On Actions, Outcomes and Playing with Purpose

December 11th, 2014 | by Dan Clayton


AP Photo/Rick Bowmer

AP Photo/Rick Bowmer

Oh good, you’re thinking. Another diagnostic piece about the Utah Jazz.

Well, it comes with the territory. The Jazz narrowly avoided the worst losing streak since before all current Jazz players were born, so logic holds that there are a few issues to dissect. During that nine-game losing streak, and even during their 4-point, skid-busting win the other night, we saw some bad basketball behaviors, and a number of bad outcomes.

But those are two different things. The distinction between bad basketball and bad outcomes is really important at this phase of Quin Snyder’s grand reconstruction. Consider a handful of seeming contradictions:

  • The Jazz are #1 in the league in passes per game, obviously embracing the play-with-a-pass mantra. So why are they about average in assist opportunities per game (12th) and in the bottom third for points created by assist (22nd)?
  • The Jazz are #1 in frontcourt touches per game, meaning they’re playing a highly democratic form of offense where multiple people are involved in a single play. So why are they dead last in points per front court touch1 and have an overall sub-average offense (18th)?
  • The Jazz are eighth in the percentage of points scored in the fast break, and 11th in fast break points per game. So why are they do they have the third slowest pace?

The answer to all of those paradoxes is the same thing. The Jazz, particularly once they’re in the half court game, aren’t always playing with purpose. There are a lot of actions taking place — touches, passes, movement, etc. — but not all of them lead to anything.

Here’s an example of a type of play I see all the time. Players get a beat on a guy thanks to a shot-fake or a screen, they dribble a couple of times, and then pass to someone else in the same situation, surrendering whatever small edge they had briefly gained. Pretty soon, the whole possession has been squandered on actions that were designed to create an advantage — and often did! — but weren’t leveraged. This play epitomizes the paradox between Utah’s high passing numbers and low shot creation numbers.

Screen. Dribble, dribble. Pass (deflected). Pass. Pass. Fake. Pass. Pass. Fake. Pass. Pass. Fake. Dribble, dribble. Fake. Pass. Fading, guarded three-point attempt as shot clock expires. Literally eight passes that led nowhere! No wonder the Jazz lead the league in passes per game but have a below-average offense. A lot of empty actions.

Now compare this play to a Mavs play that Zach Lowe recently included in a Grantland deep dive into the league’s leading offense.

OK, comparing this youth brigade to the league’s best offensive outfit is a tad unfair, but it’s interesting to contrast how the two teams leverage the same basketball actions. At the start, this play doesn’t look all that different. There are pump fakes, terminated dribbles and side-to-side passes. But the Mavs use those actions to generate an advantage — and then they USE that advantage. In this case, they force two separate side-to-side shifts in the defense, which confuses the defense as to which is the weakside and who should help. By the time Kemba Walker realizes he should be attending to the big, it’s too late.

I guarantee you this wasn’t a designed play. It came out of Dallas’ flow which, at a certain level, isn’t too different from Utah’s. They have principles and decision points and five guys who are empowered to make reads and trust them. The difference is, their players aren’t choosing between A and B. They’re choosing between A, B, C, D… They’re performing actions with an end goal in mind, and therefore they’re thinking strategically.

When you understand the philosophical purpose of a set of actions, you understand how to counter that when something gets taken away.

Here’s another example of the Jazz habitually making a choice between two options when several more exist. The Jazz’s flow often starts with a pass from the right-side ball handler to the big at the top of the key. That big basically has an A/B decision to make. He’s going to swing it left to a player who’s coming up to receive the pass, or if the pass isn’t there, he goes right back to the original ball handler. Lately, the left-side pass has been cut off as often as not, as a hard overplay from that guy’s defender often forces option B. Now 2-4 seconds have come off the clock, and the Jazz are right back to where they were before they initiated the play. It’s not a huge deal, but they just wasted a few seconds, passes and energy and wound up right back where the play started, literally and figuratively.

But there are more options than just A and B on this play. Check out the still below. Look at how hard Burks is being overplayed2. If he and Trevor Booker both realize that Marco Bellinelli is pretty much sprinting3 to close out and isn’t going to be able to change directions, Burks has a lot of room to punish him by cutting hard to the baseline.

Hard overplay of left-side pass.

Hard overplay of left-side pass.

If he does, he has a clear advantage at this point. Tim Duncan will almost certainly have to come up to help, and now you’ve got Favors (just out of frame on the left baseline) free for a backdoor cut. If he doesn’t, Burks has an open shot or can take it into the lane and force a decision that way. But the Jazz rarely even try to make this play, and from the looks of it, I’m not sure Snyder even wants them to, at least now. He seems to really want the skeletal framework of the play burned into their consciousness before they start freestyling off of it.

Maybe  this is what he means by not skipping steps: he wants guys to develop a muscle memory for the simplest version of the play, so that when they eventually move on to advanced reads, those first steps are second nature. He seems to be resisting temptation to jump ahead in the textbook for a quick payoff at the expense of mastering the current chapter. In this case, the current chapter is about perfecting a set of actions and quick A/B decisions.

This same overplay has cost the Jazz multiple turnovers, most notably at the start of the Bulls-Jazz game when they dug an early hole by basically passing straight to Jimmy Butler on consecutive plays. If you watch, this hard overplay happens in most games. The point is: there’s a counter to everything when you’re focused on what you’re trying to get out of the play. At this stage, the Jazz often appear focused on a set of actions rather than outcomes. And given that distinction, I don’t think it’s a coincidence that Snyder frequently answers media questions by differentiating between actions and outcomes.

