Editor’s note: Ken Clayton is a writer for Salt City Hoops. This story is part of a collaboration between SCH and The Tribune that seeks to create more dialogue and community for Utah Jazz fans.
When the Utah Jazz wrapped up a 129-107 victory over the Portland Trail Blazers this week, it marked the end of the first quarter of the team’s NBA season. With 21 of 82 games in the books, it’s a good time to see what we can learn about how the various Jazz lineups have performed so far.
While 76 different 5-man combinations have graced the floor for at least a minute during the Jazz’s season so far, the vast majority of the work has been done by five main lineups.
Going forward that number is likely four, now that Rudy Gay has replaced Eric Paschall in Quin Snyder’s rotation. At a higher level still, there are actually just three main types of lineups:
1. The Jazz starters plus Joe Ingles
2. The Donovan Mitchell-led units while Mike Conley and Rudy Gobert rest
3. The Conley-Gobert lineups that dominate opponents’ benches
Here’s a breakdown of each, with a look at non-garbage time performance (via cleaningtheglass.com).
This group includes the regular starters — Rudy Gobert, Bojan Bogdanovic, Royce O’Neale, Donovan Mitchell and Mike Conley — and five-time substitute starter Joe Ingles, who some contend should start based on his improved performance when he does. Lineups featuring only these six players have spent 704 possessions on the court this season, or 36% of all possessions.
This grouping of six players is fairly dominant on the scoreboard: it is in the 93rd percentile for offense on a per-possession basis, 77th percentile on defense, and 92nd percentile with their overall efficiency differential of +12.4 point per 100 possessions. Aside from tightening up that defense a little, there’s not a lot of room for improvement here.
The main five-man lineup within this larger grouping is the usual starting corps, having played a team-leading 511 possessions, and their results look pretty similar. They score a fraction of a point more, and they defend a little less effectively, giving up about two extra points per 100 possessions. Due to that, they end up with a +10.9 differential, which is still very good.
In fact, that’s the best mark of any lineup in the NBA with at least 350 possessions together.
Potential hidden gem: Many anticipated when the Jazz reshaped their roster in 2019 that the Gobert-Bogdanovic-Ingles-Mitchell-Conley grouping could become Utah’s version of a “death lineup,” but that unit has struggled in the past. So far this season, however, those five together have excelled, producing a +38.8 efficiency differential. They have only shared the court for 67 possessions, so it’s a little early to consider the results statistically valid, especially when considering that the vast majority of these reps came against the Pelicans (the second game) and the Blazers, two games O’Neale missed with an ankle injury.
The interesting thing about this lineup is that it hasn’t worked because it is an offensive juggernaut. That isn’t how they dominated New Orleans and Portland. They actually scored slightly below average for Jazz lineups, and the huge efficiency differential has mostly been driven by a stingy defense: these five together hold opponents to 77.6 points per 100 possessions, the lowest figure for any group that has played more than about ten minutes together.
Is this a sign that this “death lineup” has worked out whatever issues have plagued them in the past? Probably not entirely, because that level of defense likely can’t last. But even if they’ve just improved some defensively, they could still be dominant. It will be interesting to see if they continue playing together once O’Neale returns. Of their 34 total minutes together on the season, 29 came in the games O’Neale sat.
For roughly 16 minutes each game, Mitchell stays on the court while Conley and Gobert rest during the middle of each quarter, usually sharing the court with Hassan Whiteside, O’Neale, Bogdanovic and one of either Ingles or Jordan Clarkson.
All variations of the Mitchell-led hybrid lineups, with no Gobert or Conley, have played a combined 509 possessions, or 26% of the team total.
Overall these lineups are slightly worse than average for the Jazz, but still far better than league average. They score more, but defend less effectively than the average team possession, and still boast an enviable +9.2 differential. (The similar configuration in last year’s rotation posted a collective +0.9 mark.)
The most interesting finding is in the stark difference between its two most frequent variations. The version with Clarkson enjoys a +12.7 advantage, but when Clarkson is switched out for Ingles, it plummets to -4.7. The Ingles lineup scores far less and surprisingly defends far worse than the Clarkson groupings. That doesn’t mean it’s Ingles’ fault, but this particular lineup certainly doesn’t seem to work well for him or the team. There are plenty of others that work well for both.
Defending Clarkson: It’s also worth noting that none of the Clarkson lineups with Mitchell and Whiteside suffer from a negative efficiency differential. In fact, expanding to look at all Clarkson lineups, of his top twelve, the only three with a negative differential are those including one or more of Paschall, Trent Forrest or Jared Butler. In those scenarios, spacing was probably not to his advantage.
The overall rating of all lineups with Clarkson is +13.5, which seems surprising, particularly given how much he struggled shooting the ball for a good portion of the early season, but it’s a good reminder that while these ratings are a product of all ten players on the court at a given time.
When Gobert and Conley return to the game to close the first and third quarters and open the second and fourth, they enjoy the opportunity to play predominantly against bench players. Most nights, they take advantage. The All-Star duo has played 416 possessions without Mitchell this season (21% of the non-garbage time total), and the results have been dominant. Over 85% of these possessions have come in two lineups: the Gay version and the Paschall one.
When sharing the court with Ingles, Clarkson and Paschall, Utah’s veteran stars have parlayed a 115.0 offense and a 97.7 defense into a +17.3 efficiency differential. That’s great, and will probably lead some to ask why Paschall has lost his spot in the rotation.
The answer is that the same lineup with Gay in his place has been even better. Gay’s offense and gravity have pushed this lineup to a 131.7 rating on offense, so even though the defense isn’t as staunch, the end result is a +24.5 net positive for Utah.
With Gay back in action, that’s the version that will probably constitute most of the Gobert-Conley lineups going forward, as long as everyone remains healthy. Gobert-Gay-Ingles-Clarkson-Conley is the quarter break lineup moving forward, and it has been spectacular so far.
Forrest facts: Most nights, Snyder hands a few of Conley’s minutes to Butler (early in the season) or Forrest (more recently). With Forrest and Gay on the court, the numbers have been even more ridiculous. We’re talking about a 158.6 offense (100th percentile), a 90.3 defense (100th percentile) and an unreal +68.3 difference -- albeit in only 29 possessions. Gay’s recent return and Forrest’s sparse minutes probably mean we need more time to see how much those figures hold up over the long haul.
What to Watch
It will be interesting to see what changes over the next quarter of the season. Gay will become more visible as he plays more than seven games, and Snyder will probably try to focus more possessions into lineups that work vs. those that don’t produce as well, while still maintaining the health of the team.
Of course, none of this happens in a vacuum. Different matchups and a more difficult schedule await, and opponents are always scouting in an attempt to counter whatever the Jazz are trying to do.
But so far, all three main lineup configurations have been largely positive for the 14-7 Jazz.