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NBA AM: Good Problems? Deciphering Utah’s Depth

The Jazz’s depth is posing big lineup questions even as they rack up wins, writes Ben Dowsett.

Ben Dowsett

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Midway through the third season of the best television show in history, one of the best television villains in history is contemplating a brighter future for himself.

Drug dealer Marlo Stanfield is winning his turf war with rival Avon Barksdale, and preparing for a reality where he might hold more territory and wear the proverbial “crown” of Baltimore hustlers. When an advisor points out that this also means he’ll be faced with more responsibility and pressure, plus rivals gunning for him, Stanfield’s response is among the more iconic lines in the show (warning: video NSFW).

“Sounds like one of them good problems.”

A “good problem” seems a bit like an oxymoron, but Marlo’s point was clear: A brighter future might present a few extra challenges, but they’re well worth the trouble.

And as watchers of The Wire will know, Stanfield did, in fact, hold it down once he took the crown, in some manner of speaking. He wore it longer than anyone else on the show, and was one of the only major characters in his line of work still living when the final credits rolled (plus, as we’re led to assume, he had a pretty nice chunk of change in his pocket for his efforts). A good problem, indeed.

Take away the drugs, the gangster rep, the cold-hearted murders and maybe a few other silly details: Marlo Stanfield and his good problems feel something akin to this season’s Utah Jazz.

Bear with me here.

From the moment the 2016-17 season began, Jazz fans everywhere had at least one eye toward a quickly approaching brighter future. Maybe they weren’t in line for a crown, per se, but only a few nagging injuries stood between them and the realization of a contender several years in the making.

And then a few more nagging injuries pushed the timetable back a little. And then a few more. The Jazz were winning games and staking themselves to a likely playoff spot the entire time, but it was hard to escape the feeling that their real rise lay ahead. With the full clip in tow, so to speak.

Fast forward a month, and it seems like the Jazz may have a few good problems on their hands – but potential problems nonetheless.

They’re still dealing with that same array of now-standard issues, with starters Derrick Favors and Rodney Hood both once again sidelined this week. But with those injuries hopefully minor and the rest of the team finally on the floor together, an interesting question is on the table in Utah: Is there such thing as too much depth?

When everyone is healthy, there’s an argument the Jazz employ 14 NBA rotation-quality players. Some of these are borderline, but look at the track records: Shelvin Mack started 27 games last season (the Jazz went basically .500 in those against a tough Western schedule); Raul Neto started 53 of his own in the same season, at an above-.500 clip; Jeff Withey played nearly 700 minutes, including 10 starts while Rudy Gobert and Derrick Favors suffered overlapping injuries in early 2016; Dante Exum started his entire rookie season for one of the biggest surprise young teams in the league.

With some offseason additions and actual health, though, these guys are often relegated to DNP status. George Hill has stepped into the spot Mack and Exum may have otherwise battled for, and Alec Burks’ return to the lineup after missing nearly all of last season has given coach Quin Snyder the option to play neither of them (or Neto) behind Hill – an option he’s taken the last few weeks. Favors has mostly taken Withey’s backup center role when healthy as Snyder staggers his minutes with Gobert’s and works in guys like Boris Diaw and Trey Lyles.

“You just look at numerically – I think there’s only one lineup that’s played more than 100 minutes together all year,” Snyder said.

He’s right. Only the team’s ostensible starting lineup, a Hill-Hood-Hayward-Favors-Gobert length-fest that’s still somehow been a significant net minus on the year, has crossed the three-figure barrier. There are 75 such lineups in a 30-team league, and the Jazz barely even have one of them.

The NBA isn’t a video game, and player chemistry matters a lot; at the same time, having better players to fill the roles needed on the court is a decided positive. Suddenly, continuity – especially vital in a Snyder system that prioritizes cohesive movement and attention to detail – is beginning to emerge as a real challenge for the Jazz, even with more talent on the floor. Good problems, anyone?

“You’re not going to have some of the instinctive stuff that players have when they’ve played together a lot,” Snyder said. “You have that with individual guys, with combinations. But as you work new people in, that has to develop. It’s not a question of chemistry as much as it is repetition. It’s a good thing that we’re going through this.”

In the long term, there’s no doubt he’s right. The resilience through injury made them stronger, and the ability to keep winning while working major guys back in will do the same. In the present, though, it’s created two interesting rotational quandaries to consider.

