Jazz Early Returns: Sustainable or Unsustainable?

November 3rd, 2014 | by Ben Dowsett
Photo by Melissa Majchrzak/NBAE via Getty Images

Photo by Melissa Majchrzak/NBAE via Getty Images

Under a week into a fresh campaign and with hopes and dreams of success still mostly intact for all non-Lakers-and-Sixers fanbases, those of us attempting to analyze results thus far are in something of a temporary pickle. On one hand, jumping to concrete long-term conclusions with each of the league’s 30 teams yet to play their fifth game is inadvisable for a number of reasons – sample size, team chemistry, and still-developing lineup rotations chief among them. But on the other, this aversion to accepting even a single nugget of early results as legitimate has perhaps reached unsafe levels, as one can hardly comment on a guy’s improved jumper on Twitter without a barrage of “LET’S SEE HIM DO IT FOR 82 GAMES” responses piling up.

With the right sort of selective context, it’s possible to find a happy medium here. A number of elements are truly too variable to mark in ink so early, but there’s no harm in carefully and responsibly assessing which trends might have a larger chance of sticking long term. And with that in mind, let’s take a look at some early returns for the Jazz through three games. We’ll examine the underlying themes therein, and try to determine whether or not a given trend shows signs of being sustainable over time.

Playing Through the Pass:

It’s been a struggle early on for a young Jazz team to fully implement Quin Snyder’s most commonly-referenced ethos, at least as far as the numbers go. The Jazz are averaging 19 assists a night through three games so far, 24th in the league. Utah scorers have drawn an assist on just 49.1 percent of their baskets, per NBA.com, the fourth-lowest figure for all teams so far. And finally, per SportVU data, the Jazz are creating 45.9 points per-48-minutes through assists1, a borderline bottom-10 total.

There’s plenty of hope, though. The issue appears to be with the team’s ability to make their passes more meaningful and dangerous rather than a simple unwillingness to pass – Utah is first in the league in total passes thrown per game so far, moving the ball over 20 more times nightly than any other team. Trey Burke and Gordon Hayward have appeared to be the team’s best at setting up dangerous shot opportunities, with their teammates converting at 48.0 and 52.8 percent respectively on attempts following passes from them (63.6 percent on 3-point attempts off passes from Hayward)2.

Verdict: Mostly unsustainable, likely to change. The Jazz are clearly embracing ball movement overall, but still need to become better at converting raw volume into more effective and threatening passing. As the team becomes more comfortable with Snyder and the system, as well as with each other, expect improvements.

Shooting:

Raw metrics paint the Jazz somewhat reasonably here. The team is 12th in field-goal percentage at 46.0 percent, and 10th for effective field-goal percentage3. They’ve shot just 30.4 percent from beyond the arc so far, but my readers likely don’t even need me to explain how 79 attempts is far too few to truly judge long-term.

New data released by SportVU on NBA.com this year gives us unprecedented levels of information to work with, and they’re especially useful here. In particular, we can now split up all Jazz shots by precise defender distance, among other filters. This can give us a great snapshot of several factors, from how well the team is spacing the floor (a higher percentage of field-goals with defenders far away is positive) to how “good” Utah’s shooters are in a vacuum (using uncontested shots as a barometer given their similar nature for all players).

The results here are mixed. The Jazz are generating a slightly higher percentage of “wide open” shots (no defender within six feet) this year, but their percentage of simply “open” shots (defender within 4-6 feet) has plummeted thus far, indicating spacing might not yet be at an optimal point. Their actual results from these distances are mixed also, as they’re shooting a worse percentage on “wide open” shots than last year’s group4 while connecting on a higher portion of their “open” shots5. Their combined figure on all 3’s taken with no defender closer than four feet is in line with last year’s, though roughly 35-percent marks here could certainly stand to improve – team data isn’t tabulated in a rank-able format on NBA.com just yet, but considering percentages here from elite shooting teams like the Spurs (40.4) or Mavericks (39.7) last year puts things in perspective somewhat.

