November 19, 2017

There’s missing the playoffs, and then there’s missing the playoffs.

In the Utah Jazz’s case, their failure to qualify for the 2016 postseason particularly stung. As the season wound down, they not only had control of their own playoff fate, but they still had a shot of climbing as high as the fifth seed. The battered and flailing Memphis Grizzlies were in the process of dropping 10 of their final 11, and Portland was, at varying points, just a game or two ahead of Utah in the loss column. The Jazz had Houston and Dallas on their backs and a return to the postseason in their sights for much of the season’s final two weeks.

Even after Portland effectively shut the door on fifth by beating Oklahoma City, Utah still went into the final weekend needing only to win three of their final four games to guarantee a playoff spot.

They won one.

Granted, the season finale against the Los Angeles Lakers would have been a completely different game had the Jazz not learned on the bus ride to Staples that Houston was going to end their playoff hunt. But the Jazz still fumbled their playoff chances inches from the proverbial goal line, making them a unique subject for our Season Autopsy series.

Injuries = Depth Woes

It’s impossible to break down the Jazz’s 2015-16 season without talking about way they devolved into an infirmary for starter-caliber talent. Three of their presumed starters and sixth man Alec Burks each missed a huge chunk of the season.

Dante Exum (knee), Burks (ankle), Favors (back & knee), Gobert (knee) missed 174 games combined. Gordon Hayward and Rodney Hood missed another five combined. Take 179 player-games from ANY team’s best six guys and there’s going to be a cost in terms of wins and losses. In Utah’s case, the injury problem was exacerbated by the other problem: suspect depth.

None of the Western playoff teams dealt with anything on the scale of 179 player-games lost by their best six, but they survived the injuries they did have because they had honest-to-goodness NBA talent behind those players to step up. J.J. Barea took over for Deron Williams and played out of his mind. Paul Pierce, Luc Mbah a Moute, and Jeff Green helped cover for Blake Griffin’s extended absence. When Tim Duncan missed a quarter of the season, the Spurs promoted former All-Star David West.

The Jazz, on the other hand, spent huge chunks of the season relying heavily on guys that are really fringe rotation players, a choice they made when they consciously opted against improving their bench last offseason.

“We erred towards chemistry, continuity, continued development because we felt like the players and in particular the coaching staff showed great progress,” GM Dennis Lindsey explained after the season. “But the opportunity cost to that is: was there a veteran that could’ve helped us stabilize?”

The Jazz chose to prioritize opportunities for their existing roster and let the current group congeal, which actually wasn’t an indefensible gamble. Consider that even with all of those injuries, Utah still managed to produce the net rating of a 46-win team. So it wasn’t a crazy bet, even with hindsight. But even slightly better depth would have likely translated into a Jazz postseason foray.

That Pythagorean win number of 46 is simultaneously encouraging and worrying; it means this team’s baseline going forward is in all likelihood better than the 40 wins they achieved, but it also means they underperformed in games that came down to the wire.

Close Games

Utah was 14-28 in games that were within five points in the final five minutes, which explains how they underperformed their expected wins by a half dozen. It is an issue that coach Quin Snyder talked about throughout the season, and he vowed again at locker cleanout to make a priority.

“I’d like to think with more experience we’ll be more comfortable in those situations,” the second-year coach said. “We’ll look at all of it to try to process it and analyze it to be better. That’s really all you can do.”

Snyder pointed out that some of those close losses came in games were the result of his team “really (hanging) in there and making it close even though it wasn’t as close as the score indicated.” Team radio guy David Locke recently corroborated by sharing a fan’s research that 12 of those 28 close losses came in games where Utah trailed by five or more heading into the final 5:00 but then made it close before falling.

That is fine logic in explaining that 12-game sample, but it doesn’t mean that the Jazz didn’t have a problem closing games in general, as Snyder has readily admitted. Per the same fan research, Utah was 11-11 in close games when they were ahead or tied at the 5:00 mark, and that number just has to get better if they’re going to round the corner into contention. The Jazz just flat-out had too many games where they entered the final stretch in pole position, and managed to snatch defeat from the jaws of victory – including in very important outings.

