Second verse, same as the first.
The West is a clusterfuck. Two of the top contenders (Denver and OKC) are trying to course correct through late-season swoons. Two prospective contenders coming into the year (the Lakers and Pelicans) have seen their respective seasons implode in spectacular fashion. The standings seem to spit out a totally different permutation every other day. Through it all, for the second straight season, the Utah Jazz have overcome a lousy first half of the year and put themselves in position to do some damage in the playoffs.
One could be forgiven for thinking this group of Utah players enjoys digging itself out of holes of its own creation. In 2017-18, the Jazz fell as low as 19-28 in late January before flipping the switch and finishing a dominant 29-6 to climb all the way up to the 5-seed in the West. They finished 16th in the league in Offensive Rating, 2nd in Defensive Rating, and 4th in SRS (Simple Rating System, a single metric which accounts for both point differential and strength of schedule).
This season is like the movie sequel that tries to run back all the plot points from the original. [It’s basically “The Hangover 2: Salt Lake City,” a title which contains almost as much cognitive dissonance as a basketball franchise called the Utah Jazz. But I digress.] Once again struggling out of the gate, Utah at one point fell as low as 14th in the West, and after a loss to Toronto on New Years’ Day, was sitting at 18-20 in a conference where it took 47 wins to crack the playoff field the previous year. Then — a little sooner this time — the switch flipped again. The Jazz have gone 18-7 since, and the numbers tell a familiar story: 18th in Offensive Rating, 3rd in Defensive Rating, and 6th in SRS.
There are good reasons to believe the upward trend will continue. As of this writing, the Jazz have faced the league’s second-toughest schedule, but their remaining schedule rates as the easiest in the league with a bullet. Remaining opponents have only a .412 winning percentage, and the only teams currently sitting above .500 they will face are OKC, Sacramento, Denver, and the Clippers, three of which are home games. They would have to go at least 14-5 over the closing stretch after a puzzling loss to New Orleans at home on Monday, but 50 wins isn’t out of the question. Currently sitting at 6th in the West, their fortunes could swing quite a bit in either direction — they are only 3 games behind Portland/OKC for the 3-seed and one game ahead of San Antonio in 8th — but all signs point to things getting better before they get worse.
The hardcore fans know this already, but just so everyone is on the same page: Rudy Gobert is a freaking STUD, and he absolutely should have been an All-Star this year. [Yes, I know to add someone you have to take someone away, and I would have been fine with him making it over any one of Klay Thompson, Karl-Anthony Towns, or LaMarcus Aldridge. If the NBA would just do the right thing and get rid of conference designations for picking All-Stars, we wouldn’t even be having this conversation.] Gobert suffered among voters because he isn’t putting up the big scoring numbers of some other stars (15.3 ppg) and because the team started slowly, but in terms of impact, it is a joke he wasn’t in Charlotte this year. Look, I know the metrics can sometimes be misleading, but when you look at the sort of company he keeps statistically, it’s eye-popping:
Field Goal Percentage: .648 (1st in NBA)
Free Throw Attempts: 398 (9th in NBA)
Rebounds Per Game: 12.9 (4th in NBA)
Blocks Per Game: 2.2 (5th in NBA)
Player Efficiency Rating: 24.3 (14th in NBA)
True Shooting Percentage: .670 (2nd in NBA)
Effective Field Goal Percentage: .648 (tied, 1st in NBA)
Individual Offensive Rating: 132.1 (1st in NBA)
Individual Defensive Rating: 100.9 (5th in NBA)
Win Shares: 10.8 (3rd in NBA)
Win Shares Per 48 Minutes: .261 (2nd in NBA)
Box Plus/Minus: 7.0 (8th in NBA)
Value Over Replacement Player: 4.5 (tied, 7th in NBA)
I know, I’m as baffled by it as you are. It was perfectly reasonable for Gobert to get emotional when asked by reporters about the snub; it was an all-time screw job and the coaches (who vote for the reserves) should be ashamed of themselves. Setting aside the All-Star thing, Gobert continues to be phenomenal. He’s making a strong case to repeat as Defensive Player of the Year (even after only playing 56 games last season — take that for data), he improves and becomes more involved every year on the offensive end, and at 26, is just entering his prime. His lack of shooting and difficulty switching onto guards on the perimeter can make him problematic in certain playoff matchups (cough, Golden State, cough), but this roster doesn’t even sniff those types of matchups in the first place without all of the things he does incredibly well.
Joining Gobert among the ranks of the underrated is teammate Joe Ingles. The 31-year-old Aussie doesn’t stand out statistically (11.9/ 3.8/ 5.2 on 44/ 38/ 72 shooting splits in 31.6 minutes a night) or athletically (he looks like a 6’8″ version of a dude you’d play against in the local rec league), but he is integral to everything Utah does on both ends. He’s tremendously durable, playing 387 out of a possible 391 regular season games since entering the league. He’s a low usage offensive player, but an outstanding passer and decision-maker in the pick and roll. This allows coach Quin Snyder to play him as a point forward in lineups without a traditional point guard, a configuration which tends to give their other rotation players the best possible spacing and opportunities to thrive. [More on that later.] His outside shooting is down a tick this season, but he has proven himself to be one of the league’s preeminent marksmen (40.6% from deep for his career). And to be subjective for a moment, on defense, he just looks like a pain in the ass to play against. As something less than a top shelf athlete, he relies on his two most effective weapons defensively: agitation and anticipation. He doesn’t rate as elite in any specific category or metric, but the eye test shows a guy who makes his man work for absolutely everything. Even at the NBA level, effort and positioning matter at least as much to defensive success as does athleticism, and Ingles has them in spades.
