The Triple Team: Jazz just get outclassed in Charlotte; Rudy Gay looks sluggish

Three thoughts on the Utah Jazz’s 107-101 loss to the Charlotte Hornets from Salt Lake Tribune Jazz beat writer Andy Larsen.

1. Maybe they’re just not that good?

There’s certainly some good stuff about the Jazz. Donovan Mitchell’s really talented, one of, oh, the top 10 offensive presences in the league. Rudy Gobert is perhaps the league’s best defender. They have a coveted coach, and credible basketball depth through about roster spot 13. And they still, remarkably, have the league’s No. 1 offense for the season.

But there have been matchups this season, including this one, where they just look like they got out-talented.

• While Donovan Mitchell is really, really skilled offensively, he’s back to being a negative defensively. While Rudy Gobert is incredibly talented defensively, he still has inexplicable offense lapses. I’m not willing to say Gobert’s a negative offensive player given all of the screening and rolling he does that does legitimately open stuff up, but it’s obviously a shortcoming. Neither, frankly, is a top-10 player overall, which does limit the team’s ceiling somewhat unless the role-playing talent is on point.

• Mike Conley is an efficient role-playing, shooting, take-care-of-the-ball point guard at this point... Kind of like what Tyrese Haliburton is right now? Patty Mills but with more playmaking? But the MIKE CONLEY!!!! magic hasn’t been around this season. He’s been actually a very valuable player, but hasn’t taken over a game late in a while.

• Royce O’Neale is the lowest-usage player in the league, tied with the Sixers’ Matisse Thybulle. But Thybulle is incredible defensively, whereas O’Neale goes in and out of being able to defend — frankly, this has been his worst defensive season since he came into the NBA by a country mile.

• Jordan Clarkson has been decently efficient recently, but he’s definitely not a defensive plus, and is kind of just a possession user with streaky results. It can be great at times, but the mehs are very meh, and the lows are very low.

• Rudy Gay has really struggled to make a positive impact all season long. Maybe it’s foot soreness, after heel surgery. But he just doesn’t look like he’s moving well at all, and at 35 years old, that’s extremely worrying.

• Juancho Hernangomez fell out of the Timberwolves rotation, the Celtics rotation, and the Spurs rotation in the last couple of years — he’s now probably the best starting SF option for the team with Bogdanovic out. Eric Paschall fell out of the Warriors’ rotation. Nickeil Alexander-Walker was the least efficient player in the NBA in a Pelicans uniform.

• Among the injured guys, Danuel House fell out of the Rockets’ rotation. Hassan Whiteside fell out of the Kings’ rotation.

• Trent Forrest is perhaps the worst shooter in the NBA in a rotation among non-centers — remember, too, that he’s a two-way contract player.

Of course, injuries to 3 rotation players are going to make some iffy players play. But, I don’t know, look at that roster again. There are obviously reasons you can talk yourself into these players. But there are a lot of guys who are being asked to play big roles despite being out of rotations last season, and a lot of players who have been good in the past but have big, obvious reasons to believe that they are declining.

Bogdanovic coming back will solve some of the problems. But there are problems — defensive ones especially — that he’s not part of the answer for. Tonight, the Jazz had a 121 defensive rating. Why should Jazz fans believe in that end of the floor at all?

Ask yourself this: was tonight’s result at all surprising to you? It wasn’t for me. And if you feel the same, then it’s fair to ask: why don’t we believe in this team to beat the Eastern Conference’s 9th best team? It might be because they’re just not that good — maybe, said more precisely, that they’re not that great.

2. Rudy Gay’s sluggishness

I’m going to zoom in on Rudy Gay for a second. This man was expected to come in and be a difference maker on both ends of the floor. Here’s one succinct roundup from preseason, from The Athletic’s Tony Jones:

“One night, they might need Gay to score. On another, they may need him to soak up a few minutes defensively on a good opposing wing offensive option. On another, they may need him to supply small-ball center minutes. On another, they may not need much from him at all.”

Well, he’s averaging fewer points per game than Georges Niang — I don’t think we’ve really seen an offensive explosion from Gay this season, and when he has been impactful, it’s just been through 3-point catch-and-shoot shotmaking, but at a lower level than Niang’s.

He hasn’t been able to soak up a few minutes defensively on a good offensive wing option. Tonight was maybe the closest we’ve seen at that, as he guarded Miles Bridges and Montrezl Harrell at various times. But this is honestly pretty lackadaisical defense, and Bridges just takes the easily gifted three.

He’s also just been a weird fit in the team’s concept, like he’s still learning the Jazz’s scheme. So, the Jazz usually switch 1-4 screens, but I see why this is an edge case: Gay and Forrest aren’t on the same page about whether the screen required a switch or not. Instead, Gay lingers, then switches out late, then sees Conley guarding his new man to try to put out that fire, then doesn’t get out to the corner in time.

It’s like it’s taking his brain two seconds to process every new look.

Gay is so long defensively, but he doesn’t frequently use that length. I truly don’t know if the Jazz want to switch this now after the befuddlement of before, but Gay pops out on this one. This pocket pass, though, is absurdly easy. And then Gay doesn’t get back into the paint quickly enough to prevent the eventual dunk.

Is that play Gay’s fault, exactly? Not really. But he’s just not impacting it much.

Finally, that small-ball center thing? It’s Paschall who’s playing the 5 in those minutes. When Gay has played the center this season, the Jazz are a -19 per 100 possessions, giving up a 128 defensive rating. Yikes.

Can he turn it around? Well, maybe. I think it gets better at some point, but I don’t think all of these problems are fixed. There are just too many of them, and the man is 35. And he’s got a $6.5 million player option when he’s 37, which certainly has a risk of being an overpay by then.

3. Uh, it is not guaranteed that the Jazz make the playoffs

Here are the Western Conference standings after tonight.

NBA standings as of 3/25.

The Jazz are just 2.5 games above a play-in spot. And to finish out the season, the Jazz have the Mavericks, Clippers, Lakers, Warriors, Grizzlies, Thunder, Suns, and Trail Blazers.

You figure they should beat the Clippers, Thunder, and Trail Blazers, right? But we’ve also certainly seen the Jazz lose to teams they should beat before; see their losses to Detroit and Houston this season.

The good news is that the Jazz do have the tiebreaker on Minnesota, so they’d need four more losses than the Wolves. They play the Celtics, Raptors, Nuggets, Rockets, Wizards, Spurs, and Bulls. I see two or three likely losses on that list, so as long as the Jazz don’t go 2-6 in their last eight games, they should be fine. I expect better than that, but again, it’s not guaranteed.

If they did fall to the play-in, they’d first play the eight seed, likely to be the Clippers. They are in free fall right now, as the Jazz saw last week. But if Paul George or Kawhi Leonard were to return, it’d would be much tougher. And if they only have one of them — well, then we know that the Clippers do have a formula of how to beat the Jazz in elimination games.

If they lost that one, then they’d play the 9th or the 10th seed, likely to be either New Orleans or the Los Angeles Lakers. The Pelicans’ length absolutely smothered the Jazz in a game earlier this month, the Jazz lost by 30. And the Lakers have had the Jazz’s number all season long, inexplicably and frustratingly.

It would have to be a lot of things that go wrong for the Jazz to miss the playoffs. But it’s now not unimaginable.

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