On this week’s episode, with Andy Larsen and Austin Horton both unavailable, Spencer Ryan Hall (the fantastic founder of this site) and Benjamin Gaines both joined the Salt City Hoops Saturday Show this past week. They talk about the losses, and whether or not the Jazz are currently passing Spencer’s “Was I entertained?” test. Then, the team talks about the promise of this draft class: Andrew Wiggins, Julius Randle, and Jabari Parker are all discussed. Finally, Spencer and Ben talk about the state of basketball in the State of Utah. Why, in a state which has more basketball courts per capita than anywhere else in the nation, aren’t there more good basketball players from Utah? All that and more on this week’s Salt City Hoops Saturday Show!
As part of my debut for Salt City Hoops last month, I wrote a two-part series on legendary Jazz coach Jerry Sloan and his impact on both the team and the league as a whole. Much of part two delved into some of the systematical advances Sloan brought to Utah and, later, to the entire NBA. Those who read the pieces will recall that by the end of his tenure with the Jazz, not only were most teams blatantly copying parts of Sloan’s playbook, but many staples of his system had simply become a normal part of every team’s offensive sets.
As I also covered in the Sloan series, NBA offense is a constantly evolving animal, and this hasn’t changed since Jerry stopped roaming the sidelines early in 2011. In fact, many would say that the last five years or so have ushered in the most rapid series of major offensive changes in league history. The rise of advanced metrics and the higher levels of understanding regarding efficiency that have accompanied this rise have given way to a plethora of systematical advances.
The Jazz have certainly not been immune to the ever-changing NBA game, going through a major transition stage with the departure of Sloan and the large player overhaul that took place not long after. But with Jerry gone from the bench, would the Jazz continue his unique approach of bucking many league trends, or would they begin to conform in the face of some fairly convincing progressions that were developing? Let’s take a look.
The Last Sloan Years:
While most would likely label Jerry’s best years as the ones where his system propelled Utah to consecutive Finals appearances, his mid-to-late 2000’s teams gave Stockton-to-Malone a serious run for their money offensively. Sloan’s teams were in the top 10 for points-per-100 possessions every year from 2006-07 until his departure. They peaked in the 07-08 season, with their offensive rating of 110.8 trailing only Steve Nash and the Suns.
This season has been more difficult than I was expecting. I was expecting a lot of losses, but I wasn’t expecting the losses to be by this many points, and with seemingly little offensive progress or defensive intensity to compensate for the losses piling up.
When things get down, and especially during this Thanksgiving season, a mantra is to focus on what’s going well, focus on what you’re thankful for, and that will help lift the mood. So, here goes.
What’s going well? Or for what, with this 2013-2014 Jazz team, can we be thankful?
Jeremy Evans and the development of his game. After starting 12-12 from the floor, he eventually missed a shot in the Oklahoma City game, and missed three shots (gasp! three?!) in the Bulls game, and is now 16-20 on the season. Yes, a handful of those are dunks, but he’s showing a jumper and a smoothness to his game that is both new and refreshing. And besides, with how the Jazz have been shooting on the year, do we even care that a handful of Jeremy’s shots have been from very close range? I think we’re just thrilled to see the ball go in the hoop at all. And also, that alleyoop from Gordon Hayward to Evans last night was just awesome.
1. Sure, it’s cliche, but the Jazz needed this win.
Whenever a team ends a losing streak, the phrase “X team needed this win” is used. In the long term, the Jazz don’t need this win, in fact, each win gets them closer to the pack of teams who are in marginally less sorry states, thus making it less likely for the team to get that #1 overall draft pick.
That being said, the Jazz are really happy to get this one. The Jazz had played a stretch of absolutely terrible basketball, being worst in the league on both offense and defense. In so far as the Jazz are looking to this year’s draft pick to lead the franchise going forward, he won’t be able to do it alone, and the play of at least some of Favors, Hayward, Kanter, Burks, Gobert, Evans and Burke will be important for the team moving forward. Those guys had looked pretty unmotivated at times as they went down early in games by margins too large to come back from, and staying in a game that was close the whole way gets those young players repetitions against a Bulls squad, that while very hamstrung, fought throughout the game.
