swap was a wash but, frankly, was a little upset that we had traded additional assets to bring Clarkson in.
Now, 24 games into Clarkson’s tenure in Utah, I’m ready to admit that I was dead wrong. He has been exactly what the Jazz needed for their bench unit: offensive firepower. Since arriving in Utah, the man has been a walking bucket, sometimes singlehandedly dragging the Jazz back into games or keeping (and sometimes extending) leads while the starters rest.
Not only has Clarkson been a winning player for the Jazz 1.5 months into his time here, I think he’s legitimately worked his way into the 2020 sixth man of the year discussion.
Clarkson’s 6MOY case
There’s a reason the sixth man of the year award is basically named after Jamal Crawford. It almost always goes to a guy who just gets buckets. While I would argue the rest of Clarkson’s game has been growing as well since the trade, for our purposes here let’s just focus on scoring.
When you compare his time in Cleveland to start the year to his time in Utah, it’s clear that the Jazz have been as good for Clarkson as Clarkson has been for the Jazz.
Here are his stats in Cleveland:
And here are his stats thus far in Utah:
If you look at just the last 10 games, as Clarkson has continued to get acclimated to his surroundings with the Jazz, it gets even better:
In 29 games in Cleveland, he scored 20+ points 6 times. In 24 games with the Jazz, he’s done it 9 times. In the last 10 games, Clarkson has topped 20 points 5 times, and he’s topped 30 twice. He’s scored in single digits only twice.
I’m not sure if the criteria for sixth man of the year allows for consideration of the transformational effect Clarkson has had on the Utah bench following a mid-season trade, but I do know you can’t tell the story of the Jazz season so far without it.
Before the trade, the Jazz bench was 29th in the league in scoring at 26.9 points per game. It was 25th in the league in +/- at -2.4.
Since the trade, the Jazz bench has been 18th in the league in scoring at 36.4 points per game. It’s been 10th in the league in +/- at 0.4.
It must be noted that the Clarkson trade hasn’t been the only change to the Jazz bench since the start of the season. Jeff Green was waived, and Georges Niang and Tony Bradley have played more. Mike Conley spent a large chunk of the season inactive with injury, forcing Joe Ingles back into the starting lineup, where he’s stayed even after Conley’s return. However, from a scoring perspective, Clarkson’s addition has had the biggest impact of any change.
Clarkson, as the Jazz’s third leading scorer, leads the bench in scoring by far, his 16.2 points per game more than doubling the next bench player, Emmanuel Mudiay’s 7.3.
Clarkson is fourth on the team in effective field goal percentage at 57.8%. The top two players, Rudy Gobert and Tony Bradley, are centers who take the vast majority of their shots at the rim. Third is Georges Niang, whose 4.5 shots per game are dwarfed by Clarkson’s 12.8.
He’s fifth on the team in 3-point percentage at 38.6%, but as his 45.3% over the last 10 indicate, rapidly climbing, which is impressive considering he’s third on the team in 3-point attempts at 6 per game.
Who is Clarkson up against for the award?
Here’s a list of players this season who have:
- Played at least 40 games
- Started fewer than 20 games
- Played at least 20 minutes per game
- Scored at least 15 points per game
Going back through previous winners, I thought this would be a pretty accurate snapshot of players in the running for the award in mid-February.
The only time a player for a non-playoff team has won the award in the last decade was Lou Williams for the 2017-18 Clippers, when he averaged almost 23 points per game. Since Derrick Rose and Davis Bertans, whose teams aren’t currently in playoff position, aren’t over 20, let’s drop them. Alec Burks has only been in Philadelphia for one game, but the presumption is he won’t get enough minutes there to continue what he was doing for the league’s worst team in Golden State, so let’s drop him.
That leaves us with this:
Dennis Schroder and Lou Williams lead in scoring, but they also lead in playing time, where Clarkson is a distant fifth among this group. It makes sense that more opportunity would lead to better counting stats, so let’s look at per 100 possessions:
That bumps Clarkson clear up to second in scoring rate. It’s also notable, especially from the perspective of Clarkson’s value to the Jazz (who are 26th in the league in turnover rate), that his turnover rate is the best of this group by a good margin.
Honestly, looking at the season on the whole to this point, it would be hard to make the argument for Clarkson over Schroder or the Clippers teammates Lou Williams and Montrezl Harrell. However, there’s no doubt he’s been climbing the ladder since leaving Cleveland and arriving in Salt Lake City. His minutes and, most importantly for the purpose of the sixth man of the year award, shooting percentages and points per game are trending up. By the end of the year, Clarkson might have a compelling argument.
Regardless, it’s not a stretch to think that acquiring Clarkson might have saved Utah’s season.
[All stats from basketball-reference.com and NBA.com ]