Backup Point Guard

As if this one wasn’t already complicated enough with three guys behind Hill on the depth chart, each of whom started games for this team in the last 18 months, Hill’s own various injuries thrust both Mack and Exum into the starting lineup for periods at a time. Both have been relatively all over the place this season, and Snyder has appeared reluctant to use Neto as more than a change of pace.

More recently, with Burks back on the court and returned to a more impressive form than many might have assumed right away, none of the traditional backup guys are getting any run. Burks replaces Hill late in the first and third quarters, and functions as the de facto point guard with bench units.

“When we have that lineup, particularly if it’s Joe Ingles and Alec too, they’re sharing the ball-handling a little bit on some level,” Snyder said. The real emphasis is on the other end, where the Jazz’s backups have badly struggled containing quicker guards this year. “I think [Alec’s] athleticism allows him to be impactful [defending] the ball. His size. It allows us to switch certain matchups.”

It’s a smaller sample, but the Jazz are clearly succeeding in these minutes so far. It seems tough to question that Burks is the best available option currently.

Hanging over all this, though, is Exum’s future. The young Aussie’s absent campaign last year due to an ACL injury is looking more and more damning every day. Instead of entering his second NBA season holding the keys at the point for a franchise still in development mode, he’s in a logjam for backup minutes for a team that wants to win right now.

He’s clearly doing it on a different grading scale than other Jazz youth, too. When a guy like Lyles or Hood makes a glaring schematic mistake (they happen all the time, probably about as often as Exum in Lyles’ case), they may get a talking-to or even a yelling-at. When Exum makes the same mistake, he sits on the bench – often for the rest of the game, and sometimes for games at a time. His confidence is visibly shaken, to the point where it’s become common practice in Jazz media circles to watch for Exum looking back over his shoulder for the incoming sub every time he does something noticeably wrong.

Look, it’s no one but Snyder’s place to address his handling of Exum, something local media has already run him through his paces on. His developmental track record at multiple levels of basketball is beyond even a hint of reproach, and the very real possibility that Exum simply isn’t as good as his draft slot suggests, and might never be, looms over all of this. Snyder’s mandate is different this year, and as sad as it is, Exum’s devastating injury last season isn’t Quin’s fault.

Still, it’s likely the most interesting future subplot in a series of rotational complexities that mostly affect the present. Exum becomes eligible for a rookie extension following this season, and a completely justifiable emphasis on winning games right now is making it more and more likely the Jazz still have very little clue if he’s worth a future investment by the time July rolls around. It’s one of Utah’s current good problems that could turn iffy in a hurry.

Power Forward

Favors hasn’t been completely right all season, and his struggles with nagging injuries and form over the last year and change are at least a little concerning. What’s resulted is a bit of a revolving door at the four spot, with Favors typically starting each half alongside Gobert and then mostly functioning as the backup center after the first set of subs.

Diaw and Lyles both get their turns alongside Gobert each game. While it’s surely due at least in part to Favors’ nagging issues and some noise, both these combos have been better on a per-possession basis than Utah’s presumed starting frontcourt, by over double in Diaw’s case. There have been chunks of time where the Favors-Gobert combo looks too cramped to get buckets against focused defenses, and though their season-long figures are hovering near respectable together, Snyder has been totally unwilling to play them down the stretch in most close games.

Thing is, his best choice between these three options might be…none of them.

The Jazz have played 253 minutes of small ball with Gobert on the floor and no other traditional big men, per nbawowy.com. They’ve scored at a rate just a hair short of the Warriors during these stretches. In the 212 of those minutes where Joe Johnson has been the small four, both Utah’s offense and defense have been better than the league leaders in both categories on the year (again, the Warriors in both cases).

The numbers feel tough to match with the eye test for each of Snyder’s three traditional alignments. Each unit has strong and weak stretches, skewing toward the former, and each seems to have its vulnerabilities. With these small lineups, though, there’s no visible confusion alongside gaudy numbers: Utah is really potent, and there’s a good chance they aren’t sacrificing much defensively against a lot of teams.

There are fewer and fewer true brutes at the four in the NBA these days, and the few who play big minutes are usually giving up more on the other end to guys like Hayward and Johnson. If tweeners want to post those guys up, the Jazz will gladly take most of those looks. Meanwhile, Utah can switch all over the court around Gobert, now spreading his near-literal wings as the league’s most fearsome interior defender.

