Since trading Enes Kanter to the Thunder at last year’s trade deadline, the Utah Jazz have played excellent basketball. The move signaled the start of the full-time pairing of Derrick Favors and Rudy Gobert, and also opened up the rotation for Rodney Hood to have a larger role. Utah finished the final 30 games of last season with a 20-10 record while sporting an elite defense that would have been the best in the NBA by a comfortable margin. The league was impressed.
Saddled with expectations of making the playoffs this season, the Jazz have managed to stay competitive despite enduring a ton of early season injuries. They are currently in the thick of a four-team battle for the final three spots in the Western Conference, holding down the eight spot although they sport the fifth best point differential in the conference.
The Jazz have their eye on the No. 5 seed, which is the money spot in the West that avoids any of the Warriors, Spurs and Thunder. Memphis currently holds that spot but after Marc Gasol has gone down for the rest of the year and trades have left them bereft of any wings that can shoot, they will be lucky to have the 8-seed come April. Utah is starting to get healthy, and a healthy Jazz team is something the league has not seen for any significant stretch this year.
When the core four of Gordon Hayward, Favors, Hood and Gobert are all healthy and playing together, this team brings one of the most stifling defenses in the entire league, coupled with a very improved offense. Utah plays a very conservative game: they play great defense by locking down the paint with elite rim protection and a conservative game plan. They don’t force a lot of turnovers, and they try to limit your possessions by playing at the slowest place in the league.
Utah runs a very simple offense that is mostly read and react. They want to play a drive-and-dish game, but they have bad spacing with the duo of Favors and Gobert. To alleviate the spacing crunch they often go to the horns formation (big-man at each elbow), where the threat of either big as a passer or screener draws the opposing big away from the rim. They are a top-5 offensive rebounding team.
Hayward and Hood have been asked to handle most of the offensive burden this season, and the two have flourished. They are arguably the most productive wing duo in the entire NBA – both are good shooters, solid defenders, and they are very effective running pick-and-rolls. How many other 6’8” wings are running pick-and-rolls for their team? There are very few wings of this caliber in the NBA and Utah happens to have two of them.
Hayward is a skilled scorer that brings vital playmaking to the Utah offense. He is a crafty and persistent driver that gets to the line, and he has great floor vision as a ball-handler.
Hayward can break down a defense off the dribble, and he is willing to take the big shot in crunch time.
Utah has actually performed pretty poorly in crunch time this season, which is strange when you consider both Hayward and Hood are capable scorers off the dribble. Those two have so much offensive responsibility that it isn’t crazy to think that they are getting worn down by the end of the game. This is where Utah really misses Alec Burks and Dante Exum.
When Hayward and Hood share the floor, simply having one run a pick-and-roll with the other spotted on the weak-side is very solid offense. If Hayward is running a pick-and-roll with Hood on the weak-side, the defense is either giving up a lane for the rim-runner, or an open look for Hood, who shoots 40% on catch-and-shoot threes.
Hood has been a stud for the Jazz in his second season. As a 23-year-old sophomore, he is older than most in his draft class but he plays like he’s been in the NBA for years. Coming into the league pegged as a shooter, Hood has also improved mightily on his ball-handling and passing, and the Jazz have given him a lot of weight in the offense. Hood has run nearly the same amount of pick-and-rolls as Hayward this season, a huge increase from his rookie year. Coming off a screen Hood has learned to squeeze his passes through Utah’s tight spacing crunch.
Utah has generated a ton of corner three-pointers this season behind the slashing and kicking of the wing duo.
Hayward and Hood are solid defenders within the team scheme, but neither is a stopper by any means.
Utah as a whole is very solid in their rotations, and they are smart about which shooter they help off. On most possessions their perimeter defenders can stay at home because their big guys can handle any penetration sans help. For the second consecutive year they have done well limiting their opponent three-point attempts.
The pairing of Favors and Gobert is a proven antidote for a top-5 defense, but the ceiling of their offense is still in question. Teams are comfortable hiding their power forward on Gobert, and he hasn’t shown any ability to exploit those mismatches. It will be nearly impossible to play both against a 4-out small lineup.
Favors and Gobert are most effective when they are setting high screens and rim-running in open space, but you can’t play that way in a 2-post offense. Favors has acclimated his game to try and make it work – he has improved his passing and jumper every year he’s been in the league. But Favors’ range is roughly elbow extended. Until he can be a threat from behind the arc, the spacing will remain tight.
Trey Lyles poses an interesting solution to the spacing crunch. He has played well in spot minutes, and in theory he is a great fit alongside either Gobert or Favors – Lyles is a 6’10” big with a nice looking shooting stroke and some intriguing ball skills. The rookie will definitely be a large part of their future but whether he can solidify a rotation spot down the stretch is to be seen.
It sounds ideal to say the Jazz should stagger their big-men minutes and start playing smaller, but in reality that would be a bad move. NBA teams win games by playing to their strengths – Utah’s strengths are locking down the paint and winning games with their defense. They slow the tempo down to play a defensive-minded game and to limit their turnovers.
Playing smaller means playing at a faster pace, which means more turnovers for a young Jazz team with very limited ball-handling options. It isn’t feasible to just change the style of play overnight and suddenly be successful in the NBA. This isn’t to say that Utah’s offense will never reach a championship-caliber level- they are ninth in offensive efficiency, and in the last month they have scored at a top-5 clip with their core four back and healthy.
But come postseason time the Favors-Gobert pairing will be game-planned and played off the floor, and this will continue going forward until Gobert can extend his range or learn to punish smaller defenders. Favors has a workable post-game, but that part of Gobert’s repertoire is not ready for public consumption.
At the end of the day this is a very young Jazz team that plays some of the stingiest team defense in the league and they continue to improve on the offensive end without even having a league average point guard.
Achieving maximum success in their offense will be a process focusing on the basics – moving when you don’t have the ball, being an avid screener, making smart cuts. They will most likely have trouble scoring come playoff time, but this Jazz front office has valued continuity and high-IQ players and they are hoping that this core can continue its trend of ascension for years to come. There is a lot to be excited about for the Jazz.