Writing the first in-season column can be a frustrating process. We’re all excited to finally be throwing ourselves into a new year of NBA basketball, and eager to draw conclusions right away from a product we’ve been anticipating for months. At the same time, though, there are several areas which just aren’t really ripe for analysis with this small a sample, and could prove to be wildly misleading.
Coach Quin Snyder had a couple interesting thoughts of his own for those of us at Monday’s practice, discussing the way he views drawing conclusions about his team and where they’ve improved (or not improved) to start the year:
“For us it’s two things: One, when does it become salient for you personally? When does your team have enough opportunity, and you’ve been working on something enough, that you feel like you should see a difference? And then obviously there’s the sample size — at what point, is it 10 games, is it 20 games, at what point [does it become] relevant, just statistically speaking?”
That’s an apt way of breaking it down. Like so many details discussed in this space, it really all comes down to the context of it all. Certain elements will be impossible to parse so early, but others may lend themselves to analysis based on anything from a viable sample to a player or team’s history in a particular area.
With that in mind, a few thoughts, good and bad, from Utah’s three-game road swing to start the season.
For the nerds like boss-man Andy Larsen and myself, there may not have been a more prevalent preseason topic of conversation, both among ourselves and with members of the organization. The Jazz managed a league average attack last season despite long periods where they didn’t really look the part. How would the return of Alec Burks, the loss of Dante Exum, opponent adjustments and, most importantly, another year under Snyder affect things?
Utah’s first two games were pretty concerning, to say the least. As a frame of reference, the average shot for the entire NBA was taken with roughly 12 seconds on the shot clock last season — it was about a second lower for the Jazz, who sat at an average of roughly 11.2 seconds left on the shot clock across the full season.
In 96 minutes against Detroit and Philly, the Jazz’s average shot came with 6.6 seconds left on the shot clock. Yeah, six-point-six. One can debate the true correlation between this sort of stat and overall efficiency, but a number that stunningly low absolutely indicates a group struggling to initiate their offense. The Jazz looked frequently lost or disinterested in those first couple games, often taking well over half their 24-second allotment just to get guys in the right positions. Misdirection and variation are good things, but when they set you up in a spot where the entire success of a possession hinges on your first action, with no time for a secondary one beyond a low-efficiency isolation if it fails, things are becoming untenable.
Against Indiana Saturday night, it started to come together. The Jazz took their average shot with 10.8 seconds left for the game — 11.6 in the second half, where they really got things humming and posted a 111.9 per-100-possession offensive figure that would have ranked atop the league over the full season last year.
Whether they can continue trending in that direction may go a long way to determining how successful their offense can be this season. The Jazz have done well limiting their turnovers so far, though Snyder is reticent to label that a trend after just three games1. Several straight days off to practice and watch film should work in their favor as they begin their home schedule tomorrow.
At this point completely separate from things like tempo and initiation time in the halfcourt offense for this Jazz team, their play on the break has carried over from last year as a big point of concern — on one end, at least.
Only the Pistons are attempting fewer transition possessions than Utah on a per-game basis on the young season thus far, per Synergy Sports; only the Nets have a lower efficiency than a roughly .7 point-per-possession number that’s a mortal lock to rise only because it’d be literally impossible for a team to maintain a number that terrible over a full year. The Jazz don’t have the personnel to be a run-and-gun team by identity, but their disinterest in pursuing what are often obvious situations to push the ball is becoming a hindrance to an offense that can’t afford any. Look at what happened following a steal and a clear three-on-two break for the Jazz in the opener against Detroit:
A still from the middle of that set illustrates just how much space Utah’s trio had before the third-nearest Detroit defender would have even gotten into the picture2:
And yet, somehow, the Jazz scored no points on this possession. With that much room, and three players to the opposing team’s two, this has to be two points every single time. Any strong move to the hoop or moderately useful pass is simply guaranteed to open up enough space for a layup or a dunk.
