The Jazz’s point guard situation is interesting. Who is the best fit in the Jazz’s offense? How does Mitchell’s emergence as the Jazz’s second building block along side Rudy Gobert, change the direction the Jazz should go at the point guard position? Is Mitchell a point guard or is he better suited as a two? So many questions, but one thing is clear, it’s time for the Jazz to start looking at how they build their roster around Gobert and Mitchell.
The point guard situation is question number one. What point guard gives the Jazz the best chance of winning at a high level? The Jazz have four players on the current roster to consider, Ricky Rubio, Raul Neto, Donovan Mitchell, and Dante Exum. If the Jazz continue with a non-shooting point guard like Rubio, then Favors must be dealt prior to the trade deadline or walk for nothing. We have seen that having Rubio, Favors, and Gobert on the floor at the same time just isn’t going to work. Favors and Gobert playing together was doable last season when George Hill was at the point keeping defenses honest. I tire of Jazz fans that say that Favors and Gobert can’t play together. Did fans forget last year, winning 50 plus games and winning a Playoff series with Favors and Gobert playing together? The problem is a non-shooting point guard gives the Jazz three non-shooters on the floor, destroying the spacing necessary for the Jazz’s offense to work.
If the Jazz were to move Mitchell to the point and flank him with Hood and Ingles, Favors and Gobert would be able to thrive playing together. Of course it’s nice to have a stretch four option off the bench that gives the Jazz the option to go small depending on the match-ups (a la Joe Johnson last year in the Playoffs versus the Clippers). So, there is an option to keep Favors around and play him next to Rudy, but if the Jazz decide to re-sign Favors and keep him next to Rudy, then Rubio has to go.
Because Rudy is a non-shooter and we know he is going to be on the floor the majority of the time, the question to ask is whether the Jazz are better with a non-shooting point guard or a non-shooting Power Forward? Obviously, having shooters at four or five positions would be amazing, just look at what the Rockets and Warriors are doing. A Jazz line-up of Mitchell, Steph Curry, Klay Thompson, Kevin Durant, and Gobert would easily be the best starting line-up in the league. Unfortunately, in reality there is a salary cap. Teams pay a premium for shooting and there are only so many shooters to go around. So, here are the current options at point guard the Jazz have to consider when building around Mitchell and Gobert.
Ricky Rubio has started at point guard every game but one this season. He ranks third on the team in minutes, third in shot attempts, third in Usage Rate, and leads the team in steals and assists. His usage rate (22.3) is the highest of his career, while he remains an extremely poor shooter. His Effective Shooting percentage is 44.3 percent, which is the lowest of any rotation player on the Jazz’s roster, but is also near a career-high for Rubio (44.8 percent last year). Ricky is also posting a career-low 4.9 assists per game. His next lowest assist per game average was the 7.3 assists he averaged in his second year. So Ricky is using more possessions than he ever has, assisting less than he ever has and shooting about what he always has. At age 27, it may be safe to conclude that this is about the player, and shooter, that Ricky is going to be. It’s tough to win many games when 22.3 percent of possessions are used by such an inefficient option. Ricky does a good job on the defensive side of the ball and for that reason I don’t blame Dennis Lindsay for bringing him in when the focus was building a roster to play to Gobert’s strengths, but Mitchell may have changed everything.
Raul Neto (along with Alec Burks) stood to benefit the most by Dante Exum’s injury, but Mitchell’s emergence and a couple of injuries has robbed him of virtually all of his playing time this season. When Neto is on the floor, he makes the most of his opportunities. At 6-1, 180 pounds Neto is the smallest of all of the Jazz point guards, but he also shoots the best percentage from the floor and from three. He is a career 40 percent three-point shooter and is shooting 47 percent from the floor this season. His Effective Field Goal percentage this season is almost ten percentage points higher than Rubio’s career best. Neto is a slightly worse defender than Rubio, but makes up for it in his ability to keep the defense honest. With Neto as the starting point guard, that would give the Jazz one of the smallest backcourts in the NBA with 6-1 Neto and 6-3 Mitchell and size matters in this league. Neto has the lowest ceiling of the Jazz’s options, but based on his shooting ability and ability to take care of the ball, he is also a Jose Calderon-type, steady option.