Verdict: Almost completely unsustainable. There are simply too few total shots thus far in the year to draw any meaningful conclusions. How they’re spacing the floor through the lens of attempt percentages with defenders at various distances may be slightly more robust, but this area will also require far more data to be sure of anything.

Early Offense and Playing with Pace:

I forecasted a major leap for the Jazz in pace from last year as my first of 10 season predictions last week, and am fully on board with Snyder’s stated mission to push the tempo and look to attack early and through transition chances. I’m glad the season isn’t three games long, though, because at least as far as the raw pace stat goes, I’m off so far – the Jazz are just the 22nd-fastest team in the league.

This, however, is a great example of a metric that requires more context, especially so early on. The Jazz are certainly making an effort to get out in transition – only the Warriors are scoring a higher percentage of their points on the fast break so far in the young season. Pace is far more than just transition opportunities as well, and Utah is also clearly making an effort to initiate early offense even in halfcourt sets; they’ve taken 33.5 percent of their total shots with 15 or more seconds left on the shot clock, compared with 25.4 percent last year. Unfortunately, they’ve also upped their percentage of shots taken with under four seconds left on the shot clock, likely a key factor in keeping their overall pace figure down.

Verdict: Mostly sustainable, but still ripe for change. The team is clearly embracing early offense as a mantra, but so early on in a new system and still with so much youth on the court, they’ve predictably had their share of issues getting the pace moving. But Quin isn’t changing his tune anytime soon, and I remain confident in my preseason forecasting here.

Rebounding:

Another prediction I made was the Jazz rebounding over 51 percent of all available boards for the year, which would vault them up the charts compared with last season. And wouldn’t you know it, they’re making me look smart for a change! Utah has recovered 52.7 percent of all possible rebounds thus far, good for ninth in the NBA. Not surprisingly at all, Rudy Gobert (6th) and Derrick Favors (29th) are both among the league’s elite for rebounding percentage, while Gordon Hayward is fifth of all guards in the same category.

SportVU can add a little more specificity here once again. The Jazz are recovering 62.6 percent of all missed shots where one or more of their players is within 3.5 feet of the resulting rebound, up from 59.1 percent last year6 – the difference here may seem small, but their figure through three games this year would have led the entire league over 82 last season instead of the Jazz finishing 13th.

Verdict: Fairly sustainable, very likely to continue. Gobert’s increasing court time coupled with Favors’ continued development, along with far fewer small-ball lineups than last season, should keep this group among the league’s better rebounding teams over the entire year. It’s a tad early still as far as sample sizes go (though not to the same degree as shooting), but all the underlying themes point in the same direction and there’s no pressing reason to think they won’t continue.

Ben Dowsett

Ben Dowsett

Ben Dowsett is a life-long Jazz fan and current in-depth analyst based in Salt Lake City. He also writes for Basketball Insiders and BBallBreakdown, and can be heard on SCH Radio on ESPN 700 weekly. He can be found on Twitter at @Ben_Dowsett.
Ben Dowsett
Ben Dowsett

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2 Comments

  1. Aged fan says:

    I’m wondering if the low assists may be masking the effectiveness of the ball movement a little bit. I’m thinking of Snyder’s philosophy of using the pass/spacing to create an advantage and then keep the advantage.

    Could it be that the advantage comes not only in terms of creating assists, but also in terms of creating driving opportunities that are not typically recorded as assists. So Burks has his drives, Hayward seems to be a bit more successful in his drives. Burke is driving a bit more. We’ve added a few drives with Booker, and Favors seems to be much more successful in driving.

    Many of these drives will not have assists associated with them, but they may be facilitated by good passing/spacing early in the offense. Just a thought …

    • Ben Dowsett says:

      I know what you’re saying, and an element of this is definitely possible. Shot creation comes from more than direct assists, for sure. But I’d still expect a slightly more robust correlation with actual assists and scoring, and the numbers in the piece I think still do reflect some amount of “emptiness” in a number of Jazz passes.

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