Through their first three preseason games, the Utah Jazz are 2-1, sweeping a pair of games against the Los Angeles Lakers in Hawaii, and then falling to the Phoenix Suns in Arizona. While ultimately, yes, meaningless, the team’s winning record should still be taken as a positive: the Jazz have been playing good basketball even while coach Quin Snyder has been boldly experimenting with different units on the floor.
The team’s two games against the Lakers did a lot to show what a gigantic gap currently exists between the two teams, with the Jazz trending up into playoff contention and the Lakers apparently headed to the lottery for the third consecutive season. Against the Jazz, Lakers coach Byron Scott leaned heavily on his team’s starting unit and bench veterans like Lou Williams and Nick Young. The Jazz won both games even though Snyder was clearly more interested not in winning the game but in having his younger bench players get in-game experience playing off of one another.
In the first game between the two teams, which ended in a Utah blowout, Snyder gave two significant runs to an all-bench lineup that consisted of Raul Neto, Rodney Hood, Joe Ingles, Trevor Booker and Tibor Pleiss. What’s especially interesting about this lineup, aside from the fact that it includes two rookies and two sophomores, is that there’s not an obvious go-to scorer among the group. The best offensive option among the group was probably Hood, who averaged 8.7 points in his debut season — with a healthy chunk of those points coming from finishing plays as a three-point shooter.
Even though this unit initially struggled as Snyder played them from over the end of the first quarter into the beginning of the second, the coach showed confidence in his group by trotting out the exact same group during the fourth quarter. The unit responded, building a healthy lead with active defense and tremendous energy. Even though plus/minus scores for individual games can be very misleading, I don’t think it’s an accident that Booker finished at +8, Ingles finished at +16 and Neto finished at +20.
The Jazz won the second game by a narrow margin in overtime, 117-114, but the performance was in some ways more impressive than the first game, with Snyder assigning even more responsibility to the bench. Presumed starter Alec Burks was given 37 minutes of play — presumably to reacquaint Burks with game speed after a shoulder injury limited him to 27 games last season — but Snyder put more responsibility on his bench.
Derrick Favors was held out of the game for precautionary reasons, and Gordon Hayward and Rudy Gobert played the entire first quarter before sitting the rest of the game, clearly a pre-planned maneuver. In the overtime period, Snyder went with a lineup that featured Burks, alongside Elijah Millsap, Hood, Trey Lyles and Jeff Withey.
It’s possible that this group never played with each other, especially given that Withey has been with the team for just over a month and this unit lacks a conventional point guard. It’s a credit to them that they pulled off the victory against a Lakers lineup that included Young and Williams. Jazz radio broadcaster David Locke also found this lineup significant, discussing the “Triple Wing” (with Burks, Hood and Millsap being the three wings) on his excellent daily podcast.
While we may or may not ever see these lineups in an actual regular-season game, it certainly seems like a useful experiment to me. Jazz rookies and sophomores can’t just sit back and let veterans take care of things this preseason. They’re being empowered by their coach to figure out their own solutions.