The Utah Jazz are one of the last holdouts in a league getting smaller by the year. They start two traditional big men, they don’t take a lot of 3’s (25th in the league) and they score a lot in isolations (29th in the league in assists). They win by suffocating teams with halfcourt defense and keeping them out of transition (2nd slowest pace in the league). Everyone wants to play like the Golden State Warriors and they are trying to be the Memphis Grizzlies. The Jazz are a young team with an old soul.
Everything in Memphis and Utah is built around their big men. The difference is the Grizzlies use size on offense while the Jazz use size on defense. The two pairs of big men have developed on opposite tracks at the NBA level - Marc Gasol and Zach Randolph came into the league as gifted scorers who needed to improve their defense while Rudy Gobert and Derrick Favors came into the league as gifted athletes who needed to improve their offense.
There’s nowhere to hide a poor interior defender against Memphis. Z-Bo and Gasol can run offense through the high post and the low post - they have the size to score over smaller defenders, the skill to face-up bigger defenders and the playmaking ability to pick apart double teams and make plays for each other and their teammates. The Grizzlies problem is they have never had enough three-point shooting to punish defenses for sending extra defenders at their big men.
The situation is reversed in Utah. Favors is an improving post scorer but he’s more comfortable bullying smaller guys than using finesse and touch to score around bigger ones. Gobert can’t create his own shot or threaten the defense outside of the paint and other teams hide defenders on him. The Jazz problem is their big men can’t create space in the lane for their perimeter players to drive the ball and they can’t create open shots for them by demanding double teams and kicking the ball out.
For as dominant as they are on defense, the combination of Gobert and Favors is nearly as ineffective on the other side of the ball. When they are playing together, Utah has a defensive rating of 87.8 that is nearly eight points lower than the top-rated unit in the league and an offensive rating of 95.2 that would put them ahead of only the Philadelphia 76ers. It’s probably not a coincidence the 76ers are one of the only other teams in the league that starts two centers together.
Utah’s guards spend the game swinging the ball around the three-point line and taking turns dribbling into jumpers. There isn’t much inside-out action and they don’t space the floor well enough to create ball movement so there isn’t much flow to their offense. It’s just hard for a team to score points efficiently without getting floor spacing, shot creating or playmaking from the frontcourt - the only reason the offense functions at all is because of Favors ability to knock down mid-range jumpers.
The shame is the Jazz have no shortage of individual talent on the perimeter. There’s no Tony Allen who opposing defenses don’t have to guard and they have four different guards - Gordon Hayward, Rodney Hood, Alec Burks and Trey Burke - who can shoot the ball from deep, create shots off the dribble and make plays for others. Their statistics just get suppressed because they don’t get a lot of easy baskets in the halfcourt and they hardly ever push the ball in transition.
The Jazz need a third big man who can stretch the floor out to the three-point line and jump start their offense. Trevor Booker is the first big off the bench and he is putting up abysmal offensive numbers - 3.5 points per game on 29.3% shooting. Instead of complementing Gobert and Favors, he doubles down on what they already do. The offense is significantly worse with Booker on the floor (offensive rating of 98.0) than off (106.0).
Utah is hoping Trey Lyles, whom they took at No. 12 in the 2015 draft, will eventually become that player. At 6’10 235 with a 7’2 wingspan, Lyles has the size to play either interior position in the NBA but played as a SF in his only season at Kentucky. If he can develop his offensive game and become a consistent three-point shooter, his ability to dribble and pass on the move would add a whole different element to their team. For now, they are just trying to get his feet wet and find minutes where his presence on the floor doesn’t kill them.
“There’s going to be a learning curve with a lot of rookies,” Quinn Snyder said. “We just want Trey to get out there and compete and everything else will take care of itself.”
The other option is sliding Hayward to PF and playing four wings at a time. The problem is that leaves a lot of young offensively-minded perimeter players on the floor without as much of a margin for error behind them. Utah lost the game against Dallas on Friday when the Mavs went on a 20-3 run in the 2nd quarter, with the vast majority of that coming with Hayward at the 4. This is where you see them missing Dante Exum, who was one of their best defensive players last season despite being a 19-year old making the leap from playing high school basketball in Australia.
With Exum recovering from an ACL injury and Lyles unable to handle big minutes, there may not be an answer on the Jazz roster this season. The good news is that with the middle of the Western Conference in flux they may be able to sneak into the playoffs anyway. Their record (6-6) and point differential (+2.3) don’t look great until you realize they have played the fewest number of home games in the league and young teams almost always play significantly better at home.
This is the first season where they are expecting to contend for the playoffs and their window should be open for a long time to come. Hayward is 25, Favors and Burks are 24, Gobert, Hood and Burke are 23, Exum and Lyles are 20 and they are all locked up until at least 2018. As a franchise, the Jazz are as deliberate off the court as they are on it and they have been carefully growing this group together over the last five years.
What they will need to figure out in order to become a legitimate contender is how much they should stagger Favors and Gobert’s minutes and what type of player should be at PF when they have only one of their big men in the game. Great defense and bad offense can only get you so far. The Grizzlies are proof of that.