By Adam Spinella
Heartbreak spread through the Beehive State on Saturday night, when the Utah Jazz star center Rudy Gobert went down on literally the first play of the series. Diehard Jazz fans know just how good Gobert has been this season, and how vital he is to Utah’s chances moving forward. More than just leading the league in blocks, almost every defensive efficiency metric puts Gobert as one of the five most valuable defenders in the league. What he does to Utah’s defense is akin to James Harden’s role in Houston’s offense. And that’s not an exaggeration.
At the moment, there is no timetable for Gobert’s return. The showdown between The Stifle Tower and DeAndre Jordan was meant to be one for the ages. And while Utah’s ability to move to the second-round was certainly lowered by that injury, Game One proved that all hope is not lost.
The Jazz came out and stole a road game against the Clippers on Saturday night. The mathematical advantage they now enjoy after a road playoff win buys coach Quin Snyder time and gives Gobert more time to make sure he doesn’t rush a return from his hyperextended knee.
Utah’s deep roster has been built to withstand an injury or two. Derrick Favors, the team’s next-best big man to Gobert, can fill in fine as the team’s starting center. Boris Diaw is a savvy veteran that creates a lineup paradox for the Clippers. Jeff Withey can give solid minutes, and Joe Johnson already proved his worth by hitting a dagger They’ll be alright.
Alright isn’t good enough in the postseason, especially with the Golden State Warriors lurking in the second-round. Before the first 11 seconds of the playoffs, Utah’s chances at an upset bid and a franchise-defining run through the postseason were a bet I’d be willing to take. Now, all their hopes for a run this year hinge upon the health of their starting center.
Assessing value is such an interesting proposition, and a difficult task, for NBA teams and organizations. We are living in the midst of the statistical revolution, where advanced calculations and data analysis is more prevalent than ever. The power that all this data has can help teams make incredibly insightful decisions. It can also lead to over-simplification, relying on a number to encapsulate a totality that no formula can properly account for.
Defensive statistics and ratings are a large piece of hogwash in this fashion. On offense, points scored can be traced in a very direct and meaningful way. Assists, points scored, value based on shot location; these are all easily understood because the data gets interpreted based on logic. Defense is much harder to assign value to, since teams will choose different defensive schemes based on their personnel and the personnel of their opponents. For those who watched the Rockets-Thunder Game one, Andre Roberson banged in two wide open threes in the first quarter, while his defender James Harden stood 10 feet away and watched. It was by design. Harden’s defensive sabermetrics took a hit due to the matchup, but plays like that shouldn’t be a reflection on his individual value to the Rockets by standing 10 feet away, or on his defensive ability.
Where am I going with this, and how does it relate to the Jazz? I’ll get there soon, I promise.
Because defense is harder to quantify with readily-accessible statistics and neat numbers that are easily explained (and because defense isn’t sexy to the common eye), overall value is much more heavily placed on offense than on defense. There’s no doubt in my mind that Rudy Gobert should be the Defensive Player of the Year this season, and he might be one of the seven or eight most valuable players to their team in this league. Yet the guy wasn’t voted an All-Star, and could be passed over in Defensive Player of the Year voting for more name-brand guys and two-way stars like Draymond Green and Kawhi Leonard.
Building a team defense is a trickier proposition than constructing an offensive attack. Defenses have to both leverage individual strengths while being versatile enough to take away different types of scorers, play types and forms of attacking its weaknesses. Rarely does one team get to employ a one-size-fits-all type of defensive approach no matter who they play. The Jazz are one of those lucky teams.
Gobert is a legitimate terror in the lane. Standing at 7’1″ with a nearly eight-foot wingspan, no single player looks larger in the lane than Gobert when he extends his arms. His 214 blocks on the season and 2.6 per game were both tops in the league. He’s the true anchor of Utah’s elite defense. Teams shoot 47.6 percent from two-point range against the Jazz — the league average is above 50 percent.
Again, the stats only tell part of the story. There is no real statistic or advanced metric to accurately quantify how many shots Gobert deters just by being on the court. Routinely the Jazz will see an opponent driving down the lane, heading straight to the rim. When they see Gobert load up to spring with his massive frame and tree-like arms towards a block, they immediately sense regret for leaving their feet. Just watch Klay Thompson when he sees Gobert in front of him: he either dumps the ball off or takes a low-percentage fadeaway from six feet, one of the toughest shots to master.
Players spring free routinely against Utah, getting the ball in their hands as they dart for the rim, ready to challenge Gobert. That doesn’t mean the Jazz have poor perimeter defenders. It’s all by design. Snyder knows he has such a unique, elite piece to anchor their back line and can be much more aggressive near the three-point line. Because an analytically-driven league favors the three-point shot more than ever, it’s crucial to defend the three. Few teams, if any, are better at it than the Jazz. And it’s Gobert that allows them to be.
