The Jazz's Starting Five Are MIA, but They're Still a Top NBA Team

The Utah Jazz's startign five have played a grand total of 12 minutes together this season. And still the team is on pace to hang a 50 in the win column.
December 9, 2016, 5:57pm
Photo by Russ Isabella-USA TODAY Sports

Let's run through a few quick facts about the Utah Jazz. First, they're a basketball team named the Jazz. And they play their games in Utah, so you may not be familiar with the other facts I'm about to list.

The Jazz are 14-10 after Thursday night's ritual sacrifice to the Golden State Warriors, putting them on pace for just about 50 wins as of this writing (Golden State won, 106-99). They have eight double-digit victories already—only four teams have more. They're outscoring their opponents by 4.9 points per game, the seventh-best mark in the league and one that suggests they actually might be better than their 14-10 record. Factor in the pace adjustment, and Utah's point differential (plus-6.7 per 100 possessions) trails only the Warriors, the Cleveland Cavaliers, and the Los Angeles Clippers for the best mark in the NBA. They are, at this moment, one of only three teams ranked in the top ten in both offensive and defensive efficiency.

And the team's starting five has played a grand total of 12 minutes together all season. Yeah.

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The Jazz have been without George Hill and Derrick Favors for 12 games apiece, Boris Diaw for nine games, Gordon Hayward for six, Rodney Hood for two, and Dante Exum for one. (Alec Burks hasn't played at all, and it's not entirely clear he's still alive.) Coach Quin Snyder has used 11 different players in the starting lineup at least once and he also has rolled with 11 different five-man combinations to start games, none of which has started more than three games in a row. The only game Utah's preferred starting five—Hill, Hood, Hayward, Favors, and Rudy Gobert—has played together this season was also Hayward's first game of the year. And still, the Jazz are on pace to hang a 50 in the win column.

In other words, the breakout season that many (but not all) saw coming until injuries derailed it in 2015 has arrived a year late. Given the way Utah's rotation was lengthened this off-season, it's no surprise the Jazz have been better able to weather injuries. They're getting contributions up and down the roster, from imports and from holdovers.

The big acquisition, even though he has played only 11 games, has been Hill, which makes perfect sense. His conceptual fit with Utah was so obvious that I may have somehow wished the three-way trade that landed him there into existence simply by asking for it in March.

George Hill's offense has another gear. Photo by Jesse Johnson-USA TODAY Sports

Anyone who watched Hill's work in Indiana during the 2014-15 season when Paul George was out with a horrific leg injury knew that he had another gear of on-ball offense; he just didn't necessarily always get to show it because of the way the Pacers' roster was constructed. That season was the first in Hill's career where he used more than 20 percent of his team's possessions, and rather than suffering from the standard usage-efficiency tradeoff, Hill's scoring potency actually ticked up once he got to do more with the ball in his hands. That has come in handy this season, especially at the start of the year when Hayward was still working his way back from a broken finger.

Because Hill often played next to two ball-dominant wings in Indiana (first George and Lance Stephenson, then George and Monta Ellis), he also has lots of experience playing off the ball, and he's both willing and able to make teams pay for devoting extra attention to high-usage wings like Hayward and Hood. He's a knock-down shooter from beyond the arc (38 percent for his career, 45.6 percent this season) and a smart, instinctive cutter. And here's the crazy part: while Hill has always been a good offensive player—and this year, a great one—his true strength has always lied on defense. He's one of the few true plus defenders left at the point guard position, a long-armed, strong, quick attack dog who knows exactly how to play the angles to force his man into uncomfortable spots. He did it for years with Roy Hibbert as the huge body walling off the paint, and now he's doing it with Gobert. It's no big shock that Utah's defense has been 4.2 points better per 100 possessions with Hill on the floor.

