As the league enters the stretch run where playoff and title contenders make their push for positioning in the last month of the regular season, we simultaneously reach a period where, for developing teams, the time is ripe to begin taking stock of the progress made over the course of the year. For the first time in years, the Jazz find themselves firmly entrenched in the latter group, long eliminated from any realistic contention after spending the season in rebuild mode. And on the surface, this is fine – the results mostly match expectations going into the year.
Of course, taking stock means a great deal more than just comparing Utah’s place in the standings to their expected results. Rebuilding teams have goals for the year, too, and the Jazz are no exception. And with more and more talk swirling around his contract status and future with the team, the time seems right to begin evaluating coach Ty Corbin and the job he’s done with the team at his disposal.
With that in mind, let’s take a look at a few specific moves or trends we’ve seen from Corbin through the season. We can’t cover his whole year in a single column, but a breakdown of some of the larger elements of his coaching job can certainly shed some light on what’s sure to be a tough call for the Jazz front office.
Simple Offensive Systems:
Corbin starts off with a win here, though it isn’t the drastic reinvention of his entire system that some had (very unrealistically) called for. Rather, he’s slowly integrated little tidbits here and there to gradually introduce new concepts to a group that, sometimes, has struggled to grasp complex ones. His change-up on screen looks for Alec Burks with defenses growing wary of his usual style, something I wrote about a few weeks back, is among the better examples of this sort of thing.
Corbin has also done well to adjust to large personnel changes from the last couple years, during which he employed one of the league’s finest post tandems in Al Jefferson and Paul Millsap – unlike many coaches who are unable or unwilling to adjust their system to vastly different pieces (cough, Mike D’Antoni, cough), Corbin has made several fairly large systematical adjustments to move the Jazz more in line with common league trends. After being one of the league’s most post-heavy teams in 2012-13, the Jazz have reduced their post share on finished plays considerably (from 16.1% last year to 9.2% this year) while noticeably raising their reliance on pick-and-rolls and the resulting spot-up shooting (a combined 32.4% last year, up to 45.4% this year).1 He deserves credit as well for bits of unexpected offensive prowess shown by Derrick Favors, as the big man has upped his scoring efficiency from previous years despite a leap to starting-level competition nightly and a move away from his usual position.
Unfortunately, some of these adjustments have been better in theory than in practice, and the overall results haven’t been as positive as many had hoped. The Jazz still sit just 23rd in offensive efficiency and show far too much inconsistency. More damning, though, has been their woeful lack of development in certain basic fundamental areas – watch Enes Kanter carefully in this clip:
Say what you will about Kanter’s relative basketball inexperience compared with his peers, much of it applies in many areas – but not this one. These occurrences are far too frequent, inexcusable mistakes on simple fundamental actions, very often screens. Kanter has been the worst offender, but the entire team is guilty to some degree; seeing players still setting screens out of bounds (illegal in the NBA) and blatantly shuffling their feet right in front of officials like Kanter above is just not okay this far into a season, especially for a team focusing the year on development. There are offensive positives to note with Ty, but unfortunately they are somewhat mitigated by failures to develop other expected areas.
Favors and Kanter:
I documented some of the pair’s struggles back in January, and the noise from fans and experts alike certainly hasn’t subsided since then.2 The two continue to be borderline unplayable together defensively, and the jury is still very much out on that subject. But as the duo has slowly found at least something of a groove together offensively3, it becomes increasingly tough to justify the scarcity of minutes the two presumed frontcourt centerpieces of the future are playing together.
How much Ty is responsible for the pair’s struggles to remain viable together is hard to place, but part of this is his own fault – it’s tough to get a full handle on a long-term situation like this one when the two guys in question can only see roughly seven minutes a night on the court together, often at bookended times (when Favors is nearing the end of a spell and Kanter is just getting started, or vice versa). In any case, the results the two have displayed together certainly aren’t falling under the “positives” category for Corbin.
Marvin Williams’ Rejuvenation:
As Kanter’s replacement in the starting lineup since early in the year, Williams has been a great rebound story for the Jazz. He’s been a lightning rod on offense for a starting unit that was badly stuck in the mud before he helped bring spacing and breathing room, and was retained by the Jazz at the trade deadline in a move that signaled to many that he will likely remain in Utah on a reduced salary after this year. And while it’s becoming clear that using him exclusively at the power forward spot in a high-minute role probably won’t work in the long term for a competitive franchise4, Corbin deserves real credit for recognizing potential no coach before him had seen in the much-maligned Williams and taking advantage of it to plug a fairly large leak. If he does indeed remain in Salt Lake City, Williams could be a valuable bench piece and veteran presence, and Corbin helped make this possible.
Alec Burks and Minutes Distributions:
As far as Burks alone goes, Corbin gets something of a mixed grade. On the one hand, Burks has played the second-most total minutes of any Jazz player on the year, and Corbin has given him free reign with the second unit5 to use his full array of skills and induce pandemonium for opposing defenses. On the other, Corbin steadfastly refuses to start the young swingman in favor of Richard Jefferson, despite the latter performing at a significantly worse level than Burks. He insists on starting Jefferson6 in spite of the evidence that not only is Burks the superior player in a vacuum, but the vastly superior player with that exact starting lineup.
For those who didn’t click the link: assuming the exact same results over 526 minutes (the number the current starting lineup has played) versus 120 minutes (the same lineup with Burks instead of Jefferson) isn’t advisable, but it’s certainly not irresponsible to assume a similar level of performance. And simply put, Burks has just been much better in his 120 minutes with them than Jefferson has been in his 526 – the offensive numbers are roughly the same, but the unit with Burks defends at a rate equivalent to the league’s fourth-best defense while, with Jefferson, it falls all the way to just a hair worse than Sacramento’s 23rd-ranked unit. Throw in the fact that Burks is a core piece, vital to Utah’s future, while Jefferson is almost sure to be on another roster next season, and it’s fairly befuddling trying to figure out how Jefferson continues to start and play more minutes with the primary units.7
This brings us to a larger overall point, one that has received plenty of speculation, especially in recent weeks: is Ty doing a good job with his rotations and minute distributions? I think many of the criticisms levied on him over the course of the year have been either unfounded or without context, but I’m just not sure how the answer isn’t a round “no” at this point. Corbin just doesn’t appear to have a coherent plan in place for the way he manages these elements, and it shows in the inconsistency of his team. Some trends appear to largely follow a “win now” thought process over long-term development, such as the relegation of Kanter to the bench with Williams taking over as a starter, or the fact that project center Rudy Gobert has barely been able to touch the court recently.8 Other times, Corbin has appeared to value the maturation of his players, such as recent instances of the five core players finishing close games together. And still further, some situations seem to speak to neither development nor current product – what else can explain the younger, vital future piece (Burks) still finding himself unable to start or gain a real minutes advantage over the older, unimportant-to-the-future piece who also can’t contribute nearly as much to the team right now (Jefferson)?
It may not be the prettiest picture for Jazz fans conditioned to be fiercely loyal to their own, but Utah’s front office has to take these elements into account this offseason when determining their coaching situation going forward. There’s no question Corbin has injected several positive bits into the team this year as well, though, and they’ll have to note those as well. In the end, I can’t say I envy Dennis Lindsey and his team – they have a tough offseason ahead of them, and I wouldn’t want to be the one making the final call here. All Jazz fans can hope is that whoever is coaching the team next season, the team re-discovers the sort of consistency and structure that made them a mainstay among the league’s hierarchy of relevance for so many years.