If the key of defensive analytics is to force the most low-percentage shots, no team is better than Utah. They protect the rim with Gobert, are physical and feisty around the three, and encourage mid-range jumpers as a result. Per NBA.com, the Jazz allow the second-fewest three point attempts per game with 22.8. The only team with fewer, the Miami Heat, run a very similar defensive scheme around their premier shot blocker Hassan Whiteside.
The guards surrounding Gobert aren’t aggressive off the ball, searching for steals to create two-on-ones that place Rudy in a difficult situation. The aggressive Jazz guards chase their men off the three and dare them to challenge Gobert at the rim, playing a mental game that’s both cruel and brilliant. They’re only super-aggressive when defending the ball, trying to get an offensive player to speed dribble into the waiting arms of Gobert. By going over the top of almost all ball screens — even against the most lethal opponents — they dictate to the offense that they’re going to have to go at Rudy. More often than not, the defense wins this battle.
It’s a scheme that’s executed perfectly by the multitude of strong defenders GM Dennis Lindsey has acquired. George Hill is excellent at this on point guards, turning them multiple times before they can even get their half-court defense set. Joe Ingles has some of the quickest, niftiest hands in the league. The Australian lefty swipes away regularly, and gets his hands on deflections more often than he eats vegemite. Gordon Hayward’s physical maturation over the last several seasons has allowed him to play against stockier wings. For all the flack they get, guards like Shelvin Mack and Dante Exum can provide pressure as well.
Gordon Hayward does most of the heavy-lifting for the Jazz on offense, and the first-time All-Star has had a breakout season that is changing his career trajectory. Give both Hayward and the Jazz organization credit for just how far he’s come from a physical standpoint. Gordon looks completely different than he did as a youngster in this league, equipped with bulging biceps and a much sturdier, dynamic frame. Combine that with great ball handling for his size, and this season Hayward has shot above 50 percent inside the three-point arc for the first time in his career.
While Hayward’s praises deserve to be sung, Quin Snyder runs what is one of the most nuanced offensive attacks in the league. Often overlooked due to their slow pace and methodical, share-the-ball style, the Jazz are barely outside the top third in the league in offensive rating, and have the eighth-best effective field goal percentage. What does that mean? They may take slower shots, but they’re taking the right ones.
Want more proof that Gobert is wildly underrated? Check out his role in the team’s offense. The guy has shot 66 percent from the field, making two out of every three shots he takes. His ability to roll to the rim off ball screens and terrorize defenses has made him a two-way player in this league. NBA.com’s play type stats have him in the 95th percentile across the league as roll men off the pick-and-roll, shooting 73.7 percent from the field when he tries to finish after setting a screen.
Why? Any ball handler can simply loft the ball up towards the corner of the rim, and whatever type of defense is employed, Gobert can still go get it and slam it home. Particularly nifty is the big-to-big screen-and-roll, where Gobert sets a ball screen for Boris Diaw. The veteran Diaw is one savvy passer, going at a slow enough pace to allow plays develop and accurately read the defense. He and Gobert have a wonderful rapport together and befuddle any opponent with this screening occurring around the elbows.
Those elbows are where the Jazz do most of their damage with Gobert. He’s a sneaky good finisher off the bounce, and with the multitude of Horns sets that the Jazz run, he commands at least some attention when he stands 15 feet from the rim. That’s when Gobert strikes with down screens, and his terror as a slip man or a roller off those actions cause just as much fear in defenses.
Having a ton of shooters surrounding Gobert is what allows him to head to the rim unimpeded after being a screener. With George Hill and Joe Ingles shooting above 40 percent from three (and Joe Johnson, too), the Jazz have spacing come from everywhere. The Gordon Hayward effect is very real as well — he is receiving so much attention from defenses that they tend to sleep on guys like Ingles or Rodney Hood.
Of course, Hayward has earned the special treatment he gets as the team’s number one option. For scorers that are dangerous both as shooters and off the bounce, the ultimate respect is to be face-guarded, where the defender turns his back to the ball and simply faces his man to mirror his movements and prevent him from getting open.
Gordon and the Jazz have the perfect and humiliating counter to any team that starts face-guarding Hayward, or at least that cheats one step or two in that direction. Utah clears out the side of the floor Hayward is on and sends him sprinting towards the rim. What opens up is a demoralizing alley-oop (usually thrown by ultimate glue guy Joe Ingles).
Offense is like a game of chess, and when you hit an opponent with one of these quick-striking lobs, every catch on the perimeter becomes easier for Hayward moving forward. Since Utah relies on his creation and scoring ability so heavily, they need to commit a couple sets and opportunities per game towards getting him more open.
They do this out of a Horns set as well. While we mentioned how much the Jazz ran things out of Horns and around the elbows, Snyder’s creativity and ingenuity melds perfectly with the most versatile roster he’s had as an NBA head coach. He can place Hayward at an elbow, get a defender on his back, and ping him off a quick screening action into a shot.
