August has come and gone, and there is much rejoicing. Never mind the nearly two months to go until regular season basketball played – September offers light at the end of the tunnel. FIBA competition, training camp before the month is out; I’m in game mode, and don’t try and tell me differently.
When the Jazz do eventually take the court, they’ll have plenty to work on. A group that was behind in a number of areas last season will also be adjusting to a new coaching staff, and while the long term picture here shows great promise, it’s a big change nonetheless for a young roster getting even younger. The defensive side of the ball in general will of course be a targeted area following a league-worst efficiency figure in 2013-14, and Utah will hope Quin Snyder and his staff can stabilize an unbalanced defensive culture. There were issues everywhere, but one that stands out upon further review1 is opponents’ performance near the end of close games.
Already sieve-like defensively, the Jazz were even more porous during the “clutch” portions of games. Their per-100-possessions figure for the year was 109.1, narrowly below Milwaukee for 30th in the league. But in the final five minutes of games with the Jazz trailing or leading by five points or fewer2, they plummeted even further to 124.0 points allowed per-100, per NBA.com. This was just a hair more stingy than the league-worst Minnesota Timberwolves (124.3), of dubious infamy for their frequent late-game meltdowns. Utah was solid to begin the year in this area before spiraling out of control3:
And a look at an individual breakdown of the seven roster members playing somewhat regular minutes in the clutch4:
The numbers are anything but encouraging across the board, both on a team and individual level. Much has already been said and written regarding the general defensive ineptitude often present in Utah last season – what elements of “crunch time” affected the Jazz to an even greater extent?
To be sure, there are several factors here working against Utah that are mostly or completely out of their control. For starters, a mandatory caveat about sample size applies, although 146 total clutch minutes is certainly enough to draw basic conclusions from. It’s also important to remember that the exact thresholds we’re using5 are somewhat arbitrary, and could vary, perhaps greatly, using different minutes or scoring benchmarks for many teams. That said, the Jazz ranked at or near the bottom of the league in nearly all similar iterations, and the numbers clearly support a team that was markedly worse defensively during these periods.
Other explanations involve uncontrollable elements that Utah will nonetheless expect to improve in future years. The relative youth and inexperience of the majority of the roster surely played a role in their late-game issues, and the team’s key players should develop more poise as they become more familiar with crunch time scenarios. It’s also fair to note that opponents will almost always have their best players on the floor during these periods, a not-insignificant fact that likely skews the numbers to a degree. But the Jazz should also have their best players on the court, and as they begin hitting their athletic primes they’ll be expected to go blow-for-blow with the best the league has to offer.
More tangible and controllable explanations were similarly varied. The above player chart listed turnovers-per-48 in the final column; Burke, Burks and Williams all showed notable per-minute increases in their turnovers during clutch periods, and a team turnover ratio (turnovers per-100-possessions) that was roughly middle of the pack for the year became the second-worst in the league during crunch time behind only Sacramento. This isn’t a defensive stat, of course, but it has a direct effect on that end of the court; turnovers mean extra defensive possessions, and live-ball turnovers in particular can create advantageous situations for opponents. The Jazz also allowed a league-high 42.2 percent from beyond the arc, with a sizeable gap of nearly four percent between them and next-worst Minnesota.
The Jazz also sent their opponents to the line at an advanced rate in the clutch. Utah allowed 48.7 attempts at the stripe per-48, over double a 23.6 figure for the entire season. This isn’t quite as insane a jump as it may seem on the surface; intentional fouls at the end of games skew this average across the league, and the Jazz aren’t the only team who saw a huge increase. But they allowed the third-highest total during clutch minutes, well up from a middle-of-the-pack overall finish. And to compound the issue, they were fouling excellent free-throw shooters – opponents sank a higher percentage of clutch freebies than any other team in the league. As with the overall picture, Kanter is likely the worst offender here, committing 10.4 personal fouls per-48 in the clutch, double his normal figure. Favors was also more jumpy than usual, fouling 7.6 times per-48, a near-150-percent increase.
A look through the game action itself doesn’t reveal a whole lot that hasn’t already been dissected as far as the Jazz defense last season, but the issues were even more prevalent and frequent. The team struggled badly to form a unified identity, acting too often as individual pieces and lacking the sort of trust necessary to work as a unit. There was certainly a noticeable uptick in effort level, one small silver lining going forward, but it was mostly badly directed, as evidenced by certain elements above like foul rate.
Inexperience showed through, and perhaps most worrying of any element within this piece is the way this seemed to intensify as the year went on rather than the other way around. The hope going forward is that this reflects on the outgoing coaching staff more than the players themselves. This isn’t unrealistic, and Utah showed real promise on the other side of the ball during these clutch periods as well – they increased their offensive rating to 114.2, the seventh-best mark in the league (best of non-playoff teams) and nearly a 14-point boost on their overall mark. Hayward and Burke were especially effective offensive weapons, each drastically upping their efficiency in the clutch, and Favors wasn’t far behind.
The foundation is there for a core that can get buckets when it counts, and more experience together along with a more focused defensive scheme could eventually see them become a formidable overall unit down the stretch in close games. The turnaround defensively has to start this year; another stalled campaign on this front will be cause for concern regardless of surrounding circumstance. But expect it to be a point of emphasis, along with all things defense, as the new season begins to take shape.