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Five Questions with SLC Dunk

Ahead of tonight’s early-season playoff seeding test for the Grizzlies, we chat with Amar from SB Nation’s SLC Dunk.

NBA: Memphis Grizzlies at Utah Jazz Russ Isabella-USA TODAY Sports

There is a big game in Memphis tonight between the Grizzlies and the Utah Jazz. The Jazz can leapfrog the Grizzlies in the Western Conference playoff standings tonight if Memphis falls to Utah. On the other hand, if the Grizzlies can knock off the Jazz, not only will they extend their early-season hold on the five-seed, they’ll also guarantee at worst a regular season split with Utah.

Lots to play for on both sides. To help us get ready, we reached out to AllThatAmar of SB Nation’s Utah Jazz blog, SLC Dunk, to break down the Jazz at large and tonight’s contest. Follow him @AllThatAmar on Twitter.

1. Right now the Jazz are over .500 and playing well even with injuries, but do you start to worry that this team will ever be healthy?

NBA: Dallas Mavericks at Utah Jazz Russ Isabella-USA TODAY Sports

Of course, that may very well be the new ‘reality’ – a perpetually injured team that needs to shuffle the cards long enough and hope for a good hand when the playoffs roll around. Utah has seen both extremes. During the 80s and 90s John Stockton and Karl Malone were almost never sitting out of games due to injury. (In fact, before his final season – with the Lakers – Malone had missed more games to suspension than injury. That’s some odd trivia for you.) Then during the Andrei Kirilenko/Carlos Boozer /Mehmet Okur years multiple rotation guys were out when the games started to count. Over the last three seasons – when the keys were finally given over to the lotto picks of the 2010s – everyone got injured again. The development was arrested and the “this team could be good” think pieces were always proven to be premature.

As it stands, the projected starters (George Hill, Rodney Hood, Gordon Hayward, Derrick Favors, and Rudy Gobert) have played a grand total of 12 total minutes on the court together this season. If that’s the new reality then that sucks. But the team tried to address the perpetual injury problem by adding redundancy, if not stars. So far the team is keeping their head above water. I’d rather they be healthy though.

2. The Jazz have a lot of great depth; how much has that helped them with so many starters missing time, and do you think that their depth might make them less likely in terms of making any sort of trade during the season?

There could be no middle ground here; either the egalitarian playing time and constant shifting of who starts will keep everyone happy, or someone will be upset with their role and ask to be moved. Winning usually keeps things in check, and the team has won so far. But if there are some worse injuries and winning goes away, this could be a very un-Utah-like locker room. It was curious to me to see that even in the games where the Jazz were missing 3+ rotation guys, head coach Quin Snyder would still find ways to give players DNP-CDs. That’s gotta be a strange feeling on the bench in warm-ups.

One guy who could have a legit beef with his role is Brazilian point guard Raul Togni Neto. He’s been a starter in South America and in Europe, and started 53 games last season as a rookie in the NBA. So far this season he’s had a much more reduced role, from 18.5 mpg in 2015-16 to 4.4 mpg in 2016-17. And again, this is a situation where George Hill has played in only 11 games this year. That’s a little low. I’m certain that he’s an NBA rotation player. He’s just not on this Utah team that seems to favor Mack (who was a teammate with starter Hayward at Butler, and a favorite of Snyder who had been his assistant coach with the Hawks).

The GM, Dennis Lindsey, has gone on record to explain that they look at trades all the time. They are willing to pull the trigger on trades if it’s worth doing. I don’t know if that’s just ‘media speak’ or real. But if so, I guess that would mean that even IF the team has depth and is winning, they still may make a move.

3. Who’s been the Jazz’ best player so far? What about the biggest disappointment?

NBA: Dallas Mavericks at Utah Jazz Russ Isabella-USA TODAY Sports

You have three legit candidates. George Hill was Western Conference player of the week in the first week of the season and is having a career year (20.0 ppg, 4.2 apg, 3.5 rpg, 2.4 3PTM, 1.1 spg, .543/.456 /.884), but has played in only 11 of the Jazz’ 27 games. Gordon Hayward has bulked up and is having quite a season as well (22.5 ppg, 6.3 rpg, 3.8 apg, 1.8 3PTM, 1.0 spg), but again has missed nearly a third of the season to injuries. The one guy who has been there EVERY game has been Rudy Gobert. While his numbers do not immediately capture much attention (12.0 ppg, 11.6 rpg, 2.7 bpg, 0.9 apg, 0.6 spg, 5.7 FTA), his actual impact on the court is nearly immeasurable. He is the defensive anchor who makes up for everyone else, and is the real reason why the team can play the style they do. He’s nowhere near as polished as a Marc Gasol, but his raw ability makes it fun to watch. He’s our very own Gobzilla, learning how to destroy cities.

