NBA, Utah Jazz

NBA Power Rankings: The Utah Jazz are about to run the gauntlet

In this week’s NBA Power Rankings, the Pistons are inexplicable, the Kings have a small ball answer and the Utah Jazz are about to run the gauntlet.

Our new look NBA Power Rankings are back, a non-traditional structure for a non-traditional era of professional basketball. The world is no longer just about wins and losses and teams are no longer the primary crucible of basketball power. So each week we’ll be dissecting how basketball power is presently distributed — between players, teams, friendships, diss tracks, aesthetic design choices, across leagues and whatever else has a temporary toehold in this ever-changing landscape.

Who has the power in this week’s NBA Power Rankings?


The idea of Derrick Rose

You would think Derrick Rose would be well understood at this point. He’s played nearly 20,000 NBA minutes and more than 10,000 since he won the MVP at the end of the 2010-11 season (which, coincidentally, was the last time he played more than 66 games in a season). No one expects him to be that player anymore but somehow people seem to keep talking themselves into the idea of him being much closer to that peak than the valley in which he currently resides.

He is a career 30.5 percent 3-point shooter who is attempting more than five per 100 possessions. He is a consistent and dramatic negative impact on defense. He can still get to the basket but he was averaging fewer points per drive than Jerami Grant for the Pistons this season and still showing an absurd propensity for pull-up jumpers inside the arc (1.9 per game). He is in the 50th percentile in scoring efficiency out of the pick-and-roll and the 51st in isolation. Rose never improved at the thing he was bad at and he’s now merely average at the areas in which us to excel.

The cost in acquiring him was absurdly low for the Knicks — Dennis Smith Jr. and a second-round pick. But there’s an opportunity cost to actually using him. He doesn’t get the Knicks any closer to a playoff spot and he doesn’t have a reputation as some kind of Chris Paul-mentor for young players. Every minute he’s on the floor is likely one less minute of developmental opportunity for rookie Immanuel Quickley and every minute Rose has the ball in his hands is a minute R.J. Barrett, Quickley and Obi Toppin aren’t getting a chance to practice creating offense against NBA defenses.

I don’t know what the Knicks think they were getting in this deal but the only explanation is that they’re just the latest team to have the wrong idea about Derrick Rose.


The small-ball Kings

The Sacramento Kings are absolutely cooking, winners of seven of their last eight games, outscoring opponents by an average of 5.2 points per 100 possessions over that stretch. DeAaron Fox has been getting anywhere he wants and finishing any shot he tries. Harrison Barnes and Buddy Hield are red hot from behind the arc. Richaun Holmes is controlling the paint at both ends and Tyrese Haliburton is the glue holding it all together.

And, to be clear, those things are all happening at the same time.

Over their past eight games, which includes wins over the Celtics, Nuggets and Clippers, the Kings have been absolutely scorching when that five-man unit plays together. Luke Walton usually starts Marvin Bagley at the 4 but in the last half of the first quarter, Haliburton usually replaces him off the bench with Barnes sliding up to the 4. And that group — Fox, Hield, Haliburton, Barnes and Holmes — goes bananas.

That five-man unit has been playing just under 10 minutes per game together during this stretch, outscoring opponents by an average 27.9 points per 100 possessions. The unit has posted a 61.2 true shooting percentage together, in part because nearly half their shots are coming at the rim. Fox is the engine for this unit and his relentless drives are opening things for everyone — spot-up jumpers, easy finishes for Holmes and opportunities for Haliburton to attack against a bent defense. Over the past eight games, Fox has been averaging 21.6 drives per game (which would rank third in the league across the entire season) and 63 percent of them have directly resulted in a scoring opportunity — a shot for Fox, a shooting foul or an assist.

We’re reaching the point where this trend is stretching out of small sample size into something that might be legitimately sustainable for Sacramento.


Devonte’ Graham, King of Clutch

Clutch statistics are notoriously useless for predictive purposes, taking a player’s skills and abilities and then refracting them through luck and opportunity. But that doesn’t make them any less fun to explore, particularly in pursuit of oddities.

Take Devonte’ Graham — he’s played 26 minutes for the Hornets this season, within the final five minutes of a game when the margin was within five points. And in those minutes he’s been some Michael Jordan/Stephen Curry chimera. The Hornets are plus-52 in those 26 minutes and Graham has scored 25 points, shooting 8-of-12 from the field, 7-of-10 from behind the 3-point line and piled up 8 assists to just one turnover. Those numbers are a meaningless snapshot of a universe slowly recalibrating itself towards a harmonic mean. But great googly moogly are they fun.


Pistons playing to the competition

The Pistons are tied with the Minnesota Timberwolves for the worst record in the NBA (and they’re 0-1 against Minnesota this year, holding that crummy-ass tiebreaker). And yet, somehow, the Pistons’ six wins have come against Boston, Brooklyn, the Lakers, Miami, Philadelphia and Phoenix. So, that makes their record 5-9 against teams that are currently over 0.500 and 1-9 against teams that are underwater. Like Devonte’ Graham’s clutch stats, it’s fluky as all heck but that doesn’t make it any less fun.


The NBA Schedule

After a 14-point win over the Boston Celtics, the Utah Jazz are now 20-5 (the best record in the NBA) with an SRS (strength of schedule adjusted point differential) of plus-9.02, well ahead of more obvious contenders like the Lakers or Clippers. Only 15 other teams in NBA history have finished a regular season with an SRS that strong and of that group, only five– the 1971-72 Bucks, the Warriors and Spurs in 2015-16, the 2012-13 Thunder and the Bucks last season  —  did not go on to win a title.

But despite their incredibly strong performance to this point, the Jazz don’t necessarily have the feel of a favorite, of a juggernaut waiting on history. But that might change over the next few weeks. In their next 11 games, which will take them to the All-Star break, they’ll see the Bucks, the Heat (twice), the 76ers (twice), the Clippers (twice) and the Lakers. That’s three games against last year’s NBA finalists and five more against other likely top-three playoff seeds.

Maybe, as the level of competition ramps up, there’s some regression to the mean coming and the Jazz will move back into the pack. But there’s also an opportunity to emphatically separate themselves from the rest of the league’s aspiring contenders and stake their claim as the best team in the NBA.

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