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Analytical data supports narrative that Utah Jazz are primed for success this season

Dante Exum, Derrick Favors, Joe Ingles and Jae Crowder pose for a portrait during Jazz media day at the Zions Bank Basketball Center in Salt Lake City on Monday, Sept. 24, 2018.
Dante Exum, Derrick Favors, Joe Ingles and Jae Crowder pose for a portrait during Jazz Media Day at the Zions Bank Basketball Center in Salt Lake City on Monday, Sept. 24, 2018.
Kristin Murphy, Deseret News

SALT LAKE CITY — Perhaps expectedly, the first question Utah Jazz general manager Dennis Lindsey was asked during his time on the podium at the team’s media day in September was why he chose to bring back the squad almost entirely intact from last season.

Lindsey gave a lengthy answer, but on multiple occasions within the response, he referenced the idea of balancing how the group’s collective character captured the hearts of Jazz fans, the value of continuity and what objective advanced analytical data told him and his staff.

That analytical data, which in large part aims to remove emotion from the equation when examining players and teams, is becoming an increasingly recognized way of analyzing performance, both by teams as well as basketball observers.

So what do the analytics say about how Utah might fare this season? Does it line up with common narratives that the Jazz will be able to build upon the success they had the second half of last season?

The very short answer is yes, although there is an important caveat to that. With the increase in analytics’ popularity, people have devised countless different models to measure player and team success. Some might favor defensive performance more than others, or not be able to project well what a player might do coming off an injury-plagued season.

Nevertheless, there are some common threads concerning what some of the more recognized models are projecting about the Jazz for the 2018-2019 season.

Core Four: Sometimes analytical models produce data that runs drastically counter to eye test or narrative, but that’s not the consensus with what models are saying about who will be Utah’s most impactful players, as Donovan Mitchell, Rudy Gobert, Ricky Rubio and Joe Ingles are the top four Jazz players in a number of different models.

There is some disagreement about order of impact, however, as some have Mitchell projected as Utah’s most impactful player, while others have Gobert at the top. Similarly, some have Rubio in the third spot while others have Ingles.

‘The strength of the team is the team:’ This refrain often used last season by Jazz head coach Quin Snyder is supported by a number of different models. Utah might not have anyone who is projected to be a top 15 or even top 20 player in the league in many models, but the squad has good depth.

For example, FiveThirtyEight’s projections have Mitchell as the Jazz’s best player at No. 22 in the league. Fifteen teams have a player ranked before that. The Golden State Warriors have four, and the Houston Rockets, Minnesota Timberwolves, Oklahoma City Thunder, Los Angeles Lakers, Toronto Raptors and New Orleans Pelicans all have two in the top 25 (one of Minnesota's is disgruntled Jimmy Butler).

On the flip side, Gobert is ranked 26th (he’s a bit higher in some other models, as this one factored in his time missed last season due to injury), Rubio is 30th and Ingles is 38th. No other team in the league besides the aforementioned Warriors have four players in the top 38 of FiveThirtyEight’s model.

Donovan Mitchell: While the consensus among models is that Mitchell will be one of the league’s better players, the toughest question to answer is: How much of a jump might he make in his sophomore season? Not many models convert their metrics from advanced stats back into traditional stats, although Basketball Reference’s model is one that does.

It projects Mitchell to average 22.2 points, four assists, four rebounds and 1.6 steals per 36 minutes played, which is virtually identical production from his numbers last season when measured out per 36 minutes played.

Overall team success: Once free agency all but concluded by August, a big storyline emerged thanks to ESPN’s Kevin Pelton, whose analytical models project the Jazz to finish the regular season with 53.4 wins, which would put them second in the Western Conference (the Rockets are third using Pelton’s models at 53.0. The Warriors are tops at 58.6).

“In a conference that no longer appears to have a second elite team, Utah moves up despite — or perhaps, in part, because of — a relatively quiet offseason,” Pelton wrote. “With Rudy Gobert in the lineup, the Jazz won at a 54-win clip in 2017-18, so it's reasonable to think they can maintain that pace this season.”