SC7: Picking Opponents, Playoff Sprint, Fighting Frenchmen, & More

April 6th, 2017 | by Dan Clayton
Melissa Majchrzak via utahjazz.com

Melissa Majchrzak via utahjazz.com

Seventy-eight games are the in books. That means the playoff math is getting tighter, the games are feeling bigger, and there’s plenty to talk about in our penultimate weekly wrap-up of all things Jazz.

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Even as the Jazz’s chances at anything but a fourth or fifth seed have waned into single-digit percentages, there are still those who think Utah should engineer their way out of a Jazz-Clips series by strategically diving all the way to sixth.

Those people are wrong.

In these folks’ view, the Jazz’s 2-1 record against the Rockets is evidence that the Jazz match up better against No. 3 Houston than they do against the Clippers, against whom they went 1-3 this season. The first problem with this logic is that it relies on a 7-game sample that is fraught with noise and context. A lot of variables can impact a season series that are minimized in a playoff setting, such as when Houston lost to Utah on a random Wednesday in early March while two starting-quality big men sat, or when Utah lost to the Clippers on their fifth game in eight nights. Those kinds of factors just matter less in the postseason, where more often than not, great teams beat good teams.

That’s why prognosticators put so much weight on macro quality over the outcome of a handful of games. This notion comes up over and over again when smart folks talk about how to predict playoff results.

John Hollinger addressed the myth of head-to-head importance in a 2010 ESPN Magazine article1, pointing out that the stats on regular season series winners advancing are skewed by the fact that most of them should have won anyway because they were better teams. This Harvard study that shows that, by and large, teams with elite point differentials win NBA championships.

But let’s use this study from FiveThirtyEight, because there are data and graphs we can apply directly to the Jazz’s situation. This writer actually finds some predictive impact of head-to-head, concluding that teams who went 4-0 against their playoff opponent have up to a 5% better chance of winning an individual playoff game than teams who went 2-2, and about a 10% better chance at winning the series. The advantage is smaller for teams that won the regular season matchup by less than a 4-0 sweep.

That’s not totally insignificant, but does that odds bump outweigh the effect of playing a team that’s just flat out better? This writer’s own data say no. He even concludes: “it’s clear that the effect is nowhere near strong enough to take a 10-game dog and make it a favorite.”

Let’s assume that Houston winds up at 56 wins (but -1 against the Jazz in the season series) and both the Jazz and Clippers finish at 50 (with the Clippers +2 on the year), and then plot those out on his series likelihood graph.

Adapted from https://espnfivethirtyeight.files.wordpress.com/2014/05/morris-feature-h2h-2.png

Adapted from https://espnfivethirtyeight.files.wordpress.com/2014/05/morris-feature-h2h-2.png

So even if we grant the assumptions here that the seven games against the Rockets and Clippers should shift our expectations, the Rockets’ overall superiority helps their odds against the Jazz far more than their -1 head-to-head win deficit hurts them. Based on this math, the Jazz would still have a significantly better chance against L.A., even when they spot the Clips the extra ~4% based on the season series or get the 2% chance back from Houston for beating the Rockets 2-1 in regular games.

Personally, I also think that keeping their foot on the gas is important to the Jazz as they anticipate sitting down for free agency talks with their star who has waited desperately for the club to be competitive. Fans loved it when GM Dennis Lindsey summarized the franchise’s approach to retaining Hayward like this: “Just day to day, do the right thing. Then, you can look at yourself in the mirror and say, ‘We did everything possible to keep a good player.'” This is the kind of thing he was talking about. Hayward has pined for years to have the opportunity to compete with the NBA’s best in a playoff series; would he even want to re-up with a team that purposely gave up an opportunity to capture a fourth seed because they were afraid of the team they’d face?

Frankly, if the Jazz go all out over these last four games and still fall short of achieving homecourt, that is probably an ethos that is more appealing to Hayward. A win total of 49 versus 51 might not make that big a difference in Hayward’s decision-making process this summer, but being part of a team that, after all these years, is still shying away from certain challenges might. So compete.

Jazz coach Snyder also mentioned that he wants his guys to have “the confidence of playing well going into the postseason.” So it doesn’t sound like the Jazz will worry about trying to game their way into playing Houston. And that’s good — the numbers say their chances are still significantly better against the Clippers.

 

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What began as a seeding race between five teams essentially boils down to three spots now. Houston has clinched third, and while Memphis has their own thing going on to avoid a slide to the No. 8 seed, they can’t catch up to any of LA, OKC or Utah.