And even when the Jazz do get there, the results have often been painful to watch. They’re struggling to control the ball, hesitating at the point of attack and leading teammates into impossible situations with ill-advised passes:
On the other end, though, they’ve also continued a much more positive trend from last year. Teams are near average when they’re actually able to get out and run on the Jazz, but the Jazz have been fantastic at limiting these chances, particularly for a team that plays so big and misses as many shots as Utah often does. They allowed the fifth-fewest on a per-game basis last year, and are at a nearly identical number so far this season both ranking-wise and possessions-wise. Rodney Hood noted the importance of their attentive transition defense in their win over Indiana Saturday.
“We just got back on defense, I think that was the biggest thing,” he said in a statement Snyder would echo a few minutes later. “Our halfcourt defense has been great, and if we can limit guys getting out in transition and getting easy ones, I think we’ll be in pretty good shape.”
If Snyder can coax a bit more aggression from his guys on the offensive end and maintain their discipline here defensively, it could be a major positive for the team moving forward.
Snyder has been active and diverse with his rotational patterns early on, and expect it to continue. He notes the way the team’s depth, particularly on the wing, allows him to plug and play a variety of combinations effectively.
“It’s more situational,” he told me after Monday’s practice. “You’re going to try and play guys that, in a specific situation, can help you win a game. Sometimes you’re right, sometimes you’re wrong. There’s always a subjective part of that. But we’ve got a lot of guys that can contribute in certain ways, so it becomes a little more tricky to try to balance all that.”
An added benefit Snyder didn’t mention is the way this will keep opposing coaches and scouts off balance. It may be a small thing most of the time, but there are plenty of coaches in this league who fall into consistent habits with their rotations which can be exploited from time to time. Quin has his preferences and tendencies, but the way he’s continued to shuffle things will keep ’em guessing.
And of course, he was quick to note that his choices here are really determined by the guys on the court.
“Sometimes players think the coaches decide to play them or not — players decide, by who plays well. Coaches want to win. They’re not going to play guys that aren’t playing [well].”
For their part, the players appear comfortable with it and don’t find any issues with a lack of rhythm or familiarity. Derrick Favors explained that the coaching staff intentionally mixes up combinations in practice to simulate that sort of feel for the real thing, and says the team’s comfort as a whole makes it an easy scheme to roll with. Look for Snyder to continue to tinker based on all the available context.
After three games, the Jazz sit where most likely would have expected — first in the league for defensive efficiency. Some of this is the fact that a third of their minutes have come against a virtual D-League team in Philadelphia, but the Jazz have looked solid in their other two games as well and particularly against the Pacers.
Despite struggles relative to his high standards on offense, Gordon Hayward has been drawing rave reviews defensively from within the organization. His work on Paul George Saturday night was excellent; he poured in every ounce of energy he had at ball denial, tight press defense and immaculate screen navigation. Plenty have noted the intensity level he’s bringing on every possession, and while it’s not an excuse for his offensive issues per se, he’s showing that he can be a valuable contributor even when things aren’t totally right for him with the ball in his hands.
Team-wide, the Jazz will need to keep that intensity up. They’ve yet to face a great offense on the year, and while that might not happen until they head to Cleveland in a week, this is still the NBA — the talent is high everywhere. This group has the makings of the league-best unit we saw from them over the back half of last season, but they know nothing will be handed to them.
Rodney Hood told us the following story about Saturday night’s game:
“I think we were down like seven at half, and we came back. And I think G [Hayward] hit a big shot and it was a time out – I just saw Derrick bow up3, just getting excited. That was my first time in my year and a half that I’ve seen him do that. It meant a lot to us, especially the younger guys that have never seen that.”
This was one of several examples we’ve seen of Utah’s veterans — a term mentioned with a grain of salt for this team — showcase on the young season. Favors and Hayward have taken the lead, and Snyder has commented on multiple occasions that both are carrying themselves differently this year. Trevor Booker is the lifeblood of the locker room, and Joe Ingles is a guy teammates know they can look to for experience in a situation they may not have been in before.
It’s trivial to some, but as Hood noted, this kind of stuff is big for young guys. It’s easy to forget that these players are mostly teenagers when they enter this league, and their time around their teammates isn’t just a job — it’s their growing-up process. The Jazz have been fostering a strong and united locker room culture since at least last season, and they appear determined to continue that this year.