Same Band, New Music: How the Rudy Gobert Injury Forced the Utah Jazz to Embrace Small-Ball

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Entering the season, I was genuinely excited about the Utah Jazz. My interest didn’t stem from a belief they would be particularly good, but from what I would learn by watching them play. In an era of offensive enlightenment, Utah were contrarians doubling down on defense, size and bullyball.

After the gut-wrenching loss of Gordon Hayward, GM Dennis Lindsey rebounded pretty well and filled out the roster with shrewd signings; all the value contracts in the world don’t make up for the loss of an All-NBA caliber player and your offensive fulcrum for the past four years. When they were healthy last season, Utah quietly knocked on the door of the NBA’s elite. After one Player’s Tribune article, they were left with a roster that seemed destined to tread water—a fair compromise between a buoyant defense and an offense in desperate need of a life preserver.

But this intrigued me. The Jazz would serve as an experiment testing the viability of two-big lineups and how far a healthy defense could carry a wheezing offense. In a Western conference filled with uncertainty (outside of Golden State), Utah seemed like a known quantity to me. I thought I knew what this team was going to be every night.

We’re now a third of the way into the season and the Utah style I was counting on is in flux. The Jazz are toggling between identities and rediscovering themselves on the fly.

 

It’s Not the Size of the Frontcourt but the Motion of the Offense

Despite finding success with more skill-based frontcourt pairings last season, Snyder started the year featuring Rudy Gobert and Derrick Favors at the 4 and 5. The defense was characteristically elite1, but the team was sunk by awful offensive production (exacerbated by Ricky Rubio’s ruggedly-handsome-but-non-shooting presence).

A rough start to the season looked even more ominous after Gobert’s ugly knee injury, but the Jazz flipped the script and became one of the league’s hottest teams without The Stifle Tower. Gobert’s absence clarified the rotation for coach Quin Snyder which helped the Jazz become one of the league’s best offenses and seemingly brought about the end of the two-big era in Utah.

Table 1 - Frontcourt Pairings

Utah played with only one traditional big out of necessity when Gobert was on the sidelines, but the change has stuck now that he’s back in action. Gobert and Favors are still the starters, but they only play together for roughly the first 3 minutes of each half2. After that point, Snyder turns to more versatile players with shooting ability (Jonas Jerebko or Thabo Sefolosha) to man the 4-spot.

The result has been a team that wins on the back of a dynamic offense and average defense:Table 2 - Basic Metrics ComparisonThe lineup change helped Utah play the best version of their offense. In his feature on the Jazz, ESPN’s Zach Lowe detailed how Snyder wants (and needs) his team to play offense: advantage basketball.

“Without Hayward, the Jazz rely even more on Quin Snyder’s whirring, Euro-infused system of screens, cuts, and drives. He calls it ‘advantage basketball.’ Some players are so good, they constitute a living, breathing advantage. James Harden can walk the ball up, take one ho-hum screen, and destroy your defense. Utah’s players need a head start – an advantage. Snyder’s system runs so that whenever a player catches the ball, he has one.

The first rule of advantage basketball is that you never surrender your advantage. Get a five-foot head start, and you should expand it 10 feet before shooting or exchanging the baton. ‘You have to keep the advantage,’ Gobert says. ‘Punish them.’ Hesitation erases an advantage. When Hood or Mitchell comes off a screen and pauses to pound the ball, you see Snyder’s exasperation. The coaches have shown Mitchell that one aggressive dribble immediately after a catch covers as much territory as two or three ponderous ones, he says. Ingles will tell you: Decisiveness turns slow players into fast ones.”

That last line is key: Decisiveness turns slow players into fast ones. With Gobert and Favors sharing the court, Utah’s decision-making had to be slow and careful to navigate a cramped half-court. Any advantages were quickly squashed by defenses that could easily recover due to a lack of spacing and weapons.

In the above play, Joe Ingles has two defenders on him, but the offensively challenged trio of Rubio, Favors and Gobert form a poorly spaced Bermuda Triangle where advantages disappear without a trace. Denver has no trouble covering Favors and Gobert around the basket and they end the possession by forcing a jump-ball.

With only one big man on the floor, however, the extra space and playmaking allow the Jazz to whip the ball around and keep building on their advantages until a great shot presents itself.

The more granular tracking data available on NBA.com reveals some of the “advantage basketball” stats and how they changed after Utah downsized. All of them speak to improved decision-making—both in terms of speed and quality.

Table 3 - Advantage Stats ComparisonAlmost all of the data suggests the Jazz have been better off since moving away from the Favors – Gobert pairing, but it’s worth looking at some of the confounding factors that may be skewing the data and our perceptions.

What does downsizing mean for the defense?

