We’ve just climbed over the halfway point of the NBA season. The Utah Jazz own a 26-16 record while wedged deep in a playoff race.
I’ve asked contributors from four local Utah Jazz sites to join a Q&A. John English and Greg Foster of our own TornBySports are joined by Dan Clayton of Salt City Hoops, Ryan Aston of Purple and Blues and James Hansen of SLC Dunk to grade the Jazz first half success, pick the team’s MVP and most improved player, and the biggest surprise. This is part one of a three-part series analyzing and projecting the Utah Jazz’ success.
Without further adieu, let the discussion begin:
What grade would you give the Utah Jazz through the first 41 games?
John English: A-. Their record is about what I thought it would be if they were mostly healthy. At the same time, they’ve had some losses they had no business losing (Bulls, Kings).
James Hansen: A-. This year had a chance to be a recurring nightmare from last season with all the injuries, but because the team has kept a winning record it’s been more of a deja vu. The difference this year has been when the injuries, we still won games. Yes, there have been some disappointing losses (especially the Heat loss) but the Jazz have weathered their losses and haven’t crumbled like they have at times in the past. Much of the credit for it goes to Rudy Gobert and Gordon Hayward who have been amazing this year.
Greg Foster: B+. They’ve exceeded my expectations, but there’s still room for improvement. Yes, there have been times where they’ve underwhelmed, but when you factor in the amount of injuries, and that they’ve only played a couple games with their full starting lineup, you can’t scoff at a 26-16 record. They’re well on their way to a 50-win season and their first playoff birth since the 2011-2012 season.
Moreover, this team is 9-1 when George Hill and Gordon Hayward play together. That success is something that should carry over to the second half of the season.
Another thing that’s really impressive is that the Jazz are one of only three teams that are in the top-10 in both offensive and defensive efficiency — the Jazz are best defensive team in the NBA. Now that they’re back at full strength, there’s a chance those numbers could go up(!).
Dan Clayton: B+. There are times when they could have done better, but being halfway to 50 wins despite all of the injury craziness is amazing. I don’t think people realized what Gordon Hayward played through when he first came back. and we’ve still barely seen the tip of the iceberg in terms of how George Hill makes this team better. Finally healthy, the Jazz will make a nice push over the next month and then be tested with tough games and trips to close the season.
Ryan Aston: A-. Given everything that’s gone down with the injuries, the patchwork lineups and the schedule, the Jazz have done a pretty incredible job for themselves through the first half of the 2016-17 campaign.
In sports and in life, I’ve always adhered to the credo that things are never as good or as bad as they seem. The Jazz have managed to hit both ends of the spectrum; they had a four-game losing streak in November and had a stretch of three losses in four games during the recent road trip, but have also scored multiple three and four game win streaks to arrive at their 26-16 midseason mark.
Through the ups and the downs, my opinion of the Jazz has largely remained the same. They’re a pretty good team and a threat to win a playoff series.
The fact that they’ve managed to not only stay afloat, but thrive in spite of their injuries, ranking among the best teams in the league in terms of offensive and defensive rating, is a small miracle. Hence the high grade.
Now, if they can get their chemistry going and have everyone firing on all cylinders come playoff time – look out.
Who’s the team’s best player?
John: Statistically it’s Rudy Gobert. He’s the best defensive player in the NBA, and he’s now an asset on offense, not just due to his improved free-throw shooting, but his willingness to constantly set screens. He’s #2 in the NBA in screen assists. His personal Net Rating is 29 (http://www.basketball-reference.com/players/g/goberru01.html). Then again, Jazz are 3-4 when they don’t have Gordon Hayward.
James: Gordon Hayward. Surprising no one, his game has gotten even better this year. Some has come from personal improvement, but it’s also helped having better talent around him, namely George Hill. Gordon get’s to his spots with a ton of confidence now and is hitting his shots. He’s the cog that makes everything roll on offense and is still a stout defender. If we don’t re-sign him this offseason, I will shed many tears.
Greg: Gordon Hayward, and if anyone tells you otherwise they’re either drunk or haven’t watched the Jazz play this year. He’s posting career highs in points, rebounds, and free-throw percentage, while lowering his turnovers. Gordon’s also established himself as one of the team’s leaders and go-to guys. In a league that’s driven by stars, that’s incredibly important.
It’s been a few years since Hayward made his official “NBA jump,” but this 2016 campaign he’s putting together is the best of his career. He’s cemented his position at a top-5 small forward in the league, and should absolutely be making his debut in an All-Star uniform this February — regardless of how ugly those uniforms are.
Dan: Gordon. Easy button. His 22-6-4 are star numbers, but it goes beyond that. The way every opponent plays the Jazz is a function of Hayward, and he continually makes the right basketball play in response to every scheme he sees. That means he doesn’t force things, instead trusting the offense to flow, and some people mistake that for passiveness. It’s not. It’s selflessness you want from your best player. And he’s become an elite (if still underrated wing defender).