And if their defensive integrity continues to hold in these small groups, there’s little doubt these are the Jazz’s best looks. This is Gobert’s purest form offensively, a hyperactive screen-setter using his rim runs to vacuum up space for the four above-average three-point shooters dotting the perimeter.

All four can usually run some pick-and-roll, too, and the Jazz can pick on weak defenders regardless of where the opponent hides them – something Snyder can look to more often in a matchup-driven playoff series.

Snyder has noticed how good they are small, and there are times where it feels like he’s resisting the urge to lean on these lineups more at the expense of his three traditional power forwards. And can you blame him? Those guys are each legitimately good!

It’s evident he sees the writing, though: Over half these small minutes come in the fourth quarter, and many have been in high-leverage crunch time moments. As the games get bigger, you wonder how much more he’ll be willing to expand their role. If they’re healthy come playoff time and the roster stays intact, the Jazz have at least five guys they can cycle through the four perimeter spots – six or seven if Snyder can trust Exum or Mack for minutes here or there.

Once again, there are some future ramifications here for these good problems.

Favors is at the center; he hasn’t had the same success minus Gobert, with those lineups mostly treading water even against a lot of bench-heavy units. Untangling his diminished play from his health issues is priority one for the Jazz, but if the answer isn’t encouraging, the clock is ticking.

Lyles is still inconsistent, but he looms as a more mobile, rangy option who provides a cleaner theoretical offensive fit alongside Gobert. Next year will be Favors’ last at his bargain contract before he gets very expensive; his value in a hypothetical trade gets lower every day until then, and even as it feels painfully early to say it, these are the kinds of things Dennis Lindsey and Utah’s front office have to consider.

Maybe this is an overreaction to what are still cloudy data samples, even if the eye test seems to back them up. Lyles is still a long way away in several areas; he’ll cover up a lot of them if he ever hits enough open threes to change the way defenses play him, but he’s taken a big step back there this year. Diaw has stretches where he’s fantastic, and fewer others where he looks his age. It’s possible that balance changes as the year wears on and legs get heavier.

If Favors’ negative indicators are all health-related and turn around soon, there are plenty of ways this works moving forward. Diaw is on a non-guaranteed deal next year, and Snyder’s willingness to use Favors as a center against benches opens up more minutes for more spaced out options around him and Gobert.

The Jazz sit fourth in the West as of this writing; it’s a bit strange to see a team with that much success despite still ironing out so many kinks in the details.

“We’re still finding out about our team,” Snyder said. “It’s a little more discovery. We know our guys – and then you have to continue to see how they play and fit together.”

These have been good problems so far, but even some good problems might need solutions. The next few months will be telling for one of the league’s deepest and most complicated teams.

Ben Dowsett is a Deputy Editor and in-depth basketball analyst based in Salt Lake City. He covers the Jazz on a credentialed basis for Basketball Insiders, and has previously appeared in the Sports Illustrated and TrueHoop Networks. He can be found on Twitter at @Ben_Dowsett.

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NBA Daily: James Harden on the new All-Star Format and Chris Paul Being Snubbed

James Harden shared his thoughts on the new All-Star game format and teammate Chris Paul not being selected as an All-Star

James Blancarte

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NBA Commissioner Adam Silver made a bold decision to alter the All-Star game format. By allowing the two highest voted players in each conference to be team captains, Silver did away with tradition and the usual West versus East format. While there were a few complaints about the switch, fans were seemingly more vocal about the decision to not televise the selection of players by the team captains.

Well, the results are in and praise for new format has been nearly universal. With players more invested in the new format, and perhaps the $100k per player bonus for the winners, the effort level was up, plays were being drawn up and executed and defense made a surprise appearance in an exciting game that came down to the final possession.

2018 NBA All-Star and Houston Rockets guard James Harden spoke about the All-Star game and the new format.

“I think it is exciting. You get an opportunity, you know, for a mixture of guys to play on the same team together. We’re trying to win though, it’s competitive,” Harden stated. “Obviously, the All-Star game has a lot of highlights but we’re trying to win, we’re going to go out there and prove we’re trying to win.”

Harden, who played for Team Stephen, did not get the win. However, Harden also made it clear that playing in the this year’s All-Star game meant even more having grown up in Los Angeles.

