Last year’s Jazz team improved by 13 games, from 25 wins to 38.
Given that the Jazz’ core players are young and improving, most fans are projecting a significantly better record for the coming season — enough to land the team a playoff spot.
Making the playoffs likely takes at least seven more wins, given that the 8th seed has won 45 to 49 games in the Western Conference the past five years.
I’d love to see playoff games in May. But I think there’s a strong chance we won’t. Let me put on my Eeyore hat for a moment, and explain why I think those seven extra wins in 2015-16 might be tougher than most Jazz fans think.
Fact: Most teams that improve significantly from one year to the next don’t then continue improving significantly. That principle is well known in baseball analytical circles and is known as the “Plexiglass Principle.”
Should we expect it to apply to the Jazz? Let’s dig deeper.
Baseball writer (and now Red Sox consultant) Bill James might not be the inventor of sports analytics, but he’s certainly the figure who did the most to spread its gospel. If you haven’t read his writing and insights, run out and do so.
James came up with all kinds of theories about player and team value, starting in the late 1970s. Many still hold true today. One is the Plexiglass Principle. Grantland’s baseball writer Jonah Keri explained it succinctly in this 2012 column:
A team that improves in one season tends to decline the next, and vice versa. It was an easy idea to understand, but a tough one to believe. We human beings are hard-wired to hate randomness. So we look for patterns in everything. Thus a team that wins 75 games one year and 81 the next is perceived to be on the rise, destined for greater things. A team that slips from one season to the next is on its way down, headed for a stretch of lean years. Fans make this mistake, writers and prognosticators make this mistake … even MLB general managers make this mistake.
A simple concept, but does it apply to the modern NBA? I decided to run some numbers.
I looked at the last 10 seasons, starting in 2004-05, and generated a list of teams which improved by more than 10 games, one season to the next. I then looked at what those teams did in the following year.
More teams had significant improvements in the past decade than I had guessed (Which explains why I chose to only look at the past 10 years — this took time!) One quick note: 2011-12 was of course a lockout season. In order for this exercise to work, I pretended each team had played 82 games, extrapolating from their 66-game season winning percentage.
OK, now the results (I’ll paste the full table at the end of the article for the curious):
So, you might think, that’s not bad. If roughly half the improving teams continued to get better, then that gives the Jazz pretty good odds. I’ll admit I expected James’ theory to hold up a big more strongly, but remember for the Jazz to make the playoffs this year, they’ll likely need at least seven more wins.
So how many of the Jazz’ fellow “big jump” teams managed seven more wins in the third year?
Just five of 38 “big jump” teams saw their record continue to improve, by at least seven games, in the third year.
Let’s take a look at each of those teams briefly — and see if we find teams like the 2015-16 Jazz. When we think of “big jump” teams which keep improving, four types come to mind. First, a team that drafts a game-changing star. Think LeBron or Durant or Anthony Davis. Second, a team that acquires a star (or two) via trade or free agency. Think, Cleveland re-acquiring LeBron. Or the Clippers getting Chris Paul.
Third, think of a young team with multiple players maturing and improving. This, clearly, is the path the Jazz are taking. Fourth, a team that benefits from a new coach. Again, the Jazz fit in this category.
Of course, a team could benefit from a combination of these factors.
Which kind of “big jump” teams have tended to have sustained improvement?
The 2011-12 Bobcats had the worst winning percentage of any team in NBA history. And the next year they were ordinarily dreadful, but not historically so. What changed? Well, Mike Dunlap replaced Paul Silas as coach. And a couple young players got decent, primarily Kemba Walker and Gerald Henderson. Rookie Michael Kidd-Gilchrist joined the team and free agent Ramon Sessions added above average offense. Just enough maturation and fresh blood to become — a bad team!