Dante was poised to have a breakout season this year prior to going down with a shoulder injury. People forget that Dante is still just 22 years old. If you look at Dante’s numbers in his 148 career games, it would be easy to write him off as a draft bust. His shooting percentages 42.7 from the floor and 30.8 from three are bad (though somehow still better than Ricky’s) and the injury history is tough to invest in. That said, everyone knew that Dante was raw when he was drafted and would take some time to develop. Injuries have delayed that development. We have all seen flashes from Dante that reminds us why he was taken fifth overall in the draft. This latest injury, in a contract year, makes Dante affordable to re-sign and continue to develop into the player we thought he could be. I am convinced that had Dante had a breakout year he would have had plenty of options to cash in with someone else this offseason. Now I’d imagine the market will be pretty soft and retaining Dante will be easier than it would have been had he stayed healthy. In the preseason, while it was a small sample size, Dante and Donovan were exciting together. They got after it on defense and were dynamic in attacking on both sides of the ball. Dante has shown potential to be an elite perimeter defender and an explosive penetrator with his length, quickness, and speed. The prospect of a healthy 6’6″ Dante playing next to 6’3″ Donovan is fun to think about.
The question here is not whether Mitchell should be on the floor, that much is obvious, but we need to determine if the Jazz want to play a modern point guard in the mold of James Harden, Steph Curry, and Damian Lillard or a more traditional, pass-first point guard like Ricky Rubio. The NBA is truly changing into a scoring point guard league and if the Jazz want to go that way, they’d be hard pressed to find a better one than Mitchell. So far this season, Mitchell has played 44 percent of his minutes at point guard and a good percentage of those have come in fourth quarters when Coach Synder elects to play Mitchell over Rubio. Mitchell ranks among the league leaders in fourth quarter scoring and is shooting 15 of 25 (60 percent) in “clutch situations.” While critics have pointed to Mitchell’s inefficiency as something he needs to work on, he is already more efficient than Rubio, Hood, Burks, and Johnson. He shot over 50 percent from the floor in December and is getting more and more efficient as his Usage Rate goes up. Also, if you take out just the seven games in October where he shot 25 of 76 from the floor (32.9 percent) and 8 of 28 from three (28.6 percent), the numbers look even better. He can score (leading all rookies at 18.5 per game), but he is also a willing passer when that is what his team needs. Bottom line, Mitchell can play the point if he is needed and will thrive in either guard position. The Jazz should concern themselves with securing the best guard available with the right skill set to compliment Mitchell and not get caught up on what position he will play. He’s a modern day combo guard that can do it all.
Of all of the Jazz’s options, Mitchell at point gives the Jazz the highest ceiling. Trade rumors suggest that the Jazz are in the market for a stretch four, like Nikola Mirotic. Could you imagine a Jazz starting line-up of Donovan Mitchell, Rodney Hood, Joe Ingles, Nikola Mirotic, and Rudy Gobert? Four shooters surrounding Rudy with Mitchell running the show? Ingles has shown he is capable of initiating the offense as well to allow Hood and Mitchell to play off the ball as well. That would be fun to watch. That said, a line-up with Donovan at the point would thin out the bench a bit and I like having Rodney coming off the bench for instant offense. I love the idea of gambling on Exum and playing Exum and Mitchell together. They are virtually interchangeable at the one and the two with each being able to guard either guard position. If Exum cannot stay healthy or proves that he cannot continue developing into at least a respectable three-point shooter, then you look for the best guard available to insert next to Mitchell.
This analysis has made a few things clear to me.
- Because of his inefficiency shooting the ball, the Jazz will not win at a high level with Ricky Rubio as the starting point guard unless he 1) returns to his roots as a pass-first point guard, 2) decreases his Usage Rate, 3) increases his assist rate, and 4) plays with a stretch four.
- Ricky Rubio and Derrick Favors cannot co-exist so long as Rudy Gobert is the Jazz’s Center.
- You can lock Mitchell into one of the starting guard spots for the next six and a half years (hopefully longer).
- Of all of the Jazz Guards not named Mitchell, Exum gives the Jazz the highest up side, but to get the chance of enjoying the ceiling, you are also taking the biggest risk. Then again, the risks are that Exum’s shooting doesn’t catch on and he is turnover prone, but as a worst case scenario, that sounds a lot like Rubio right now.
- Raul Neto is the safest bet at the point if you want to keep Mitchell off the ball. He is not spectacular, but he is steady, consistent, and has already shown he can hit outside shots and spread the floor.
Dennis Lindsay and the rest of the Jazz front office have some tough decisions to make. If the Jazz make a trade for Nikola Mirotic, that signals that the Jazz are trying to make the Playoffs. If they trade Favors, Hood, and/or Burks for future assets, they are not tanking, but let’s say, they are playing for the future. One more high level pick in theory would give the Jazz a third pillar to build around. I would like to see the Jazz bet on a guy they already spent a top 5 pick on and push for the Playoffs now. Imagine a line-up next season of Mitchell, Exum, Ingles, Mirotic, and Gobert with Hood coming off the bench. They slipped in the standings because of a brutal December schedule and some tough injuries. If we can get Rudy back and make a trade, the Jazz will find a favorable schedule the rest of the way that will put them right in the thick of the Playoff hunt this year. And next year? They’ll be poised to get back to the second round.