Traditionally speaking, playing smaller means sacrificing on the defensive end. With all the shooting and skill on the floor nowadays, that maxim isn’t necessarily true. Two-big lineups typically mean more rim protection and better defensive rebounding, but they can also mean slower defenses incapable of closing out to shooters or switching on smaller players.

In Utah’s case, Gobert is such a devastating defensive player that he should be able to carry an excellent defense as the lone big. Look at how he’s able to repeatedly shut down the paint on this play against the Thunder:

When Gobert is on the floor, Utah should still be an elite defense. The problems may arise with the backups. Before the lineup change, Ekpe Udoh was playing tremendous defense for Utah’s bench units3. After the lineup change, Udoh is out of the rotation and Favors has to survive as the lone big in those lineups. He looks healthier than he did last year and is moving well, but he hasn’t looked capable of anchoring a strong defense.

The defense could get ugly if teams are able to penetrate with such ease when Gobert is on the bench. So far this season, lineups with Favors as the only big are conceding 108.4 points per 100 possessions (per pbpstats.com), which would be the 17th-best defense in the league. Those lineups have been excellent (+10.4 Net Rating) because they’re scoring at elite levels.

If that offensive production continues, the Jazz will happily swallow a hit to their defense, but it’s risky to read too much into Utah’s excellent offense during their hot streak.

Strength of Schedule

Utah’s offensive numbers after Gobert’s injury are tremendous, but this time period coincided with a favorable stretch of schedule. I have no doubt the lineup change was better for the offense; I’m less sure about the extent of that improvement. Fortunately (or unfortunately), this issue will soon take care of itself as Utah’s December schedule is brutal. According to ESPN Stats & Info (via Zach Lowe), it’s the toughest month any team will play this season.

Table 4 - Strength of Schedule

How good is the offense against the league’s best defenses—those that excel at snuffing out the advantages Utah craves? Will the Jazz flounder with Donovan Mitchell as their only dynamic offensive creator? By the end of 2017, we’ll have a better handle on what Utah’s one-big lineups really mean for the offense.

Two’s Company, Three’s a Crowd

Rubio image

In the age of smallball it’s easy to chastise dual-big lineups for the detrimental effects they can have on an offense, but Utah’s offensive renaissance may not be solely about the big men. There are three non-shooters in the Jazz starting lineup, and the above data might not be about separating Gobert and Favors as much as it is about not having Gobert, Favors AND Rubio on the court.

Rubio has long been an indie favorite for diehard NBA fans, and I was hopeful the change of scenery could lead to the best version of the Spaniard. Alas, that hasn’t been the case so far. He opened the season with a tantalizing scoring flurry4, but that sparkly carriage turned back into a pumpkin about eight games into the season and has at times resembled the jack-o-lantern that’s still on your porch in December because you forgot about it.

The more you watch this team, the more it feels like they work better without Rubio on the floor. Part of that is because the team has looked awesome when the ball is in Donovan Mitchell’s hands. The numbers (so far) back up the eye test. Rubio is posting career-worst seasons in assists (4.9) and assist-to-turnover ratio (4.9: 3.1 = 1.6 ratio), and the team’s performance with him versus with Mitchell is revealing.

Table 5 - Rubio vs. Mitchell

In Snyder’s pass-heavy offense, Rubio’s lack of shooting is problematic because he spends more time off-ball. This also gives him fewer opportunities to probe the defense and create shots for others, which is the only way he adds value on the offensive end. These are both structural issues that don’t seem to be going anywhere, so Utah may want to experiment with lineups featuring Gobert and Favors without Rubio.

Rubio, Favors & GobertSuch lineup combinations have only played 37 minutes all season so we can’t read too much into the data, but I think those lineups deserve more in-game testing as Snyder continues to tinker with his rotation.

 

These are all issues Quin Snyder will have to juggle as the season progresses. He deserves some credit for making a major adjustment in the middle of the season, but the month of December has already been unkind handing Utah three losses in four games. If the L’s continue to pile up, Snyder may need to again think about changes by reevaluating some of the topics discussed here.

It took an injury to their star, but Utah has embraced small-ball for now. Their arduous December schedule will reveal whether it’s here to stay.

 


1. Utah was the third-best defense in the league when Gobert got injured (defensive rating = 99.7).^

2. I understand the politics and personalities involved make this difficult, but Utah should probably just scrap these minutes as well and start Jerebko over Favors.^

3. The Jazz have a defensive rating of 97.3 when Udoh is on the floor, third-best on the team of anyone with over 100 minutes played this season (via NBA.com/Stats).^

4. Rubio’s first 8 games of the season: 17.5 points per game on 44-37-92 shooting splits and 13 FGA per game, 6.5 assists and 2.1 steals.^

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3 thoughts on “Same Band, New Music: How the Rudy Gobert Injury Forced the Utah Jazz to Embrace Small-Ball

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