SALT LAKE CITY — The Jazz aren't the most talented team in the league. Any small hiccup is nearly catastrophic, which might be good for this season. However, when they are healthy and working as a team, they can compete with, and beat, a lot of teams.
The season has started turning around, once Marvin Williams and Trey Burke got healthy and coach Tyrone Corbin placed them into the starting lineup. Those two started to gel with Gordon Hayward, Richard Jefferson and Derrick Favors to create a starting line that has been dependable, when healthy.
This starting lineup has been around since a very sad day in November when a one-win Jazz team played, and lost, in Oklahoma City against the Thunder. This game wasn't pretty for the starting lineup. In their first game, no one in the starting lineup had a positive plus/minus, actually none of them were better than -19 on the court.
In the 10 minutes they played together, the Thunder outscored the Jazz by nine. The lineup didn't get a lot of traction together because Burke was in his last game with Corbin watching and controlling his minutes.
Since that point, this starting lineup has been able to put up a pretty impressive record — again, when healthy. When these five have started, the team is 14-9. The Jazz are 17-33 overall this season. Doing some quick math, that means when the Jazz don't have these five starting together, they are 3-24.
The Jazz are winning 60.8 percent of the time when they have their current starting five. If that could be pulled out for a full season, they would be the sixth seed in the West, above the Phoenix Suns. They would be on pace for 50 wins this year.
To compare, now the Jazz are on pace for 28 wins, while they would be on pace for nine wins using the team without this starting line. While there are a number of other factors with these numbers, including a brutal start to the season, this shows how much this team needs each other.
“I think you've seen the difference this season when we play with a full deck and when we don't,” Williams said. “One thing about it, we always have key guys going down, guys who play major minutes for us. When guys are healthy and when we play with a full deck, I think we are a pretty good team.”
This team has such a slim margin for error that losing one key player is simply devastating. When the team is healthy, they can scratch and claw to a victory. They are 8-4 in games decided by seven points or less, and once again this stat isn't perfect. However, all but two of those games came after the starting line came together.
Now consider the Jazz have lost by 14 or more points 12 times. When the Jazz lose it is by an average of 14 points, when the Jazz win it is by an average of 8. Six of the 14-point losses have come when a player was injured, since Corbin put the starting line together, and there were five such nights before these players were healthy. That means this starting line has been blown out in just one game with this team.
The starting line is one of five lineups the Jazz have who can boast a positive plus/minus while playing at least 10 games. When they are on the court, the team is +1, fourth best on the team among units that have played at least five games.
The measuring stick for how well this starting unit is working comes via Williams, according to Jefferson.
“The key to Marvin's success is extra ball movement,” Jefferson said. “If you want to know how well we are moving the ball, look at how many shots Marvin has. That's it, there is no other formula. If Marvin's getting a lot of shots that's because every stretch-four should get open shots. If he's getting shots, that means the ball is moving and we are making the extra pass.”
It's not that hard of a formula really, and it goes for Jefferson as well. When the Jazz are winning, those two are hitting their 3-point shots. Williams is shooting 42.5 percent and Jefferson is shooting 51.7 percent from beyond the arc in Jazz victories this season. Of course, this number extends to Burke and Hayward as well, shooting 43.7 and 42.2 respectively in wins.
In losses, the numbers all fall hard. Williams' percentage goes to 37.7 and Jefferson's to 38.3. These are still respectable at least, but Burke and Hayward fall flat. Burke shoots 25 percent from beyond the arc in losses while Hayward shoots 26.4.
The team as a whole shoots 13 percent better from beyond the arc during wins compared to losses. Once again most of those come in games with healthy players. Corbin has toyed with how lineups interact throughout this season. He'll cut minutes for one player or adjust when they get them. However, what he can't do is replicate what this starting line gives him at those different times.
There are surely other factors in wins and losses for the Jazz. The play of Alec Burks or Enes Kanter, whether good or bad, has the potential to change games. Jeremy Evans can provide solid minutes, like Diante Garrett and Brandon Rush.
However, when it all comes down to it, the Jazz's greatest strength is its team, and the biggest reason for wins and losses is having this team healthy, starting hot. This is a year for rebuilding, reloading, retooling, or whatever else people want to call it. It is also a great time to have young players learn their roles and play as a team.