From the moment Quin Snyder was hired as head coach of the Utah Jazz, his intent was to play with the pass, with pace, and with purpose. It was a team mantra, bedrock philosophy ingrained through repetition.
The Jazz are, once again, dead last in the league in pace, playing at a hair above 93 possessions per game. Snyder is a big believer in habits, and this is one that’s cemented – the Jazz have played at the most deliberate pace in the NBA in each of Snyder’s three seasons.
The former Duke point guard, used to being able to control pace of play with the ball in his hands, has admitted embracing the slower tempo in his coaching has been a difficult adjustment. “It’s harder, frankly,” he acknowledged late in his rookie season leading the team. “It is harder for me.”
The quest for pace persisted, at one point becoming part of the sometimes contentious debate, at least among fans, about Trey Burke. The number nine pick overall in the 2013 Draft, Burke was selected as the Jazz’s intended point guard of the future despite running a notoriously slow offense at Michigan1. But with Snyder’s arrival and the franchise’s philosophical shift toward the Three P’s and a defensive identity, it became ever more evident that Burke was neither a quality enough player or a stylistic fit for the team’s future.
Burke moved on to Washington, the veteran George Hill and speedster Dante Exum have filled the starters minutes once filled by Burke, and the Jazz are right back where they started, moving like molasses in a deliberate, defensive flood over the league.
So playing with pace must be dead.
To Snyder’s credit, he has learned from and adapted to his team, a vital attribute for a successful head coach. Where pace once meant fast – as Jazz General Manager Dennis Lindsey once said, speed used as a tool to “get defenses to change body position” creating breakdowns – now it simply means functional.
Slow can be effective, a dynamic Snyder has embraced in the metaphor of a running football team. Now when Snyder talks about his offensive goals, he is much more likely to speak of “efficiency” or even “force,” situating players as running backs churning out first downs rather than wide receivers breaking for scores using their speed. It’s all about execution and making the most of the possessions the team does get.
It’s certainly no accident turnover frequency has dropped notably in Snyder’s tenure, from 27th in the league his first season to 9th so far this year2. Mid-range jump shots have dropped from over 19 per contest two seasons ago to just over 16 this year, while simultaneously three point attempts have jumped from 21 to nearly 26.
The net effect of this is notable. Where the Jazz ranked 16th in the league in offensive efficiency Snyder’s first season, they now sit at 8th, making them one of only three teams to be in the top ten both offensive and defensively3.
So Snyder’s new philosophy of measured pace must be working.
Not so fast. There is a notable breakdown, and it’s ironic that it appears where the less often discussed two P’s intersect: purposeful passing.
The Jazz pass a lot, 318 times per game, 6th most in the league4. Yet that passing is distressingly lacking in purpose, or at least in production. Exactly 51 percent of Jazz baskets are assisted, the third worst mark in the league. They are tied for last in the league in percentage of assists per pass made (5.8) and second to last in that same metric adjusted to take into account free throws and secondary assists5 (7.9).
The team has started to refine its passing to the point of manufacturing easy points, most notably in the alley-oops to Hayward cutting on the weak side of the floor from a passer standing above the break strong side.
But overall, Jazz passing is still a lot of smoke without much fire. There are far too many situations like the following where Gobert rolls to the basket and is wide open but doesn’t receive a pass.
The Jazz use more possessions via cuts to the basket than all but two teams in the league6, yet rank only 20th in points per possession in those actions, largely because of imprecise passing. Similarly, only six teams generate less of their offense through the post, despite the Jazz’s post-up game ranking in the top ten in in the league in points per possession, effective field goal percentage, free throw frequency, and score frequency. Passers who are not in-time with cutters and don’t reward players muscling for position under the hoop costs the team points and discourages aggressive, and physically demanding, play off ball.
So it may be strange, but of the Three P’s only pace has to this point reached the habitual condition Snyder wants from his team – even if not in the manner originally intended. The Jazz do play with the pass but not with the purpose or, if I might add my own P, precision necessary to near maximization of Snyder’s offensive system.
The remaining P’s are areas where Snyder is unlikely to compromise to fit his team; instead, expect him to continue to pressure his players to get more production out of their passing and movement. If they do, the league may see a combination of offensive efficiency and defensive dominance even Snyder never foresaw with his original, and now outmoded, Three P’s.