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Utah Jazz’s small sample size of smallball shows plenty of room for improvement

Hassan Whiteside’s ejection last week provided an opportunity for Quin Snyder to deploy a lineup without a traditional center. It did not go well, but players see the value in making it work.

(Rick Egan | The Salt Lake Tribune) Toronto Raptors forward Chris Boucher (25) shoots as Utah forward Rudy Gay (8) defends, in NBA action between Utah Jazz and Toronto Raptors, at Vivint Arena, in Salt Lake City, on Thursday, Nov. 18, 2021.

When Hassan Whiteside was ejected after just 2 minutes and 54 seconds of action last week against the Oklahoma City Thunder, it left the Utah Jazz with little recourse other than to try out a scheme fans have been eagerly anticipating since this past June.

smallball.

After all, playing starter Rudy Gobert 45ish minutes in an early-season game was not a palatable option. And second-year center Udoka Azubuike was not with the team, having been assigned a developmental stint with the G League affiliate Salt Lake City Stars. No, coach Quin Snyder suddenly had no alternative but to deploy the likes of 6-foot-8 Rudy Gay and 6-6 Eric Paschall as the team’s nominal “bigs” for some stretches vs. OKC.

So, what were everyone’s first impressions of how it went?

“Ummmm,” Whiteside began, letting several seconds of empty silence elapse, as he chose his next words carefully, “… we can work on it.”

Gobert, meanwhile, was far less tactful.

“Hopefully Hassan doesn’t get ejected anymore,” he said with a smile.

Soooooo … we’ll just say there’s room for improvement, then?

Well, no surprise, really. That was to be expected, considering, y’know, they’d never deployed that lineup before.

Still, it’s not as though there will never be a need for it. After all, this is a Jazz team that was repeatedly victimized in the playoffs last year when, late in the series, the Clippers eschewed a prototypical big man in favor a smallball, 5-out lineup.

Gobert was publicly castigated as incapable of defending smaller opponents in space, when really Utah’s perimeter defense failed over and over again, putting the DPOY in the position of having to choose between allowing a straight-line drive to the rim, or staying glued to Terance Mann — who has averaged making 0.5 3-pointers per game for his career — in the corner. Even so, having more options at their disposal could scarcely be considered a bad thing.

And so, ever since, there’s been an expectation the Jazz would dabble in the dark arts of going small themselves, and anticipation of such reached a fever pitch when Gay joined the team in free agency this past summer. That fever ultimately receded a bit to more normal temperatures, though, when the Jazz added Whiteside to the mix, prompting general manager Justin Zanik to proclaim the team now had the viable and likely option of playing the same defensive scheme for 48 minutes a game. Gay’s offseason heel surgery only further diminished opportunities to try it out early.

Needless to say, no one was terribly surprised when the Thunder exploited Utah’s smallball debut by relentlessly attacking the rim.

“It’s easy — you don’t have an 8-foot Frenchman in the middle there to clog everything up,” said Gay. “He’s Defensive Player of the Year three times for a reason. And we feel it when he’s not out there.”

“It’s not just [on Gay], it’s just the way the whole team plays defense,” added Whiteside. “You need a rim-protector out there. That’s the style they’ve been playing even before I got here. So, that’s just what everyone’s accustomed to.”

Even if its initial rollout left a lot to be desired, though, the Jazz nevertheless saw the value in it.

“It’s good for our guys, I think; there’s an understanding of how we can be better defensively,” said Snyder. “Some of it is you’re used to playing a certain way, particularly in pick-and-roll situations. And then when there’s a different action that you’re defending, whether it’s a screen action or transition, your habits have to change, and there has to be more activity, you have to be shifted more. There’s adjustments that those guys have to make that are more challenging than you might think, because they’re used to playing in a certain way with Rudy or Hassan, and then you have to play differently when they’re not out there, because it’s more about five guys working together than playing a different style with that.”

Both Rudy G’s pointed out that there simply hasn’t been a great opportunity to work at it, with the Jazz’s predominant scheme so tailor-made to take advantage of Gobert’s unique skills, and with both he and Whiteside flourishing in the minutes they’re getting. Furthermore, the Jazz’s personnel simply may not be an ideal fit for a 1-through-5 switching smallball style, considering it’s optimized by having five guys in the 6-5 to 6-9 range, and neither Donovan Mitchell nor Mike Conley really fit that criteria.

Regardless, Gay says it’s a skill the Jazz must improve upon for down the road, and he’s confident that Snyder will devise a way to make it work.

“That’s something that, eventually, we have to get better at — if that’s what we want to do. I think at some point we’re gonna have to do it. That’s just basketball nowadays,” he said. “But I’m coming into a team that — I’ve played smallball 5, but this is a team that has been very reliant on Rudy, so it’s gonna take some coaching. I think Quin is definitely going into his little Batcave to figure stuff out. The hamster is definitely rolling in that wheel in his head. He’s thinking it out.”

Perhaps counterintuitively, Gobert — the player least likely to benefit from the Jazz going small — is one of the biggest advocates of the Jazz being able to do it.

Whatever helps the team win, he’s for it.

“In a way, it’s good. I think it’s good for us to experiment with that, and then get better at that so we just get better in every kind of situation,” Gobert said. “Hopefully we don’t have to do it anymore. But if we do, it’s always a great opportunity for us to get better as a team.”

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