Good Now, Better Later: The Utah Jazz Are Building The Right Way
There are three teams in the NBA today who rank in the top ten in both offense and defense.
One is the Golden State Warriors. You know everything there is to know about them already. They are somehow not first in the league in Offensive Rating – that honour would go to a genuinely good Toronto Raptors team with a 114.2 rating – but they are only 0.1 behind, while also armed with a 101.9 Defensive Rating that ranks for ninth best.
Another is the Los Angeles Clippers. Although they have dropped to second in Defensive Rating after their exceptional defensive start to the season (their 100.2 ranking second only to the 99.8 of the Memphis Grizzlies), the Clippers have used Chris Paul’s spectacular season thus far to rank fifth offensively with a 110.1 rating. The Warriors and Clippers are obvious title contenders, the Warriors especially, and they’re playing like it.
And then there’s the third team – the upstart Utah Jazz.
As of today, Utah ranks seventh in the Western Conference with a 15-10 record, and they have done so with something of a patched-up team. Due to injuries all over the rotation and especially to their best players, head coach Quin Snyder has started 11 players in those 25 games – of the clear-cut five starters, only centre Rudy Gobert has started all 25. Derrick Favors and George Hill have both missed 14 games, Rodney Hood has missed four, and Gordon Hayward has missed seven. Even Boris Diaw has missed nine.
With all due respect to a quality bench – with contributors including the heady veteran play of Joe Johnson, the versatile Joe Ingles, the spotty-yet-useful shooting of Trey Lyles and the this-guy-needs-more-minutes presence that is Jeff Withey – the Hill/Hood/Hayward/Favors/Gobert is the clear-cut best five man unit on the Jazz roster. It is also however a unit that has played all of one game and 12 minutes, 24 seconds together. Further to all this, the perpetually injured Alec Burks (13ppg last year) has yet to take the court this year as well. The Jazz have been significantly under strength all season, and with next to no continuity in their rotation thus far.
With all this in mind, how on Earth have the Jazz been good?
The depth of the team has been a significant factor in papering over the cracks, as evidenced by the changing of the guard at the primary ball handler spot. With the return of Dante Exum (who admittedly is struggling badly to figure out what kind of NBA guard he is, but who merits an audition to try and find out), the continued presence of Shelvin Mack (well entrenched now into “solid veteran” territory) and the addition of George Hill (who is knocking on the door of the Elite Point Guard club if he can do what he has done thus far for a full year), last year’s starter Raul Neto can barely get any court time. Even with Hill’s lengthy absences, Raulzinho cannot get into the rotation, finding 52 minutes all season, many of them in inconsequential moments.
This amount of change, with all due respect to Neto, greatly diversifies and improves the Jazz’s offense. The one-time playmaking wizard Neto looked rather suppressed last year – sometimes effective as a steady handler, steady three point shooter and interested defender, yet someone who could not get beyond the first line of the defense, nor do much should he find himself there. His offensive rating of 99 speaks to his limitations offensively; Mack was traded for precisely because Neto was overmatched as a starter.
Into the breach has stepped Hill, who in his career has gone from decent, to good, to now being even better than that. Hill’s 20 points per game average on the year is what has made the Jazz into the top 10 offensive unit that they have been, his combination of size and IQ being tough to read and tougher to suppress. Hill has improved year on year as an outside shooter, and he records his 20 points per game (along with 4 assists) using minimum dribbles and high efficiency. Hill floats around, drives overplays and narrow seams, makes plays out of the pick-and-roll, pushes when he can and spots up at all times. He also is a highly reassuring presence in clutch situations in a way that the overmatched Neto never was, and such late game execution can be good for a few wins per year.
Without Hill – and at times even with him - the Jazz play very slowly. They rank last in the NBA in pace and 24th in points per game, as neither Mack nor Neto is inclined to push the pace. (Exum, while he is more suited to it, is so far short of being a full time NBA point guard that he is not playing much of it, often pairing with Mack.) They instead execute well in the half court (at least, when Hill is there), using a pick-and-roll heavy style best suited to a team with athletic big men, good drivers and merely decent shooting. And it all comes back to Hill, whose addition has made the difference offensively. Without being a dynamic whirlwind in any facet of the game, Hill brings it every night and scores efficiently, the leading scorer in an offensive unit that unmistakably has more fluidity, more movement, more options, better spacing and better passing when he is in it.
Hills’s smarts and size will make for a very interesting pairing alongside the do-it-all Hayward, just as soon as the pair can play more than a week together without injuries. Hayward too has been injured, yet his hugely improved off-the-dribble game and ability to play primary ball handler expands the court, gives Hill the opportunity to work off the ball, and opens up many more passing angles and driving lane for a cutting Favors to finish at the rim. With Hood’s off-ball scoring, Favors’s athletic and powerful pick-and-roll game mixed in with occasional post touches, some bench shooting from multiple parties and Gobert’s ridiculously efficient finishing (a true shooting percentage of .700% thus far; even Shaq couldn’t crack .659%), the Jazz have enough offensive talent to stay good if they stay healthy. And perhaps even better than that if they start to truly run the ball.
The defense, though, has been arguably the more impressive part, and it starts with Gobert. An absolute snub for a Defensive Team place last season, the French big man is an anchor in the middle. Tall with remarkably long arms, good agility and instincts, Gobert is a wall around the basket, leading the NBA in blocks (2.8 per game), leading it in shot attempts defended at the basket (11.2 per game), and giving up only 42.0% shooting at the rim (for comparison, Hassan Whiteside gives up 45.1%, and DeAndre Jordan 45.7%). His length and speed also make him a heck of an option on switches, too, and Favors (1.0; 4.8; 49.1%) does a decent job flanking him with physical play, good hands and switches of his own.
The Jazz force very few turnovers defensively, yet this speaks to a deliberate ethos. Rather than trying to gamble, Snyder’s ethos is to just funnel the opponents to where he wants them, smother them, and clear the glass. Combined with that, Hill’s addition (and his 6’9 wingspan) puts a noted quality defender at the point guard spot, someone who can consistently put ball pressure on the opposing ball handler in a way Neto tried but hadn’t the tools to do. Exum should also grow into an impact defender over time – there’s a long way to go here, and the fundamentals and awareness are shaky, but the tools are undoubted.
Often lauded for being one of the NBA’s better accumulations of young talent, the Jazz have started to put it together. Buoyed by the excellent acquisition of Hill and deliberately interspersed with the heady veteran contributions of Mack, Diaw and Johnson, this young-but-no-longer-extremely-young Jazz team is moving up to the middle tier of the Western Conference, and looking very much like a playoff team.
There are many tests left to come, of course. This is not an especially proven team, and while the 15-10 record is good, it has not come via a particularly difficult opening schedule (only 23rd in Strength of Schedule). The injuries are also certainly not a thing of the past – Favors is still out indefinitely, and, as a couple of fairly horrid offensive performances in his absences have shown, the all-around strength of the team is a fairly fragile construct reliant upon the health of Hill in particular.
Nevertheless, there is a lot to like. And with significant internal growth to be expected from Lyles and Exum, along with perhaps Joel Bolomboy as well, the Jazz are still building for the future while succeeding in the present.