The Jazz are a leading contender to be called the NBA’s most disappointing team at the quarter-pole of the regular season, which is a real shame as some of us thought the Jazz might just be a leading contender, period. Imagine a world in which the Warriors suffer internal distress and a string of eyebrow-raising losses and the Rockets get out to that bumpy start while the Jazz are playing like they did in the second half of last season. Utah would be the toast of the league.
The problem is that the Jazz have been way worse than either the Warriors or the Rockets. They’ve just flown under the radar a little bit more.
As of Sunday morning, Utah is 8-11, in the No. 14 spot in the 15-team West. The team’s No. 1 defense from a year ago is lost in the middle of the pack this season. Its passable, average offense from a year ago is in the tank. No one is talking about the Jazz as a team that could take advantage of Warriors or Rockets missteps. Heck, it’s not clear the Jazz will be good enough to make the playoffs in an incredibly competitive West.
So what happened?
There’s no reason for the defense to have fallen off. The Jazz still boast one of the better defensive units in the league, with Rudy Gobert as the anchor as plus defenders Derrick Favors, Joe Ingles, Jae Crowder, and Ricky Rubio fill out around him. Per stats.nba.com, the Jazz’s two most used lineups remain two of the better defensive units they play. The main lineup — Rubio, Crowder, Ingles, Gobert, and Donovan Mitchell — is worse on defense than last year, but still pretty good. If you had to bet, you’d assume the Jazz defense would get back into the top 10 soon enough and perhaps compete for the league lead by the end of the season. The defensive fundamentals are all still there.
The offense is far more concerning. And that’s where the legend and load of Mitchell comes into play.
Mitchell is taking responsibility for a bigger load of the offense this season despite shooting less efficiently. His usage rate is up from 28% as a rookie to 29% this season. (That means he uses 29% of Utah’s possessions while on the court.) But his scoring efficiency has dropped from 1.08 points per possession used to 1.02. That may seem slight, but if Mitchell uses 25 possessions in a game, that’s 1.5 points — a not insignificant change in Utah’s output.
It stretches beyond Mitchell: the Jazz’s four most frequent deep shooters have been collectively cold this season. Mitchell, Ingles, Rubio, and Crowder shot a combined 36% on 21.8 threes per game last season. That quartet is at 32% on 23.7 threes per game this season.
Mitchell isn’t the only creator on this team. Crowder, Gobert, and Derrick Favors are low-usage players who don’t make plays for others off the pass or dribble. Gobert can score in the pick and roll, Crowder does stretch the floor but isn’t expected to dribble much, and Favors does a little of both. All three are valued primarily for their defense. Ingles is also fairly low-usage, but he’s a brilliant passer who can be trusted to run the offense in spurts. Rubio is a master creator who can’t shoot a lick, which causes defenses to dare him to shoot. Sometimes he obliges, though his usage rate remains about average.
That leaves Mitchell. So much Mitchell.
It’s too much Mitchell. The Jazz really do need a second primary scorer to take the load off and open up the attack. Who would that second scorer replace? Well, it could be anyone but Gobert, really. You’d prefer to keep Ingles in the mix because of his versatility (shooting, passing, defense). If you swapped out Crowder, Favors, or Rubio for a better scorer who can defend, the theoretical load on Mitchell would decrease and the offense would be more threatening without defensive or playmaking drop-off. (Jimmy Butler would have been a perfect fit for that role, for what it’s worth. As would have, uh, a healthy Gordon Hayward.)
Neither Alec Burks nor Dante Exum will fill that role. Grayson Allen won’t fill that role. If the Jazz want to give Mitchell a second scorer — or even better, make Mitchell a second scorer — they’ll have to get creative in the trade market or strike gold in free agency or the draft (again). This assumes too that Mitchell hasn’t so consumed the lore built up around him that he will resist sharing the reins. Young players get the benefit of the doubt on this until they prove otherwise.
Dropping Mitchell’s load would, in theory, take his worst shots off the table. He’s taking four pull-up threes per game and hitting less than 30% of them. Those are bad Jazz possessions. There just aren’t a lot of obviously better options for Utah right now.
Of course, the Jazz can make a whole lot of headway simply by getting its defense back in shape. There’s little reason to believe that this mediocre defense is closer to reality than the stingy resistance Utah offered last season. So long as Gobert remains healthy, Utah should have a top defense. The question is whether the offense can find its flow with an inefficient Mitchell taking on such a huge load. Can the Jazz make internal tweaks to get the ball out of his hands a little more, or can they actually swing a deal to bring help in?
That will determine how disappointing we consider the Jazz at the end of the season.