The Utah Jazz win with defense. You know this. I know this. The Jazz know this. Their opponents know this. Ever since Rudy Gobert was elevated into the starting lineup for good a few years ago, the Jazz have become a perennial top-three defense, and this year, they rank second in the NBA in points allowed per 100 possessions.
Utah has other strong defenders, of course, but everything the team does defensively is based around the fact that Gobert is the league’s best paint protector — a singular shot-altering force who erases large swaths of the floor through his presence alone. No matter who the Jazz have on the floor alongside him, they are almost sure to prevent points at an elite level.
Utah’s offense is a bit different. Quin Snyder runs a system predicated on ball and player movement, one that depends on a series of dribble hand-offs, pick-and-rolls, and flare screens to create space for players to operate. The system, though, is at its best when that space is being created for Donovan Mitchell. He is by far the team’s best off-the-bounce creator, as well as the player to whom they are most likely to turn whenever they need a bucket.
So long as the Jazz have Gobert and Mitchell in the game together, they can maintain their principles on both sides of the floor and, at the same time, experiment with different looks that allow for more diversity of play. Utah, though, typically does not stray from one of two configurations: a two-big frontcourt with Gobert and Derrick Favors, or a small-ball look with Jae Crowder manning the power forward slot next to Gobert.
This means that Mitchell plays off the ball almost all the time, as the Jazz usually have one of Ricky Rubio, Dante Exum, or Raul Neto next to him in the backcourt. Of his team-leading 2,383 minutes played, Mitchell has had one of those three players next to him 75 percent of the time. With this in mind, three things are worth mentioning:
- Exum is injured again. He has not played more than 23 consecutive games since his rookie season.
- Rubio will see his contract expire at the end of the season.
- Neto, while a nice player, is more of a caretaker point guard type who brings the ball up the floor, sets up the offense, and largely gets out of the way.
The exception to the rule came when all three were injured and Utah used Mitchell and Joe Ingles as co-lead ball-handlers out of necessity. The Jazz went 5-0 during the initial stretch with all three players out, and are now 6-2 in the games where they have started Mitchell, Ingles, Royce O’Neale, Favors, and Gobert.
There is merit, then, to the idea that the Jazz should consider simply cutting out the middle man and experimenting with Mitchell as the true lead guard more often — think of how the Houston Rockets put James Harden in this role and thrived. The Jazz could see a similar, though perhaps not as extreme, bump if they were to give it a test drive and see how things look in order to make more informed decisions about their roster this coming summer.
That lineup configuration, after all, is already very successful. Utah has used six different Mitchell-at-point-guard lineups for at least 25 minutes this season, per NBA.com. Four of those six lineups have a positive point differential, and overall, they have outscored opponents by 7.6 points per 100 possessions — an improvement on the 4.4 point-per-100 mark they’ve posted in their other 3,171 minutes played.
Numbers aside, the approach makes intuitive sense for several reasons. It cuts out the middle man of having a point guard bring the ball up the floor before getting it into the hands of Mitchell or Ingles to really run the offense. All that really does is waste valuable time on the shot clock, and for a team that often presses up against the end of the clock in pursuit of a good look via so many actions, cuts, and screens, that’s not an efficient use of the 24 seconds you are allotted to find a shot. Even creating an extra second or two can be the difference between having to force a contested jumper and being able to pump-fake, dribble, and let fly with a bit more space.
Replacing Rubio, Exum, or Neto with O’Neale or Kyle Korver allows the Jazz to simultaneously add both size and shooting, which helps on offense and defense. Rubio shot well from beyond the arc during his first year in Utah, but has come back to earth this season. O’Neale and Korver, by contrast, are dangerous outside shooters, and their ability to snipe from outside creates more room for Mitchell, Ingles, and Gobert to operate in the middle of the floor.
That’s especially true when you slot Crowder into the frontcourt alongside Gobert — you can see above that the Mitchell-O’Neale-Korver-Crowder-Gobert and Mitchell-O’Neale-Ingles-Crowder-Gobert lineups are a combined plus-50 in 229 minutes so far this season. That’s the equivalent of out-scoring teams by nearly 10.5 points per game, an absolutely elite margin.
Turning to this configuration as more of a regularity than a curiosity would open up all sorts of team-building possibilities for the Jazz in the future. If Mitchell is playing as the lead ball-handler rather than off the ball, the Jazz suddenly don’t need to pay Rubio to come back or spring for a starter at the point, instead focusing on signing another backup alongside Neto (and Exum, if he can get and, more importantly, stay healthy).
That frees them up to use the money they have available this summer on wings and bigs, and they can dramatically reshape their roster while not having to abandon the principles or strategies that make them good on either end of the court. This is especially true if they also decide to move on from Favors, as the Jazz would suddenly be among the teams with the most cap space in the NBA.
Not many high-end free agents have considered Utah in the past, but the Jazz have never gone shopping for free agents with two star-level players like Mitchell and Gobert in tow. Even if they have to settle for mid-tier free agents, the roster-building possibilities opened up by having Mitchell work as the primary ball-handler more often are too enticing to ignore. The Jazz should at least give this configuration more of a look, just to see if they might like it as a long-term play.