“To be able to play in the big boy game means a lot. I grew up, especially being from LA, you grew up watching Kobe, watching Shaq every single year. You see how fun, you see how exciting it was,” Harden said. “Now to be here, to be in the city is more special.”

While Harden made it a point to talk about what it means to play in Los Angeles, another factor he seemed excited and appreciative about was being the first player picked for Team Stephen.

“Man, that’s a great feeling. Just because in middle school I was the last pick. So, to be the number one pick in the All-Star game, that’s what the swag champ is for,” Harden said.

Harden wasn’t universally positive about All-Star Weekend. Specifically, he was not happy about being the only Rockets All-Star – especially considering Houston’s standing in the Western Conference playoff race.

“I have a lot to say about that. What are we talking about? Everyone knows Chris Paul is with the Rockets and the Rockets have the number one [record]. How does that not happen?” Harden asked rhetorically. “It’s frustrating. I know he’s frustrated. He never brings it up. That’s why I did say what I said. He’s never going to bring it up. But, I’ll defend for him. He should be here with me in LA as an All-Star.”

Harden had some success as he led his team in minutes and logged 12 points, eight assists and five rebounds. He spoke after the game and confirmed the reconfiguration of the All-Star game produced a competitive game and a fun product for the fans.

“Felt great. I hope all the fans enjoyed [the All-Star game] as well. It was very competitive. Guys got after it from the beginning of the game. Usually All-Star [games] there are a lot of dunks, a lot of freedom. Tonight was intense,” Harden said.

Harden was not wrong with his conclusion that there was less freedom. With less freedom and better defense played, Harden went 5-19 from the field and 2-13 from three-point range while finishing the game without a single free throw attempted. The lack of free throws may have irked Harden, who is renowned for his ability to get to the line (9.9 free throw attempts per game this season). Adding to that frustration, Harden had the opportunity to put his team ahead with a three-pointer late in the game but failed to connect on the shot. Unsurprisingly, Harden expressed his disappointment with the result.

“I was pissed we lost. I’m still mad,” Harden stated.

On the final play of the game, while ignoring Harden, Curry kept the ball with the chance to tie the game. Curry dribbled into a LeBron James/Kevin Durant double team. Curry wasn’t able to get a shot off and Harden was left with his hands up waiting for a pass and a chance to win the game that never came.

Looking toward next year, Harden was asked if as a possible captain he would prefer to have the player selection two weeks before or right before the game. He thought about it and then smiled.

“Probably right before the game,” Harden answered.

Commissioner Silver has spoken on the subject and is sending strong signals that next year’s selection will be televised. That will potentially add another layer of excitement to the new All-Star game format, which is already paying off for the NBA.

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Mitchell Taking Things Day-By-Day, But Loving ‘Whirlwind’ Experience

It’s been a special year for the Utah Jazz rookie sensation.

Spencer Davies

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Four-and-a-half months into the first season of his NBA career, Donovan Mitchell has accomplished some incredible things.

He won back-to-back Rookie of the Month honors between this past December and January. He leads his class with 19.6 points per game and nearly 17 field goal attempts per contest. Due much in part to his contributions, the Utah Jazz are the hottest team in the league, riding an 11-game winning streak after falling far below the .500 mark.

To top all that off, he won the slam-dunk competition just a few days ago in an event for the whole world to see. All of this has been nothing short of amazing for the 21-year-old, and even he didn’t see this coming.

“This whole thing’s just been a whirlwind for me,” Mitchell said at All-Star weekend of his first-year experience. “Just enjoying the process. There are games where I’m just like, ‘Wow this happened’ or ‘Wow that happened’ and it’s a credit to my teammates and the coaching staff and the organization for believing in me.

“Without them, none of this would be possible, so I really thank them for giving me this opportunity.”

Believe it or not, Mitchell wasn’t always so sure about where his life would go. He played for a couple of seasons at Louisville and ended up declaring for the 2017 NBA draft, a night where the Jazz stole him away from every other team by executing a deal with the Denver Nuggets to land the 13th overall pick in Salt Lake City.

“I tell people all the time this wasn’t my plan,” Mitchell said at All-Star weekend. “After two years of college, being here for All-Star and even being in the NBA wasn’t entirely my plan, so I’m just taking it one step at a time, one day at a time, praising God for this opportunity he’s given me.”