So before any internet writer is allowed to talk about the basketball failures of an NBA player, he should probably have to start with some disclaimer. We never do, of course, because that’s an understated but nonetheless widely accepted truth of writing about sports: the people who do the writing don’t actually do the sports. Or at least not well enough for anyone to pay money to watch it. So, your writer’s disclaimer: I’ve definitely gone 1-17 before. In pick-up games against out-of-shape, former JV-ers, I’ve gone 1-17. Just shooting around in an empty church gym, with no one guarding me and all the time in the world to set up and shoot, I’ve gone 1-17. A month ago, in a series of five-on-five games with some college friends, I bricked eight straight threes. I’m a terrible basketball player.
Now your turn: You have also gone 1-17. You play on an intramural team at your college and over a three game stretch, you shot 1-17. After the third game, you went back to your apartment, cracked open a gatorade, and thought about how much you suck at basketball while you rehydrated. Well, you do. You suck at basketball. But then you went to sleep, and when you woke up the next morning, you realized you had forgotten to write a paper on a book you halfheartedly skimmed. So you wiki’d the book, maybe re-skimmed a few more pages, and pumped out your paper in a cool 45 minutes. Then you walked to class, turned it in, and felt good for a second. You’ve forgotten that you suck at basketball (which, again, you absolutely do), because at least for now, you’re a student, and you’re pretty good at that.
For a team in need of some good news, the Utah Jazz received some yesterday: rookie point guard Trey Burke made his official NBA debut versus the New Orleans Pelicans. While the highly-anticipated return by Burke from his broken finger is understandably receiving the most attention and accompanying headlines, there was a second boost in morale in the form of Jeremy Evans also being deemed healthy.
All eyes are naturally be focused on Burke, but many ardent Jazz fans are eager to see how Evans performs this season. During the off-season, given the turnover on Utah’s roster (particularly in the front court), it was believed that the high-flying forward might finally have a spot in the regular line-up. Now will be the chance to see if that happens.
All this leads to some big questions. Is Jeremy Evans a bonafide rotational player in the NBA? Can he be more than a situational guy who has the knack for making highlight reel plays?
Evans is a tremendous joy to watch. He is always flashing a smile and it’s clear that he has a love for the game of basketball. He seems to be the consummate locker room presence, always encouraging his teammates and never causing a bit of discord. His sheer athleticism and out-of-this-world leaping ability quickly made him a fan favorite. Earl Watson’s alley was nothing without Jeremy Evans’ oop. While some pundits minimize his Slam Dunk championship due to a somewhat diluted field of competitors, he still won it, fair-and-square. He’s had his fair share of in-game highlights, too. Who can forget this one?
And while it didn’t count, here’s this, as well.
Through his first three seasons, Evans has seen minimal court time. In fact, his playing time has decreased each passing season. All in all, he has registered a mere 895 minutes in 115 games–7.8 MPG. While his playing time has been inconsistent, Evans has managed to produce when his name has been called. He boasts a career 64.7 percent shooting mark for his career, while putting up 2.7 PPG and 1.8 RPG in his stints. There have been games where foul trouble or injuries paved the way for some appearances and he simply injected energy into the game.
He is an advanced stats’ darling. Over his three campaigns, Evans has a True Shooting Percentage of .659 and an Effective Field Goal Percentage of .647. He earns trips to the free throw line, too, as evidenced by his .750 Free Throw Attempt Rate last year. A smart shot-blocker with fine defensive instincts, Evans has a 4.8 Block Percentage, including 8.8 his second season. While some reserves have some sparkling advanced stats, he has produced his consistently over three seasons, which shows his potential to do some good things.
Evans could possibly play both forward positions for spells. Power forward has been where he’s logged the most time thus far in his career. While his slight frame causes issues inside–he can get pushed around and sometimes accrues fouls as a result–his speed and agility partially compensate. For him to play the small forward spot, Evans will have to evolve a bit. In the summer league and preseason, Evans displayed a much-improved jump shot, though his handle is a bit spotty. He will need to show that he can keep defenses honest if he is to assume some time at the three.
The Jazz’s front court depth could lead to Evans seeing an increased role. As expected, Derrick Favors and Enes Kanter are getting the lion’s share of playing time. Richard Jefferson has had a mini rejuvenation, but has not been consistent. Marvin Williams’ return has helped and he’s seen time as a stretch four. Mike Harris has been a surprise, but is limited. Given this line-up, Evans could demand minutes once he gets more into game-shape and could quickly take the time that Harris has been given. It’ll then be up to him to demonstrate what he is capable of in a more expansive role.
