The Utah Jazz can still count on one hand the number of 2014-15 practices they’ve had, and already they’ve introduced their new philosophy in the form of a triumvirate of “P” words.
Play with pace. Play with a pass. Play with a purpose.
That’s the alliteration of the week, the holy trinity of head coach Quin Snyder. Much of his week has been about explaining to his players, their fans and the media what those concepts mean. In particular, he’s made it clear that “pace” doesn’t just mean running up the floor in a hurry.
“Pace to me also means shortening the amount of time between different actions,” Snyder said to David Locke on media day. “It becomes mental as well as physical. How quickly can you get from a pick-and-roll to a post-up, (or) make a layup and pace back the other way?”
Those hypotheticals — and not-so-hypotheticals — have driven as much early training camp talk as anything. The rookie coach has been on guys about how quickly they can read situations and make the right play without hemming and hawing the possession away.
“Hopefully (the) decision-making process is instantaneous,” Snyder added. “And that allows us to play with pace.”
So pace, in the mind of this coach, is less about a track meet or a frenetic tizzy and more about being mentally prepared to make decisions quickly. With that in mind, many of the stats we use to analyze pace are more about treating the symptoms than the disease. To really see how the Jazz are doing at making the right decision in the smallest amount of time possible, you’re going to have to watch some basketball games. But there are a few stats that help paint a picture, too. These are the tempo stats I’ll be watching to see how Quin’s pupils are doing at implementing his pace vision.
Easily accessible on 82games.com, shot clock usage gives a cleaner view of pace because it’s really focused on what happens at your end of the floor. Possessions per game isn’t a bad stat, but the speed at which your opponents burn their possessions plays as heavily into the equation as what you do.
This is where I return to a favorite graph of mine, one I’ve been following since my very first SCH post, a requiem on the Al Jefferson Jazz. What this shows is that the Jazz have been in steady decline in terms of generating early offense since even before Jerry Sloan stepped down and Deron Williams was traded. For years now, they’ve been settling for an offensive identity that generates fewer good, early looks.
League-wide, teams shoot a lower eFG% on shots later in the shot clock, because by that point you’re settling for what the other team is willing to grant you. In the Jazz’s case, they’ve been settling more than anybody. In fact, last season they took 17% of their attempts in true desperation time (21+ seconds elapsed on the shot clock). Think about that — that’s one in every six Jazz shots counting as a heave.
I think the Jazz will try to bring their percentage of shots in the first 15 seconds back up above the 60% mark pretty quickly.
Another one to keep an eye on is possession time per touch. I was actually surprised to see that the ’13-14 Jazz were as high as 17th quickest in the league in this stat. This measures the amount of time, on average, that a single player has the ball per touch. Snyder has said that he wants his guys to more quickly decide what they’re going to do with a touch — shoot it, drive it, pass it.
Another way to measure this phenomenon is possession time per pass, or measuring how many seconds the ball is held for every pass. According to NBA.com’s player tracking data, the Jazz had 3.6 seconds of possession for every pass, 10th slowest in the league. That amount of time should come down significantly if players do what Snyder is asking: make a read as soon as you catch the ball — or even before — and react almost immediately.
It’s harder to notice real progress on these ones statistically. There’s a lot of noise in them, because it doesn’t account for possession types that by nature require an extra second with the ball. Pick-and-roll players might need the ball in their hands for several seconds to force the right defensive decision points, whereas a backdoor cut for an alley-oop literally requires a fraction of a second of possession time. And, as Snyder himself pointed out on Monday, sometimes the right basketball play is to keep it for another couple seconds. That’s why we might have to trust our eyes a bit more to measure progress here, but the player tracking around possession per touch/pass is a start.
And, even though the difference here is measured in tenths or even 1/100s of seconds, there is some proof in the statistical pudding. The top three teams in terms of keeping possession times short are the Spurs and two very Spursian programs run by Popovich disciples: the Bobnets and the Hawks.
Last year, the Jazz were third in the league in tracked passes, but 6th worst in both Offensive Efficiency and in Assist Ratio. That discrepancy is reflective of two realities. First, the Jazz’s tendency to burn a lot of clock means they had to do something with all those extra seconds. Second, it means the Jazz had a lot of empty passes that didn’t really lead to anything. This is where Quin’s three “P” words come together. If they’re making decisions in a more time-economical fashion (pace), then they’ll still be moving the ball (pass), but with a greater sense of what they want to accomplish with it (purpose). Frankly, the Jazz could use more of all three
Finally, as Snyder mentioned, defensive pace is as important as anything, so I’ll also be watching for defensive shot clock usage. Last year, a staggering 38% of opponent attempts came in the first 10 seconds of the play. Since opponents were able to shoot .563 eFG% on those shots, it’s no surprise that the Jazz’s defensive ranking was so poor.
I don’t know if the Jazz will improve from their 12.9 fast break points per game, or their 4th worst fast break defense, or even their bad habit of waiting until the last four seconds on one of every six shots. But these are the stats I’ll be watching as we try to decipher the pace identity of the new-era, Snyder-led Jazz.