The Jazz may have finally turned the corner. They are 8-2 over their past 10 games with a net rating of plus-8.8, pushing themselves up to eighth place in the Western Conference after being out of the playoff picture for most of the season. Utah was due for a turnaround. It had played the toughest schedule in the league before this stretch, and it has fattened up on a few bad teams during it. The surprise is how the Jazz are doing it.
Things didn’t look good a few weeks ago, when their top three point guards (Ricky Rubio, Dante Exum, and Raul Neto) went down in three consecutive games. The Jazz didn’t have a fourth-string point guard so they turned Joe Ingles, one of the most versatile wings in the NBA, into a point forward. He already had that role on the second unit, but he was used as more of a floor spacer and secondary playmaker with the starters. He has more than handled the additional responsibility: Ingles leads the team in assists (6.3 per game) and assist-to-turnover ratio (2.74 to 1) over the past six games. Though you may get a two-point night every now and then, like in Monday’s home loss to Portland, Ingles can run an offense. He controls the tempo of the game, allowing the Jazz to play at the slower pace they prefer; keeps the ball moving; and creates open shots out of the pick-and-roll.
Ingles, who averages only 11.5 points per game on 43.2 percent shooting, can dominate without scoring because he can stuff the stat sheet in a way few players his size (6-foot-8 and 226 pounds) can. There are only three players 6-foot-8 and taller in the NBA averaging more than five 3-point attempts, four assists, and one steal per game this season: LeBron James, Khris Middleton, and Ingles. A player with such a diverse skill set can fill a lot of gaps in a lineup. The Jazz have a net rating of plus-6.8 in 1,490 minutes with Ingles this season and minus-4.1 in 814 minutes without him. Rudy Gobert is their only player with comparable on-court/off-court numbers.
One of the hidden pivot points for Utah this season is when Jazz coach Quin Snyder began splitting up Ingles and Gobert so that one of the two was always on the floor. The Jazz build so much of their scheme on both sides of the ball around Gobert—reigning Defensive Player of the Year and one of the best roll men in the league—that it’s hard to play good defense without him. The plan at the beginning of the season was for Donovan Mitchell to be the primary ball handler in their second-unit lineups, but he needed the structure that Ingles and Gobert provide. The Jazz have a net rating of minus-19.7 in 176 minutes this season with Mitchell and without those two. They are plus-5.8 in 330 minutes this season with Ingles and without Mitchell and Gobert.
Snyder made the switch permanent on December 10. The Jazz were 13-14 with a net rating of minus-0.6 before the move and 13-8 with a net rating of plus-7.6 after. It had a domino effect in their rotation. Snyder is essentially buying time with Ingles carrying some of his more limited reserves in order to maximize the amount of time that Gobert and Mitchell play together. Mitchell is their leading scorer and best one-on-one player, but he’s also a streaky outside shooter (32.1 percent on 6.8 attempts per game) and inconsistent decision-maker (1.32-to-1 assist-to-turnover ratio) who doesn’t always raise the game of the players around him. Gobert is a necessary safety blanket. Mitchell, a 22-year old in his second season in the NBA, isn’t as steady as a 31-year-old like Ingles.
Snyder has always trusted Ingles, but even he hasn’t quite known what he had. Ingles just doesn’t seem like a player who can handle a large offensive role. As he told ESPN’s Adrian Wojnarowski, “I’ve got a receding hairline, I’m slow, and I’m probably not the most jacked up with abs and all that.” He’s not a great athlete. He doesn’t have an elite first step, and he can’t play above the rim. Ingles, an Australian, spent almost a decade overseas before making the NBA at 27. The key to his success is that he’s a great shooter (career 40.6 percent from 3 on 3.8 attempts per game) who knows how to leverage the threat of his jumper to keep the defense off-balance. He can shoot off movement, and he’s so tall for a wing that defenders have to stay attached to him to even bother his shot, which allows him to create space off the dribble like a much faster player.
Ingles can attack the defense in a number of different ways. He gets 31.1 percent of his offensive possessions this season as the ball handler in the pick-and-roll, but he’s just as comfortable spotting up off the ball. Utah uses him more like JJ Redick when the other starters are healthy, creating space for him to shoot by putting him in dribble handoffs (14.1 percent of his possessions) and running him around screens off the ball (11.6 percent). His spacing allows those lineups to function. The Jazz are one of the last teams in the NBA that starts two traditional big men (Gobert and Derrick Favors), and neither Rubio nor Mitchell is an elite shooter.
