The NBA offseason hasn’t technically begun, and yet the Jazz are already preparing to craft a new offensive identity. Franchise brass has already hinted at changes to the offensive system, no small consideration as they evaluate how talent might fit with their plans ahead of the June draft and a subsequent free agent shopping period.
So what are they fitting into? Before we figure out what the Jazz are turning into, let’s think twice about what they are today. I think there are some common misconceptions about the Jazz’s current style of play that are so rooted, they’re often repeated even by players and coaches. Specifically, it’s time to reevaluate the knee-jerk perception that the Jazz are an inside-out team.
For years, Utah was near the top of the league in attempts at the rim, so it became pretty easy to associate Jazz basketball with a lay-up line — even though that might not be the case anymore.
The reality, for better or worse, is that the Jazz have become a very jumper-reliant team. That’s not meant to sound like a criticism; maybe it was a strategic decision to create fissures in the defense by stretching the floor. But whether on purpose or not, the Jazz are less of the “inside-out” team the world is used to. And it’s not a new trend that developed after the addition of several shooting specialists to the roster, or even the head coaching change of February 2011.
In the era of Deron Williams, Carlos Boozer and Memo Okur — all good jump shooters at their respective positions — the Jazz relied on jumpers primarily as a mechanism to open up the middle. In the three full seasons leading up to the free agent shuffle of 2010, jumpers accounted for less than 61% of their shots. That is an extremely effective philosophy, and few teams managed to generate such a huge chunk of their attempts (39%) on what 82games.com calls “close” shots, dunks or tips. As a result, they were one of the better shooting teams in the league, with eFG numbers above .520.
The shift to the outside began even under the Williams and Jerry Sloan regime. In the 2010-11 season, 69% of Utah’s shots were jumpers. That percentage held again in 2011-12, but this past season the jump shot was used for 71% of the team’s attempts, the sixth-highest chunk of jumpers in the league. Consequently, overall eFG% dropped below .500 those three years.
Going from 60-61% of your shots to 69-71% is a huge leap, and it happened almost overnight — at least over the course of one summer. The Jazz ended 2009-10 as the least jumper-happy team in the league, and came back a few months later with itchy trigger fingers. Their coach was the same and their point guard was the same. In fact, four of their top five minute getters that year were back from the previous season, and the lone newcomer in the bunch happens to be one of the game’s premier low block scorers.
Which raises the question: are Al Jefferson’s Jazz using the post to generate close shots, or are they using it as a decoy to free up shooters? It seems ironic that you would add one of the game’s best post men and then shift your offensive forcefully to the outside, but that’s what happened, and the only way to explain it is that the Jazz have been using Al to play, oddly enough, outside-in.
That, in fact, is precisely how Gordon Hayward framed the shift when I asked him about it around mid-season. The team was actually 73% jumper-reliant at that point, so for a while it was a topic I would ask different guys to chime in on. Several guys just repeated the old adage: “We’re an inside-out team.” The young swingman’s assessment was probably more realistic.
“We’ve got a lot of good shooters on this team,” Hawyard said, “so if teams key in on our post guys, we can hopefully knock shots down.” That is 100% sound basketball thinking, but different from saying that the team primarily operates inside-out.
Again, don’t confuse this for a criticism. Being a jump-shooting team isn’t even a bad thing. The current NBA Finalists reached this point while spending 67% (Spurs) and 70% (Heat) of their shots on jumpers, so if you can knock them down, it can be a recipe for success. But the old Jazz philosophy seemed to be to use shooters to create space inside, which is different from the apparent new model of using post players to create room for shooters.
Point guard Earl Watson was a bit more prescriptive when I talked to him about the increase in outside shots. “We can’t just rely on jumpers. We’ve got a very athletic team, so we should be able to get to the rim more.”
Perhaps that’s the shift Ty Corbin and others are mulling. Perhaps it’s something more tactical, like in 2003-04 when Sloan and his staff tweaked the guard line to alleviate some of the pressure on the point guard position. Either way, it’s worth noting that an offensive transformation already happened, albeit sneakily, in 2010. Whatever Corbin has cooking will be off of that baseline, not an old Jazz system that got two fifths of its shots in close.
Of course, if 2010 was a turning point for the franchise, 2013 could prove to be a completely new direction. Regardless of what happened in the Williams/Boozer days or over the last three years, the Jazz could come back playing inside-out, outside-in, upside-down or all of the above. It will be a fascinating summer of intriguing personnel decisions, and then we’ll finally see in October exactly what kind of system the new-era Jazz have built.