Playing With the Pass: A Key for the Utah Jazz

October 1st, 2015 | by David J Smith
Can the Jazz improve their overall passing game? With a young core of willing and able passers, they hopefully will. (Joe Camporeale-USA TODAY Sports)

Can the Jazz improve their overall passing game? With a young core of willing and able passers, they hopefully will. (Joe Camporeale-USA TODAY Sports)

When Utah Jazz head coach Quin Snyder was hired in the summer of 2014, one of the points of emphasis that was consistently mentioned was his desire to see his team “play with the pass.” A focus on a pass-heavy system that espoused ball movement, spacing and unselfishness was music to Jazz fans’ ears. Sharing the ball, after all, was one of the hallmarks of the great Jerry Sloan-led squads that were perennial contenders. It is, to tap into the basketball cliche realm, something that faithful associate with “Utah Jazz basketball.” One could not help but also think of Coach Norman Dale’s admonishment to his Hickory High players to pass the ball four times. Passing, in short, is part of beautiful basketball, including the brand Jazz fans have become accustomed to.

How did the 2014-2015 Utah team fare? Like many facets for a young team under the watch of a first-year NBA head coach, the passing game for the Jazz is very much a work in progress. With new offensive schemes, a bevy of rookies and essentially every player assuming a new — and in most cases, expanded — role, there was a lot of learning on the job that occurred last season. There was a great deal of transition as the youthful roster tried to adapt and things were rocky at times. Even so, they showed potential for improvement going forward.

Let’s delve into the numbers. First, with 19.9 APG, the Jazz finished 29th in the league in team assists, ahead of only the LeBron James-less Miami Heat. Some of that had to due with Utah’s pace (92.78), the lowest mark in the Association1. It is natural that, with fewer possessions, plays and shots, there will be fewer total assists. In terms of assist ratio2, Utah was just 25th at 16.0. And due to a high turnover ratio (16.5), the Jazz placed 28th in assist/turnover ratio. These numbers help illustrate how Utah’s offense compares with the incredible jump on the defensive end. The latter helped mask some struggles with the former, particularly after the All-Star break.

Another key statistic is the assist percentage, simply the raw percentage of made baskets which drew assists. Behind Sloan’s coaching and magnificent passers such as John Stockton, Karl Malone, Jeff Hornacek, Deron Williams and Andrei Kirilenko, Utah has traditionally posted remarkable numbers on this front. With personnel changes over the years, both at the helm and on the court, the team’s AST%3 has dropped off considerably, as the following chart shows.

Season FGs Asts AST % Overall FG% Record
1996-97 3,131 2,199 .702 .504 64-18
1997-98 2,993 2,070 .692 .490 62-20
1998-99 1,684 1,204 .715 .465 37-13*
1999-00 2,962 2,041 .689 .464 55-27
2000-01 2,960 2,110 .713 .471 53-29
2001-02 2,869 1,999 .697 .450 44-38
2002-03 2,894 2,103 .727 .468 47-35
2003-04 2,690 1,671 .621 .436 42-40
2004-05 2,828 1,826 .646 .449 26-56
2005-06 2,744 1,772 .645 .442 41-41
2006-07 3,069 2,024 .659 .474 51-31
2007-08 3,279 2,165 .660 .497 54-28
2008-09 3,143 2,024 .644 .475 48-34
2009-10 3,227 2,187 .678 .491 53-29
2010-11 3,064 1,921 .627 .465 39-43
2011-12 2,523 1,439 .570 .456 36-30*
2012-13 3,046 1,859 .610 .454 43-39
2013-14 2,951 1,664 .564 .444 25-57
2014-15 2,900 1,632 .563 .447 38-44

The Jazz actually dipped a touch in this aspect last season. They were at the top in terms of overall passes, but the next step is working on those passes translating to more baskets. While it is utterly unfair to compare the last few Jazz teams with those of the past — All-Stars and Hall of Famers tend to affect things greatly — it is startling to see the decline since 2011. There clearly is room for improvement.

