Tonight, the Sixers once again face off against the Utah Jazz. When these teams met in November, Jimmy Butler put on a show for his home debut en route to a thrilling Sixers win. Utah is always a hostile environment for big games, and this matchup should be just as exciting as the last.
To learn more about the Jazz, I talked to SLCDunk.com’s Andy Bailey. In addition to his Jazz work, Andy writes about the NBA for Bleacher Report and hosts the Hardwood Knocks Podcast.
Question #1: Even though most Sixers fans are not fond of Donovan Mitchell after a certain campaign from last season, it’s undeniable that he had a tremendous rookie season. But this year, his statistical production has fallen fairly significantly. His raw field goal percentage has dropped around 30 points and his three-point percentage has decreased by almost 50 points, resulting in a true shooting percentage 40 points lower than last season. Simply, why is this happening? Was last season somewhat of an aberration? Is this just an elongated slump that will come to an end? As best you can, explain why you think Mitchell has experienced a sophomore slump.
Donovan Mitchell’s 2018-19 shooting numbers are actually closer to what I expected from him coming out of Louisville. In his sophomore season there, he shot 40.8 percent from the field and 35.4 percent from three. Those percentages don’t scream “great shooter.” But I also don’t think his rookie season was a fluke. If you take out his first five games (when he seemed to finding his footing), Mitchell shot 44 percent from the field and 34.2 percent from three (regular season and playoffs combined). That would be a long fluke.
So, how does he get back to (or improve upon, because let’s face it, those numbers aren’t stellar either) those numbers from his rookie season? The simple answer seems to be shot selection. Teams are loading up on Mitchell’s possessions, and he’s forcing up tons of contested shots. This season, 53.2 percent of his shots are going up when a defender is within four feet of him. Last season, that number was 45.9. That’s not the entire analysis, of course, but making the extra pass instead of taking some of those shots would help.
Question #2: Ricky Rubio is set to become an unrestricted free agent this summer, two years after being traded to the Jazz for a first-round pick. Can he be long-term solution at the point guard position next to Mitchell, Rudy Gobert and company? If not, what kind of player should they be looking for to fill that hole moving forward?
Preferably, Utah would have a more consistent shooter than Ricky Rubio at point guard, especially if Mitchell is going to be more volume than efficiency for the next few years. But coach Quin Snyder really seems to love Rubio. No matter how poorly he’s playing in a given game, Snyder trusts him to be in the game and controlling crucial possessions down the stretch. And, given Utah’s struggles to ever land big-name free agents, finding an upgrade that way might be difficult.
Every once in a while, Dante Exum will still show flashes that he can be the right backcourt partner for Mitchell, but that’s certainly not a given either.
Question #3: This season for the Jazz has been puzzling thus far. They brought back what was an elite team last season, yet find themselves consistently hovering around .500. What needs to happen for them to right the ship and get back to the level of play they were at over the final few months of last season?
This may be a simple answer, but the schedule is about to get much easier for Utah. To this point in the season, the Jazz have faced the toughest schedule in the NBA. And the gap between their Strength of Schedule and everyone else is huge- the distance between Utah and No. 2 Phoenix is about the same as the distance between Phoenix and No. 7 Memphis. But they have one of the easiest remaining schedules in the league. Only Toronto and Milwaukee have lower remaining Strength of Schedule numbers.
Now, does that mean the Jazz will suddenly start hitting the open threes their missing? Will they suddenly stop handing out turnovers that allow the other team to get out and run? Will they stop losing the home games they’re supposed to win? There are certainly some fundamental issues Utah needs to address, but the schedule flipping should help.
Big thanks to Andy for taking the time to answer our questions!