This season has been branded by some as a season of discovery– a chance to see what each player on the roster can do. Every individual on the team has or will assume a new niche in the rotation, and Jeremy Evans is not an exception. Will he become a rotational player? We will find out over the coming months.
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.
Jazz fans have been getting rumblings that Trey Burke is close to returning, which is such welcome news for a team that has severely struggled at the point guard position in Burke’s absence. Alec Burks has spent some time at point guard, sometimes playing solidly, and but most times neither passing nor shooting all that well, though at least possessing the height to keep opposing players from posting him up or shooting over him consistently. John Lucas III has shown why he’s played fewer minutes in his NBA career than Burks (for reals). Jamaal Tinsley, while he was on the payroll, tried his best to be a stopgap, but not having a training camp or preseason to get into game shape probably hurt his play more than we realize. Diante Garrett provided a breath of fresh air in his first game in a Jazz uniform, but as some have joked, once he learned the offense, his play went downhill. Still, at times he’s been the best option at the point on the floor, and his 6’4’’ frame has helped on defense.
Because of the point guard struggles, Gordon Hayward has been given the ball in his hands, leading the Jazz in assists per game at 4.4. Looking at some of the new, fancy SportVU stats and throwing on a couple of filters—playing 9+ games so far and averaging 20+ minutes per game, Gordon Hayward is in the top 25 of assist opportunities (passes by a player to a teammate in which the teammate attempts a shot, and if made, would be an assist). Who are the forwards in that top 25? Gordon Hayward and LeBron James. While that’s been made necessary by the lack of good point guard play, it also shows how well-rounded Hayward’s game has become, as he’s been filling up the stat sheet. When Burke comes back, having two very good playmakers on the floor can only help an offense that has been bogged down with too few passers.
When your starting point guard (counting Lucas, since he’s started more games at PG than anyone else) has fewer assists per game (1.8 APG) than your starting power forward (Derrick Favors, 1.9 APG), you’re going to have problems on offense. Admittedly, Favors plays more minutes per game (34 MPG), but that’s still a glaring stat. I don’t care how good of a passer a power forward is—and the Jazz had several here through the years, with Malone, Boozer, and Millsap each being excellent passers out of the post—a starting point guard should never be anywhere close to their assist numbers.
You know it’s bad when everyone is waiting with baited breath for the rookie point guard who hasn’t shot well yet since making the jump to the pros—the same one who shot 1-19 from three and 24.1% from the field in summer league. But what Trey Burke gives up in shooting abilities (though his TS% as a sophomore was 56.9% and his eFG% was 53.0%), he can hopefully compensate by bringing his playmaking game. His freshman year at Michigan, he averaged 4.6 assists per game, and he increased that to 6.7 assists per game his sophomore year, even though he played slightly less each game (36.1 mpg to 35.3 mpg). His assist percentage started at 28.7% his freshman year and shot up to 37.3% his sophomore year, tops in the Big Ten. With his playmaking abilities and assuming he finds his shot better than Tinsley, Burks, Lucas III, or Garrett—and I think it’s safe to say that shouldn’t be too hard of a task—we’ll start to see a better offense once gets back into game shape and gets up to speed. At the very least, things can only look up, right?
Through nearly one-eighth of the NBA season, we’re just crossing into territory where we’ve seen enough basketball to start making some conclusions. For the Jazz, it goes without saying that some of these conclusions won’t be positive ones; by the same coin, even a team performing as badly as Utah will always have some bright spots to take away. With that in mind, I’ll be checking in with the Jazz every 10 games this season – where they’ve improved, where they need work, and what’s changing over the course of the year. So without further ado, let’s take a look at the first 10 games (all numbers are before Friday night’s game unless otherwise noted):
- Fresh off a piece by some crazy guy that compared him favorably with Tim Duncan and Hakeem Olajuwon, Enes Kanter is terrorizing all opposing big men not named Brook Lopez. His jumper and post-game continue to merit the sort of over-the-top hyperbole I heaped on him, although he’s seeing more and more double-teams in the post now that teams are recognizing how inept the Jazz are in nearly every other area of their offense. Despite this, he’s shooting over 53%, tops on the Jazz by a considerable margin. He’s also been a beast on the offensive glass, collecting 3.9 offensive rebounds per game, good for sixth in the NBA. Examining this more deeply, Kanter is third in the league in contested rebound percentage among qualified players, at 63.2%, and first overall among guys playing starter minutes (25+ minutes per game) for this same category, per SportVu data on NBA.com. He’s one of only six starters league-wide who snags over 50% of his contested rebounds, a sign that his strength and his compete level are elite. Look at him out-muscling the aforementioned Lopez for a contested board (excuse the random sound blip):
If he does this for a full season, I’ll be comparing young Jazz players to all-time legends a lot more frequently.