So it’s now about four through six, from the Jazz’s perspective. Here’s how it’s shaping up:

Coming down the stretch

Coming down the stretch

Eleven games remain that will have a direct bearing on which team gets the fourth seed. FiveThirtyEight’s game-by-game projections, while certainly flawed at this point with so many variables in terms of team’s rest plans and motivation levels, provide at least a starting point for figuring out how this might play out. If we take their percentages at face value…

  • Utah has just a 2.3% chance of winning out, in which case they’d clinch fourth.
  • Utah has a 20.7% chance at 51 wins, which is 81.2% likely to be enough to beat the Clippers and 100% likely to beat OKC.
  • Utah has a 44.6% chance at exactly 50, a total the Clips are 29.3% likely to fall short of and the Thunder can’t reach.
  • Utah has a 28.4% chance at exactly 49 wins. That total only gives them a 2.5% chance of beating the Clippers, but still a 91.1% chance of staying ahead of the Thunder.
  • Utah is only 3.9% likely to lose out, in which case the Clippers would definitely pass them, but Utah would still be 59% likely to stay in front of the Thunder.

Again, these percentages don’t reflect what really might happen. Outside of Utah’s game against Portland and OKC’s two against Denver, none of these three teams’ remaining opponents have anything to play for beyond esoteric motivating factors like pride, playoff rhythm and reintegrating returning guys. But if we use these (flawed) percentages as a guide, Utah has a 32.9% chance of staying ahead of LA, a 95.9% chance of staying ahead of the Thunder, and just a 4.1% chance of sliding past both of them.

 

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“You have to point to Rudy (Gobert) and Gordon (Hayward). It’s probably the thing that gets lost on people as much as anything about some of the challenges we’ve had with respect to health and injury, is that it can be emotionally draining… I’m not sure people understand what those guys have gone through. Every day you wake up, you’re trying to figure out who your teammate’s gonna be that day… Not only have (Gordon and Rudy) handled it, but they have continued to excel.”

– Snyder, on how his team has survived despite injuries

More and more, Snyder’s post-game chats function as “state of the Jazz” treatises that are interesting way beyond the context of analyzing a single game.

To Snyder’s point, that the Jazz are still on their .600+ pace says pretty amazing things about the team’s stars. Counting injuries, rest, minutes limitations and guys leaving games early, the club has been down by an average of 2.4 players per game so far this season, including 1.4 starters. That’s 28% of their starting lineup that’s missing from the average Jazz game. Oof.

“The best thing for us to do is the guys who are available to play, play,” Snyder added. “And the guys that aren’t need to work their tails off to get to a point where they’re available.”

 

In addition to heaping praise on Gobert and Hayward, Snyder rattled off a list of role players who have stepped up into bigger roles than envisioned. The ones who have been successful, he said, are the ones who have done so with the team in mind.

“Everybody’s just got to throw themselves into the team and not overthink the situation with things we can’t control. If our focus stays on defense and stays on moving the ball, that’s the way we can help each other the best way, and everybody commit to trying to win. That’s what we’ve tried to do with those guys anchoring us.”

 

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Jazz 95, Wizards 88 – Rudy Gobert

I keep talking myself into alternating between Gobert and Hayward, and really it’s a coin-flip type of decision. Hayward started slow, but wound up with 19-7-4, the best net rating of the big minute guys, a crucial late-game chase block, and 10-point closing quarter. Gobert had 16 & 10, blocked three shots, helped harass John Wall into a 6-for-22 night, and limited the Wiz to 33% shooting at the rim. The tiebreaker was the way Rudy came to life in the mid third after Washington had challenged the Jazz — and him — a bit. Oh Bradley Beal, why would you stare down Gobert? You had to know he’d get you back.

 

Jazz 106, Blazers 87 – Gordon Hayward

The popular vote landed barely on Dante Exum, which makes sense given his team-best +34.1 net rating and the fact that Blazers star Damian Lillard shot 3-for-15 while Exum was on the court. Had Exum played a little more before exiting with a hip pointer, I probably could have gotten there. But it’s hard to look past 30 points. Hayward paced the Jazz early (12 in the 1st as the Jazz jumped out to an early lead) and just kept making shots. Lately Hayward’s specialist is pull-up midrange stuff, like the three T-O-U-G-H jumpers he hit in the fourth quarter to seal this puppy. Also, Gobert had a 20-and-11 double-double on six shots, and Joe Johnson went off during the decisive stretch.

 

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I was actually borderline surprised when I saw the Jazz drop this little bit of early offense, since they almost never run “pistol” action.

Pistol is a pretty common semi-transition setup that a lot of NBA teams use. If you’ve watched the Clippers or Mavs play for any length of time, you’ve undoubtedly seen this basic idea.