Snyder pointed to defensive rebounding and free throw shooting as elements that tend to abandon the Jazz in close game situations. The former could be a function of opposing teams ratcheting up the intensity in a way that the young Jazz aren’t accustomed to, but the FT issue might be evidence of big-moment yips. They also have a defense problem overall late in games, with a pretty terrible 121.3 clutch D-Rating.

Having said all that, the fact that Lindsey has repeatedly pointed to the expected wins (46) in his analysis should be encouraging to Jazz fans, and not because it’s a way to rationalize underperformance. Quite to the contrary, it shows that Lindsey is considering that the team’s baseline going forward, meaning he’s accepting the responsibility to improve upon that number and not just their on-paper 40 wins.

The Way Forward

We can’t focus the entire autopsy on what caused Utah to fall just short. The reality is that it’s a pretty decent accomplishment to go from 25 wins to 38 to 40 almost entirely based on organic growth from within. To even get to the doorstep of the postseason, a lot had to go right for the suddenly-relevant Jazz.

Hayward played like a star, increasing his scoring average for the fifth straight year. He’s now a 20-5-4 guy (if we round), and he’s also often responsible for containing the other team’s best perimeter threat. Favors just put up his second straight 16-and-8 season, and he continues to define Utah’s defensive approach with his ability to guard in space and handle switches. And Gobert continued his subtle statistical improvement while taking bounds forward in terms of understanding offensive decision-making.

But the real revelation this season was Hood.

The Duke product displays a poise that’s well beyond his 129 games of NBA experience. He always appears under control, especially when artfully dictating the unfolding of a pick-and-roll play. He’s getting more comfortable with his coach’s directive to let fly from deep, and nearly half of his attempts are threes. Unlike many players, Hood’s three-point percentage holds up pretty well off the dribble, which makes him a dynamic threat.

But look closer and you’ll find there were different phases to Hood’s season. He looked like a stud for a two-month stretch, practically equaling Hayward’s output. From Dec. 31 through Feb. 23, he averaged 19-4-3 (again, rounded) with 44 percent shooting from three.

But for the other 54 games – the first two months of the season and the last two months – he averaged 13-3-3 and 31.6 percent from deep.

Which is the version of Hood the Jazz can bank on next year?

It’s a question that makes Hood an perfect embodiment of the most salient macro debate about where the Jazz go from here. Do they need to get better only around the edges while broadly viewing the roles and minutes of someone like Hood as sacred? Or do they need to focus on major upgrades, even if they move someone like Hood to the bench, temporarily or otherwise?

The “stand pat” crowd sees in Hood a less athletic but headier version of Harrison Barnes or a middle class man’s Brandon Roy, so they understandably argue Utah should not only keep him, but also decline moves that would compromise his status as a starter on the path to potential stardom. Others see a nice complementary scorer who doesn’t get to the line enough to ever be a consistent 20-point scorer, and whose defense is still miles behind the other end. That group would love to see the Jazz land a Nic Batum type of free agent, even if it meant Hood would lose some minutes and touches.

The same debate is there with Exum. For what it’s worth, Jazz brass is still incredibly high on the Aussie’s potential. But would an upgrade at PG accelerate the group’s progress overall to the point where it would be worth taking reps away from the former fifth overall  pick? Or, phrased more bearishly, can they really pin their improvement hopes to a 20-year-old who hasn’t played organized basketball in two of the last three years?

That the Jazz have hit the phase of team-building where those are the questions is actually a positive sign. It’s no longer about asset collection in the abstract. Its about – they hope – strategically getting better.

Dan Clayton

Dan covered the Utah Jazz for a decade for a number of Spanish-language media outfits, most recently as the team’s Spanish radio analyst for game broadcasts. In 2014, Dan moved from Salt Lake City to Brooklyn and had to hang up the micrófono, but stays involved in the conversation by contributing regularly to Salt City Hoops, the ESPN TrueHoop affiliate covering Jazz basketball.

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