Finding Comparables for Jazz Starters

February 5th, 2014 | by Ben Dowsett
Photo by Andrew D. Bernstein/NBAE via Getty Images

Photo by Andrew D. Bernstein/NBAE via Getty Images

We at Salt City Hoops, and myself especially, spend a lot of time talking about Jazz players within the context of the team as whole.  That’s likely the case for most similar sites, particularly those covering a young team like Utah; many broader comparisons league-wide are rendered useless or require excessive added context for an inexperienced group still figuring things out with each other.  But it isn’t an entirely needless exercise to wonder about Utah’s personnel and how it compares around the league – after all, the team has to hope some of their most vital pieces will soon be approaching the NBA’s best at their positions.  With that in mind, let’s have a quick look at Utah’s starting lineup (plus a couple bonus players) and how they compare league-wide.

A couple quick qualifications.  First and most importantly, all evaluations for the purposes of this piece are being made based on players’ current level of play only.  I’ll certainly discuss future potential contextually1, but the comparisons to other players are only based on current performance unless otherwise noted.  Also, you’ll see that I’ve given each player three categories of comparison:

a) Comparables: Others at the position with similar on-court value.

b) Reaches: Others at the position with higher on-court value, but whose current level of play their Jazz counterpart could be reasonably expected to attain at some point in their career with solid development.  For older guys like Marvin Williams or Richard Jefferson, this category will refer more to players whose level of play they can match when playing particularly well, since neither are likely to develop as much as all the core pieces.

c) Ceiling: The player’s best-case career scenario.  Again, for older players this will refer more to their level of play on their very best night rather than a developmental curve.

Also, please note that while I stand by these general comparisons and find them pretty accurate, they are indeed subjective.  Let’s get to it.

PG Trey Burke:

Comparables: Ramon Sessions, Michael Carter-Williams

Reaches: Jrue Holiday, Jose Calderon, George Hill

Ceiling: Mike Conley, Damian Lillard with better defense

Up first is the guy who, perhaps along with Favors, seems the surest bet to hit at least his “Reaches” category sometime in the next few seasons.  Burke is already a capable offensive point guard who I’ve gushed about at length for his court vision and high basketball IQ.  Like any rookie, he has his share of bad tendencies – shot selection and defensive lapses chief among them – but he also has an uncommonly low turnover rate for any point guard, probably the most common bad habit for young ball handlers.  He distributes well2 and shows patience with the ball, and is a danger with his jumper if left unattended.  With the keys to Utah’s offense already in his hands, Burke is a solid bet to work out some of his kinks and become, at minimum, a solid ball-control guy capable of hurting teams with his range, in the mold of someone like Calderon.  With an extra-large leap on either end, he could even become one of the game’s elite players at his position; it’s not unreasonable at all given his smarts to imagine him utilizing his long reach and becoming something like Conley, who has quietly become a top defensive point in Memphis to complement a simple-yet-effective offensive game.  Even if his development were to stall, Burke already has enough tangible assets to make a positive impact right now.

SG Gordon Hayward:

Comparables: Vince Carter, Kevin Martin, Bradley Beal

Reaches: DeMar DeRozan, Lance Stephenson, Aaron Afflalo

Ceiling: In-his-prime Manu Ginobili, James Harden (poor-man’s version with better defense)

Hayward is one of the toughest Jazz players to classify at this moment, his vastly increased offensive role causing certain metrics to paint him as something close to elite while others blast him for his dwindling efficiency and defensive lapses.  Stats aside, he brings a variety of skills to the table; at his best, Hayward can be an above-average defender capable of contributing with scoring, distributing, and boards.  His development mostly depends on a simple idea: are his issues since his increased role a result of growing pains and a lack of other solid offensive options, or is Hayward just not quite capable of being the go-to guy for an NBA team without his game suffering to the point where it hurts the team?  A full dissection of this question could fill an entire piece of its own, but don’t doubt it’s on the minds of Utah’s front office.

Hayward is a good-to-great shooter, albeit one who thinks he’s much closer to “great.”3  The Jazz lack another offensive player capable of generating good looks in isolation, and Hayward has clearly pressed his shots at times to try and make up for this.4  Should he remain in Utah in the coming years, the hopeful addition of another one-on-one threat in this year’s draft (or Burke becoming something close) could really lessen this burden.  He’d then be free to show more of the all-around game many had hoped for, along with a potential rejuvenation defensively – his game could look similar to the one Stephenson plays in Indiana with others on the roster capable of handling more offensive burdens.  In a perfect world, Hayward could become like Ginobili in his prime years with San Antonio – not necessarily a sixth man, but a complimentary offensive piece capable of dominating in stretches while contributing all over the court.

