SALT LAKE CITY — Quin Snyder says looking on the bright side, his team’s injuries have expanded its versatility. But he’s not denying the luxury of having healthy stars.
“I think Rudy (Gobert) has been really terrific — we’ve ridden him a little bit — and then Donovan (Mitchell), as well, with his playmaking, and those two guys have got to be good for us to be good,” he said this week. “And they have been.”
In the Jazz’s pivotal win over Denver on Wednesday, Mitchell logged 38 minutes, Gobert 37. Friday against Minnesota they played 38 and 36, respectively. That’s well above their season averages, which makes sense considering the importance of the games. But it’s also dicey for the Jazz.
The miles are adding up.
How many miles are too many for their stars?
ESPN’s Baxter Holmes published a story last week on the tricky balance between winning games and wearing out star players. Exhibit A is Houston’s James Harden, who scored 61 points against New York. Harden played 40 minutes and launched 38 shots in a game the Rockets won by three. He is averaging over 37 minutes, three more than his career numbers.
This ties to the Jazz’s dilemma of positioning for the postseason without deep-frying Gobert and Mitchell. The harsh Western Conference schedule doesn’t help. Does Snyder give them a few more minutes rest, but settle for a lower playoff seed?
Other teams wrestle with similar issues, depending on their depth. While Gobert and Mitchell aren’t logging Hardinean minutes, they aren’t getting extra R&R, either. Last year Mitchell averaged 33.4 minutes and this year is averaging 33.2. Gobert averaged 32.4 minutes last year, 31.7 this. In a dream scenario, Snyder would keep the numbers lower as the postseason nears. But the schedule isn’t conceding. The Portland and Denver games were tight into the final minute. Others are sure to follow.
Concerns about playing time would make Karl Malone laugh. He averaged more than 37 minutes for his entire 19-year career — and that includes the final season in L.A. when he was on his last (rock solid) legs. He played when games were spaced closer and travel often involved commercial flights. Today’s teams fly charter and have fewer back-to-backs.
Regardless, the Jazz have grown from the injuries sustained by guards Dante Exum, Ricky Rubio and Raul Neto. Circumstances gave Mitchell a chance to display his versatility. As a starting point guard, he averaged 29.4 points, five assists and shot 48 percent. His perimeter shooting was a handy 42.6 percent.
Synder said the injuries forced his team to stay focused.
“There was some of that, some urgency that really brought us together,” Snyder said.
A rested Rubio scored 12 points in 14 minutes, coming off the bench on Monday, and 17 points in 24 minutes as a starter on Wednesday.
“As we continue to get healthy, I think we can continue playing better as the season goes on,” Synder said.
But sustained health isn’t a guarantee. The same night Snyder was speaking, Indiana All-Star Victor Oladipo suffered a season-ending injury.3 comments on this story
“This final stretch is likewise critical for potential contenders hoping to keep their stars fresh(ish) for the long postseason ahead instead of burning them out even more before it ever begins (*Cough cough Houston, James Harden cough cough*),” Holmes wrote. “Alas, it is also during these final few months of the NBA pre-playoff calendar that the league's schedule will serve up some of its most perilous fatigue-related landmines to several of the NBA's biggest teams and names, especially in the hotly contested Western Conference.”
Resting stars is a good idea if a team has a lot of them, i.e. Golden State. But for the Jazz, serious rest isn’t a viable option until they’ve guaranteed a playoff spot. Jostling for position is one thing, but making the cut is another.
What’s an ambitious team supposed to do?
It has no choice but to follow the advice TV announcer Craig Bolerjack always gives his viewers: “Buckle up.”