Ingles is just as important to their defense. He defends the toughest wing scorer on the opposing team. Favors and Gobert prefer to stay closer to the basket, while neither Rubio (6-foot-4) nor Mitchell (6-foot-3) can bother the shots of bigger perimeter players. Ingles’s five most frequent assignments this season are Luka Doncic, Buddy Hield, Kevin Durant, Jimmy Butler, and Paul George. Ingles makes up for his lack of quickness by using his strength to position himself perfectly and funnel his man into all of the length and athleticism around him. The Jazz’s defensive rating goes from 99.4 in 1,490 minutes with him to 105.6 in 814 minutes without him. His high marks on that end aren’t just a product of playing with Gobert, either. The Jazz have a defensive rating of 96.0 in 435 minutes with Ingles and without Gobert.
Ingles’s national coming-out party came in the Jazz’s first-round victory over the Thunder last season. Ingles averaged 14.2 points on 43.8 percent shooting and 3.2 assists per game in that playoff series, and he steadily wore down George on defense. The Oklahoma City star went from scoring at will in Game 1 (36 points on 13-of-20 shooting) to firing blanks in Game 6 (five points on 2-of-16 shooting). Ingles, who spent the vast majority of possessions in the series as the primary defender on George, beat him up physically and got into his head. They had to be separated at one point because George got so tired of the way Ingles was crowding him. Like a lot of players from Australia, Ingles isn’t afraid of mixing it up and he loves to get under the skin of his opponents. Rachel Nichols of ESPN recently called him the best trash-talker in the NBA.
Ingles has taken his game to another level over the past few weeks. Utah is a more versatile team with Ingles at point guard instead of a smaller player like Rubio. The Jazz have been starting another wing (Royce O’Neale) in his place, making Mitchell the only player on the floor under 6-foot-7 in their starting five. Snyder has stumbled into something that could pay huge dividends down the road. Their normal starting lineup has a net rating of plus-1.6 this season in 281 minutes. Their lineups with Ingles and Mitchell and without any of their point guards have a net rating of plus-18.9 in 154 minutes. The one to watch is when Snyder puts O’Neale and another 3-and-D wing (Jae Crowder) around Ingles, Gobert, and Mitchell. That unit, in a small sample size of 45 minutes, is plus-26.6.
Those lineups should be the new blueprint for the franchise. A team with Gobert will always be somewhat unconventional in this smaller and faster era of the NBA, but there’s no reason to put another big man like Favors around him when it’s hard enough keeping even one on the floor against small-ball units. Building around a supersized backcourt of Ingles and Mitchell, meanwhile, would allow the Jazz to attack mismatches the other way. They could run a two-man game that would force the defense to switch a smaller player onto Ingles or a bigger one onto Mitchell. Ingles has been the roll man in those plays on only six possessions this season. There is still more they can get out of him.
Utah will have a lot of flexibility this offseason. Rubio’s contract expires and the Jazz have a team option for Favors. Let those two walk and they could have more than $45 million in salary cap room. Salt Lake City has never been a free-agent destination, but the Jazz have a shrewd front office and a lot of low-hanging fruit to pick. There a lot of options open to them, even if they aren’t likely to attract any of the established stars: They could gamble on restricted free agency, use their cap space to take on longer contracts from teams who want to dump money, or strike quickly on under-the-radar veterans. They are perfectly set up to go all in, while Mitchell is still on his rookie deal and Gobert and Ingles are still in their prime.
There is plenty of reason for optimism in Utah. For all its struggles this season, it has the fourth-best net rating (plus-3.0) in the West and is only three games out of fourth. Gobert and Mitchell get most of the publicity, but Ingles is a star in his own right. There are not many 6-foot-8 players who can run point, stroke 3s, and play elite defense. The next step for the Jazz is giving him the keys to the offense and making him a full-time point forward, like he has been over the past two weeks. Ingles has shown he can be an incredible complementary player. Now Utah needs players who can complement him.
All stats current through Monday afternoon.