Salt City Seven: Will the Offense Improve?

November 9th, 2017 | by Dan Clayton

Melissa Majchrzak by utahjazz.com

Seven days is a long time.

That’s evident because the last time we met for this weekly feature recapping 168 hours in Jazzland, Utah was coming off a 3-0 stretch and their fans were wondering how real certain aspects of the streak were.

Now, the script has flipped, and Utah is winless in the last three. Which begs the question: are things as bad as they feel after an 0-3 week?

 

A (usually) brief exploration of a prominent theme from the week or the current state of Utah Jazz basketball.

That was as rough a week as the Jazz have had in a long time.

Utah didn’t just lose three straight; it posted the worst Net Rating in the NBA over that span (-14.4) as well as the worst effective field goal percentage (.442). Their defense was decimated in back-to-back games, first by Toronto in a low-pace, high-efficiency beatdown, then by a red hot James Harden who would have made franchise history if deep reserve Raul Neto hadn’t made it a point to deny him1.

It appears that the Jazz’s offense has many reevaluating their projections for the 2017-2018 season. They misfired to the tune of the worst home shooting night in 12 years, and the sixth worst FG% in franchise history. Their offense has been so bad that they once again got the Ringer treatment — only this time, it wasn’t a good thing.

“Nightmarish,” the Ringer’s Danny Chau concludes. And he’s not wrong. Which raises the question: is it as bad it seems?

Or will the offense get better?

Sure it will

There are a few reasons to treat Tuesday night’s debacle and the Jazz’s early bottom-five offense as anomalies. All require a decent amount of faith, patience and perhaps some sideways squinting at the stats page.

For one thing, right now one in every six Jazz possessions ends in a turnover. That number probably won’t hold up. Some of that is a byproduct of who the Jazz are. Deliberate half-court teams who share the ball are more likely to cough it up now and again, which is why Utah has been a bottom-10 team in turnover percentage throughout the Quin Snyder era. It’s one of the costs of executing a grinding, egalitarian brand of basketball.

But some of it can also be attributed to players still learning about one another. The stats here confirm what the eyes have been saying for a while: Ricky Rubio is still getting used to his new teammates, and vice versa. Passes are still being flung three feet behind Utah’s rolling bigs, and the squad as a whole is in the process of learning how a Rubio pick-and-roll play opens up different angles and vulnerabilities than a Gordon Hayward or George Hill pick-and-roll.

It’s not just Rubio who’s still working his way through new employee orientation. Through 11 games, 59 percent of Utah’s minutes have gone to players who weren’t on the team last year. That’s the least amount of minute-weighted continuity they’ve had since 2010-11, a season during which they retooled their roster midway through the campaign. More than half of Utah’s healthy players at this point are still figuring out where the proverbial water cooler is located. This includes five of the 10 guys currently in the rotation: Rubio, Thabo Sefolosha, Ekpe Udoh, Jonas Jerebko and rookie Donovan Mitchell.

Rodney Hood, a key floor spacer and decision-maker, has missed all or parts of four games. That’s 36% of Utah’s schedule where they’ve been without someone who brings crucial balance to an otherwise spacing-challenged starting group. Joe Johnson started the season cold before a wrist injury caused him to shut it down for a while, and three-point bomber Joe Ingles was sick for a game. That’s a lot of inconsistency and missing firepower around Rubio, Rudy Gobert and Derrick Favors, three guys who badly need shooters around them.

Then there’s Mitchell. No NBA player — rookie or otherwise — is putting up as many shots as Mitchell with as poor a true shooting figure. That mix of high usage and low efficiency won’t hold up, at least not to this degree.

And while those negative trends work themselves out over time, there are also more strategic options. For example, Snyder could find ways to get his bigs more involved in the offense. Gobert is still a force when he has a little more room for rim dives, and Favors has been pretty lethal scoring on cuts around the basket. Even Favors’ attempts coming off of his three post-ups per game are producing more points per shot than the Jazz’s offense as a whole, which makes one wonder if the Jazz could find some buckets there on nights when little else is working. Jonas Jerebko is still a lights-out three-point shooter (.571 this season), but hasn’t seen a ton of minutes or looks.

They can also focus on improving decision-making in transition plays. The Jazz have now improved to about average in terms of the percentage of their plays that end in transition, but literally no team scores on a lower percentage of their transition opportunities: just 42.5 percent.

