During the entire Lob City era thus far (since the arrival of Chris Paul, for newcomers), the Los Angeles Clippers have played the Utah Jazz seventeen times in the regular season; during that span, the Clippers have lost to the Jazz only twice.
In past years, the Jazz were synonymous with success; a small-market team in a place known for neither jazz music nor basketball, they managed to skillfully assemble a perpetually-competitive roster featuring Hall-of-Famers John Stockton and Karl Malone, with Hall of Fame coach Jerry Sloan at the helm. During that span, they made it to the NBA Playoffs for twenty straight seasons (1984 through 2003), including two Finals appearances…during the Jordan-era of NBA basketball. Since then, there have been some postseason appearances, but the Jazz haven’t had much luck in attempting to push past mediocrity. Even in an age where NBA teams decide to either win it all or lose everything for the draft lottery, admirably, the Jazz have refused to tank. Almost unfairly, Utah lacks the kinds of amenities that free agents often gravitate towards: a large media market, nightlife, a beach. Recent years haven’t been kind to the Jazz, but it hasn’t been for lack of trying, and their longtime, loyal hometown fans have got to at least appreciate that.
The Clippers, conversely, have historically spent far more years associated with failure and overall ineptitude than with the product we see today. The Clippers were usually only ever mentioned for all the wrong reasons: bad draft picks, a cheap owner, suspiciously-familiar logos. But a combination of drafting perennial All-Star Blake Griffin, the arrival of point-god Chris Paul, the unexpected development of DeAndre Jordan, the commanding leadership of Doc Rivers, and the deep pockets of Steve Ballmer have all been instrumental in continually shifting the narrative year after year.
And yet, despite all of the differences over the years between the Jazz and the Clippers, they both have one glaring commonality: the yearning for their first NBA Championship.
The Clippers certainly appear to be much further along towards reaching that goal at this point in time, but the Jazz may be much further along than people realize. Their core is still young, still improving, and largely on multi-year contracts. And in the offseason, with the addition of some well-known veterans, they managed to alter the construction of their roster enough to begin establishing competitive legitimacy.
Since their first two preseason games, however, the Jazz have faced a potential setback.
When Jazz swingman Gordon Hayward reportedly suffered a broken and dislocated finger last week, the NBA blogosphere appeared only mildly concerned; this seems appropriate, considering this likely only removes him from the preseason and a modest portion of the beginning of the regular season. That it also occurred on his non-shooting hand seems to suggest there should be even less reason for concern. But for all of the Jazz-faithful, and the entire organization for that matter, this is certainly not the kind of news they wanted to hear.
Hayward, just 26 years-old, has been more than just Utah’s leading scorer for the last few seasons. While he’s never made an All-Star or All-NBA team in his six year professional career, there’s no particular weakness in his game. One of the game’s most underrated players, he consistently provides energy and remains engaged at both ends of the floor. Sometimes a scorer, sometimes a facilitator, he’s the engine that makes the Jazz offense run. He’ll likely never lead the league in any single statistical category, but he’s quite effective in all that he does, during an era in which positional versatility is coveted more than ever before. For a Jazz team that hasn’t been to the postseason since 2012, and has only been on the cusp of a playoff berth twice since then, Hayward’s absence could either be viewed as a curse or a blessing-in-disguise.
For the first time in several years, the Jazz have a decent combination of promising youth and veteran presence. Per NBA.com, the nucleus of Hayward (19.7 pts, 5.0 reb), Rudy Gobert (9.1 pts, 11.0 reb), and Derrick Favors (16.4 pts, 8.1 reb) account for nearly half of the team’s total points (45.2 of 97.7) and more than half of the team’s total rebounds (24.1 of 43.2) per game.
The Jazz already ranked 28th amongst the entire league in both points per game and assists per game (19.0); take Hayward (3.7 assists per game) out of the mix, noting that neither Gobert nor Favors are facilitators, and it becomes apparent that the Jazz could start their season very sluggishly offensively. The silver lining, though, is the opportunity for head coach Quin Snyder and the rest of his staff to implement ball movement out of necessity, and to instill players’ trust in one another.