But in that third year, the Bobcats really improved — and grabbed a playoff spot. Again, a new coach: Steve Clifford, widely credited with boosting the team’s defense. A big free agent signing — Big Al Jefferson put up a 22.7 PER — plus the team signed FA Josh McRoberts, who actually led the team in VORP. Their young players, largely, didn’t show big improvement on offense, but Big Al, McRoberts and the stronger defense was credited for most of their sustained increase.
The Jazz can take some inspiration from the Bobcats (now that’s a sentence one doesn’t type much) in their coaching upgrade and defensive commitment, but haven’t added free agents this offseason likely to add nearly as much as Big Al or even McRoberts.
Ha! The 2005-6 Jazz added two key players: Free agent Mehmet Okur and rookie point guard Deron Williams. And they kept improving the third year, thanks to Deron’s continued improvement, plus the addition of two productive rookies — Paul Millsap and Ronnie Brewer.
The Jazz of nine years ago should offer inspiration. It may be unlikely that any of this Jazz team’s new additions will offer as much as Millsap did (as a rookie, he had a PER of 17 in 18 minutes per game.) But that squad, and this one, are built around a core of young, improving talent. On the 06-07 Jazz, Williams was just 22, Boozer 25 and even Okur only 27.
The Trail Blazers of 2005-06 had bunch of young players, but only 24-year-old Zach Randolph was particularly productive. The team then hit a home run in the draft, adding not just Brandon Roy but LaMarcus Aldridge, both of whom were immediately useful. Sophomore Jarrett Jack also improved, as did Randolph.
And in that third season, when the Blazers hit .500, they again benefited from the continued growth of a young core, particularly Aldridge and Roy.
This team strikes me as the best model so far for the Jazz. The Blazers drafted well and improved steadily around young talent.
In 2006-07, the Lakers made the playoffs thanks to a terrific Kobe season, plus help from rookie Andrew Bynum and a solid Lamar Odom year. But that next year, the Lakers really took off, thanks in large party to their trades for Pau Gasol and Trevor Ariza. That team, of course, lost in the NBA finals to the Celtics.
But they continued to improve, despite not adding any significant new talent in 08-09. Bynum stayed healthier (but still missed 30 games) and the core of Bryant, Gasol, Ariza, Odom, Fisher and Bynum brought the team an NBA title.
It’s not clear how much the Jazz can take from that Lakers run. LA was a more mature team, with brighter stars, but like the Jazz their core stayed together and kept getting better.
Second year star Dwight Howard led the Magic to 40 wins and a playoff berth in 2006-07, before the team took a big leap forward thanks in part to a new coach (Stan Van Gundy) a free agent signing (Rashard Lewis) and improved years from Howard, Jameer Nelson and Hedo Turkoglu.
That jump continued in 2008-09, landing the Magic in the NBA finals. A few young players contributed more (rookie Courtney Lee was solid) but the biggest factor was Howard’s arrival as an legitimate MVP candidate. He was the defensive player of the year and had a PER over 25. That, plus a decent supporting cast, was enough for seven more wins and the third best record in the East.
The Magic’s run of improvement feels a bit different than the Jazz, given the lack of a star comparable to Howard.
As we can see, teams that have gotten better and then kept getting better are the exception. But Jazz fans can and should draw some solace from the few that did it. Many, if not all, of them built a path of ongoing improvement strong coaching and the growth of young talent — just like Utah.
However, as we noted earlier, the odds aren’t exactly in the Jazz favor. Winning seven more games this year, on top of the 13 added wins last year, is a feat few teams have mastered.
There is something different about this Jazz team, though. Maybe they weren’t “really” a 38 win team last year. Maybe they were actually closer to the 19-10 team that ended the year. And so, maybe, we’re not actually looking for the Jazz to continue to significantly improve, but rather to consolidate improvement they really accomplished last year.
That question — are late season runs more predictive than a full season record? — belongs to another post.
Part 2 on Playoff Pessimism to come.
And here’s that full table of the last decade’s “big jump” teams: