The story out of Salt Lake City on the NBA’s trade deadline day was that they mostly chose to believe in what they had. They did make a small deal to shore up their deep bench by surrendering a second-rounder to add guard Shelvin Mack, but GM Dennis Lindsey mostly chose to prioritize “continuity and chemistry” over the allure of new shiny objects.
That continuity has eluded the Jazz so far this year. A slew of injuries bogged Utah down in December and January, including a stretch where they lost 14 of 22 while Derrick Favors, Rudy Gobert, Alec Burks and Rodney Hood all missed time with various maladies.
But when this team is whole, they’re pretty good. They still haven’t been able to put all of Lindsey’s handiwork on display this season because of a long-term injury to purported star-in-the-making Dante Exum, but they’ve had stretches where the rest of their core has been healthy, and they’ve excelled. For example, during the first 18 games of the season, with everybody but Exum playing, Utah had the West’s fourth best “Simple Rating”, a Basketball-Reference metric that adjusts a team’s point differential based on opponent strength and home/road. Translation: the Jazz were awesome until all the injuries hit.
Even despite the clunky, injury-riddled stretch from December and January, SRS still sees Utah as the fifth strongest team in the West. The difference between that ranking and their actual record – currently eighth place if we go by the loss column – is the ridiculous number of close losses they’ve suffered, mostly while missing parts of their core. If you add overtime losses to regulation losses of four points or less – so all games where the loser trailed by zero to two buckets after 48 – nobody has more than Utah’s 11 heartbreakers (Minnesota also has 11). That right there represents the difference between the Jazz clinging to an eighth place tie and an alternate universe where is battling with Memphis and Dallas for a chance to avoid the GSW/SA/OKC triangle of death.
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Recently, their fortunes have turned some. They’ve gotten most of their core back, and the results are aligning back to that November read-out. Burks is still rehabbing a surgically repaired ankle, but the rest of the main group has been back, and Utah has won seven of nine.
They’re 13-9 in the 22 games for which they’ve been able to suit up all of Favors, Gobert, Hood and Gordon Hayward, and their hope coming down the playoff stretch is that those 22 games are more indicative of who they really are than their overall record, which just bobbed back below the .500 line after a loss to the Washington Wizards.
The key to their recent success has had a lot to do with a return to the core group’s defensive identity, but the offense has been really solid as well over the last 10 games. While their lackluster performance in the capital on Thursday was enough to drop them out of the league’s top 10 in offensive efficiency, they’re still outperforming the projections for a team with two traditional big men and a lack of reliable outside shooting options.
Hayward and Hood are good three-point shooters who combine for nearly four makes a game, but they’re also the primary creators of the offense. Raul Neto and Joe Ingles have shot well, but are low-usage players, and Trey Burke’s stroke from three comes and goes.
Utah has mitigated that with a smart offense that layers action upon action upon action. They don’t call a lot of plays, per se; rather, you’ll hear coach Quin Snyder shout out a string of actions, all in code. The Jazz screen and re-screen, and the ball has moved well for the last month or so, but smart defenses know where they need to apply pressure, so a lot of possessions still end with Hayward, Hood or even Favors needing to bail them out.
Utah runs a lot of fluffy stuff early in their sets – action that is either superfluous or is meant to yield something but rarely does. Some of this could be Snyder laying the foundation for later improvisation, though, so nailing the execution on that complex set-up stuff might help Utah expand its offense later. For instance, now they might run flex action down low to get one of their bigs popping up into high post position, when they could have just started the play with the big in the high post. But over time, that same flex action might catch a defender sleeping as the second screener slips free for a dunk, so if running that a thousand times build that kind of muscle memory and recognition, it won’t have been a wasted exercise.
But it’s not always just window dressing. They do some fun things to catch the opposition off guard and confuse defenders as to who’s the screener, who’s the screenee, and where the help should come from. Watch this play where they set up in basic horns formation, but then Gobert flips his pick and it turns into a staggered screen for Hayward that leaves the defender in the dust.
That play also includes another device that we’re seeing a lot of in the league lately: the fake screen. Watch around the :04 mark when Burke comes around to the weakside as though he’s going to screen for Hayward to go backdoor. He even signals for Hayward to come use the pick, which is obviously a decoy.
Utah uses a ton of dribble hand-offs as a means of getting the ball in Hayward’s or Hood’s hands, and it basically becomes a delivery mechanism for a pick-and-roll. A huge portion of Gobert’s and Favors’ assists come from DHOs out front when the defending wing doesn’t really play it like a screen and tries to go under to meet up with his man on the other side. The Jazz’s perimeter players – all of them – have a green light from Snyder to pull up when given that space, and in fact he often expresses frustration when there’s hesitation about accepting that gift from the defense.
Just in the last month or so, they’ve also been employing a healthy dose of side DHOs, with a guard coming from the baseline and curling around on the handoff. This is lethal because in these scenarios the guard winds up coming to the middle of the floor and forcing defenses to react. Or, when someone mobile like Favors, Trevor Booker or even rookie Trey Lyles catches the big man over-helping, this kind of response is available.
But if we’re totally honest, the calling card of this group of players is their defense. They have the third stingiest D-rating over the last 15 games, a stretch in which they’ve allowed the fewest three point attempts in the league. Gobert’s return – followed by Favors’ – gives wing defenders the luxury of running shooters off the three point line. Snyder preaches discipline on close-outs, with defenders running at shooters and not past them. Even if they get frozen by a shot fake, having mistake-erasers like Gobert and Favors as a last line of defense makes this a sound strategy – allow an off-the-dribble attempt against two of the league’s best paint protectors instead of allowing the three.
Burks’ impending return should help the Jazz cover for deficiencies at their weakest position (PG), and the addition of Mack at the very least gives them another option on nights like Thursday when Neto and Burke were 2-for-13 combined, and struggled just as much on the defensive end.
But really, the key to this team making the playoffs will be the continued health of Hayward, Favors, Gobert and Hood. If those four can suit up for the next 29, Utah should have enough juice to elbow past at least one of the Memphis-Dallas-Portland-Houston group that stands between them and their first playoff appearance in four seasons.