SF Richard Jefferson:

Comparables: Mike Dunleavy, Wilson Chandler, Mo Harkless

Reaches: Paul Pierce

Ceiling: Luol Deng

Pierce and Deng could really be interchanged here; they’re simply guys Jefferson shows flashes of similarity to when his game is really on, but he’s unlikely to ever consistently show that kind of value.  He’s added some range5 and the occasional athletic play to Utah’s arsenal, but frequently disappears much like Chandler can be known to.  He’s been only marginally horrible on defense rather than blatantly horrible, but certainly a downgrade from Alec Burks in that regard.  With the right contender, Jefferson could be a useful bench piece or even a fourth or fifth option for a pseudo-contender like Memphis.  It wouldn’t be surprising at all to see him moved before the trade deadline.

PF Marvin Williams:

Comparables: Channing Frye, Mirza Teletovic

Reaches: Kenneth Faried (with better shooting and worse rebounding), Ryan Anderson

Ceiling: Paul Millsap

It’s been a pleasant year of re-invention for Williams, who has shown real versatility as a stretch-4 in Utah’s small starting lineup.  He always had athleticism, but the change in position has enabled him to really showcase his variety of skills.  He’s been good from beyond the arc and could provide a shooting boost to a contender6, something folks in Salt Lake aren’t shy about pointing out.  On his best nights, he looks like a smaller Faried with much better shooting range, flying around the court and stretching out defenses with his range.  At his very peak, he can even resemble the guy Millsap has become this year in Atlanta with increased offensive freedom.  For all the complaints thrown his way, coach Corbin deserves a real pat on the back for rejuvenating Marvin’s career this season.

C Derrick Favors:

Comparables: Nikola Vucevic, Larry Sanders

Reaches: Joakim Noah, Andre Drummond, Nikola Pekovic

Ceiling: Karl Malone (without a face-up J hand-crafted by God himself), rich-man’s DeMarcus Cousins, 2011 Tyson Chandler

Like Burke, Favors seems a pretty safe bet to at least come close to his “Reaches” category, if not eclipse it.  Though hampered recently by a hip injury, his rapid improvement offensively this season has been a pleasant surprise.  He’s shown a solid, gritty post game and more touch around the rim than many had expected.7  He remains a dangerous pick-and-roll threat given his athleticism and dunking ability, though he’s still sorting out some of its finer points.  His jumper is still mediocre at best, hitting only 30.5% of his mid-range attempts, but he does at least appear to be putting some work into the fundamentals of his shot.

Defensively, his rim protection has left something to be desired based on the skill set he’s shown in the past.  Of 122 players defending at least three shots at the rim per game, he’s a pedestrian 58th, allowing opponents to shoot 50.7% per NBA.com’s SportVU data.  He’s been slowly improving this number over recent weeks, and there’s reason to believe there may be noise surrounding it: the Jazz switched primary pick-and-roll defensive schemes mid-season, and the new hang-back style for bigs is friendlier to Favors’ abilities at the rim.  Furthermore, fellow SCH writer Clint Johnson surmised on our most recent podcast that Favors, like Hayward, might be feeling the effects of an added offensive workload on his defensive game – that Utah’s lack of another big defender/rebounder in their starting lineup, combined with increased fatigue from the other end, might be affecting both the frequency and effectiveness of his challenges.  In any case, a return to his previous levels in this area along with a continued leap offensively could carry Favors to some great heights – should he ever develop a reliable jumper, he might really become nearly as hard to contain as the Mailman.

BONUS Alec Burks:

Comparables: Tony Allen, Eric Gordon, Jimmy Butler

Reaches: Monta Ellis, Lance Stephenson

Ceiling: Poor-man’s Dwyane Wade

What fun would this be if we didn’t include all the core pieces?  Burks should be starting anyway8, perhaps my largest current beef with Corbin’s rotation – he’s younger, better, and infinitely more valuable to the future than Jefferson, but doesn’t seem to be able to find any starts despite eventually logging more minutes a night.  He’s been on fire of late, scoring 17 points a game on nearly 50% shooting since January 13th with a somewhat insane (for a bench player) usage rate of 25.5% in that time.  He can get to the basket whenever he wants, and can finish with both hands and a variety of bodily contortions.  His mid-range jumper is still seen far too often (he shoots only 33.3% but has attempted 147 tries), but he’s actually improved his corner-3 to a respectable 38.9%, albeit only on 18 attempts.

