The Long Two: Utah Jazz are quietly rolling, while Larry Nance Jr. emerges for Blazers

NBA, Portland Trail Blazers, Utah Jazz

While the Suns and Warriors have taken the NBA by storm, the Utah Jazz have quietly improved upon last year’s dominant play with the league’s best offense.

The Warriors and Suns currently sit at the center of the NBA world’s attention this week, and rightfully so. The two teams have won a combined 36 of their first 42 games — often without encountering much resistance from opponents. Phoenix has rattled off a franchise-record 17 straight victories, including a win over the Warriors on Tuesday, while Golden State owns the league’s best point differential by a significant margin.

The two teams will square off again on Friday before a third meeting on Christmas Day. But as Golden State and Phoenix have blitzed the rest of the league, a third Western Conference team has quietly rolled to an impressive start of its own. Another 20-point win on Monday pushed the Utah Jazz to 14-7 on the season, with a slightly better point differential than last season’s league-leading mark.

The Utah Jazz have arguably been even better than last season

While Utah remains one of the stingiest defenses in the NBA, its success has been primarily driven on offense. Even as Donovan Mitchell has struggled to find his stroke, the Jazz have been the most efficient shooting team in the league this season, and the margin between their league-leading offense and the second-place Blazers is currently wider than the gap between Portland and the eighth-ranked Nets. What separates the Jazz offense from the rest of the league isn’t their top-end talent, but the diversity and balance with which they score. Utah usually leans on Mitchell to create shots in a pinch — an important job on a contending team — but Quin Snyder’s offense relies on a collaborative approach in which every player on the floor is a threat.

That ethos is best represented by the play of Mike Conley and Rudy Gobert. Conley is having the most efficient season of his career as a steadying jack-of-all-trades, while the threat Gobert poses at the rim is the foundation of the offense. Surrounding one of the best roll men in NBA history with shooting and playmaking forces defenses to choose between leaving Gobert unchecked at the rim and giving up open catch-and-shoot jumpers to lethal shooters. It’s no surprise that the Jazz shoot an NBA-best 70 percent at the rim given how many looks like these they get:

Those sorts of plays, and the attention they draw from help defenders, is what unlocks one of the league’s most prolific 3-point attacks. Once Utah gets an advantage, it is one of the best teams in the NBA at moving the ball against scrambling defenses. An initial opening, usually created by a Gobert screen, forces the defense to rotate; the Jazz find the open man; the defense rotates again; on it goes until, eventually, opponents can’t keep up. Utah leads the NBA in 3-point attempts and is tied with Miami for the highest share of corner 3s — a reflection of crisp ball movement and sound floor spacing:

The Jazz have taken a slight step back on defense, dropping from first in points allowed per possession last season to sixth so far this year. That drop has come mostly in the paint, where, despite Gobert’s imposing presence, Jazz opponents have managed to score reasonably well. Despite allowing just 44 percent shooting on shots Gobert contests within six feet of the basket, teams shoot almost 63 percent at the rim with the reigning Defensive Player of the Year on the court (though they don’t get there nearly as often as when he rests). That disparity is due largely to Utah not playing another credible rim protector next to Gobert; when he gets pulled away from the lane, interior scoring becomes far more feasible.

Jazz skeptics may wonder, somewhat fairly, whether this year’s success will translate to the playoffs, where the franchise has continually hit roadblocks. But it’s also fair to note that Utah’s playoff losses during Snyder’s tenure have come against the dynastic Warriors, James Harden’s Rockets, a higher-seeded Nuggets team in the Bubble and last year’s Clippers with both Mitchell and Conley battling injuries. There have been disappointing losses over that time, but the team’s reputation as a playoff choker isn’t completely earned.

Unlike last year’s Bucks, the Jazz don’t seem particularly concerned with trying different defensive coverages or varying their offensive approach to better prepare themselves for the playoffs; it’s not clear whether they need to. Utah is forcing opponents into almost exactly the same shot profile it did last season, and save for the occasional Gobert post-up, getting mostly the same looks on offense. There’s no real way to replicate the style and precision with which opponents will attack the Jazz in the playoffs until they get there. In the meantime, Utah just keeps rolling, sharpening up what it already does well and betting that it will lead to better results.

Larry Nance Jr., making good things happen

When the Blazers acquired Larry Nance Jr. this offseason, they added a smart, useful bench player who could bolster second units and fit in with Portland’s star backcourt. But with the team still getting familiar with new concepts on both ends of the floor and first-year head coach Chauncy Billups still figuring out his rotation, Nance was effectively reduced to a standstill stretch-4 off the bench. He played sparingly in the first 11 games of the season, and even in those minutes, his involvement was limited. His clever passing provided little value in a static offense, and his defensive versatility wasn’t particularly useful for a team that rarely mixed its coverages.

Nance isn’t the kind of player who fundamentally changes his team’s identity, but rather one who accentuates what’s already there. He won’t singlehandedly move the needle on either end of the floor, but in taking so little off the table, he offers his team and coaching staff flexibility. Most of his work is subtle — almost imperceptible if you aren’t looking for it — but his quiet contributions open important doors. Recently, the Blazers have moved him into a more central role, particularly on offense, which has led to an uptick in his own production and the team’s. The Blazers trail only the Jazz in offensive efficiency, and have produced over 118 points per 100 possessions with Nance on the floor this season — more than six points better than when he sits.

Teammates trust Nance to make the right play and keep possessions moving, which, in turn, makes it easier for other Blazers to make the right play themselves. One unselfish decision leads to the next, and the sequence usually culminates in a good shot. He’s quick to make the extra pass to a shooter or locate soft spots in the defense, and he significantly improves Portland’s ball movement and offensive rebounding (the Blazers rebound over 30 percent of their own misses and record a higher rate of assisted shots from 3 and at the rim with Nance on the court).

Billups has begun playing Nance at center more often, including in closing lineups, and those units have scored over 120 points per 100 possessions. The frontcourt of Nance and Nassir Little has emerged as a fixture in Portland’s rotation, and the Blazers have been downright unguardable when Nance plays alongside Damian Lillard and CJ McCollum. (Unfortunately, Portland’s opponents have also been unguardable against those lineups.) Nance can space the floor around Portland’s dynamic guards, operate as a hub at the elbows or catalyze the offense as a roll man. As both a powerful leaper and sound decision-maker, his ability to finish strong at the rim or spray passes to shooters provides a crucial antidote to opponents trapping Lillard and McCollum:

That’s the version of Nance the Blazers traded for — a versatile connector who reads the game and makes it easier on those around him. It’s unclear, however, whether those small lineups can defend well enough to play consistent minutes. Nance is a smart, talkative defender who can plug gaps from the weak side and switch onto perimeter players, but so far Portland has struggled to stop opponents with him on the floor. Those devastating offensive units with Nance at center have also allowed over 117 points per 100 possessions, and opponents are parading to the rim in those minutes. While some of that falls on Nance, who isn’t an elite rim protector, he is being asked to cover for one of the most limited defensive backcourts in the NBA — a tough ask for any interior defender.

The Blazers have protected the rim well when Nance and Jusuf Nurkić share the floor, and pairing Nance with Robert Covington more often could help improve Portland’s small-ball defense without compromising its spacing. Billups should continue experimenting with different combinations around Lillard and McCollum, but more often than not, those lineups should include the adaptable forward who makes everything run a little bit more smoothly.

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