The Utah Jazz lost to the Oklahoma City Thunder 88-82 in a game where they never looked sharp and never appeared to be in a rhythm. Not only were the Thunder without Russell Westbrook, but Kevin Durant didn’t even play in the second-half. It was Utah’s 4th-consecutive loss following a 101-78 victory over Golden State in their preseason opener.
Over the past two games (I watched Games #4&5 but not Games #2&3 which weren’t on TV), there have been several issues arise that give Jazz fans cause for concern. While they are serious enough to pose potential problems in the regular season, it is still preseason they deserve to be analyzed optimistically as well.
Utah’s Half-Court Offense Looks Offensive
Reasons to worry: Over the past two games, the Jazz have run very little flex offense and virtually no UCLA cuts. Instead they’ve run a lot of floppy sets that they use to get themselves into side-screen roll or post-ups. That could work if you have great offensive talent or you execute the original floppy sets with enough precision and variance to get quality shots (like the 2003-04 Jazz team did).
For example, in floppy action against Portland Richard Jefferson (first-half) and Gordon Hayward (second-half) both had possessions where they came off screens with a step on their man, caught the ball on the wing, and drove middle. Both times they coughed the ball up as help defenders dropped down from the top and poked the ball away. I’ll have more on this later in the week but I’m disappointed in the lack of imagination and execution Utah’s shown so far. If you’re going to run basic plays (pick&roll, floppy, post-ups) you better execute the crap out of them or have players who can flat-out score the basketball. If not – then you need to get creative and diversify your offense.
(Quick Tangent about “simple” offenses. People said Utah’s offense under Jerry Sloan was simple, but a “basic” UCLA set could result in:
1. A direct off-ball cut down the lane by the PG
2. The PG down-screening for the bigman stepping back for an open
3. The PG cutting through then back-screening for the bigman for a layup or deep
4. Hitting the big at the elbow while the PG runs through and:
–a. Posts-up directly beneath the rim (something Deron did a lot)
–b. Backscreens for the wing cutting from the weakside for a layup
–c. Runs through, and (if his man trails/gets caught on screen) wraps around a double-screen and pops out on the weakside for an open mid-range jumper
–d. Runs though and (if his man shoots the gap) fades to the corner depending on how his man plays him.
–e. If his man fronts/overplays top-side fakes popping out and cuts backdoor.
So right there are multiple options and at least 10 variation of a “simple” set originating with a UCLA shuffle-cut.)
Looking back to the 2012-13 season, while the starters often relied on getting the ball to Al Jefferson on the left-block, the bench (Burks/Hayward/Favors/Kanter) not only played defense but did show some promise executing more traditional Utah Jazz offense accentuating ball and player movement. In a comeback win in Orlando on 12/23/12, I recall Jazz color-commentator Matt Harpring specifically pointing out how relieved he was to see Hayward get free for multiple layups off a UCLA shuffle cut – something he said he hadn’t seen up to that point.
Utah has played well defensively this preseason, so if they can just figure out some ways to score the ball more consistently they can put themselves in position to win some games this year.
Reasons not to worry: It’s only preseason. There’s still time to workout the kinks and sharpen the execution. Utah’s roster wasn’t assembled to be a contender from Day 1. There are too many new parts and too many young players to expect a seamless transition. While improvement must be made, perhaps noticeable improvement comes from December through March rather than October and November. Even with Stockton and Malone, Utah often did hit full stride until after the all-star break. Hayward, Burks, Favors and Kanter are still learning how to be consistent focal points of the offense, and how to make their teammates better around them.
Additionally, perhaps Ty Corbin and his staff feel confident enough in their UCLA or Flex sets that they’re focusing primarily on developing a perimeter-oriented dribble-drive offense originating from a floppy series. Maybe they’re trying to help their young players grow by putting them into different types of sets so they don’t become “system players.” Again this team doesn’t have serious posteason ambitions, so why now experiment early in the season? With a loaded 2014 draft looming, what have you got to lose? (besides games)
Reasons to worry: 5 games into the preseason schedule, there are players getting minutes that you don’t expect to play meaningful minutes come regular season. For example, Justin Holiday played 14 minutes in each of the past two games. Against the Thunder Ian Clark played 14 minutes and Mike Harris played 19. At what point will Hayward, Favors, Kanter and Burks play in the mid-30’s to simulate a regular season gamer (which is just 9 days away)?
Also Richard Jefferson and Andris Biedrins have not played well at all, yet are still being counted on for major roles (starting SF and backup center, respectively). I’m on record saying both players deserve opportunities to play and that Richard Jefferson could actually be a nice stop-gap at SF to buy time until Brandon Rush is back healthy and for Burks to come off the bench.
Biedrins simply hasn’t been productive. Jefferson should be utilized as a spot-up 3pt-shooter but he’s handling the ball too much (resulting in 8 turnovers in his last 59 minutes of basketball). Also, with Trey Burke out the Jazz went from having two playmakers in the starting lineup (Burke&Hayward) to just one. Utah needs another guard who can make plays off the bounce to take some pressure off Hayward. Until Burke comes back (at the least), the Jazz need Burks in the starting lineup.
Reasons not to worry: Again – it’s preseason. Ty Corbin is experimenting freely and leaving no stone unturned. If it wasn’t for 2009 injuries to Kyle Korver and C.J. Miles – it’s unlikely Wes Matthews ever would have gotten an opportunity to play significant minutes for the Jazz. Ty is doing everything he can to ensure there isn’t a hidden gem on Utah’s roster.
Utah knows from last season Burks and Hayward can complement each other. Ty is looking to see who can anchor a dreadful 2nd-unit and still plans on playing both of them together in 4th-quarters.
Also, while Rudy Gobert appears to have more potential than Biedrins – he may not be doing all the little things that he needs to do to fully realize it. By sitting on the bench, Gobert is being forced to push himself as hard as possible to get into the rotation – which will make him a better player when the time comes. And if the time still comes in December or January, Gobert will be all the better for it.
As I’ve pointed out, even in San Antonio Richard Jefferson was an above-average three-point shooter. Maybe RJ can hold down the fort until Brandon Rush or even Marvin Williams are healthy enough to get back into the rotation. Then with Rush’s shooting to complement Burke and Hayward’s ball-handling – Burks will be more comfortable in his role providing instant-offense off-the-bench.
Entering training camp, I felt Utah’s ceiling was in the 35-40 win-range. Based off their recent play in preseason, they look a lot more like a 25-win team. Even with Trey Burke’s injury, I still feel like they should be able to approach 35-wins but their play has to improve. It’s not about a 1-4 win-loss record as much as playing well and too often this preseason Utah’s lineups (regardless of who is on the floor) have had poor stretches of play. They’re relying too much on individual players to make a play rather than working together and getting good looks at the basket as a team.
Maybe they just don’t have the talent to even be remotely successful or entertaining – or maybe it’s there and it’s just not being utilized correctly. Maybe the talent is good enough and the plan in place is as well – and the team just needs time to gel and grow as a unit. Maybe they treat us all to an entertaining season or maybe they bottom-out and head for a top-3 pick. I’m not sure what this team winds up as, but until we start playing for keeps we might as well try and stay as optimistic as possible. After all, it’s still just preseason.