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The Triple Team: Utah Jazz deep bench players show shortcomings in loss to Blazers

(Francisco Kjolseth | The Salt Lake Tribune) Utah Jazz guard Mike Conley (10) engages in one of many special handshakes with teammates before the start of the game against the Portland Trail Blazers, at Vivint Smart Home Arena, on Wednesday, May 12, 2021.

Three thoughts on the Utah Jazz’s 105-98 loss to the Portland Trail Blazers from Salt Lake Tribune Jazz beat writer Andy Larsen.

1. Jazz haven’t done a great job managing the back end of their roster, and it’s costing them now

Roster spots No. 10-15 aren’t the most important in the NBA: those guys rarely play in the playoffs, and so it makes sense to allocate as many of your salary resources to your first nine players as you can. That’s exactly what the Jazz have done: the Jazz’s top nine players are making the most money on the team, while the 10-15 players on the roster are all making rookie deals or minimum contract money. That’s great work, salary cap wise!

I do not think the Jazz have done the best they could have done with the end of the roster, even taking into account the limited money they had available. Essentially, they’re taking the same approach as they did when they were still rebuilding, using nearly all of the back-end spots on the roster on lottery ticket second-round picks. Only Ersan Ilyasova is a veteran player.

But when you have two injuries — not a huge number of injuries, actually, this late in the season — players 10-15 on your roster have to play. And when they do, you’d prefer them to be better than the Jazz’s have been.

Trent Forrest was as bad as you can be tonight. Defenses, trying to actually win games, are scouting him now, and not even bothering to close out on his shot. Even on wide, wide open attempts, he shot 1-9. I don’t need to show you highlights of that.

Usually, you’d hope he’d make up for that with average defense or ballhandling, but he had four fouls, two turnovers, and was driven by like this:

There are no guards in the NBA who play rotation minutes while being as bad as of a shooter as Forrest is. I think he does good things, and is a reasonable gamble on a two-way contract — but the Jazz needed to have a better third point guard on the roster than Forrest. Now that defenses are scouting him, he is unplayable — a mistake by both Quin Snyder and Dennis Lindsey.

Maybe Utah’s thought was that the third PG would be Matt Thomas. After all, the Jazz spent a pretty decent second-round pick on him at the deadline. I’m pretty sure his shooting struggles in Utah are a fluke: he’s better than a 25% shooter, the percentage he’s shot in a Jazz uniform thus far.

But I don’t know — he’s the classic guy who is a terrific shooter, but perhaps too small, and too limited in other areas, to make a difference in the NBA. There’s a fine line between Jimmer Fredette and Seth Curry, essentially, and Thomas is falling on the former side rather than the latter right now.

Miye Oni has been a fan favorite all year, but I’m not sure if he’s a rotation caliber player, either. The biggest problem is that he’s not skilled enough offensively: a below-average shooter, passer, playmaker, and so forth. He can rebound and defend some, but he’s not so elite at those tasks that he has a Royce O’Neale path to playing big minutes, either. The key stat on that end is this: no guard in the NBA fouls more on a per-minute basis than Oni.

First-round pick Udoka Azubuike has been hurt, but when healthy, Quin Snyder was playing Juwan Morgan as the third center instead. Morgan, a personal favorite, has a tremendously high basketball IQ and, in the end, pretty limited skills. We haven’t even really seen second-round pick Elijah Hughes — he must be really behind in practice defensively.

I think there are other teams who have shown how to do this better. Would I rather have Austin Rivers, who was waived earlier this year and a free agent for a month before signing with Denver, over any of these players? I hate Austin Rivers, and yet the answer is yes.

I’m also jealous of Phoenix, having Langston Galloway, Cameron Payne, Frank Kaminsky, and Torrey Craig in their C lineup. Those are either definite or near rotation NBA players, at the minimum, and Phoenix made it work.

Look, there are counterexamples. Portland’s 10-15 is worse than Utah’s, and Dallas’ salary structure is different. The Lakers, Clippers, and Warriors can get the best bottom-tier free-agent talent, as the glamour markets.

But the Jazz’s roster construction at the end of the bench hasn’t been optimal for a contending team, and it’s making this stretch of the season harder than it needed to be. Tonight, the Jazz were outscored by 19 in Forrest’s 20 minutes, for example.

2. Rudy Gobert is officially not allowed to post up

I am on record as to basically encouraging Rudy Gobert’s offensive experimentation this season. After all, he would be a better player if he had a post-up game or a clear ability to drive to the basket, and therefore, my thinking was that the regular season is the perfect time to develop that. If it goes well, Gobert’s value expands. If it goes poorly, no huge harm done.

Well, we’re now at the end of the regular season, and it has officially gone poorly. He has scored 0.59 points per possession on post-ups, 0.44 points per possession on spot-up drives or jumpers, and 0.66 points per possession on isolation drives.

Those are all terrible efficiency numbers, and we’re at 55 times this season in which he’s tried to do one of those plays, per Synergy.

Tonight he had a couple of ugly turnovers at a critical time in the game, as the Jazz were trying to make a comeback at the beginning of the fourth quarter. Centers just can’t lose the ball this easily.

So, with all due respect for how good of a player Gobert is, experimentation time is nearly over. He has two more games in which he can do whatever he wants — but in the playoffs, there can’t be any of this. He should essentially never post up, and only drive if there’s a clear, uncontested lane to the basket. Anything else is wasting critical possessions at critical times.

3. Defense finding players they can help off

The brilliance of the Jazz is that they surround Gobert with four terrific shooters. It makes it incredibly hard to play solid pick-and-roll defense, because you essentially have to play two-on-two — and then a screen eliminates one of those defenders.

But without Conley and Mitchell, the Jazz’s spacing has fallen off a cliff. Look how aggressive the Blazers can be on Bojan Bogdanovic: they even have very excellent help defender Robert Covington guarding Forrest here, so he can play rover and disrupt all sorts of plays.

Okay, but the Jazz aren’t going to play Trent Forrest in the playoffs. No worries, right? Well, I’m a little concerned with how teams are going to defend Royce O’Neale. Here, they leave him open to trap Bogdanovic up top, too:

Now, the Blazers may well have left any player to do that, hoping Bogdanovic doesn’t spin back to where he came from to make a pass.

But Jordan Clarkson — who had a very nice game tonight, by the way — said that he felt the difference in the way teams were guarding him now compared to earlier in the season.

“I’ve been seeing a lot of double teams, top-locking, denying,” Clarkson said. He’s also just seeing a lot more bodies in the paint, too, when he drives.

It does go some way to show the importance of spacing in the NBA. In short, spacing just allows your best players to do what they do, and tonight, Portland (a bad defense) shut the Jazz down in part because they didn’t have much of it.

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