The collective knowledge of veteran newcomers Joe Johnson, Boris Diaw, and George Hill was already invaluable to this roster at full health. The trio has an excellent combination of postseason and system-basketball experience, most notably with Diaw and Hill (under the tutelage of Gregg Popovich). All three are capable of playing multiple positions and providing reliable scoring and outside-shooting. And while Johnson can score in bunches, especially at the most crucial of moments, Diaw and Hill know when it’s most appropriate to exercise a pass-first mentality. Their ability to impart their wisdom upon young rotational players like Rodney Hood, Trey Lyles, and Shelvin Mack will be key in establishing legitimacy against a formidable Western Conference. Tonight’s preseason matchup against the Clippers provides the first opportunity since Hayward’s injury to begin experimenting with various lineups and substitutions.
This matchup provides some opportunities for the Clippers as well.
Aside from rookie forward Brice Johnson’s recent back injury, the Clippers roster is fully-healthy and deeper than it’s ever been. Against most potential Western Conference opponents over the last several seasons/preseasons, the Clippers have known what to expect; teams like the Spurs, Grizzlies, Warriors, Rocket, and Thunder had maintained continuity where it was most impactful. The Jazz, while in a lesser tier than the aforementioned teams, were essentially no different. But Jazz coach Snyder will, no doubt, tinker as much as he can while the scores don’t really matter to try and discover what works for his squad offensively. The Clippers, in response, must also exercise experimentation, as well as defensive communication.
Thus far, the Clippers have played two very different preseason games. The first game, a blowout loss against the Warriors, displayed a team playing well-below its potential; while offensive rust is often expected in early preseason games, the Clippers scored only 75 points and gave up 120 to a Warriors team that lost roughly half of its rebounding and shot-blocking during the offseason. The Clippers allowed the Warriors to score 30 fast break points and continually miscommunicated on switches and coverage, which translated to easy rolls to the basket by seemingly every Golden State player. The second game, an eight point win over the Toronto Raptors, didn’t present any gaudy offensive numbers. The Clippers did, however, tally 28 assists on 36 made buckets, per NBA.com; they also managed to out-rebound the Raptors 46-32 (37-24 for defensive boards). So what worked for the Clippers when they re-grouped for their most recent effort? The element of surprise.
Against the Raptors, the Clippers rolled out an unconventional starting lineup featuring three guards. Chris Paul, Raymond Felton, Austin Rivers, Blake Griffin, and DeAndre Jordan presented a team with two interiors threats in Jordan and Griffin, and four potential facilitators in Paul, Felton, Rivers, and Griffin. It was a brand of small-ball we’re not accustomed to seeing; it allowed the Clippers to exploit their size/athleticism advantage at the center and power forward positions while utilizing speed, handling, and outside shooting advantages at the other three positions. This lineup won’t necessarily work against many other NBA lineups, but the thought process behind presenting such a lineup will be a key factor in maintaining consistent ball movement throughout the season. The potential for staggering player minutes in this fashion could help keep players fresh heading into the postseason. It’s difficult to determine exactly what lineup Doc will start tonight; after all, he decided to sit Redick and Mbah a Moute against the Raptors. For a Utah team which ranked 28th last season in scoring, though, the Clippers should focus primarily on defense.
While focusing on defense may seem counterintuitive against a team which already struggled offensively last year, and is now without their leading scorer, it will provide an exercise in communicating defensively on the fly. The Jazz will have no choice but to try move the ball around; they lack a prototypical point guard who can distribute to everyone on the floor. The Jazz are likely to utilize lots of off-ball movement as well as screens and pick-and-roll plays in and around the paint for Gobert. This will require lots of communication between Jordan and others. It should also be noted that, while the Jazz ranked roughly middle-of-the-pack last regular season in most metrics, they ranked second-to-last in field goals made per game last season (36.1) and dead-last in field goals attempted per game last season (80.4). Getting in passing lanes and keeping Jazz shot attempts down will be crucial for the Clippers; employing lineups with length to disrupt passing lanes could prove to be a major factor in keeping the Jazz offense at bay. Look out for a possible lineup of Jordan, Brandon Bass, Wesley Johnson, Austin Rivers, and Raymond Felton.
Primary Goals for the Jazz:
Move the ball, prevent pick and roll scenarios, interchange at the SG/SF positions
Primary Goals for the Clippers:
Communicate on defense, read and react quickly (avoid lengthy isolation possessions)