As a difficult season in Utah continues with another couple disheartening losses, it’s news to no one in Jazzland that the team is struggling mightily offensively. Their young, inexperienced roster is dead last in the league in points-per-100 possessions according to NBA.com, something extremely disconcerting for Jazz fans who have grown accustomed to efficient, visually-pleasing offense over the past two decades. Combine this with a 28th-ranked defense in points-per-100, and what you get is nearly unheard-of in Salt Lake: the home crowd booing the team and the second-lowest home attendance number in the history of the Delta Center/ESA – against perhaps the most entertaining team in basketball, the Warriors, no less.
And while there will be positives to take away all season – a great pick in next year’s stacked draft is nearly a sure thing at this point, and the young core is getting a ton of time to develop together – it’s still vital to identify the sources of these issues and try to correct them, if not for this season then for the years going forward.
Some of the problems are simple ones, such as Utah’s league-leading turnover ratio. This issue doesn’t take much deep pondering; injuries (Trey Burke) and bad play (Jamaal Tinsley) have put enormous ball-handling pressure on Gordon Hayward and especially Alec Burks. Hayward has done an admirable job of staying mostly efficient, but his turnovers are well up, and Burks is simply not ready to be the starting point guard on an NBA basketball team. Furthermore, Utah’s bigs are having some real trouble, particularly during pick-and-roll sets; Enes Kanter and Rudy Gobert, in particular, have had issues handling the ball in any sort of traffic.
But as depressing as it sounds, a lot of this is simply the reality for the type of roster the Jazz have put together for this season. And while being tops in the league in turnovers isn’t a good thing, of course, the next two teams down (Houston and Golden State) in this category are elite offenses, which would seem to indicate that the problems for Utah go much deeper.
When teams have issues like these, a theoretical dialogue often develops surrounding the cause; are there problems with the system, the players, or both? An easy example of the difference would be last season’s Thunder: their offense was always numbingly simple, a small playbook of non-layered actions designed almost exclusively to get Kevin Durant and Russell Westbrook isolation looks with momentum to the hoop. This worked well all season until Westbrook was hurt early in the playoffs, at which time their offense sputtered and ultimately flamed out – mostly due to coach Scott Brooks’ lack of adjustment to this system when Durant couldn’t keep things afloat by himself. This showcases how systems can have such a huge effect, but also how great players can keep a bad system above water; if the Thunder had even had a simple backup system in place for worst-case scenarios like what happened, their still-amazing talent without Westbrook could have had a fighting chance. An opposing example would be the Spurs, who routinely survive the loss of one of their star players for periods at a time without any major offensive drop-off due to their excellent system under Gregg Popovich.
I’d like to examine this sort of thing for the Jazz, and I’ll do so with a big assist from an excellent site called hickory-high.com. Hickory-High uses shot location data from NBA.com dating back to the 2000-2001 season to generate an expected point-per-shot value for each of the five shooting locations: Restricted Area, In the Paint (Non-RA), Mid-Range, Corner 3, and Above the Break 3. Put simply, this is the league average for points-per-shot attempt (including value for resulting free-throw attempts after fouls) from these different areas. From here, they are able to calculate a total expected point-per-shot value based on the frequency with which players and teams take shots from these various locations, as well as an actual point-per-shot value. They can do this on both a player and a team level, and are also able to calculate for opponent values as well, something that’s incredibly helpful for defensive analysis.
A quick example: LeBron James has an XPPS (expected points-per-shot) of 1.103 for this season, one of the best marks in the league for high-usage players. This indicates that he’s doing a great job of getting his shots in the highest-value locations, namely the Restricted Area and Corner 3s. However, his actual PPS is 1.401, again one of the highest marks league-wide. The large discrepancy between his expected value and his actual value shows his amazing ability as a shot-maker – he’s converting at a much higher rate than NBA average because, of course, he’s well above NBA average as a player. The leaderboard for this differential between expected and actual value is filled with some of the league’s top shot-makers like Durant, Steph Curry, and Klay Thompson.
This sort of analysis on a team level is very informative, and confirms what the eye test has seemed to indicate to myself and other keen viewers this season: Utah just doesn’t have good shot-makers. Hickory-high tells us that Utah is only very slightly below league-average in XPPS, at 1.045. Remarkably, this figure places them ahead of teams like the Warriors, Mavericks, and even the 9-2 Blazers – all great-to-excellent NBA offenses. The opposite side of that coin, of course, is the execution; for actual PPS, the Jazz rank dead last in the NBA. The negative differential between their expected value and their actual value is better than only Charlotte, and the fall-off after those two teams for this category is somewhat massive.
For all the criticism coach Ty Corbin has taken from seemingly every angle (including my own), he deserves some real praise here. For Utah to be anywhere close to league-average at generating high-value shot attempts is a real accomplishment given the roster he’s been saddled with, and the miserable conversion rate his team has exhibited so far only hammers this home further. Far too often, Jazz offensive possessions are looking something like these:
The system is there, the setup is there…but the execution is not. No one in the world can make every open shot, but the data is fairly definitive here: the Jazz have to do better.
It must be noted that this type of data is not perfect, something Hickory-High founder Ian Levy is quick to point out himself, to his credit. Not all shots created within these designated areas are equal; a mid-range jumper with a foot on the three-point line obviously isn’t the same as a floater from 10 feet out, for example. Which player is taking the shot is obviously very important also, and it’s worth pointing out that these data sets don’t account for these variables. That said, there’s a reason why so many of the league’s top offenses – Heat, Rockets, Clippers, Thunder, etc. – are some of the best teams in both expected value and actual value per shot attempt.
The Jazz have their share of issues on offense, and while it’d be nice to see them improve enough to remove themselves from the “legendarily awful” conversation, it’s unlikely that they’ll be able to approach league average this season. And this is okay – the team is still learning a lot, and the front office did no one any favors by stocking the roster with such a group of middling jump-shooters. It’s encouraging to see signs of a good system, and furthermore of the players understanding and buying in to this system even while the results are mostly poor. Things may (will) stay dreary for this year, but signs point to a team poised to make real strides for the future.