Long term, it should probably pay off. In the immediate term, it’s costing the Jazz some possessions as they make empty, memorized behaviors that don’t really lead anywhere.

Snyder has said all along that he’s focused on creating a foundation by teaching principles and habits first. They’re clearly still in that phase. When they’re ready to move onto the next phase — of understanding the “why” in addition to the “what” and “when” — there’s obviously some fairly low-hanging fruit the Jazz can improve upon quickly.

Dan Clayton

Dan Clayton

Dan covered Utah Jazz basketball for more than 10 years, including as a radio analyst for the team’s Spanish-language broadcasts from 2010 to 2014. He now lives and works in New York City, but contributes regularly to Salt City Hoops, FanRag and BBALLBreakdown.
Dan Clayton

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  1. Mewko says:

    Creating good shots is a lot harder to do when you’re actually playing. It’s easy to see how to create a good play from the shoes of an analyst. That’s why it’s good to run solid plays over, and over, and over in practice, and study film, like they have been.

  2. Steven says:

    Comparing the Jazz to Dallas for a second. Dallas are loaded with players with experience and have two players in In Nowitzki and Ellis that on their day who are elite shooters, that creates a level of space and comfort for the rest on the roster. The Jazz have one player that the league respects.

    I’ve argued for a while now that when the roster allows and someone step ups, that Burks might be better moved back into the sixth man role. He is a dynamic player as the sixth man, elite at getting to the basket without much help from others, playing as a starter and passing the ball around with his teammates like he is asked to do in this new offence designed by Quin takes away from his game. He is a willing passer, but while he is learning this new skill which has been pretty much absent in his game up until now in his short NBA career means he isn’t always going to see the space created that allows him to be as effective as he was when he relied solely as much in his own athleticism and freakish body movements to get to the rim as part of the second unit.

    Both Hayward and Favors have grown a lot this season in Points per game. However sometimes when I look at Favors compared to others in the team, and this is just an eye test only, Favors seems to go for the safe shot only. He seems to have developed a number of offensive moves in the summer that he didn’t show off much before. Favors seems to get his points easy, thats a compliment to the game he has developed but also a slight criticism. He doesn’t take too many bad shots, and a high percentage of his shots go in. I watch his game on a nightly basis and I wonder if he is maybe passing up on some shots that he should take. I watch Kanter and he seems to willing to miss some shots and develop his offensive game by learning from his misses. I watch Favors and sometime it looks like he’s getting 16 – 18 – 20 points in a night almost effortlessly, those shots going in as easy as you like. I look at how his game has devleoped and I wonder what it would be like if he was really trying to push himself. You don’t want your players taking out and out risky shots, but maybe just testing themselves a little more could be the difference maker between average to good. I look at Kanter and I see a player who is limited defensively but who if he could ever get the minutes on the floor has the game to maybe get 24-26-28 points in a night, maybe not yet but he has the range, the moves and the willingness to make mistakes to get to that sort of offensive game. I look at Favors and he has developed nicely into a player that can get 4 – 5 points a quarter but seems to be limiting himself rather than asserting himself into a 6 – 7 pointer quarter player. There are players in this league in the same position that have had the same number of years of experience doing just that. Its hard to take to the chance on missing when you team is losing games like the Jazz are doing but why not take the risk on missing now if it helps later on. If you are in a good position and in a rhythm shoot it, don’t pass it away to a teammate.

    The team is doing the right thing, if not executing it all that well, they are learning to pass the ball around. Over time it will get results, but its going to take time to know when to stop passing and when to take a chance on shooting. Few players are taking the responsibiliting right now and manning up and saying i’m it, Burks had that role as the sixth man, now he learning a new role which means deferring more than he used to, maybe with his natural game doesn’t need to defer as much he does. Hayward stepped up in last year and tried to be the man and wasn’t used to having so much defensive attention on him, this year his experience is paying off. Favors has been stepping up but maybe needs to step up a little more maybe going for that extra shot or two, and subtracting a couple of passes out of his game. It takes time to develop an understanding of when to pass to man and when to take on the responsibility yourself. San Antonio are are team loaded with experience, every player knowing their role and their position itimitately and knowing what they are capable of as individuals. This Utah team has a completely new offensive system. Last year the system was ugly, not only did we as fans know the moves before a play was run so did every team in the league. This is a new system which the fans don’t recognise, the players have had little experience with and to be frank have a few players that only now realising how good they can be, and quite a few more players just realising that they actually belong in the league, most of the squad is under 25 years of age.

    It looks ugly some nights, its the slowest offense in the league but as the team with the highest number of passes in the league theres a lot of scope for some passes to be taken out of the offensive plays as players step up and take on the responsibility to shoot or drive for the basket as the season progresses. When that starts to happen, the Jazz may still be the highest passing team in the league, but the pace of the offense will go up considerably. Its a matter of learning when to take on the responsibility. As hard as it is to watch the Jazz fall 15 points behind so many times, I’d watch this all season long rather than go back to watching the ugly offense of the Corbin era. Its been painful watching 9 defeats in a row, especially in the early hours of a London morning, but I see hope that there is something better developing.

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