Ryan: It’s Gordon Hayward, who continues to be the straw that stirs the Jazz drink. Hayward has played near All-Star level for awhile now, but his consistency and overall production have been better than ever through the first half of the season.
His offensive game alone makes a strong case here; everyone knows about the 22-6-3.5 line, the shooting uptick across the board and the five 30-point games. What really seals the deal for me, though, is his defensive performance. Hayward is often charged with covering the opposition’s most explosive scorers and manages to hold his own more than you would expect.
Rudy Gobert is a close second here. He’s played in every game for the Jazz, he continues to give the squad it’s defensive identity and his offensive game has reached new heights. However, Hayward is still the top dog in the 801.
Who’s the biggest surprise?
John: I knew George Hill was an upgrade, but I didn’t know he’d be this big an upgrade. He’s having a career-best in points and 3-point shooting, and his defense is predictably excellent.
James: Joe Ingles. If you told me before the season that Ingles would become the best 3 point shooter in the league and become a defensive presence, I wouldn’t have believed you. He’s been fantastic off the bench and, because of his versatility, you can plug him into multiple positions. He’s also lowered his turnovers and hits big shot after big shot to help us win multiple games. His offseason will be really interesting.
Greg: Rudy Gobert. When Rudy first came in the league, he looked — and played — like a baby giraffe in a pair of roller skates. But he’s improved every year. We all knew he was talented, but none of us thought he’d be leading the league in blocks per game, along with defensive efficiency . Throw in that he’s also top five in rebounding, field goal percentage , screen assists, offensive efficiency and true shooting percentage, and you have a player that’s ascending into stardom.
He’s also currently on a streak of like 25 straight games with a double-double. SO basically what I’m saying is that if you’re currently doing something that Karl Malone never did, you’re probably a pretty good player.
Long story short, Rudy’s been a monster this season and like Hayward, deserves to be an All-Star. He has a palpable desire to succeed and improve, and his hard work is paying off. And while Hayward is the Jazz’s best player, Rudy is its most important.
Dan: Rudy Gobert’s step forward has been remarkable, but nobody saw this coming from Joe Ingles, right? He’s still top 5 in three-point percentage among qualified shooters, and lately his on-ball defense has met several big challenges. I assumed before the season that Jingles was going to be the Jazz’s 11th man. Now, suddenly, he’s Utah’s best and most reliable non-starter.
Ryan: George Hill, hands down. Most Jazz people thought the team pulled a rabbit out of their hat when they turned the No. 12 pick in a ho-hum draft into Hill, and I was definitely one of them. What I didn’t expect was for Hill to come in and make this his team almost immediately.
Given the fact that he handled the ball about as much as Ian Mahinmi as a member Indiana Pacers, there was bound to be an uptick. But the 18-4-4 line, 52 percent shooting, 48 percent from three and the team’s 11-1 record when both he and Hayward are in the lineup is probably beyond anything we could’ve reasonably expected.
Who’s most improved?
John: Gordon Hayward. Not just the improvements in strength and scoring, but his leadership is clear this year. He’s playing with the confidence of the best player on a playoff team.
James: It’s close between Rudy and Gordon, but I have to say Rudy. Last year his offensive game was mostly getting buckets from offensive rebounds or dunking. This year he’s doing so much more. He still gets the offensive rebounds and dunks, but he’s also rolling and finishing, he’s catching the ball much better in traffic and he’s even developing a drive game that has to terrify opposing rim protectors. On top of all this, he’s shooting a much better percentage than last year!
Greg: Rudy Gobert (see above).
Dan: It’s not showing up in his counting stats in a jump-off-the-page way, but the impact Gobert has on his team and the opponent has never been quite like this. His defensive presence seems even more imposing than last year, but really it’s the awareness and impact on offense that has changed who he is as a player. Consider this: while Derrick Favors was hurt and both Trey Lyles and Boris Diaw were scuttling, the Jazz got by because Gobert was THAT good.
Ryan: Gordon Hayward may be Utah’s best player, but Gobert is arguably the most valuable one. He was good before, but I think he’s now established himself as the league’s most intimidating paint presence and a legitimate threat on both sides of the ball.
Obviously, the biggest areas of improvement have come on the offensive side of things. As of this writing, Gobert is second in the NBA in field goal percentage at over 66 percent and leads the league in points per shot at 1.90. The latter is an incredible number; aided in large part by the fact that Gobert has morphed from the guy who opposing teams fouled intentionally to one that is flirting with 70 percent from the line.
Whether a B+ or an A-, it’s clear the Utah Jazz are on the right track – the playoff track. Gordon Hayward, Rudy Gobert, George Hill and Joe Ingles have all played a significant role in the shift. Tomorrow we’ll take a look at what to expect the remainder of the season.