“There’s always opportunities to adjust and tweak based on personnel,” Snyder said at Thursday’s practice. “We know where we want to go is the main thing. That involves adjustments and spacing at times. There are times it involves guys continuing to improve, executing with what we’re doing.”

So there are a lot of things the Jazz can try to make the offense a little more potent.

Or…

No it won’t

As funky as Rubio’s three-game funk has funked, there is amazingly still room for some regression. His three-point shooting is back around his career rate after hitting just one of his last 14 attempts. But he’s still shooting abnormally well from midrange twos: 52.9 percent on 10-15 foot jumpers and 50 percent from 16 or more feet out. His career norms there are 33.6 and 38.1 percent, respectively, so his overall efficiency could get worse before it gets better—especially since those are shots the opposition is begging him to take.

Utah has also gotten a friendly whistle in their recent games. The Jazz have had four straight games with a free throw rate above the league average of .265.

Hood is already shooting a career-best 37.7 percent from three. He also is shooting near-perfect on more trips to the line than he’s ever had, so there’s not much more the Jazz will get from Hood unless he suddenly transforms into a volume scorer2.

All told, there are more trends the Jazz can fix (or wait out) than factors that could go the other way. But nothing is guaranteed, especially with the way the Jazz have looked in the first eighth games of their season.

 

Words from a Jazz player or coach about a relevant or timely topic.

More from Quin’s practice presser on the Jazz’s mindset after a three-game skid.

“I think we’re going to learn, whether it’s a loss of a three-game winning streak… Obviously, when you lose a couple, it’s always cause to look at what you need to do better. But I think the focus for us remains just that: getting better, guys continuing to develop individually and us continuing to connect and get better collectively, and that’s what we’re trying to do..”

In other words, Snyder’s focus after an 0-3 week isn’t that different from what he was saying after the 3-0 burst heading into our last Salt City Seven.

Not that he’s bothered by his team’s frustration. He mentioned that the frustration in Tuesday’s post-game locker room is a sign of the guys’ will to compete, and the fact that they take breakdowns personally. As long as they channel that energy toward getting better, it’s a positive, which is why the Jazz had a monster practice ahead of Friday’s matchup with Miami.

“We got a lot to do. We’ve got a lot to get better at,” Snyder continued. “It was good energy. We’ve got to get better in the film room, we’ve got to get better in individual work, we’ve got to get better in breakdown, we’ve got to get better in five-on-fives. So we did a little of everything.”

 

Stats and figures that help tell prominent stories from the week.

.583 TS%, 37% 3FG, 34 mpg, Jazz 5-3

.404 TS%, 7% 3FGs, 28 mpg, Jazz 0-3

Those are some of Rubio’s relevant stats from the first eight games compared to the latest three. A week ago, we were asking how real Rubio’s hot start was. He answered that question by regressing in a pretty convincing way.

The Jazz’s response to these stats has been to spread the ball around to some other players and be less Rubio-reliant on the offensive end. Ingles has been a lot more involved as the pick-and-roll facilitator, ostensibly because teams have to play him a little differently coming off a screen than they typically play Rubio. Mitchell has obviously gotten a lot of Rubio’s touches, too.

Overall, Rubio’s time of possession has dipped, as have his minutes. In Utah’s first eight games, Ricky had the ball in his hands for 7.8 minutes per game. In the last three, that is down to 5.9 minutes, while Ingles (2.5 to 3.0) and Mitchell (2.6 to 4.1) are being given the ball more often.

Those may seem like small shifts in possession, but since players only possess the ball two to five seconds at a time on average, a relatively small change in possession time often means dozens fewer/more touches for the guy in question.

 

A quick dissection of an awesome bit of Jazz offense from the week.

Over the two-plus years we’ve been doing this, we’ve talked a lot in this space about Quin’s predilection for actions with multiple screeners, and for plays with multiple actions stacked on top of one another. One of my favorite plays from this week exemplifies both of those: Hood gets a dunk off of back-to-back actions involving two picks.

The first action here is the staggered pindown. Hood comes from the right elbow and shoots off behind two successive screeners both more or less facing the baseline to free Hood for a cut to the top.