Fortunately, there is room for optimism on this front. There are several reasons to believe that Utah will come more into its own with its passing game. Let’s detail a few of them.

Familiarity: Volumes could be spoken on this topic. With a season under their belts, there is a quiet confidence emanating from the Jazz camp. They truly — and understandably so — feel that the team will see growth this season with a continued upward trajectory. Thus the off-season approach of internal improvement above flashier free agency signings or trades. The still-youthful core is a year older. The same could be said for Snyder and his coaching staff. Last year was a tremendous time for learning for all involved. They simply know what to expect from each other, and that will most likely bear fruition on the court.

Development: Snyder’s reputation as a coach who develops his players was on full display last season, and he did not disappoint. His leaders, Gordon Hayward and Derrick Favors, enjoyed their finest campaigns. Rookies Rodney Hood, Dante Exum and Joe Ingles all made solid strides as the year progressed. Under Snyder’s tutelage and encouragement, Trevor Booker showed aspects of his game not seen in Washington. Perhaps the greatest evidence was Rudy Gobert’s remarkable mid-season ascent. Snyder is a player’s coach who works tirelessly to help his guys realize their potential incrementally. He is detail-oriented, dedicated and pores over game tape and analytics. Above all, Snyder knows his players. He knows their strengths and helps tailor things to bring those out. It will be interesting to see how the young players perform this season. Because of Snyder, it would not surprise to see the Jazz develop more as individual and collective passers.

Capable passers: Exum’s horrible injury was certainly a blow, as he was just starting to show his playmaking chops. Even so, the roster is full of players who are capable facilitators. Hayward’s ability to dish the ball has always been one of the strongest aspects to his game. He is an elite passer, particularly from the small forward position. The offense flows nicely when Ingles is on the court as well — he is a fantastic glue guy whose unselfishness is contagious. Trey Burke had a rough sophomore campaign, but as a rookie, he showed the ability to run the offense while taking good care of the ball. Hood has already spoken in training camp about his desire to improve in this facet. Having Alec Burks, a very underrated passer, back in the fold will be a boon. And teammates are already raving about rookie Raul Neto’s court vision. As a pure point guard, if people remember what those are, he could be a big help in playing with the pass. The Jazz do have a cadre of able passers at the guard and wing spots.

Another factor? The Jazz big men can dish the ball. It almost seems unfair that Gobert is as good as a passer as he is. He has excellent awarenesss. His deft interior passing helped open things up once he became a starter. It is hard not to compare Gobert to Enes Kanter on this front (or overall). Kanter showed neither the ability nor the willingness to be a passer and the ball simply did not move as much with him. Gobert is not the scorer Kanter is, but it is not a stretch to think that the Frenchman’s passing will help the Jazz’s overall offense. Favors showed much more aptitude here also, and training camp interviewees have mentioned his passing. Booker can help keep the ball moving, and rookie Trey Lyles also possesses a nice court sense.

In summary, “playing with the pass” is a phrase Jazz fans will continue to hear. If Utah makes some more strides, an improved passing game could contribute heavily to the team’s desire to be a more effective offensive unit — something that could help it achieve its goal of reaching the playoffs.

David J Smith

David J Smith

Besides writing for Salt City Hoops, David contributes to the Utah Jazz coverage for the Deseret News and has written for the Utah Jazz website and (now Basketball Insiders). He graduated from BYU and works for LDS Philanthropies. He and his incredibly patient wife, Elizabeth, have some amazing children--four girls and two boys. Voted "Most Likely to Replace Jerry Sloan" in high school.
David J Smith

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  1. IDJazzman says:

    I like Snyder’s philosophy in basketball and the pass being one of them. I think time will prove what a great pickup Trey Lyles was because of his natural ability to play with the pass and making the right pass at the right time.

  2. LKA says:

    Having a full year of the “addition by subtraction” of the former player will really show some great results. Let’s get this thing going already.

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