The question of what’s next for the Jazz has been a big one this summer and it has been asked dozens of different ways. But one that hasn’t been asked is what the Jazz’s new modus operandi will be with regard to tempo. The common assumption seems to be that Utah, like most young teams (at least in the world of perception), will play so loose and fast that fans’ heads will swivel back and forth like at a tennis match.
Why does it matter? Because elite NBA teams control pace. That simple. Of last year’s top teams, all of them had either bottom 10 pace numbers (the Heat, Pacers, Grizzlies, Knicks), top 10 pace (Spurs, Thunder, Nuggets, Rockets), or an elite point guard that can dominate in either type of game (Clippers).
I’ve already written this summer about the Jazz’s 2010-2013 (the JefferJazz, as I like to call them) pace identity, but now let’s look forward instead of backward. After the Jazz oozed their way back into the 20th spot in pace rankings (their lowest ranking since Deron Williams’ rookie year), most fans assume that the upcoming youth movement means the new Jazz will be cruising. I’ve wondered about this as I’ve looked into pace of play this summer, and I’m not sure I know the answer yet.
The first hint that the 2013-14 Jazz might not look like a track meet is the consistent messaging around defense. Jazz brass have made it clear that the measure of success for Ty Corbin and others will be for the team to step up defensively, and defensive teams aren’t usually high-tempo ones. Sure, good defense can lead to long misses or deflections, all of which can create transition opportunities; but by and large, the list of up-tempo squads and the list of lockdown D squads are mutually exclusive. San Antonio is a rare specimen as both a high-pace team (6th) and a top defending team (3rd). Other than that, the top 5 defensive teams are pretty much all as fast as molasses and the top 5 pace teams are middling defensive teams at best.
But beyond a systemic belief that the Jazz will prioritize control and defensive intensity over a no-holds-barred offensive free-for-all, I’m looking at personnel and not seeing much data beyond one player, Gordon Hayward, that tells me this is necessarily primed to be a running team.
Hayward is Utah’s most legitimate fastbreak sparkplug. He finished 227 plays as the transition scorer last year with a transition Points Per Possession (PPP) number that is safely in the top 30% of the league. He is also a good transition creator in ways that don’t show up in his Synergy stats, but make him the guy defensive rebounders are looking for halfway up the court after they secure the rock.
Now let’s figure out who’s running with Hayward. Neither of the likely starting big men have been great at running the floor in their short careers. Last year, Derrick Favors was the fast break finish man just 55 times. He was efficient once he made the trip (1.25 ppp, 66th in the league), but a big man who finishes the break less than once per game is not exactly about to break land speed records. Oddly enough, Enes Kanter finished with the precise same number of fast break plays in his offensive Synergy breakdown, and with an off-the-charts 1.44 PPP (10th in the league). But again – 110 fast break plays completed in a season by the Jazz’s new starting frontcourt likely doesn’t change the pace substantially.
Alec Burks wasn’t very good at finishing the break last year, with 0.97 PPP and a turnover for about every six plays as the transition finisher. But he has at least shown a propensity to run, with 118 such plays where he was the guy Synergy assigned the transition play. So maybe he’s the guy up running with Gordon, but if so, he had better get more efficient.
Which brings us to the probably starting point guard.
Obviously, we don’t have Synergy stats on Trey Burke yet. What we do know is that he was the chief offensive architect for Michigan last year, so I figured we’d get a clue by looking at the Wolverine’s pace from last season. I found a ranking for possessions per game among all Division I schools and started scrolling to look for Burke’s squad. Then I scrolled some more. And some more. And finally I saw Michigan down at 261.
Two. Sixty. One.
Now, the Big Ten is a slower conference, so maybe Michigan’s pace was in part a function of the teams they were sharing a ball and court with. Still, the data says that Burke is probably not a running point guard by definition, at least not today.
Of course, we haven’t even looked at the rest of the roster beyond the five recent lotto picks that currently form the team’s foundation. Maybe John Lucas III will help speed things up even though the last team he played significant minutes for (Chicago) was a deliberate, slow-paced team that year. Maybe Marvin Williams starts his post-JefferJazz resurrection by recognizing that a lot of easy buckets will be had just by hurrying back on a 2-on-1 with Gordon. Andris Biedrins? Richard Jefferson? Ian Clark, a half-court spot shooter? Not sure who else will be running.
As of right now, I’m not sure this is a high-pace team, so we might have to revisit that assumption. I’m perfectly OK with a team built around a defensive focus and personnel that isn’t exactly gazelle-like in the numbers, as long as we know not to convince ourselves we’re about to watch 82 games of run-and-gun. We’re probably not.