But vastly under-mentioned this season has been his defense, particularly his on-ball defense.  Of qualified players, Burks is second in the entire NBA in per-possession defense against finished isolation plays, allowing only .34 PPP according to MySynergySports.  He’s still learning all the intricacies of complex NBA defense as far as helping and scheme goes (more time against starters could help), but the improvements he’s made to his balance and positioning on the ball are huge9 – he’s become Utah’s best wing defender given Hayward’s drop-off, although Corbin is still quick to give Hayward the tougher wing assignments when both share the court.  If his jumper ever improves to acceptable levels, Burks could easily end up being the most underrated of the Jazz core when it all shakes out.

BONUS Enes Kanter:

Comparables: Andrea Bargnani, Greg Monroe

Reaches: Marcin Gortat, Jonas Valanciunas, Jared Sullinger

Ceiling: Brook Lopez, Chris Bosh

Kanter has been absolutely all over the place this season, his most recent two-game set (28 and 14 in nearly 38 minutes against the Clippers, followed by 10 and 3 in just 20 minutes in a loss to the Raptors that saw Rudy Gobert take his place down the stretch) serving as a microcosm of the year so far.  When he’s on offensively, he looks like an even cleaner version of Valanciunas – silky post footwork, great touch, and a menace on the offensive boards.  When he’s off, he’s a slow, clunky European bricking jumpers – and either way, he’s ranged from bad to catastrophically awful on the defensive end at basically all times.

His ability to produce next to Favors has been a topic of much ballyhoo recently, but as an individual he may have the widest range of possibilities of any young Jazz player.  He may figure it out defensively someday (enough to reach average, at least), continue to add to his repertoire on offense, and become a great two-way player like Gortat or even Lopez.  If everything breaks perfectly, he could one day be nearly as valuable as Bosh – a long shot given Bosh’s versatility, but not impossible with Kanter’s range.  On the other hand, if he can never reach even average defensively, he may never get the chance to become the offensive force his skill set suggests is possible.  Corbin has already benched him for defensive lapses more than once this season, including Monday’s debacle, and there are those wondering if Utah’s bench boss might be growing increasingly fed up with Kanter’s inability to grasp basic concepts and apply them consistently.  As we’ve mentioned before, the remainder of this season and his ability to improve these weaknesses will play a huge role in the front office’s decision-making this offseason as Kanter approaches the final year of his rookie deal.

Ben Dowsett

Ben Dowsett

Ben Dowsett is a life-long Jazz fan and general sports fanatic based in Salt Lake City. He also contributes at all-things-basketball site Not Your Father's Water Cooler (nyfwc.com), and has made appearances on local talk radio. With a strong background in statistics, he writes primarily as an in-depth strategic analyst. He can be found on Twitter at @Ben_Dowsett.
Ben Dowsett
Ben Dowsett

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12 Comments

  1. Zach says:

    Can Kanter and Gobert play on the court at the same time? I know that is a twin tower approach, but Kanter is great of offense and a liability on defense. Gobert is a rim protector but liability on offense. I have thought of Kanter as a PF. Can these two be the bench rotation?

    I actually like Burks not starting, with him and Kanter coming off the bench they are a force, like 5-8 years ago when the Jazz had one of the best benches in the game (Milsap, Kirilenko, Wes Mathews, Harpring, Korver, et al).

    For the Jazz to be a great team, they have to have starter quality coming off the bench.

    • Aaron says:

      I’m not sure I agree. Yes, you want guys on your bench who are quality players, but when you stick a bunch of talented guys together without regard to anything else, you can come out with a situation like the Jail Blazers. Give me a scorer like Burks, and a couple of solid but unspectacular guys who know their roles like Adam Keefe and Steve Kerr back in the day, a hustle guy like DeMarre Carroll, and I’ll happily roll with that over the team with ten former lottery picks. San Antonio has been able to utilize a lot of undrafted free agents and castoffs from other teams and contend every year.

  2. Aaron says:

    Decent comparables for the most part, but I’d have to disagree with the Ramon Sessions and DeMarcus Cousins. Sessions has never shown the ability to completely take over games, so while the statistics might be similar, I doubt any team would put Sessions on Trey’s level. And as much as it pains me, Favors is nowhere near Cousins’ league offensively. If he ever reaches that level, I will be ecstatic.

  3. cw says:

    I totally agree about Burks coming off the bench. It’s a basic bball concept to save some scoring for the bench. And it’s another one that teams with out good benches don’t win many games. Jefferson works on the first unit because he is a legitimate 3 point shooter but not on the second unit because he can pretty much play off of better offensive players, which wouldn’t be there if him and Burks switched places.

