It’s time for a thought experiment.
As you know by now, it’s been widely rumored that the Utah Jazz will make additional moves before the season begins. The Donovan Mitchell rumors are the loudest, but so many other players, including Mike Conley, Bojan Bogdanovic, Patrick Beverley, Jarred Vanderbilt, Jordan Clarkson, and Rudy Gay have been mentioned as possible trade candidates.
For now, however, rumors are just rumors.
So let’s say the Jazz stood pat. What would next season look like?
I figured I’d look at it from an analytical perspective. Here’s the concept: first, we’re going to statistically project every Jazz player’s play for next season. Then, we’ll build a hypothetical best-case rotation for new coach Will Hardy to use next year. Then, we’ll merge the two ideas: if these players played X well for Y minutes, how many wins would the Jazz get?
Let’s dig in.
Predicting the future is hard.
Unexpected breakouts and collapses happen on every team, every season. Injuries occur, small and large. Players’ shot variance swings up and down. Off-court incidents can impact on-court play — and so on. We’ll do our best, anyway.
Unfortunately, most of the advanced player projection systems haven’t yet released their updates for the 2022-23 season, meaning that our clearest crystal balls have yet to arrive.
So we’ll use the looking glass we have: Basketball Reference’s Simple Projection System. That system uses data from each player’s last three seasons, weighing the most recent one most heavily. Then, an age adjustment is made, improving young players’ performance while decreasing that of older players. In the end, the model spits out an estimate of how many points, rebounds, assists, and so on each player is likely to have on a per-minute basis.
Then, a calculation is made of each player’s Win Shares per 48 minutes. (Win Shares are a concept first invented by Bill James; if you’ve seen Moneyball, you might remember the reference to James as perhaps the founding father of baseball analytics.) Essentially, Win Shares are what they sound like: an effort to estimate how many wins each player’s share is in a team construct.
There’s one problem: what about the Jazz’s players who have yet to play in the NBA? Potential contributors like Walker Kessler and Simone Fontecchio don’t have past seasons of data to project from. In these cases, I used the first NBA seasons of players they’re compared to most frequently. Kessler earned comparisons of Jarrett Allen and Jakob Poeltl from The Ringer, and Cole Aldrich and Myles Turner from NBADraft.net. I averaged the rookie season of all four players to come up with his projection. Fontecchio is so frequently compared to Bogdan Bogdanovic that I just used his first season at age-25, to compare to Fontecchio’s rookie year at age 26.
You might note that there is a lot of optimism in that last paragraph. In Kessler’s case, all four of those players were drafted above the Auburn center. At least three would probably be considered excellent outcomes for the young man. And Fontecchio becoming a player of Bogdanovic’s caliber would be a major boon for the Jazz on such a small contract. But, hey, optimism is in short supply for Jazz fans right now. Let’s allow it.
Building a rotation
There are currently so many guards on the Jazz’s roster. For example, here’s CBS Sports’ analysis of the Jazz’s depth chart as it stands.
So in this world where the Jazz stand pat, they’re going to need to make some allowances. The biggest is that Hardy would need to play a lot of 3-guard lineups, in order to get his best players out on the floor. Malik Beasley, a 6-4 guard who weighs under 200 lbs, has played only 14% of his career minutes at the 3 — thanks to the logjam, I’m saying he’ll play most of his minutes at that position. Nearly every guard, save Mitchell, will simply need to play fewer minutes. Nickeil Alexander-Walker and Jared Butler would probably find themselves out of the ideal initial rotation entirely.
Meanwhile, the other positions are pretty darn weak. Small forward and power forward rely extensively on the production of Bojan Bogdanovic and Vanderbilt alone. Rudy Gay moves back into the rotation thanks to Juancho Hernangomez’s departure. And the only centers on the roster right now are Kessler and Udoka Azubuike. Luckily, both have stronger statistical projections than you might expect — Kessler thanks to my friendly choice of comparisons, and Azubuike thanks to strong per-minute numbers in his 17 games last season.
But of course, players will get injured, and find themselves in and out of favor. In the end, each team has about 19,850 player minutes during the season. I made extensive guesses as to how many games each player might play based on their recent history, assigned those on the fringes of the rotation some games and minutes, and even filled just over 1,000 minutes with to-be-determined replacement level players: the Jazz’s two-way players, or G-League call-ups to be signed later.
In the end, here’s my rough estimate of how many minutes each player will play.
Putting it all together
We now have how well the players will play on a per-minute basis, and we have an estimate of how many minutes they’ll play. So how many wins will each contribute?
Mitchell is, as expected, the Jazz’s best player, contributing 7.4 Win Shares for the season. All of Bogdanovic, Conley, and Vanderbilt — all starters in my designed Jazz rotation, earn five or more Win Shares. In this world, the young Kessler comes in and contributes right away, and even Azubuike is a plus at backup center. Beasley, Beverley, and Clarkson all play their roles off the bench.
In the end, the Jazz earn 44.6 Win Shares for the season — let’s round, and say they might be projected to have 45 wins.
Unfortunately, that puts them on the fringe of playoff contention in the NBA’s extremely tough Western Conference. In ESPN’s projections, a 45-win record would place the Jazz at the 8th seed. Considering Vegas’ over-unders, that pace would put them in the 9 seed.
And, to be honest, I do think the projections may flatter the Jazz. They see Conley largely maintaining his play in last year’s very good regular season, rather than the drop-off we saw during the playoffs. They are incredibly high on what Kessler and Azubuike can contribute despite their lack of experience. And they project at least good health for everyone: only minor injuries losing portions of the season, but no ACL tears or anything like that.
If you’d like, you can play with the numbers yourself, to create your own projections. Mine are somewhat haphazard, with a lot of guesswork. Statistical brilliance they are not.
But the conclusion is clear from both the eye test and the stats. The Gobert blockbuster deal brought Utah buckets of long-term assets, but at the expense of having a middle-of-the-road team now.
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