Three thoughts on the Utah Jazz’s 111-104 preseason loss to the San Antonio Spurs from Salt Lake Tribune Jazz beat writer Andy Larsen.
1. Yeah, this team’s not going to be sneakily competitive, I don’t think.
The Spurs started a lineup of Tre Jones, Devin Vassell, Keldon Johnson, Jeremy Sochan, and Jakob Poeltl tonight. Frankly, that’s not going to scare nearly anyone in the NBA.
And yet, they accumulated a 27 point lead on these Jazz in Vivint Arena, who were missing just Mike Conley and Malik Beasley. Why?
Defense is the biggest thing. I suspect that the Jazz hoped that Jarred Vanderbilt’s athleticism and Lauri Markkanen’s size might be able to cover for the lack of rim protection... but so far, they really can’t. And because the guards that the Jazz have — Collin Sexton, Jordan Clarkson, Nickeil Alexander-Walker, Jared Butler, even Conley and Beasley — are just not going to be a defensive help on the ball.
So you get possessions like the very first one of the game, where Clarkson gets toasted by Tre Jones (certainly not the quickest guard he’ll defend this year), the entire team has to collapse in order to prevent the layup, and then the Spurs get an open three.
And then offensively, the team just has a lot of chuckers. All of their guards, save Conley, are shoot-first over pass-first. Like, Talen Horton-Tucker’s offensive aggression was legendary in Lakerland, but for all the wrong reasons. I’ll give him this: he is open on this shot! It’s just not his shot, and it shows.
It’s a battle for “balance,” as coach Will Hardy described it, to get a whole bunch of guys like this — who will take this shot but clank it off the side of the backboard — to play in-control team basketball. We’ll see what happens, but I don’t think it’ll easily lead to wins.
2. Jared Butler’s play
Jared Butler was perhaps the best Jazz player tonight: 13 points, albeit on 4-12 shooting, but he added seven assists, seven rebounds, two steals, and a block.
Butler had a miserable summer league, his contract is expiring, and there are still informed Jazz observers who think he’ll be cut. The coaching staff has not gone out of their way to praise him in interviews. There is the unfortunate truth that he is small, and will always be small. Frankly, that means he’s always likely to be a liability on the defensive end.
I, myself, have seen my light on Butler dim after the rough start. But there’s no one else on the Jazz right now that has the pick-and-roll passing ability to go around a screen, manipulate a defense with his eyes, and make a no-look pass like this.
And hey, maybe just being defensively present like this, then offensively in control, might just be enough.
He has to decrease the amount of dribbling, and has to get into actions faster. This isn’t college, with the long shot clock. He probably has to eschew shooting at the basket as part of his offensive game — again, he’s too small, and he’s not a great paint finisher. But do I think he can be a capable NBA backup point guard? Yeah, I think there’s a good chance, and in this season of discovery, I think they should see what Butler can be.
3. So, who’s going to get cut?
After cutting Saben Lee over the weekend, the Jazz now have to make two more cuts of guaranteed money players before the roster deadline of Oct. 17 — just six days away. Who’s going to get the axe?
First, I believe the most likely player to get cut is Udoka Azubuike. His fourth-year option hasn’t been picked up yet, so he’s an expiring deal. He hasn’t been able to stay healthy at all, when he has been healthy he’s looked out of speed with the rest of the NBA. He’s constantly out of shape, and while injuries might play a role in that, it’s hard to argue that he’s gone the extra mile in his recoveries. Perhaps most importantly, his biggest advocate in the organization, Dennis Lindsey, has been gone for a good while now.
Who else? Well, tonight’s rotation from the Jazz might have given further hints.
Let’s zoom in on Rudy Gay’s chances of being cut. The odds that the 36-year-old is going to be a contributor on the next good Jazz team are just vanishingly small. He is currently not good. He’s not an additive player from a team cohesion point of view — it’s not like he’s always finding the open man. He instead takes a lot of shots that you can probably take out of the offense. As a veteran leader, his impact is probably less than Mike Conley’s, Kelly Olynyk’s, or Jordan Clarkson’s.
But he makes $6.5 million for the next two seasons — the second season is a player option — and if you cut him now, you have to pay all of it. That means you don’t even have the option to use his contract as salary ballast in another deal. And while nobody actually wants to play Gay at his current level of usefulness, if you waive him, you can’t do something like Gay for, say, T.J. McConnell from Indiana, taking on McConnell’s extra year in exchange for a younger player and maybe an asset.
The Jazz gave him 25 minutes tonight — fourth most on the team! Do they believe that, a year further removed from heel surgery, they can show other teams that he has something to add? Maybe. But, well, he did not make that case tonight.
Who else might they cut? Butler was first off the bench at the guard position, and played really quite well. Nickeil Alexander-Walker was also in the rotation, but he had a rough night, going 0-4. He’s also expiring, and also on the fringes of the NBA.
Leandro Bolmaro did not play. Here’s a fun fact: out of players drafted in the first round of the 2020 NBA Draft, Bolmaro and Azubuike have played the fewest minutes. His defense is NBA-caliber, as is his passing — but he just does not score at an NBA level at all, not from inside or outside the arc.
Stanley Johnson is a very good NBA defender, but is still just lost at the other aspects of offense. Still, he did make the Lakers better at times last year, and he’s just 26. I think he has some NBA value left. He, however, did not play tonight.
In the end, my prediction might be Azubuike and Bolmaro as most likely cuts. But we’ll see; of course, there’s still one preseason game left to play.
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