While Gobert and Ingles power the team’s defensive dominance (along with quietly outstanding role players Derrick Favors and Royce O’Neale), the offense only goes as far as second-year phenom Donovan Mitchell takes it. And to start the year, that wasn’t very far. At this point in his development, Mitchell profiles as something of an inefficient gunner, an archetype which has obviously become passe in the analytics community. He is the only Jazz player who can consistently create his own shot, and this ability sometimes results in him hunting for looks independently of Snyder’s advantage-based system, like a smaller, less efficient version of Kawhi Leonard in Toronto. When the shots don’t fall, it’s ugly. Mitchell struggled throughout November and December, averaging only 19.3 ppg and 3.1 apg on 40% shooting despite a 30.8 usage rate, which over the course of the season would rank 10th in the league. An offense can’t survive under those conditions, and the Jazz didn’t, going 14-16 during those two months while averaging only 105.9 ppg as a team (vs. 110.2 for the season).
Since the calendar flipped to 2019, Mitchell has upped his usage even more, but the results have improved dramatically. Over the last 2+ months, he’s averaging 27.3/ 4.6/ 5.2 on 43/ 37/ 81 splits with a 33.6 usage rate, which if you squint hard enough, you could juuuust about mistake for a pre-Achilles’ tear Kobe season. In keeping with the deja vu theme, in the aggregate Mitchell’s sophomore season looks a lot like his freshman one, from both a statistical and narrative perspective. His playmaking has noticeably improved, however, and the game appears to have slowed down for him. He’ll need to be more efficient and consistent, but the 2019 version of Donovan Mitchell gives this team enough offensive punch to make them a formidable foe for anyone out West, non-Warriors division.
Speaking of which, how the playoff matchups break could play a major role in how we view the success or failure of this Utah season. While Mitchell continuing to do his Baby Mamba impression is a prerequisite for any level of sustained postseason success, the presence of Gobert — and his specific strengths and weaknesses — will fundamentally always make this iteration of the Jazz somewhat matchup-dependent. Case in point: the Nuggets. As good as Denver has been for most of the year, they are the exact sort of team with whom Utah matches up well. Gobert’s size and strength allow him to neutralize Nikola Jokic, as he did in holding Jokic to 16 points on 5-of-15 shooting and 5 turnovers in Utah’s recent 111-104 road win. [This game was sandwiched in between home games against the Clippers and Bucks played over four nights. The Jazz won all three games, perhaps as impressive a short stretch as any team has had all year.] Utah is 2-1 against Denver so far, with one game to play, but Gobert’s ability to contain Jokic both inside and out, combined with guards who don’t typically take Rudy out of his defensive comfort zone, make the Nuggets a team Quin Snyder would probably be thrilled to see in the first (or God willing, second) round of the playoffs.
No one in the West really has the luxury of trying to game the system in terms of playoff seeding, but keeping up their stellar play could end up putting Utah in a bad spot. Ultimately, they would want to either stay in the 6-seed or move up to the 3-seed, since either outcome would likely keep them on Denver’s side of the bracket and away from Golden State until the Conference Finals, both good outcomes. Getting to the 3-seed isn’t impossible, but there are a lot of moving parts involved, not the least of which is Utah likely having to finish out the year somewhere in the neighborhood of 16-3 or 17-2. OKC (who has the league’s most difficult remaining schedule) falling into the 4/5 side of the bracket would be best-case scenario for Utah, as they are 0-3 against the Zombie Sonics this year, with one game to go. They are 2-2 against both Portland and Houston, though I suspect if given the choice, they’d rather face Portland in lieu of human flamethrower James Harden and a suddenly healthy Rockets squad. In any case, the standings are going to shift substantively a dozen more times before the playoff matchups are set, so all Utah can really do is continue to play well and hope things break their way.
