Tuesday, February 9, 2016

Jazz

1) Utah has a spacing problem upfront

The Jazz hadn't won a game in Dallas for five seasons and the story of the last few times they came into the AAC was always the same. The Mavs would hide Dirk Nowitzki on Rudy Gobert and pack the paint to a ridiculous extreme while Gobert and Derrick Favors would struggle to chase Dirk around the perimeter. Utah's defense is built around locking down the paint but that's only so valuable against a Dallas team that likes to bomb jumpers off the dribble while the Mavs are a smart veteran team that does a good job of letting guys who can't shoot shoot. It looked like the same thing would happen on Tuesday, as the Mavs were comfortably ahead for most of the night. The difference was that Quin Snyder went to Trey Lyles at the 4 and opened up the floor. The plus/minus numbers say it all.

Gobert; -16 in 37 minutes
Lyles: +14 in 14 minutes

All of a sudden, with Lyles dragging his man out on the perimeter, there was room for Favors to roll to the rim on the pick-and-roll. The name of the game in the modern NBA is spacing and playing a stretch 4 next to a rim-runner at the 5 rather than pairing two C's without much range on the perimeter made all the difference in the world. A lot has to go right to run a 2-post offense in the modern NBA:

1) Two big men who can punish smaller defenders with their back to the basket
2) Both big men have to be able to step out to at least 15-20+ feet in order to create room for the other.
3) Three shooters on the perimeter
4) A point guard who can control tempo and enter the ball into the post

How many of those checkmarks can Utah actually hit? The Mavs were hiding Dirk and Chandler Parsons with relative impunity on Gobert. Neither Gobert nor Favors can shoot 3's and neither is much of a threat to put the ball on the floor. For as great as they are on defense, they are so easy to game-plan against on offense that it puts a ceiling on what the Jazz can do. It works reasonably well in the regular season, but when they get to the post-season and every coach starts to game-plan like Rick Carlisle does, the basic spacing problem is going to rear its head time and time again.

2) Trey Lyles is the answer at the 4

Lyles was incredible in this game. Not only was his skill-set huge in opening up the floor for everyone else, he dominated his individual match-up on Dirk, at least on offense. Dirk is obviously not very good at defense anymore but you rarely see an opposing big man turn him into a traffic cone so completely. Dirk does a decent job of using his size to stay in front of guys who can't shoot and crowding guys who can't dribble - he's absolutely helpless when he's going up against a guy who can do both. At 6'10 235 with a 7'2 wingspan, Lyles is a big man who can dribble, shoot and pass and he has an incredible feel for the game. What stands out about watching him in person is just how fluid he is with the ball. He has a high basketball IQ and the game comes really easy for him.

He's a great match with either one of the Utah C's. He's not a great athlete by any stretch of the imagination and he will definitely need to play with a rim protector behind him. Gobert and Favors are both more than capable of anchoring their defense and they both need to be complemented by an offensive-minded 4 who can thrive at 20+ feet, whether it's shooting the ball or making plays off the dribble. Lyles ceiling will be determined by his 3-point shot and he's posting really solid numbers in his rookie season (20-46). If he can consistently make 2-3 a game at a 35% clip, he's going to be a very special player.

It's hard to come up with a good comparison for Lyles because he's such a unique player. I remember at the 2014 McDonald's All-American Game they asked all their players to list an NBA player whom their game resembled and Lyles said he was Carmelo Anthony mixed with Tim Duncan. At the very least, you have to appreciate his confidence. He's a super-sized 4 with the game and feel of a 3 and the speed of a 5. The closest guy to compare him too is probably Boris Diaw, though he's not as athletic as Boris was in his prime and he's not as slow as Boris is now. There's definitely some Paul Millsapp in his game, although he's bigger and some Markieff Morris, although he's much smoother and more fluid.

The thing to remember about Lyles was that he was an elite recruit. He would have come into college behind an avalanche of hype were it not for the fact that he was in a perfect position to be hidden in college. He was forced to play out of position as a 3 next to two lottery picks at the 4 and 5 (Karl Towns and Willie Cauley-Stein) and two guards who loved to hold the ball and couldn't space the floor (The Harrison) on a team that had so many NBA prospects that they were using platoons for most of the season. There was just no opportunity for him whatsoever to put up statistics so you can pretty much throw away anything he did at the NCAA level in terms of his numbers, which is a huge problem for modern front offices who are almost blind without them. He ended up falling to a team that didn't depend on stats for illumination and could use their eyes to evaluate players. If you were scouting the box score, there was nothing too special about Lyles. The only way to properly value him was to know how to look beyond the stats and to evaluate his skill-set and his physical tools.