The biggest disappointment is harder to pin down. I guess as this point the knee-jerk reaction is probably going to be Dante Exum. The kid has very little basketball experience and is coming back from what a decade ago was a career ending injury. But as a top 5 draft pick, we fans are unreasonable and expect nothing short of greatness. What we are seeing, on the other hand, is a 21 year old who didn’t play in college and missed an entire year of basketball trying to pick up the pieces on a team that is in ‘win now’ mode. His offensive game seems to have regressed to being a spot up jump shooter who is too timid to use his length and quickness to get into the paint. Defensively he’s still good. But the fact that the head coach leans on Shelvin Mack over Exum can’t be good for the kid’s confidence. Or the fans.

4. A lot of people had the Jazz as a real threat to the Warriors in the West. To this point, what are your overall expectations for this season: are you still optimistic or tempered expectations?

I’m still a homer and expect the team to make a solid case for 3+ playoff wins this year. Of course, that means avoiding the Golden State Warriors, but with the way the team has played while being injured I have faith that they will capture one of the “it’s not a horrible situation” seeds out West. If this team was healthy from day one I think Utah could have made a case for a top 4 finish after 82 games. A team that’s been forced by injury to try out 13 different starting line-ups? The expectations have to be adjusted somewhat.

As for the Warriors, specifically, I don’t think people felt like the Jazz were a 60+ win team. I think they felt like their pace of play, length, ability to switch all day, and ability to play a counter-strategy to Steve Kerr made the Jazz a team Golden State wasn’t going to be happy to play against over a long series. Heck, they’ve played once already this year when the Jazz were without FOUR starters (and sixth man Alec Burks), and the Dubs won by only 7. (Again, in a game where Kevin Durant fouled Steph Curry, and the ref called it on a Jazz play and gave Curry free throws.) Kerr finished the game with his starters playing deep in the fourth in a SEVEN point victory over a team without FOUR starters. No one is afraid of Utah. But Golden State isn’t jumping at the chance to play a healthy Jazz team.

5. This will be a different, healthier Jazz team than the Grizzlies saw back in Utah. How do you think they match up with Memphis this time around?

NBA: Memphis Grizzlies at Utah Jazz Russ Isabella-USA TODAY Sports

Back in November these two teams met in Utah, and Memphis walked tall out of there with a 102-96 win. The Grizz had a great first quarter, and finished strong in the fourth when the game got close. No Tony Allen, but still there were plenty of bets who knew how to win games. Vince Carter, in particular, has made a career out of feasting on Utah – so it wasn’t much of a surprise. The Jazz were down a few rotation guys (George Hill, Rodney Hood, Alec Burks) and playing their first game off of a five games in seven nights East trip. That game was basically their sixth straight game in a different city and we all know how the NBA schedule makers don’t go easy on us small market teams.

This time around things ARE different. Memphis is health-neutral adding Allen, but losing Parsons. The Jazz will still be without the starting point guard George Hill, but at least Rodney Hood will be back. (Alec Burks continues his vision quest this season.) What I am more impressed with and excited to see is how these two team that are winning games and playing well face one another.

Memphis is the 5th seed in the West right now and have won 7 of their last 10. Utah is 6th, and have won 8 of their last 10. Marc Gasol and Rudy Gobert. Zach Randolph and Derrick Favors. Slow paced, grit and grind against “are they even moving at all?” pace length and three pointers. It’s going to be 80s/90s basketball. I love it. I think Utah has more depth, but no stars. And Memphis has like five. Mike Conley is going to have his way with Dante Exum and Shelvin Mack. But on the other side of the ball, Gordon Hayward is going to attempt to have a field day.

It isn’t an even match-up, but these two teams will be fighting tooth and nail over their strengths.

Follow @sbngrizzlies