The Utah Jazz have a bit of an existential dilemma on their hands as center Rudy Gobert recovers from a Grade II MCL sprain in his left knee. What should take priority at this point of the organization’s rebuild: player development or winning games?
At the moment, it appears the Jazz have voted in favor of player development. That’s what starting rookie Trey Lyles over backup center Jeff Withey signifies. Lyles gives Utah very little on either end of the court, outside of a chance to see whether or not the refiner’s fire makes or breaks him. His presence in the starting lineup also moves Derrick Favors from his natural power-forward position to center.
Withey, meanwhile, fits closer to what Utah was doing with its healthy starting lineup of Raul Neto, Rodney Hood, Gordon Hayward, Favors and Gobert. Sure, he’s no Gobert, but Withey is a defense-first big man who’s been very impactful for the Jazz in limited minutes.
Against the New York Knicks on Wednesday, Withey had a Net Rating of plus-26.7 in just under 2o minutes on the floor. That brought his season rating up to plus-11.1, tops among all Jazz players with at least 100 minutes played.
The key to Withey’s impact is on the defensive end. When he’s on the floor, Utah surrenders just 88.5 points per 100 possessions (the league-leading San Antonio Spurs are giving up 92.6 points per 100 possessions). When Withey’s on the bench, that number jumps up to 102.9 for the Jazz.
For context’s sake, Utah gives up 100.6 points per 100 possessions when Lyles is on the floor. The team’s Net Rating is 7.3 points better when he sits.
So what is it about Withey that makes him so impactful on the defensive end? Simply put, he’s one of the best rim protectors in the NBA.
Gobert leads the league in opponent field goal percentage at the rim (a player has to face five such attempts per game to qualify) at 35.7. Because of Withey’s lack of playing time, he doesn’t qualify for the leaderboard, but he allows just 37 percent at the rim, barely behind the standard set by Gobert.
He also has a higher block percentage than Gobert this season and is isn’t far behind in career block percentage. In fact, only five active players who’ve appeared in at least 100 games have a higher career block percentage than Withey:
Plugging him into the starting center spot while Gobert recovers allows Utah to try to regain the defensive identity it established at the close of last season. It also allows Favors to play at his natural position, where he’s almost guaranteed a mismatch in the post.
Starting Lyles and moving Favors to the 5 is almost certainly good for the rookie long term (experience accelerates development like nothing else), but this team should be moving past organizational development and into playoff contention.
The Jazz went 19-10 after the All-Star break last season and had the best defense in the league over that span. That’s a 54-win pace, a mark that would not only secure a playoff spot in the West, but may be good enough for home-court advantage in the first round. Taking one step back for the possibility of taking two steps forward in the future doesn’t make sense when you can conceivably take the two steps forward in the present.
Even with Gobert out for four-to-six weeks, Utah has a chance to do that this season. Withey, thanks in large part to his defense, can preserve that chance until the big man comes back.
Andy Bailey is on Twitter @AndrewDBailey.