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Continuity Is Fueling The Utah Jazz’s Strong Start To The 2020-21 Season

The value of continuity within a team can be overestimated, sometimes leading decision-makers to prioritize cohesiveness over a talent upgrade. For the Utah Jazz, though, the value of continuity has been on full display through the early months of the season. They own the NBA’s best record at 18-5, are second in net rating (plus-8.4), third in defensive rating, and fourth in offensive rating. They have notable wins over the Los Angeles Clippers, Milwaukee Bucks, and Denver Nuggets, as well as other playoff teams like the Portland Trail Blazers, Golden State Warriors, and San Antonio Spurs.

After a second consecutive first-round defeat last year, amid rumors of a incongruity between franchise pillars Donovan Mitchell and Rudy Gobert, Utah trusted its players and only made one significant change to the roster, bringing back longtime mainstay Derrick Favors following a one-year sabbatical in New Orleans. A shorter acclimation period, particularly during an odd year with an abbreviated training camp and offseason, allowed the Jazz to hit the ground running and distance themselves from the mid-tier playoff cluster they’ve often resided. They’re five games clear of the fourth-seeded Nuggets, while the Los Angeles Lakers and Clippers chase in pursuit of the top seed.

Quite frankly, Utah has been a buzzsaw so far, dissecting teams with precision, fluidity, and connectivity — 16 of its 18 wins are by double-digits. While top-end star power is an important factor in the idea of depth, the Jazz have arguably the deepest options 1-9 throughout the league, rostering nine viable rotation players, six of whom are averaging at least 10.2 points per game. Offensively, head coach Quin Snyder’s emphasis on movement, cutting, and multiple ball-handlers mask some of his team’s athletic and self-creation deficiencies.

Gobert’s space-carving screens and elite finishing pair suitably with the stable of ball-handlers around him. Utah maximizes those assets to spam ball screens, leading the league in pick-and-roll ball-handler frequency (22.8 percent of its plays) and ranking fourth in efficiency (0.991 points per possession), according to Synergy Sports. Individually, Gobert is in the 84th percentile as a roll man, while four different teammates — Bojan Bogdanovic (97th), Joe Ingles (94th), Jordan Clarkson (87th), and Mike Conley Jr. (81st) — rank in the 81st percentile or better as a ball-handler.

The term “screen assists” has reached a point of mockery for many people, but Gobert is legitimately a monstrous screener, the sort of roadblock that you can’t slip around but must entirely reroute past. He chisels wide driving lanes and defenders constantly spend far too long aiming to navigate around him. At any second, someone could audible into a lob. Defending bigs are cognizant of this, sometimes even abandoning rim protection duties to cover Gobert. All of this is a crucial component of Utah’s proficiency, amplifying the craft, skill, and touch from various offensive initiators.

Utah (25.4 percent frequency, ninth in PPP) and Gobert (72nd percentile) were similarly effective in the pick-and-roll last season. That output, however, isn’t the primary contributor to a rise from a ninth-ranked offense to a top-four unit. Rather, the Jazz are absolutely ripping it beyond the arc, increasing both volume and success rate. Their 3-point rate has spiked from .405 to .480, and they’re converting 40.7 percent of those attempts after shooting 38.4 percent in 2019-20.

Six of nine rotation players have a 3-point rate above .500 — Mitchell, at .451, is the lone non-center below .500. Clarkson (39.2 percent), Conley (41.0 percent), Mitchell (41.5 percent), Bogdanovic (42.5 percent), Ingles (44.1 percent), and Royce O’Neale (45.2 percent) are all shooting considerably higher than the NBA average of 35.8 percent from deep. They’re diverse in their long-range aptitude, too. Utah ranks second in pull-up three percentage (38.8) and attempts per game (15.1), fourth in catch-and-shoot three percentage (42.1), and seventh in attempts (26.5).

The final mark there is the biggest collective statistical differentiator compared to last season, when the Jazz were 23rd in catch-and-shoot three volume. Combine all that data, and Utah is second in three-point attempts per 100 possessions and second in percentage at 40.7 this season.

While predominantly a similar player to last year, Mitchell is another beneficiary of these efforts. He’s hoisting a career-high four catch-and-shoot threes per game and converting 50 percent of them, ninth among the 223 players taking at least two each night. He’s struggled at the rim — balancing interior passing and scoring remains a shortcoming — but his .451 3-point rate is another career-high, ensuring his true shooting percentage (56.9) is above NBA average (56.8) for the first time in four seasons. The surrounding personnel is warranting greater on-ball reps. Mitchell is sliding off the ball to spot up more frequently and he’s done so at an elite rate thus far, complementing the breakout performances of back-court partners.

