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SALT LAKE CITY — No NBA team wants its players to get injured.
But it’s worse when those injuries come to the starting lineup, as it did with the Jazz when Ricky Rubio went down with a hamstring injury against the Milwaukee Bucks two weeks ago.
The loss of Rubio was multiplied when the Jazz lost their up-and-coming backup point guard in Dante Exum the night before, then proceeded to lose Raul Neto a game later. It’s a comedy of errors for the Jazz at point guard, leaving ball-handling duties to Donovan Mitchell, Royce O’Neale, Joe Ingles and little-used Georges Niang.
It could have been a disaster for the Jazz at a point when the season was supposed to turn in their favor.
But after the loss at Milwaukee two weeks ago, the Jazz have gone on a tear, winning their next six games with Mitchell as the lead guard, and Rubio out of the lineup.
In that time, Mitchell saw his averages climb to 30 points per game and just under four rebounds and six assists. The Jazz have outscored their opponents by 99 points over the six games with Mitchell as point guard.
But it wasn't just Mitchell who saw an increase in production — most of the Jazz backcourt has benefited from the extra minutes.
Going into Monday night’s game against Portland, O’Neale's averages have climbed from 4.6 points per game to 8.8 points and his rebounding average jumped from 3.3 to 7.5 per game. Ingles' scoring average climbed modestly from 11.7 to 12.3 points, but there was a dramatic spike in his assists — from 4.9 to 6.5 per game.
Perhaps, most importantly, the Jazz unleashed the true value of Kyle Korver in the lineup. Over the six-game stretch, Korver scored in double digits four times, and now averages 13.5 points per game — up from his previous 8.9 points per game.
While the Jazz will gladly welcome Rubio back into the starting lineup, the front office may have gotten a true glimpse of Mitchell’s enormous upside when paired with a true shooter in the backcourt — whether that’s at the point guard or shooting guard position.
Ideally, Mitchell may be a better fit off the ball, but the Jazz may be willing to put the ball in his hands on offense if the right player shows interest in joining the roster in the offseason.
Even if a starting-caliber shooting guard does not join the Jazz in the offseason, the Jazz could look to replace Rubio with a pure shooting point guard that would open up the floor for Mitchell and Rudy Gobert.
Just as the Jazz backcourt saw their numbers climb in that six-game stretch, Gobert benefited from the more prolific 3-point shooting lineups, adding nearly two more points per game and nearly six rebounds to his average.
With offenses continuing to trend towards the 3-point line, adding shooters is going to continue to be premium for the Jazz. Over the last six games, the Jazz are making two more 3-point attempts (13.2) and taking five more per game (37.8) over their first 41 games of the season.
Though, inarguably, some of the recent uptick in Jazz play has to do with the low quality of opponents, the results have been intriguing.
Losing Rubio, Exum and Neto at point guard was a setback for the Jazz by having to dive deeper into the roster than they had planned, but the information gathered in their absence has value.
Come this summer, when the Jazz could have as much as $30 million in cap space, the Jazz may not be limited to just chasing a point guard to pair with Mitchell. While that’s still an option, Mitchell’s breakout as the lead guard could open up options for how the front office chooses to design the roster.