3. Rodney Hood looks like a star

Lyles isn't the only guy whose outperforming his draft slot in Utah. The Jazz managed to draft Rodney Hood with the No. 22 pick in the 2014 draft, which looks absolutely ridiculous now. He was the best player on the floor on Tuesday and he was the difference in the game, with 29 points, 5 rebounds and 5 assists on 26 shots. At 6'8 205, Hood is a do it all wing player who can guard all 3 perimeter positions, stroke 3's, shoot off the dribble and set up his teammates. The Mavs love to play small-ball line-ups on the perimeter with multiple PG's and Hood absolutely devastated them. There's just nothing smaller guards can do to stop him. Check the impossible shot he hit to send the game into OT:


"Because of his size and because of the way he shoots and elevates, those are tough shots to contest and tough to block. When he's in his range in that 12-15 foot pocket, he's just hard to guard." - Quin Snyder

Hood is a better shooter than Hayward and he might actually be a better scorer too, at least down the road. It just seems like he's a little smoother with the ball in his hands. Hayward has to expend a lot of energy to get shots off sometimes - Hood just flows into open shots like it's the most natural thing in the world. There are two keys to guarding guys on the perimeter - 1) throw longer and more athletic defenders on them and 2) force them into doing something they aren't comfortable doing, whether it's shoot, pass or dribble. The problem with Hood is that there aren't many guys in the world who are longer and more athletic than him and he has a pretty complete game.

When you have a guy who hits both of those checkmarks, you have a guy who could be the primary option on a good team, which means you are looking at an All-Star caliber player. The combination of Hood and Hayward is going to make the Jazz a special team and that's before you even get into guys like Favors, Gobert, Lyles, Alec Burks and Dante Exum.

I'm not saying he's James Harden (he isn't) but this is an interesting comparison considering they both came into the league as role players asked to play off other guys:

4. The Jazz are a young team on the rise


Utah has had a really tough season while dealing with a seemingly never-ending string of injuries. The good news is they have managed to stay afloat and they appear poised to make a strong push going into the 2nd half of the season. At 26-25, they are the No. 7 seed out West, one game ahead of Houston at No. 8 and one game behind Dallas at No. 6. They are only 3.5 games behind Memphis at No. 5 and with Marc Gasol out indefinitely with a broken foot the bottom half of the Western Conference playoff race is wide open. The Jazz are the only team in that mix with a positive point differential. I wouldn't be surprised if they move all the way up to No. 5 and it seems unlikely they will fall too far from that spot in the standings anytime in the next few seasons.

Here's the five I would go with:

Exum
Hood
Hayward
Lyles
Gobert

That still leaves Burks and Favors, both of whom could be starters on elite teams. They are basically going to have 7 high-caliber starting players, all of whom can do multiple things on both sides of the ball. They have one of the best front offices in the league and they have found their coach. It's been a long time coming in Utah but when it starts coming it's going to start coming fast.

5. Erick Green and Chris Johnson could be players too

The Jazz have a great eye for talent and it's probably no surprise that, like the Thunder, they are a branch of the Spurs front office tree. While they didn't have the benefit of Kevin Durant falling in their lap, they did have the benefit of learning from some of OKC's mistakes. Just like OKC, they are a small-market franchise that really values the draft and the pipeline of young playes isn't slowing down anytime soon. The difference is that they have a coach who seems to know what he's doing and whose not as tied down to giving minutes to veterans who cannot play.

They signed Erick Green to a 10-day contract and he got his first real playing time on Tuesday when Trey Burke sat out with a flu. I liked him a lot coming out of Virginia Tech and he looked good against Dallas. At 6'4 185 with a 6'6 wingspan, he's super fast and he has great size for a PG. He was the co-ACC Player of the Year as a senior but he didn't get a lot of publicity playing on a Tech team that had just fired their coach and he has spent the last three seasons bouncing around the NBA, the D-League and Europe after being drafted in the 2nd round by the Denver Nuggets (another team that has proven they know what they are doing when it comes to the draft). His D-League numbers paint a pretty picture - he's shooting really well (48.4% from 3 on 6.7 3PA's) and he's posting the best assist-to-turnover ratio of his career (4.3 assists on 1.7 turnovers). Here's a hot take for you - I'm not sure Trey Burke is a better player.



The hits never stop with Utah because Chris Johnson looks like a solid player as well and he actually got a lot of the crunch time minutes on Tuesday. At 6'6 205 with a 6'11 wingspan, he has a great combination of length and athleticism and he definitely moves like a guy who can have a long NBA career as a defensive specialist. It's just going to be a matter of whether he can knock down 3's - he's 16-57 (28.1%) this season.

What I really love about what the Jazz are doing is they are targeting 25-26 year olds who have put in time in the D-League and who are dying for a chance to play in the NBA. There's no Kendrick Perkins or Derek Fisher or Caron Butler in Utah. The Thunder brought in role players from one of two extremes - either they were 10+ years in the league and couldn't play anymore or they were under-23 first-round picks whom their coaching staff couldn't (or wouldn't) trust to play in the playoffs. The Jazz are bringing in guys in that sweet spot where the mental and physical elevators intersect.

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