Rudy then turns to set another pick as he’s also party to the next action: the Spain pick-and-roll. The Spain PnR is the same basic concept as the staggered screen, except that it’s set for a ball handler going toward the basket. Essentially, the second screener sets a backpick on the original screener’s defender, so he can’t retreat. Now, as Rudy rolls, the third defender (Ingles’ man) essentially has to decide whether to help on Hood or help on Gobert.

There’s almost no bad outcome to Spain when it’s run properly. Here, Hood gets all the way for a dunk because DeMar DeRozan hesitates. If DD picks him up, Hood should have Gobert wide open on the roll. And if both defenders scurry back to help Gobert’s man, Ingles pops out for a three. It’s why Utah’s favorite variation of the Spain PnR is with one big and one three-point shooter setting the screens.

But piling the two actions together is what makes this an impossible cover for Norm Powell. By the time Rodney is clutching iron, Powell has had to deal with four separate screens.

Screens everywhere!

 

Doling out credit for Jazz wins, one imaginary Spalding at a time.

Since this section is contingent on Jazz wins, there’s nothing to dole out this week. The Jazz hope there won’t be too many weeks where this section is bare.

Here’s where the Game Ball tally sits for the 5-6 Jazz.

Game ball rankings at 5-6

 

 

Games coming up in the next seven days.

Friday vs. Heat. Miami is a borderline East playoff team, but they’ve been playing decent on this six-game trip West. They beat the Clippers and Suns and came within a point of knocking off the Nuggets in Denver. Utah will be the Heat’s fifth stop on the trip (they also lost at Golden State) and a game the Jazz must win to get back on track.

Saturday vs. Nets. Ah, the rare back-to-back without travel. This is the first of just three times all year the Jazz will play on consecutive nights at The Viv. Brooklyn is a scrappy team that plays hard and smart, but they’re 1-5 since surprising the Cavs.

Monday vs. Timberwolves. This is a big-time game. Utah lost by a one-possession margin up in Minneapolis in the second game of the season, but since then, Minny has looked legitimately good. They won five straight before Wednesday’s loss to the champs. And what’s interesting about their recent run is that it’s primarily been offensively oriented.

Wednesday @ Knicks. The first extended road trip of the season starts when the Jazz roll into my town on Wednesday. There hasn’t been enough recognition for just how awesome Kristaps Porzingis has been so far this season. The Knicks are bobbing around .500, so it’s like nobody has noticed that the Unicorn is averaging a cool 30. They’ve also won five of six at home, so this won’t be a walk in Central Park for Utah.

 

Because, at the end of the day, this should be fun.

When Andy Larsen told me on last week’s Salt City Hoops radio show that the final Jazz uniform design would be Southern Utah-themed, I told him that I loved the thought but it would be an easy idea to screw up.

The concept that came out last Friday illustrates what I meant. It is way too yellow to evoke the red rock feel that most assumed they’d shoot for, and the lines give it a boxy paint card look. It’s just one guy’s idea based on buzz he’s heard about some of the jersey details, but Jazz Twitter still had fun with it. SCH’s Jimbo Rudding joked that it could serve as a pee chart for dehydration checks, and Aaron Falk of the Tribune made this observation about how the idea fit into Utah’s MLM culture.

But Twitter’s Paige Arnold got constructive instead. Paige is a Jazz fan and lover of Southern Utah. Here’s her take on how to represent the uniqueness of this part of Utah. And she’s right. Hopefully when the Jazz unveil the new jerseys, they’ll be closer to Paige’s idea than to the educated guess we saw last week.

Dan Clayton

Dan Clayton

Dan covered Utah Jazz basketball for more than 10 years, including as a radio analyst for the team’s Spanish-language broadcasts from 2010 to 2014. He now lives and works in New York City, but contributes regularly to Salt City Hoops, FanRag and BBALLBreakdown.
Dan Clayton

2 Comments

  1. John Jenkins says:

    Ricky has got to include the bigs and to make passes to them in their wheel house. Bounce passes at 7’1″ or 6’10 guys knees is hard. Time for Joe and Thabo to shoot more and to reduce Donovan’s and Rickey’s shot numbers. Some one tell me why Derrick is playing less and not shooting more?

  2. Pingback: Salt City Seven 2017-18 Archive | Salt City Hoops

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