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 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.
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.