    And besides that, it’s minutes that count, not who starts. And as you say, Burks get’s plenty of minutes.

    About Hayward, I think you’d have to say, when you average out his wide swings, he’s a fair to good shooter.

  4. Ben Dowsett says:

    Kanter and Gobert have only played 45 minutes together this season, but they’ve been torn to shreds on both ends during that time. A bench is always important, and your best five players don’t always have to start (see Ginobili in SA), but at a certain point it just can’t work for team composition to give a superior player less minutes, or even similar minutes, compared with an inferior player. This is magnified for contending teams, should the Jazz become one down the line, because benches shorten in the playoffs and your top lineups become far more important. Given the gap in play, particularly defensively, between Jefferson and Burks, while also factoring in the idea that Burks is a core piece vital to the future and Jefferson is anything but, I think the fact that they’re within about a minute or two per game is fairly egregious.

    Aaron: in terms of on-court value right now, Sessions and Burke are quite similar. I definitely would not yet classify Burke as someone capable of “taking over games” – he isn’t even particularly adept at creating his own shot via isolation yet. They aren’t meant to be exact comparisons, obviously (it’s very hard to find identical players in the NBA), but I think they play somewhat similar styles and contribute relatively similar value. Also, Cousins (rich man’s Cousins, as I noted) was used as a potential future ceiling for Favors, not a current comparison.

  5. cw says:

    Ben,

    I still don’t buy it. The team on the floor has to be a collection of complimentary pieces. ROtations are about synergy, not stats. Jefferson fits with the current starters because he is shooting .435 from three and Burks .346. Jefferson is taking about 2 more 3 pointers a game also. That’s a big difference and definitely affects spacing.

    And when Burks starts he has to share the ball with Hayward and Trey, and Burks needs the ball. Plus when Burks starts that means Favors gets the ball less. Plus without burks, the second team is worse.

    So by switching Burks and jefferson, the starters and the second team both get worse.

  6. Ben Dowsett says:

    Again, while I don’t disagree with your general idea that a bench with starter-quality talent (and players that work well for bench units) is important, it’s just not nearly as important for a franchise as figuring out, with great certainty, what your strongest lineups are and how they work together. As I said, this is paramount especially for any team hoping to evolve into contender status, as the more important games get, the shorter benches get.

    As for synergy on the court, all you did was cite another couple stats without any context. I would think the simplest way to measure “synergy” would be, does the team perform at a higher level when one player is on the court than the other? The answer here is VERY clear, and doesn’t relate to a couple arbitrary themes like spacing or threes (both of which, again, I agree are important on their own, but neither of which paint anything close to the full picture). With Burks on the court, the Jazz are significantly better than with Jefferson on the court. Defensively, they allow 3.8 points less per-100-possessions – roughly the difference between being the 23rd-ranked defense and being 2 full points worse than Utah’s already league-worst mark. Offensively, despite your contentions about spacing and the like, they are nearly identical, actually marginally better with Burks. Separating the two further using NBAwowy.com (that is, looking only at situations where only one of the two was on the court and eliminating crossover minutes that they played together), the gap widens even more.

    And even if none of this were true, even if it were reversed and Jefferson was outperforming Burks, that again doesn’t paint the entire picture. As I’ve mentioned multiple times, and should be relatively transparent given their situation this year, winning games and putting the absolute best on-court product out there RIGHT NOW is clearly not the only priority for the Jazz this season. They are firmly out of any form of contention, and have been so all year. Developing their young core for the future is vital, and some might say actually MORE important than putting the best possible lineup combinations on the floor right now.

    Consider all that, and as I’ve said, giving the two even roughly similar minutes is foolish. By every standard under which the Jazz should be (and are, for the most part) operating this season, Burks is the better play.

    • cw says:

      OK, so I believe you that the Jazz are better with defensively with Burks on the floor than with Jefferson, but that doesn’t really speak to saving some of your ammo for when the starters are resting. Maybe if Burks started they would be 3 pts better for the 20 minutes he was with the starters but the jazz would be 6 pts worse when the starters were out. I know the starters and the subs are not 5 man platoons, which is what makes it really hard to statistically determine rotations. Is there some place that shows stretches of games, the first seven for the starters and then the next chunk when the subs are in, etc…? And then look at it with and without Burks. I just do not think that a sub unit without Burks (and Kanter) is going to be very successful.