As rosy as things look for a well-run, small market franchise which lost one of its max contract stars for nothing in free agency just a year-and-a-half ago, it’s hard not to think the basketball gods could have shown a bit more mercy on the Jazz. They’ve done well late in the draft — Gobert at no. 27 in 2013, turning no. 24 and Trey Lyles into Mitchell last year — but the early picks they’ve lucked into have mostly come up snake eyes. Enes Kanter was a poor fit with their existing personnel (as he continues to be, several franchises later), but nothing has lowered the overall ceiling of their team more than the unfortunate saga of Dante Exum. The version of Exum they thought they were getting with the no. 5 pick in 2014 would just now be blossoming into the perfect complement for the core of Gobert, Mitchell, and Ingles. [Yes, I’m ignoring the Butterfly Effect of what a better, healthier Exum would have meant for their draft positioning, decision-making, etc. It’s also tempting to think about how their fortunes would be different had they drafted, say, Marcus Smart or Julius Randle (the players drafted immediately after Exum), or if Orlando had picked Exum at no. 4 and Utah ended up with Aaron Gordon instead, but all the downstream effects render it pointless speculation. I’m not going into the Spida-verse.] Instead, they’ve gotten an injury-plagued 4+ seasons, a tied-up roster spot, and a slightly overpriced second contract (3 years/$33 million with incentives) built on little more than hope and occasional flashes. Exum is unfathomably still just 23, and his per-minute numbers, when healthy, are honestly not much worse than incumbent starter/placeholder/assumed polygamist “Ravishing” Ricky Rubio. So I suppose there’s a world where he stays healthy and becomes a valuable asset, but he strikes me as a player dying for a change of scenery.
Another guy who should be thriving outside the confines of Salt Lake City: Derrick Favors. The Gobert/Favors frontline combo has been untenable for several years now, but the front office keeps running it back for a simple reason — Favors is GOOD. He’s just forever playing out of position. Favors is a starting-caliber NBA center, but in Utah, he’s stuck in the wrong role as a non-floor spacing power forward next to Gobert, and manning the 5 with the backups while Rudy rests. He still has value in this role because, again, he’s good: 17.7 points, 11.4 rebounds, and 2.2 blocks per 36 minutes on 58% shooting, with a 21.1 PER, .203 WS/48, and an elite +3.1 Defensive BPM. The dude is SCREAMING for a bigger role, but the Jazz don’t have one to offer him, and apparently neither do any other teams. There were rumors Utah looked to move Favors at the trade deadline — as part of a potential Mike Conley deal, most notably — but there were no takers for his semi-prehistoric game coupled with his $16.9 million salary, even as it is non-guaranteed for next season. It speaks to the way positional value is defined in the modern NBA that if a wing had stats analogous to Favors’, he’d be getting paid Otto Porter money, whereas Derrick can’t even get two guaranteed years. If GM Dennis Lindsey waives Favors this summer, it could end up being addition by stylistic subtraction, but it will still feel like the Jazz squandered the prime years of a really useful, valuable player.
Recent injuries to all of Utah’s point guards (Rubio, Exum, and Raul Neto) have forced Quin Snyder to roll out a more wing-heavy lineup with Ingles, Jae Crowder, and Royce O’Neale around Mitchell and Gobert (or Favors), unintentionally unlocking what may be the best version of this Jazz team in the process. Small sample size theater, but the version of the lineup with Gobert has a net rating of +27.3 per 100 possessions in 66 minutes of court time. [Shades of Chris Bosh moving to center out of necessity in Miami, an act of desperation which reverberates through the league to this day and, ironically enough, helps inform why Favors has so little trade/free agent value.] It has given Mitchell more room to create in the pick and roll and attack the basket, but the addition by subtraction throws into stark relief the degree to which Utah has mismanaged and/or been unlucky with its point guard situation over the last few years.
Rubio is 28, and it made perfect sense to acquire him when and how they did. But it’s time to accept the idealized version of him we all had in our heads back in 2008 when he hung with the Redeem Team in Beijing is never going to come to fruition. He is what he is at this point in his career: a perfectly serviceable point guard on both ends who invariably raises the floor of a team just as much as he fails to raise its ceiling. He will be an unrestricted free agent this summer, and I would honestly be a bit surprised if Utah ends up re-signing him. If they let Rubio walk and waive Favors and 37-year-old Kyle Korver (both on non-guaranteed deals), Utah has a path to seriously meaningful cap space. A ton of other teams will also have free space, and Lindsey will need to take into account Utah’s historic inability to be a major player in free agency, but with Gobert, Mitchell, and Ingles all locked in through ’20-’21, the Jazz could for once be an attractive destination, market be damned. They won’t be able to reel in the biggest fish, but there are plenty of guys available in the lower tiers who could be needle-movers for a team with its core already in place. [Think along the lines of the Millsap-to-Denver signing.]
One place Utah may look to mine talent from is Milwaukee, especially if the Bucks flame out in the playoffs. The Jazz could throw big offers at any combination of Khris Middleton, Malcolm Brogdon (restricted, so the Bucks could match any offer), and Nikola Mirotic, all of whom would be intriguing fits. The free agent market for point guards is not terribly robust this year, so there is a scenario where Utah goes into next season pinning its hopes on health and development from Exum. However, one suspects the front office has grander designs. They could keep their powder dry for another season, sign some one-year deals (or bring back Favors and Korver), and take another stab at it in the summer of ’20 before they need to fork over a (presumably) max extension to Mitchell and decide on Ingles’ future. Windows open and close quickly in the NBA, but the Jazz have put themselves in a strong position to be agile depending how the market shakes out.
After starting out flat, the Jazz are once again in tune and playing all the right notes. All that’s left is to see if the coda sounds better this time around.
Top Photo Credit: Rick Egan/The Salt Lake Tribune