Three thoughts on the Utah Jazz’s 105-98 loss to the Philadelphia 76ers from Salt Lake Tribune Jazz beat writer Andy Larsen.
1. Joel Embiid’s dominance
We’ve never seen a player get 59 points, 11 rebounds, eight assists and seven blocks before. There was also ultra-efficient shooting: 19-28 from the field, 20-24 from the free throw line. (We’ll excuse the 1-5 from the 3-point line.) Embiid scored 26 of the Sixers’ 27 points in the fourth quarter. He was also +25 on the floor, in just one seven-point game. If you missed the game on TV, it was incredibly impressive, definitely worth watching.
One way to measure how good a performance was is a statistic called Game Score, a formula created by statistical pioneer John Hollinger. Hollinger’s idea is to put an NBA player’s performance in one game, with all the box score factors, in much the same way as points: a game score of 40 is considered outstanding, while a game score of 10 is about average.
For the mathematically inclined, the game scoring formula is: PTS + 0.4*FG – 0.7*FGA – 0.4*(FTA – FT) + 0.7*ORB + 0.3*DRB + STL + 0.7 *AST + 0.7*BLK – 0.4* PF – TOV.
So Embiid’s game score tonight was 54.4. How does it rank in terms of all-time best performances? Note that we can usually only calculate Game Score since 1983 because that’s when they started keeping offensive and defensive rebounds separately in the box score.
Look at that! It’s the best game by any NBA player in the last five years. It’s also the best game involving the Utah Jazz since Karl Malone’s 61-point performance in 1990 — also the best performance in the fewest minutes since then.
I think you can tell if the Jazz could have defended better or not. Could they have double or triple teams? Could they have avoided brooding as much as they did? Yes, probably. But their opportunities were also limited: Kelly Olynyk was in foul trouble, Walker Kessler is a high-foul player, Lauri Markkanen struggled, and every time they doubled, the doubling guard was both small and also hacked Embiid across the arms.
I think going too deep into that discussion can make how amazing Embiid was tonight, and create all kinds of images. He drew these mistakes quite masterfully, and then the eight assists point to how efficiently he passed out of help situations. Oh, and he also completely stopped the Jazz at the other end of the floor.
In other words, we witnessed history. And in this season of good vibes and low expectations, I think it’s good to appreciate that first and foremost.
2. Account of Collin Sexton’s weaknesses
Despite Embiid’s performance, the Jazz had done a good enough job of shutting down everyone else to be able to stay within one possession of the Sixers — until this possession.
Yes, Sexton has a chance to pass to a wide-open Clarkson in the corner, but misses that pass to challenge a player who has a top-10 game in NBA history at the rim. These are unwise decisions.
I got a chance to ask Sexton about that play after the game, and he said what happened was simple: he saw Embiid chasing him, and then his eyes and mind were on the middle, instead of looking around the court.
But it also speaks to Sexton’s biggest offensive weakness: his vision just isn’t that of a winning point guard in the NBA. “Tunnel vision” is sometimes an incredibly apt phrase to describe Sexton’s mentality. That’s not to say Sexton’s contributions don’t have value — he probably outplayed Conley tonight — but it’s just tough to win when he misses significant passes like that and instead gets stuffed at the rim literally five times, like he did tonight.
One thing the Jazz have done to mitigate that is playing Sexton more often with Mike Conley in the backcourt in recent games. That makes Sexton the shooting guard, and gives Conley playmaking duties. It’s worked, too: With Conley and Sexton on the floor together, the Jazz have outscored opponents by nine points per 100 possessions. With Sexton and Beasley in the backcourt, the Jazz are about even, -0.3 points per 100 possessions worse than their opponents.
At the beginning of the season, Will Hardy preferred not to go to this Conley/Sexton configuration, because it means you have a very small backcourt. Both of these guys are 6-0 or 6-1, and while Sexton can be a bit physical defensively, it’s still easy to score over the top of them.
We will have to see if Sexton improves on this during the season. Conley obviously cannot be the starting point of the future for the Jazz due to his age. Sexton could be, or the Jazz could have to look for a long-term replacement in the draft, trade market or (least likely) free agency.
3. Distance around Jarred Vanderbilt
I’m a little worried about Jarred Vanderbilt. It’s a phrase that will shock some jazz fans, given how beloved he already is in his jazz career: he hustles like nobody’s business.
But look how often Embiid even looks at his man — Vanderbilt — during this possession. Once? May be?
Or here – it’s so easy for PJ Tucker to sink down and just help clog up the paint.
This despite Vanderbilt shooting 50% from three on the season – but making just 0.6 per game. Teams clearly don’t believe in that shooting threat at this point, and that makes sense, given how low the volume has to be.
Right now, he has the worst plus-minus on the team, with a -4.8 net rating when he is on the floor for the season. No other Jazz rotation player has a net negative plus-minus.
But Vanderbilt is also so key to the Jazz’s chaos identity, so it’s hard to just say that other players should definitely play more. He’s also a legitimate prospect in his own right at just 23 years old.
Again, it’s just something to look at. Deploying Vanderbilt as a screener has worked relatively well against most teams so far, but we’ll see if more teams adopt the Sixers’ strategy of ignoring him more often on the defensive end.