Plays like this are possible with shooters at the four position. Whether Joe Johnson, Boris Diaw (who is shooting under 25 percent from deep but still commanding perimeter attention) or the streaky youngster Trey Lyles, Utah can plug a skilled wing in at the elbows and try a nifty action or two. While versatility breeds creativity, it also handcuffs talent. Utah has chosen to use Diaw or Johnson as power forwards, limiting the amount of time shared between Derrick Favors and Rudy Gobert. Favors is the superior player to the other power forward options, but fit is paramount in Utah.
Nuanced strikes like these have helped the Jazz crawl their way into a top-four seed in the West and nearly snatch home-court away from a Clippers team that started the season 14-2. Their offense may be methodical and tactical in a way that detracts the common eye from finding its beauty, but the game within the game is what allows the Jazz to get the most out of a team without multiple go-to scorers.
The front office has some major decisions to make once this postseason concludes. Zach Lowe’s article from Jan. 2016 has proven to be prophetic, as Utah is on the brink of the large financial and roster decisions that could shake up this core just as they are rising to the top of the West. It’s a paradox the Jazz have found themselves in ever since Karl Malone and John Stockton left town. They build slowly, from the ground-up. The young players mature to a high-achieving level, then hit free agency and the small-market team from Utah is forced to get creative in their quest to both keep costs down and retain long-term viability.
Teams like Utah must prioritize youth in their rebuild, since a short-term spurt of veterans to achieve quick success leaves the team without any long-term building blocks. When the D-Will, Boozer and Okur Jazz made the Western Conference Finals in their first year after a three-year postseason absence, they had a young rookie named Paul Millsap. Millsap began to mature, and eventually pushed out Carlos Boozer. Boozer and Okur left, and were replaced with Al Jefferson. In needing to keep costs low and long-term competitiveness high, they dealt Deron Williams to Brooklyn a few months later, picking up a first-round pick Derrick Favors in the process. The rebuild was now set to be around Millsap and Favors.
Millsap left Utah for his own cash-in after the 2012-2013 season, when the Jazz went 43-39 but missed the postseason. That threw a wrench in the constant slight retooling efforts Utah had taken. The Jazz had only two seasons with a winning percentage below .500 since 1983, and the Millsap departure sent them to three straight seasons on that rebuild. A strong and well-run franchise like Utah’s wouldn’t stay down long, but the slow nature of that build meant perhaps a shorter window at the top.
Here stand the Jazz, facing the near-certainty of Gordon Hayward opting out of his player option for next season. Hayward, a first-time All-Star this season, has no need to stay in his deal. He’s 26, the top scorer on the free agent market this summer and will have a large group of suitors. He’s due a raise upwards of $10 million for next season alone.
One option might be for Hayward to sign a one-year contract with Utah, a hybrid situation to staying in Utah and a long-term deal. If Hayward signs a one-year deal with a player option for ’18-’19, he is then chasing the new provision of the Collective Bargaining Agreement, the Designated Player exception. If Hayward makes an All-NBA team next season, then the Jazz (and the Jazz only) can offer him a five-year albatross of an extension worth upward of $250 million total. If he makes an All-NBA team twice before inking that Designated Player deal, the total worth of money received from this point forward could be above $300 million.
That total is probably worth betting on. It’s almost twice the amount of money he receives if he inks a four-year max somewhere else this summer. Hayward doesn’t need to rush out of Utah, a situation where the Jazz are competitive in the short term and long term if he stays. If he feels comfortable with his odds of making the All-NBA team next season, he’d be wise to bet on the Jazz.
Utah does have a leg-up in keeping Gordon, but that advantage comes at a cost. Also hitting the free agent market is point guard George Hill, and the combination of he and Hayward is an expensive combo to keep. Even if the Jazz waive Boris Diaw before his $7.5 million for next season becomes guaranteed on July 15th, they’re still above $71 million. Ink Hayward to a maximum $30 million 1+1 deal, and the team salary is hovering around $100 million. They can swing the numbers to keep Hill and valuable role player Joe Ingles, but it will be close.
The other option would be to unload Derrick Favors as the team looks to free up more space around Rudy Gobert on the court and cap space off it. Favors, on a modest expiring deal, will only be 26 when he hits free agency in July 2018. For a team looking to retool that has cap space that summer, Favors would be worth a gamble at center. Acquiring his Bird rights gives a team a leg up on keeping him, and for teams that are a little cap-saddled needing a splash like Chicago, Charlotte or Milwaukee that could push them over the hump next year.
The good news is what’s on the horizon. Utah has a glut of cap space freeing up after next season, making them players on the free agent market in July 2018 for more supplemental pieces. Even if they trade Favors and his expiring deal, they have enough cap space to absorb a some money in their cap space if it helps them get under the mark immediately.
Optimism is the flavor of the month in Utah, but that all hinges on the decisions made by Gordon Hayward. Winning in the playoffs now would only help their case to convince their top scorer to stick around. Look forward to the summer at your own peril. Writing off this current season because they don’t have the name recognition or a healthy Gobert is to underestimate the smart and savvy features the organization possesses. If one thing is certain, it’s that they’ll need both Gobert and Hayward to keep the franchise moving forward from this impressive 50-win campaign.