If you had told the Utah Jazz beforehand that they’d be coming home from their marathon road trip with a 4-2 mark in those games … well, initially they’d be confused, considering it was supposed to be a seven-game trip.
Once they figured it out, though, they’d probably be pretty happy with those results.
And with good reason, as there was a good amount to be pretty happy about. Which doesn’t mean that there isn’t yet still plenty to work out.
Before hitting the road, this was a team still searching for an identity on both sides of the ball: the offense had been inconsistent — brilliant shooting and ball movement against Portland, but occasionally overwhelmed by physicality from the likes of Minnesota and Oklahoma City; meanwhile the defense had also had its ups and downs — flustering Damian Lillard to one of his worst performances in years, only to whiff on basic rotations against Phoenix.
Naturally, the Jazz are not yet now a completely consistent outfit running on all cylinders — they are still just 11 games into the new season, after all. But there are signs of progress, which is what they want.
“I think we’re doing a really solid job,” said Donovan Mitchell. “There’s stuff we can definitely get better at, but there are things here we can look at and say, ‘This is who we are.’ The biggest thing is to continue to do it. We can’t be satisfied with this.”
Even shortened from seven games to six, the Jazz’s road trip was a long one. Here’s a look back at how the games went.
Jan. 3: Jazz 130, Spurs 109 • Super-efficient night from Bojan Bogdanovic (10-13 shooting), but 20 total turnovers.
Jan. 5: Nets 130, Jazz 96 • Kyrie Irving goes off in 1Q (18 points); Rudy Gobert apologizes for not bringing it.
Jan. 6: Knicks 112, Jazz 100 • Utah blows an 18-point lead, gets outscored 68-44 in second half.
Jan. 8: Jazz 131, Bucks 118 • Franchise-record 25 made 3-pointers carries the offense.
Jan. 10: Jazz 96, Pistons 86 • Offense gets stagnant in second half, but lockdown defense proves dominant.
Jan. 12: Jazz 117, Cavaliers 87 • Jordan Clarkson, Donovan Mitchell trade off leading the offense, which hits 24 more 3s.
So, then, let’s take a look back at the pressing issues from before they headed out and see where they stand now.
Cutting down on turnovers
Mitchell acknowledged during the trip that the Jazz have primarily been beset by two distinct types of miscues — those that come from a good place and happen to produce a bad result, and those simply originate from bad habits and/or laziness.
Things were trending in the right direction, initially — after committing 20 turnovers in their trip opener in San Antonio, they lowered that total over their next three games, to 15 in Brooklyn, 14 against the Knicks, and just 10 in Milwaukee. The past two games, though, have seen them creep back up again — to 13 vs. Detroit and 16 in Cleveland.
Coach Quin Snyder has frequently said he’s willing to live with some turnovers if it means the team is being aggressive and trying to generate better looks. But is that the case here? Utah is in the bottom third of the league in turnover percentage, and, worse still, among the bottom handful of teams in assist percentage, assists-to-turnover ratio, and assist ratio.
These are indications that there’s probably still a bit too much 1-on-1 play, something Mike Conley noted was a particular problem when the Pistons began switching everything in guarding Utah’s pick-and-roll attempts this past Sunday.
Overall defensive growth
Rudy Gobert has said on numerous occasions that the goal is for the Jazz to be the best defensive team in the league. They’re not anywhere near that, but they’re trending in the right direction.
After falling out of the top 10 in the league last season ago, Utah is (after Tuesday’s win in Cleveland) ninth in the league in defensive rating. The Jazz are among the league’s best in the areas of defensive rebounding, shot-blocking and limiting opponents’ second-chance points — no surprise given the presence of Gobert and, more minimally, Derrick Favors. They also are not sending opponents to the free-throw line very often.
They’re lower than you’d expect in opponents’ points in the paint (20th), though part of this is attributable to their scheme of limiting opposing 3-point attempts (they allow the seventh-fewest).
And they’re pretty middle of the pack in opponents’ points off turnovers and opponents’ fast-break points.
JAZZ VS. HAWKS
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One big area where they are having issues — they rank dead last in steals. No particular surprise, given that this is a typically low priority in Snyder’s scheme, and also given the lack of size in their backcourt. Still, when asked where the defense could progress, Snyder brought up the “perimeter guys’ pickup points,” noting that “you can have a presence, particularly as teams get into the scoring area.” The key going forward, he said, is to find the right balance of aggression and discipline.
One area to keep an eye on: opponents’ 3-point percentage. Going into the Milwaukee game, the Jazz had allowed their foes to shoot nearly 40% on their 3s. After the Bucks went 13 for 42 (31.0%), and the shooting-deficient Pistons and Cavs were a respective 10 for 42 (23.8%) and 8 for 31 (25.8%), suddenly Utah looks elite in this area. Small sample size skewed by some bad teams? We shall see.
Their own 3-point prodigiousness
So, the good news: The Jazz have very much become the 3-point bombardiers they sought to be. Following the Cleveland game, they rank first in the NBA in percentage of points scored via 3-pointers, second in the NBA in 3s made and fifth in 3-point percentage.
They set franchise records against the Bucks in 3s made (25) and attempted (53) in a game. A few nights later, in Cleveland, they flirted with their 3s made record again, this time draining 24 of them in “just” 45 attempts. Those two games represent the second- and third-most 3s made by a team in a game this season, trailing only the NBA-record 29 that Milwaukee itself hit.
ROAD TRIP 3-POINT SHOOTING
vs. Spurs: 21-41 (51.2%)
vs. Nets: 11-34 (34.5%)
vs. Knicks: 14-44 (31.8%)
vs. Bucks: 25-53 (47.2%)
vs. Pistons: 11-35 (31.4%)
vs. Cavaliers: 24-45 53.3%)
They also had a third game on the trip with 20-plus 3s (in San Antonio). Overall, in that six-game span, they buried 106 of 252 tries from deep — a stellar 42.1% conversion rate.
So, then, why is Utah a mere 12th in the league in offensive rating?
Well, for starters, in those three games where the Jazz made fewer than 20 in a game, they were a combined 36 for 113 from deep — 31.9%. So, when the Jazz are on from outside, they’re incendiary. And when they’re not … well, there’s a lot to be desired.
For starters, and to reiterate — not enough passing. The Jazz have some of the league’s highest percentages of unassisted field goals and 3-pointers made. So, again, a lot of scoring being done in isolation, rather than off of ball movement. Meanwhile, in spite of their high ranking in 3-point percentage, the Jazz are considerably lower in both effective field-goal percentage (12th) and true shooting percentage (16th).
They’re pretty mediocre in both points off of fast breaks and points in the paint, downright bad in points off of turnovers, and worst in the league at getting points from free throws — just 12% of the points they score have come from the stripe.
That’s partly a byproduct of their 3-point focus — you’re inherently going to get fewer free throws when you’re living behind the line. What those three areas mean in concert, though, is that Utah’s players could stand to generate some easier scoring opportunities.