Pistol happens when a guard dribbles to the sideline toward another guard that’s out around free-throw line extended, with a trailing big coming in behind to set a pick. From that basic setup, you can run a lot of different options. Commonly, the handling guard will pass to the wing but then rub off to see if he can get a give-and-go hand-off for an easy layup. If not, the second guy can flow straight into a ball screen with the big. There are dozens of other variations, all designed to hit quick.

As a set, it makes a lot of sense for the Jazz, especially when Dante Exum is in. His speed, Gobert’s screen setting and the overall threat of Gordon Hayward could make a lot of pistol options pretty lethal. But Utah prefers to bring its offense back to the middle, even on semi-transition. Usually the guard brings it down, passes to the big at the top, and the Jazz initiate their offense either by reversing to the other wing or involving that original ball handler. But this time, they unleash pistol, to pretty nice success.

Exum dribbles the ball right to Hayward. If the defense played this differently, Exum could just decide to go here, but since his defender goes under, the Jazz go to the next option — Hayward taking the ball into Rudy’s trailing screen. The defender overplays it though, so Hayward counters the same way the Jazz react to “ice”2: by rejecting the screen and driving away. Eventually, the screener’s man (Aminu) has to commit to Hayward, leaving one of the NBA’s best roll men open for a finish.

I’d love to see the Jazz experiment more with pistol and all of its variations and options. It’s a good way to score in a hurry and it could help unleash some of what makes all three of these guys lethal.

 

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50.4

SCH was given access to a cool new tool that the folks over at @NBA_Math are working on. Basically, you input a team’s (or player’s) offensive and defensive “Four Factors”3 and it tells you which historical teams compare the most closely and what the group’s expected win total would be based on those numbers.

The Jazz’s current performance aligns to 50.8 wins, the tool says. The Jazz’s intended starting lineup doesn’t have a great FATS projection, but if you take that group and sub in Joe Ingles at shooting guard, they project as a 58.4-win team based on their numbers. Alas, those five have only appeared together in 15 games. You can also use the tool to estimate player value, but I’m just getting started. Spoiler alert: That Gobert guy is pretty dang important.

 

sc7fun

There are signs and then there are signs. This one is particularly well done.

Screen shot from ROOT broadcast; sign by @LifeOnaPlate

Screen shot from ROOT broadcast; sign by @LifeOnaPlate

So first, some context. For those who still haven’t acquainted themselves with the most hyped Broadway musical in decades, that comes from “Guns and Ships,” a song from the first act of Lin-Manual Miranda’s Hamilton: An American Musical. They use these lines to talk about the importance of Marquis de Lafayette, a big part of the American revolution.

How does a rag-tag volunteer army in need of a shower

Somehow defeat a global superpower?

How do we emerge victorious from the quagmire,

Leave the battlefield waving Betsy Ross’ flag higher?

Yo, turns out we have a secret weapon,

An immigrant you know and love who’s unafraid to step in.

He’s constantly confusing, confounding the British henchmen,

Everyone give it up for America’s favorite fighting Frenchman!

LAFAYETTE!

The sign’s creator (and the handsome devil pictured above) is Twitter’s @LifeOnaPlate. He told SCH on Wednesday that the idea first occurred to him last year when he was listening to the Hamilton soundtrack. Thus a rad sign was born.

And really, Gobert as a character is plenty Lafayettesque. Consider these facts about the two fighting Frenchmen.

  • Both had talent and drive that were recognized early, but were a bit underutilized early on. Lafayette wasn’t initially given a command, while Gobert played sparingly early on in his career.
  • Like Gobert, Lafayette first began to make his name on the defensive side of things, cited by General Washington for valor in leading a retreat while wounded.
  • Lafayette could be brash and aggressive. Hmm.
  • Lafayette helped end the war when he went on the offensive with a surprise attack in Chesapeake Bay. Gobert is surprising the NBA with a rapidly expanding offensive game.

Not bad, right? This guy certainly isn’t in need of any more awesomeFrench-inspired nicknames. But here’s another fun connection to a compatriot, an important historical figure, and a very en vogue piece of contemporary culture.

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

3 Comments

  1. John Jenkins says:

    Dan, Totally agree that the Jazz can beat the Clippers and dropping down is idiotic. Getting into a losing habit is not smart..

  2. Pingback: Salt City Seven 2016-17 Archive | Salt City Hoops

  3. Pingback: Salt City Seven: Eyeing One in LA, First Round Playbooks, Rudy Blocks and Talks | Salt City Hoops

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