Utah's other supplementary moves this off-season were to bring in Joe Johnson (who has 45-42-83 shooting splits right now) and Boris Diaw (who is still big, French, hilarious, and alternately effective and infuriating). Both moves gave the Jazz a flexibility they didn't quite have last year. Johnson ably filled in as a starter until Hayward came back and has since slid into a comfortable role as a combo forward off the bench. Both players are able to swing through multiple positions, whether during a game or even during any given possession. They're both whip-smart players, too, which helps them fit right into Snyder's offensive system.

Joe Ingles has played in every game so far this year. Photo by Russ Isabella-USA TODAY Sports

Beyond the old heads, the Jazz also got 2014 No. 5 overall pick Dante Exum back. The 6-foot-6 Australian point guard has endured expected growing pains working his way back from a serious injury in what amounts to his second NBA season, but having him in the fold has been key with Hill missing so much time. Shelvin Mack can only play so many minutes, after all. Exum's not the only guy beyond the expected top eight who has been contributing, either. Joe Ingles is one of five Jazz to appear in every game this year, and he looks much better than he did in either of his first two seasons. His outside shooting has ticked up yet again, and crucially, he has slashed his turnover rate while not losing the aggressive passes that make him such a nice fit as a backup wing. Jeff Withey has provided additional rim protection and rebounding whenever asked, whether in extended minutes or limited time.

Then there are the four holdover starters, who have been uniformly impressive when they've been on the court. Favors missed the first game of the year and worked his way back into shape over the next 11, and just when it looked like he was resembling the Favors we're used to, went out again with a knee injury. Utah has held the fort in his absence, alternating between Diaw and sophomore Trey Lyles as Gobert's frontcourt partner.

Hayward is picking up right where he left off. Photo by Jeff Swinger-USA TODAY Sports

Hayward, after returning from his initial finger injury, picked up right where he left off a year ago: he's one of the best all-around wings in the NBA. Just about the only thing that isn't working for Hayward so far is his three-ball, and that'll come around. He's working on a career high in scoring by parading himself to the free-throw line 7.5 times a night, he's hitting the glass more than ever before, and he's on pace to post career highs in both usage and true shooting while turning the ball over on a career-low 8.6 percent of possessions—one of the lowest rates in the league for a heavy-usage wing. He injured his hand again this week, but assuming he can come back quickly, he might finally be able to snag his first All-Star Game appearance. It would be well-deserved.

Hayward's swingman partner, Hood, hasn't taken a giant leap forward, but has progressed admirably while showing off some new tricks. In particular, he has developed a Shaun Livingston-esque short mid-range game that's a force to be reckoned with. His bouncy drives keep his defender just a bit off rhythm, and because he's a left, he always seems to get that extra little space that defenders don't realize they shouldn't be giving him. Oh, and he almost ended Evan Turner's life on opening night, which is always fun.

And then there's Gobert. If he isn't the best last line of defense in the league, he's damn close. The Jazz do an excellent job of funneling ball-handlers toward him in the paint, and he does an even better job of thwarting anyone who dares challenge him at the rim. He's challenging a league-high 11.2 shots at the rim per game; among players challenging five or more, only four guys are forcing opponents to miss more often. (All four are challenging 7.5 shots or fewer. Gobert is having significantly more impact near the basket than anybody else. It's not close.) He's the only one of the starting five who has played in every game, and he's the biggest reason the Jazz are once again among the NBA's best defenses despite all the injuries they've had to endure. He's also (stop me if you've heard this elsewhere in this piece) working on career highs in usage and true shooting and a career low in turnovers. He even made a shot outside the paint last week.

Despite the fact that Utah has barely put their real team on the floor at any point this season, everything has sort of come up Jazz anyway. This team is deep and versatile and talented, and that they've played this well without being at full-strength is incredibly encouraging. It also helps that they've banked some wins that one might not have expected them to get in their diminished state, because if they do experience a slide at some point, it'll just knock them back rather than out of it entirely. Once they do get their entire squad back on the floor, though, the top of the West needs to be ready. This team is for real.

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