So far, Mitchell is picking things up on the go. As he keeps improving and solidifying his game on the court, he’s also bettering himself mentally.

“If I just continue to be humble and continue to learn, that’s the biggest thing is learning and understanding the game,” Mitchell said. “I make the joke that it’s easy to study film and watch all the games when you don’t have five classes to study for throughout the day. So it’s been fun and I’m just taking it day by day.”

It’s pretty awesome that he’s doing what he’s doing with friends by his side. Most of us think of this class of rookies as a special group because of their talents as players, but it’s a tight-knit inner circle of friends who are enjoying every second of life in the NBA together.

Kyle Kuzma, John Collins, De’Aaron Fox, and Dennis Smith Jr. are friends Mitchell mentioned that he’s been close with for a while, and to see all of their hard work culminate so quickly at the Rising Stars game in Los Angeles is something special.

“I’ve known a lot of these guys, pretty much everybody on this team since high school for the most part,” Mitchell said. “Kinda hanging the same way we did in high school just a lot more cameras, a lot more downtime, bigger city.

“It’s fun. Just gotta treat it like it’s fun, go out there and just be kids. Live a dream of ours since we were younger.”

After the weekend he had, Mitchell accomplished that goal.

Whether the next chapter in his career has a Rookie of the Year award written into it or not, we’re seeing spectacular things from the one they call “Spida.”

And it’s about time people are taking notice.

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NBA Daily: Tobias Harris Thrives at Every Stop

Tobias Harris was traded yet again, but thankfully for the Clippers, he’s gotten better every stop he’s made.

Joel Brigham

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When Tobias Harris was a 19-year-old rookie for the Milwaukee Bucks, he faced a lot of the same issues that other 19-year-old rookies before him had faced, most notably the ones dealing with a lack of playing time.

He only saw the floor in 42 games, playing on 11 minutes per contest when he did get out there.

Despite that, it was somewhat of a surprise that the Bucks gave up on his talent so early in his career, trading him to the Orlando Magic just 28 games into his sophomore season as part of a trade for J.J. Redick.

The Magic immediately tripled his minutes, and he’s never been a 30 minutes-per-game guy ever since. He also has never said a negative thing about any team he’s ever played for. As far as he’s concerned, every opportunity is a blessing and a learning experience.

“I didn’t look at Milwaukee as a team giving up on me. I looked at it as Orlando valuing me and seeing me as a piece of the puzzle,” Harris told Basketball Insiders during All-Star Weekend, where he participated in the three-point contest.

“The NBA is about opportunity, so when you get the opportunity you have to make the most of it. Going from a rookie not playing to where I’m at now, it takes a lot of hard work, focus and determination,” he said. “You have to have the confidence in your own self, to understand you can break through in this league.”

And break through he did, in large part because those first 18 months as a professional were so challenging.

“Adversity helped me to work hard,” he said. “I always envisioned myself as a primetime player in this league. I have a ways to go to get there, but that’s the best part about me. My best basketball is ahead of me, and adversity has helped me get there. It’s motivated me, and I want to be the best player I can be. I’m trying every single day to fight for that.”

This season, most of which came as a member of the Detroit Pistons, was a career-best for Harris.

Between the Pistons and L.A. Clippers, Harris has averaged a career-high 18 points per game, and while he wasn’t voted to the All-Star Team this year, his name popped up in the conversation. He’s never been closer.

It was bittersweet for him, though, leaving a Detroit team he liked so much.

“My favorite part was being around those guys [in Detroit],” he said. “It was a great group of guys and a great coaching staff. Coach Van Gundy is a great coach. At the same time, when I first got there, we had a chance to make the playoffs and we got in the playoffs. That was nice for me, to put that pressure on myself and get it done.”

Now, he’s ready to accept his next challenge in Los Angeles with the Clippers.

“I look at every new opportunity as a new chance,” he said. “My first trade from Milwaukee to Orlando was a situation where I just wanted to prove myself to the league. When I was traded from Orlando to Detroit, it was a situation where I wanted to help the team get to the playoffs, and that’s similar to this one here, too… I really like the group of guys that are on this team. I like our demeanor and our approach, so after the break I look forward to building that chemistry and moving forward.”

Of course, moving forward is all he’s ever done.

After everything he’s proven to date, it seems like a given that he’ll continue to make strides with his new team.

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