Leaps from Conley and Clarkson have been to Utah’s two-way transformation. Conley struggled mightily through January last season, but discovered a rhythm over the final segment of the year, including the playoffs, which he has maintained to state his case as an All-Star. His .536 3-point rate is a career-high and he’s knocking down 38.6 percent of his pull-up threes on 30.4 percent frequency. The latter is a career high while the former is his second-best mark. He’s balancing intrepid passing and shrewd decision-making (2.91:1 assist-to-turnover ratio), and forms half of a spunky pick-and-roll tandem with Gobert. A defensive renaissance has helped fuel Utah’s climb from 13th to third in defensive rating, as he sheds screens seamlessly, shortcircuits drives, and flies around off the ball, denying or pilfering passes.

Clarkson, meanwhile, enjoyed a career campaign in 2019-20, both with Utah and Cleveland, and has elevated his play once again to emerge as the Sixth Man of the Year frontrunner. As the team’s lead reserve, he offers dynamic scoring pop and tenable, occasionally even menacing, on-ball defense, empowering him to slot into various lineup configurations. He’s en route to many career-highs, namely points (17.6), true shooting percentage (60.5, 3.7 percentage points above league average). and three-point percentage (39.2). Utah benefits significantly from his versatility. Netting 39.6 percent of his catch-and-shoot threes and 40.3 percent of his pull-up threes, he provides on- and off-ball floor-spacing.

Some of those catch-and-shoot possessions come off-movement, too, where he’s grown more adept. As a driver, he’s shooting 68.4 percent in the restricted area and 50 percent on shots inside the paint but outside the restricted area, touting a crafty finishing and intermediate game. Essentially, this season has witnessed his blossoming as a three-level scorer who functions comfortably in various roles. The Jazz have enough passing to surround him with a floor general (Ingles or Conley, most regularly), which lets Clarkson center in on his scoring chops.

Utah’s offensive attack is largely contingent on offensive malleability and good screening. There are an assortment of Jazz players who can pass, dribble, shoot, and work on and off the ball. They have two of the league’s best screeners in Gobert and Favors, who manufacture separation and high-value shots for perimeter guys, and other big-ish wings like Ingles, Bogdanovic, and O’Neale to scheme ghost screens or other sets that feature their shooting prowess. Upping the team-wide 3-point rate while Conley and Clarkson produce at levels previously unforeseen in Utah has facilitated an evolution to approach elite offense status.

Returning to their pre-2019-20 ways, when they regularly fielded a top-three defense, has been about improvement around Gobert instead of some sizeable leap from the Frenchman. Conley, as previously mentioned, is playing his most impactful and pestering defense in years, funneling ball-handlers into Gobert’s paws. Allocated the fewest minutes of his career (16.6) to help maximize his opportunities as he endures some athletic decline, Favors represents an upgrade at back-up center. O’Neale remains one of the NBA’s best and most versatile on-ball defenders.

The Jazz rarely commit shooting fouls, ranking second in opponent free-throw rate (.198). They rank first in opponent effective field goal percentage (50.1), eliciting difficult shot after difficult shot because of Gobert’s wide-ranging shot alteration domain, with help from guys like Conley and O’Neale. The Conley-Gobert and O’Neale-Gobert pick-and-roll defensive duos are elite, and Favors supplements the three-time All-NBA center well. Utah digs, stunts, and helps properly. Ball-screens often play out as they dictate rather than offense maneuvering as it wishes.

Merely referencing O’Neale’s services does not do his contributions justice. He’s a high-level starter on a very good team. He’s shooting 45.2 percent from deep (.705 3-point rate); defends a litany of positions with strength, lateral quickness, and efficient screen circumvention; and can attack closeouts to finish inside or whirl a pass against scattered defenses. Both Estimated Plus-Minus and RAPTOR place him among the top-70 this season, an apt summation of the scope of impact his shooting, play linking, and versatile defense fashion.

Last week, in a 116-104 victory over the Dallas Mavericks, the Jazz missed Favors and Mitchell, which thrust Miye Oni and Juwan Morgan into the rotation that day. Early in the second quarter, as Utah led 40-27, an important two-way sequence unfolded. Oni avoided an off-ball screen and coordinated a switch with Morgan for the on-ball screen. Tim Hardaway Jr. scooted past Morgan, but there was Georges Niang to slide over and contest the shot. A miss launched the Jazz into action, ball movement and decisiveness aplenty, yielding to an open Clarkson corner three.

There have been many impressive plays reflective of Utah’s success this season, but that one resonated. Three guys outside of the team’s top-8 in minutes per game executed on a string to spark the stop. Early offense where the ball pinged from teammate to teammate occurred. A 16-point edge existed fewer than 2.5 minutes into the second quarter, despite the absence of an All-Star and key rotation big man. Connectivity was the driving force.

This squad is intertwined and talented, overwhelming opponents on either end and justifying an affinity for continuity. Those two Los Angeles teams might prove too athletic and talented this summer, but Utah has made clear if anyone should challenge them, it will be the Jazz.

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