      And as far as development and finding out what players play good together, Corbin is not incentivized in any way to do that. He is incentivized to win now, with whatever line-ups he thinks will work. The only way he gets another job is if his players are perceived to overperform and the only way to grade that is by winning. THis is what Hornecek is doing in Phoenix although everyone believes that PX would be better off tanking. But Hornecek is in the running for coach of the year and could get a job at all kinds of NBA teams. You can’t blame Corbin for trying to do the same. Really, if you wanted a coach to not worry about winning and instead experiment with lineups and development, you would give him a three year contract. WHich Lindsey didn’t do. Which probably means he’s going let Ty go at the end of the year. Which means Ty is incentivized to win as many games as he can using whatever line-ups work. Which is why we see Marvin and Jefferson in the starting line-up.

  7. Ben Dowsett says:

    Unfortunately for us, it’s not that easy – we can’t just put a quantifiable number of points we lose or gain for a given situation, there’s too much overlaying context and noise with a 5-man unit on the floor against another 5-man unit, too many variables. The closest site to what you mean is nbawowy.com, an excellent resource, but it is limited to tracking team performance with any combination of players on or off the court. There are some fairly advanced filtering capabilities, so you may be able to come somewhere close to what you’re talking about – just keep in mind that they calculate possession statistics slightly different than NBA.com, and the per-possession stats may not match up perfectly. All that said, I’m confident I watch enough Jazz basketball (all of it, often more than once) to accurately assess the way Burks impacts both bench units and starter-heavy units, and in my opinion he is the superior player on both ends, regardless of his inferior 3-point percentage compared with Jefferson.

    As for your contention on Corbin, while I agree the front office, at least publicly, hasn’t been particularly vocal about specific goals for Ty, I can’t agree that his ONLY incentive is to win as many games as possible. Whatever his faults, Ty Corbin is a longtime member of the Jazz organization who has shown the sort of loyalty one would expect from a Jerry Sloan protege. The front office has publicly stressed player development, and at least to my knowledge, has never specifically designated any sort of win total as a requirement for Corbin receiving an extension. For them to expect him to contend, or really anything close, with the personnel he has been given, would frankly be somewhat ludicrous. This isn’t to say Ty might not lose his job within the next six months, he absolutely might – but it won’t be because the Jazz aren’t winning enough games. And even if it WERE, it’s my contention that, for all the reasons I’ve stated, Burks would be more beneficial to winning more games if he took a larger share of Jefferson’s minutes and played more with the primary lineups.

  8. cw says:

    I agree Burks is superior. That’s why I want him on the second unit, he can do more than jefferson with less.

    About Corbin, you may be right. I have no knowledge of inside the Jazz org. But the Jazz didn’t really show much loyalty to him, which I don’t think they should have, with him playing jefferson and williams, he does seem to be playing to win now rather than develop for later.

    I can imagine Lindsey knowing that front offices worry about long term strategy but coaches and players play to win, and understing that whatever development happened would happen in that context. You can make a case that this is how it should be. That Kanter, for instance, would be better developed by having to deal with the perform or sit standard that players on a contending team are held to, instead of cutting him slack and letting him play through his mistakes. I don’t know, it probably changes what works best for player to player.

    I also think it’s in the interest of a coach to find ways to grow his players so they can eventually contribute and the team win more games. That sounds like something a coach in the first year of a 4 year contract would do though, rather a coach in his last year.

  9. K.J. Martin says:

    From a quick glance, a lot of these “reaches” and ceilings are … reaches — RJ, for one, is well on the downside of his career, so a Pierce comparison (even Pierce now, well past his prime), is faulty. But I’m only really concerned about Burke. Holiday is a far superior athlete to Trey, Calderon is a pass-first point, Hill is far less skilled, and Lillard is much more athletic and explosive (as athletic as Holiday, with a better feel for the position). Sessions has proven he’s not starter material, and Conley doesn’t display any real level of elite ability, save for the steals department.

    Burke may indeed fulfill the Chris Paul comparisons he drew last year in college, but he could also wind up as a better version of one-time Jazz guard Jay Humphries; time will tell. But at least get the proper comparisons right, to begin with. That’s fair, right?

    • Ben Dowsett says:

      No offense, but did you read the article or just skim the names? There’s a reason I listed reaches as “reaches” and ceiling as “ceiling”, don’t you think? I specifically noted that for the veteran players, those categories referred more to how they looked on their very best night. I also very specifically mentioned that these comparisons, unless otherwise noted, were only for the current level of play these players show – how good Pierce was in his prime is not relevant for this article.

      I also don’t really have any desire to go into how wrong most of the rest of what you wrote. This article was not meant to identify identical players to the Jazz men in question, and that was extremely apparent throughout. Honestly I’d really prefer more substantive comments like those above, and likely won’t respond to any more like this one – both uninformed and unnecessarily negative.

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