- Hayward has been mostly positive in his expanded role this year. His scoring efficiency has largely remained intact despite his increasing usage, a perfectly acceptable result for a former third option who is now the focal point of an offense. The real success has been in the other areas of his game, where so far he appears to have made large improvements in both his rebounding (5.9 per 36 minutes compared to 3.8 last season) and assists (4.9 per 36 minutes, 3.0 last year) per basketball-reference.com. His three-point shooting has momentarily declined and his turnovers are up, but these are likely the results of far less open looks courtesy of Al Jefferson and Paul Millsap, and should improve as he becomes even more comfortable in his new role. Time will tell, but the baby-faced Hayward may be playing his way into the max deal the Jazz were reluctant to give him this offseason.
- Utah’s two most used lineups this year, by far, are the four-man combo of Hayward, Kanter, Derrick Favors, and Richard Jefferson, along with either John Lucas or the recently-waived Jamaal Tinsley. These two lineups have played nearly 30% of the available minutes for the Jazz, and both have been absolutely destroyed by opponents. The lineup including Lucas is being outscored by 13.1 points per 48 minutes, per NBA.com, and the Tinsley version (which we thankfully won’t see anymore) had a disgusting -32.5 rating per 48 minutes. There may not be many better options, but consider that this exact same foursome combined with Alec Burks instead of Lucas or Tinsley is actually a small positive, outscoring opponents by 8.3 points-per-48.
- By this point, it doesn’t take a microscope to see Utah’s issues on offense. The spacing is awful, there’s hardly an average jump-shooter by position on the entire roster, and no one outside of Hayward and (sometimes) Kanter has even the slightest ability to create their own shot. Their performance against the Pelicans on Wednesday was enough to elevate them away from “worst shooting team ever,” at least temporarily, but that’s about as rosy as things have gotten so far this season. Per MySynergySports.com, the Jazz are in the bottom five league-wide in points-per-possession for three of the most important play types run: pick-and-roll (26th), spot-up shooting (29th), and transition play (30th). Even the dreariest of situations usually have the occasional bright spots, though, right? The Jazz are no exception, as Synergy also shows us that Utah has had some success in other areas of their offense. They’ve been roughly league average in the post, certainly nothing to scoff at considering they lost one of the league’s premier post players over the offseason in Al Jefferson. Even better than average, though, have been simple screen-and-cut actions run for various Jazz wings. I touched on Burks’ effectiveness in these sort of sets last week, and he’s not alone in his effectiveness in this area. Check out a couple down screens for Hayward that led to good looks against a tough Chicago defense:
Jefferson and Lucas have also been above average on these sorts of actions, and the team has also had some success with simple hand-off plays that allow the receiver to obtain the ball with motion toward the hoop. And while trying to run a full offense based only on these sets would of course be foolish and predictable, a team like Utah could benefit from integrating them more heavily into their offense. For a group that’s struggled so mightily against improving NBA pick-and-roll defense, the sort of easy looks and simple decisions created by these sets would be a welcome addition. Baby steps, to be sure, but there’s really nowhere to go but up after the way things have started.
1. The Jazz’s shooting woes are nearly entirely outside the paint.
The Jazz shot 38.5% tonight, another negative mark in their campaign to avoid being the worst shooting team in NBA history. When an NBA team shoots 38%, it’s probably at least a little due to luck.
But at the moment, they’re terrible at midrange jumpers. They made just 8 outside of the point shots total. Worse, in the 2nd and 4th quarters, when the team scored 17 and 15 points respectively, the Jazz were just 1-21 from outside of the paint. The league-wide average 16-23 feet jumpers shots is 38%, so the Jazz underperformed relative to that. The more shots the Jazz take from outside, the more they doom their shooting percentage.
I asked Ty Corbin what he thought of the shot selection of the team tonight, he responded positively, saying “I thought we had some good shots… We missed some good open looks.” In my view, the Jazz did have some good shots, but certainly not enough.
2. But the defense, especially through the first three quarters, was fantastic.