The Triple Team: Jordan Clarkson leads the Jazz to a win over the Clippers — what has he done well this season?

(Francisco Kjolseth | The Salt Lake Tribune) Utah Jazz coach Will Hardy speaks with Utah Jazz guard Jordan Clarkson (00) as the Utah Jazz take on the LA Clippers in NBA basketball at Vivint Arena in Salt Lake City on Wednesday, Nov. 30, 2022.

Three thoughts on the Utah Jazz’s 125-112 win over the Los Angeles Clippers from Salt Lake Tribune Jazz beat writer Andy Larsen.

1. It’s Jordan Clarkson time, and what that means

The definitive Jordan Clarkson tweet:

The fun thing about Jordan Clarkson this season is that Jordan Clarkson time has expanded. He’s no longer a sixth man, trying to do as much as possible in a defined short amount of clock. Instead, he’s a bonafide starter, second on the team in minutes behind only Lauri Markkanen.

I wonder if that has played a role in his expanded approach, too. Rather than driving himself into trouble, or jacking up lots of shots that are bad for anybody else, but iffy for him, he’s running the show through a 5-man team construct.

This is a corner three for Clarkson — well created by Collin Sexton — but watch how Clarkson’s actually instructing Sexton during the middle of the possession. At first, he asks Sexton to push the pace, then almost puts out the stop sign, as Clarkson floats into open space. Sexton draws the defenders, and finds Clarkson for the open three.

And after the three, he acknowledges the work of his teammate. Well done.

Clarkson’s always been a patient scorer, with head fakes and pivots and fadeaways to get open. He’s figuring out how to use those same patient moves to be a facilitator. That hesitation here lets him get baseline on the Clippers here, forcing the help... meaning a wide open Jarred Vanderbilt can easily finish the lob.

In other words, what we mean by “Jordan Clarkson time” has been changed in a pretty significant way this season. Instead of the bursts of five, six, seven possessions in a row where he’d take shots, he’s making his stamp on the game in a much more holistic way — a couple of shots here, some passes there, some plays where he’s just a decoy. It’s very effective: he scored 33 points tonight in his 40 minutes on the floor, and the Jazz were a +19 with him out there.

2. Rotational thoughts

One thing I didn’t realize was how much watching eight seasons of Quin Snyder-coached teams would impact how I understood rotations. In the Snyder era, and especially at the end of that era, rotations were dogma. You could predict when a player would come in before the game, and changes to that rotation were extremely notable, happening once every 10 games or so. I’m used to, say, Juancho Hernangomez playing above Rudy Gay in one game meaning that it will be semi-permanent.

And look, it worked! The Jazz had the best record in the NBA one year. Snyder’s rotations were also carefully crafted to keep Donovan Mitchell and Rudy Gobert happy — Mitchell got a section of the game where he got to be point guard and have 50% usage, and Gobert got a section of the game where he could block rookies into oblivion. Without that planning, it all probably falls apart faster than it did.

Will Hardy is wildly different. Talen Horton-Tucker didn’t play at all tonight. It doesn’t seem to really mean anything. I’d bet that he plays this weekend.

Hardy only played a seven-man rotation in the second half, eschewing any playing time for anyone off the bench but Walker Kessler and Malik Beasley. That’s a move that you typically go to in the playoffs, or in absolute must-win games: it’s hard to argue that Nov. 30 against the shorthanded Clippers was that.

Clarkson picked up his fourth foul early in the 3rd quarter, and Hardy was about to pull him out of the game, Clarkson convinced him that he should stay out there. This was a good move, as Clarkson was absolutely money for the rest of the quarter.

But Sexton asked Hardy if he could have a break in the middle of the fourth... and Hardy refused! There’s no report on what Hardy told Sexton in that moment, because Hardy said that it could not be repeated on television.

There is a group of coaches and analysts looking at the rotations statistically, and Hardy has told me that he uses the data to make decisions. But he’s also definitely in information-gathering mode, which makes sense given the small sample sizes of everything.

At the moment, it all seems very vibes-based. For this team, at this moment, that’s probably perfect.

3. A zone defense appears!

Before tonight’s game, the Jazz had ran a zone defense on exactly three possessions. They did it twice against Detroit. They did it once against Chicago.

All three possessions ended up in made threes for the offense. A solid 3.000 points per possession is actually not what you’re going for on defense.

But Hardy said that his assistants told him to stick with it: after all, the zone couldn’t help but improve things. And given how leaky the Jazz’s man defense has been recently, even a bad zone defense might at least give the Jazz an ability to change things up.

According to Synergy, The Jazz used a zone for a whopping 29 possessions tonight. The Clippers only scored 28 points during those possessions. Is that about average for a half-court defense? It is! Is it better than the Jazz have done defensively recently? Also yes!

I was actually pretty impressed with the Jazz’s execution in the zone. There were problems at times, but they communicated well to fix the holes that would pop up when somebody made a mistake or the zone was pushed out of position.

Most importantly, the zone keeps players in the spots you want them to be. The Clippers set this zone offense play up to give John Wall a free lane to the rim. They eliminate two players through screens, but who’s at the rim for the Jazz? It’s definitely Walker Kessler, one of the league’s best rim protectors already. If I’m the Jazz, I love this.

Things had started to feel stale and unchaotic with the Jazz’s defense in recent games, getting beaten as often as they were. The zone helped freshen things up, I thought.

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