The new era of Jazz basketball is a quarter-season old following Utah’s Wednesday night loss to the league’s best team, so any attempt to discern the identity of this squad is probably a bit premature. Still, I can never resist the temptation to check in on a topic that’s an important indicator of play style.
Pace has become a pet topic of mine, particularly during what I’ve dubbed the JefferJazz years when the average Jazz possession lasted much longer than previous years. Going into 2012 training camp, the team said they were going to focus on generating early offense, but then clunked out to the slowest season in the post John & Karl era, with only 57% of their attempts coming in the first 15 seconds of the shot clock.
This year the Jazz are 28th in Hollinger’s pace rankings, but I think that stat is misleading. Pace as defined by possessions per game has a couple of flaws: one that is super obvious and one that is less obvious.
First, possessions per game doesn’t necessarily tell you what a team is doing with its own possessions. The it-takes-two-to-tango caveat means that a team can look better or worse simply by playing an unusually high number of teams that play a certain way. Over the course of a season, that evens out. Over the course of 20 games, it doesn’t necessarily.
The less obvious problem with possessions per game is that teams that play more close games by nature will see more possessions as games go into foul mode late, or even more so in overtime. (Possessions per game doesn’t adjust for games that saw extra periods, so teams like the Pellies and Bulls that played 15 extra minutes the other night just get to pad their possession numbers.)
The Jazz are one of five teams with a point differential greater than eight in any direction. That means that, along with the Pacers, Heat, Bucks and Spurs, the Jazz are involved in more contests where the clock is running at the end. That makes a difference when you consider how few possessions separate the top from the bottom in the pace rankings.
To illustrate this, consider that last night’s 9-point defeat was actually representative of their season-long differential. The end of that game had seven total possessions — 3.5 per team — in the final two minutes. The pace factor for the final two minutes was just 84, because the game, already decided, began to slow down.
So what’s a better way of analyzing pace of play? I like play-tracking sites that keep track of clock usage just within a team’s half of the game. In fact, last summer I used shot clock usage stats to show just how slow the Jazz had gotten during the JefferJazz era, and I recently updated those graphs with the new season’s data.
Unfortunately, Hoopdata ceased tracking this year and 82games.com only has numbers through Thanksgiving. But at that point, the Jazz had actually sped up their offense. They were getting 61% of their shots in the first 15 seconds of the shot clock, back to pre-JefferJazz levels.
The Jazz appear sincere about trying to get more attempts early in the shot clock, but they’re also getting less efficient at converting those early looks. If anything, this graph suggests that maybe they should be a bit more selective about early shot opportunities. In fact, before Trey Burke’s return, their eFG% on these early shots was clear down in the mid-40s, reflecting a lot of low-percentage shots taken early in the play. But this at least dispels the myth that the Jazz aren’t trying to speed up the play when they have the ball on their end.
Inversely, the Jazz are taking fewer desperation shots — only 39% of their shots come in the last third of the clock and a seven-year low of 15% are being taken in the final :04 — but their ability to convert on late looks is at a pretty worrisome low.
So how does that compare to the rest of the league? The Jazz are tied for 20th in early attempts (0-15 seconds elapsed) going into the Phoenix back-to-back. Not great, but not 28th either. Only Charlotte & New Orleans have a larger difference between their rank in possessions per game versus their rank for early usage. On the other end of the spectrum, Detroit is actually the slowest team in the league with only 58% of their attempts coming in the first :15 of the shot clock, but their possession rank is 17 spots better (13th) because with a -0.1 point differential, they’ve been involved in a ton of close affairs.
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Add it all together: the Jazz actually are getting back to a pre-Jeffersonian fluidity to the offense, but in relative terms are still getting slightly fewer early shots than the average team.
The real focus going forward should be on finding quality shots, regardless of where the Jazz are at in their possession. Turning around the trendline in eFG% numbers both early and late in the shot clock should be the main concern. In the meantime, just remember that possessions per game doesn’t tell the whole story.