With the Jazz halfway through the first season of a new era, nothing is cemented yet. Not the roster, not the coaching staff, not the systems or philosophy, not the identity. So I’ve recently asked myself, who do I hope my Jazz become? Not what will they accomplish, but how will they get there.
I ruminated about Michael Jordan’s Bulls teams, the highest art of basketball I ever watched, and the Jazz squad they battled, and a number of my favorite teams from the 90’s.1 My contemplation led to my personal philosophy as to what constitutes the game at its best.
I call it the Share and Stop Doctrine.
Why did I so admire those Chicago Bulls teams? Teams that pass the ball well and defend with dedication are a privilege to watch, and in five of those six championship years, the Bulls ranked in the top seven in the league in both assists and defensive rating. Add in the 93-94 Rockets of Hakeem Olajuwon who did the same, and five out of six NBA champions in the first half of the 90’s won their rings through an elite combination of movement, passing, and tough defense. No champion since can make this claim.
In fact, only 20 teams since 1990 have posted a top seven ranking in both assists and defensive rating for a season. The potency of such teams2 is best revealed by examining the teams that beat these select 20.
Ten of the 14 times a top seven SS team lost in the playoffs, it was beaten by a top ten SS team. Three more times the victorious team was a top 12/10 (or better) SS team. Since 1990, an elite SS team has been ousted from the playoffs only one time by a team that did not adhere to the same doctrine: when the 93-94 Sonics became the first number one seed in the NBA to lose to a number eight when they succumbed to Dikembe Mutombo’s Denver Nuggets.
Let me repeat: only one non share and stop team has beaten a top seven share and stop team in the playoffs since 1990. Teams who embrace this doctrine and play it to an elite level all but cannot be beaten except by a team embracing the same principles.
In fact, the only way to be outside the top ten in either assists or defense and beat such a team is to have a perennial All-Star center.3 Or Magic Johnson, who can pretty much count as an All-Star at whatever position you wish.
Only two franchises have fielded a top seven SS team since the end of the 90’s: the 2002-03 Kings and the last two Spurs teams. But the Spurs are proving that the doctrine has not yet run its course. 4 And remember the two primary obstacles to such a team in the playoffs: 1) a team of similar style, or 2) a team with an all-league center. The only breed nearer extinction than the share and stop squad is the franchise center.
If the Jazz were to become an elite share and stop team, there would be few, if any, teams history would project to thwart their pursuit of Utah’s first NBA title.
What would it take to complete such a transformation? A profile of the NBA champion SS teams (the five-time champion Bulls and 93-94 Rockets) gives the following:
First, a point guard who does NOT dominate the ball. The only other requirement is that the point guard be a dangerous shooter, especially from long range.5
Second, a combination of four players who are both above average passers and defenders for their positions, or three players who are such where at least one player is elite in both categories.6
And third, a center with at least a respectable ability to shoot. 7
That’s the formula. If the Jazz seek to become such a team, how well do their young prospects fit the doctrine?
The best fit is Gordon Hayward. With 4.0 assists per 36 minutes and a defensive rating of 109 over the last three seasons, he is better than the NBA average at his position as both a passer and defender. Admittedly, it’s extremely difficult to quantify defensive impact and ability. Hayward’s DRtg of 109 is fairly average at the wing. That said, individual player defensive ratings often suffer from being on an overall poor defensive team, as Hayward has been. I am confident he will be an above average defender as long as he’s on a respectable defensive team. He will likely never be an elite defender, but his assists per 36 this season have jumped to 4.9, which is excellent for a wing. He is exactly the type of player a share and stop team needs at his position.
After that things get dicier but not without reason for optimism.
Derrick Favors is an interesting piece. His career 1.3 assists per 36 and DRtg of 103 are average for a center. That said, practically no one believes that DRtg accurately represents his defensive potential, which obviously is elite. His passing is harder to project, but watching his ability to make a variety of passes in multiple situations — my eyes tell me he’s the best Jazz center at kicking out to shooters, hitting cutters in the lane, and feeding the ball into the post — suggests he has a lot of room to improve in this area as well. He is certainly showing enough offensive development to project as a Super-O8 option on the offensive end of the floor, which is essential for the share and stop doctrine to work. If Favors can become an excellent to elite defender as well as a good passer for his position, as I believe likely, he would be a good fit for this style of play.
The Burk(e/s) Brothers are more complex cases. As much as I love Alec Burks’ progress as a player this year, he is something of an an oval peg in a round hole.9 His career 110 DRtg is actually respectable for his position, and the same factors I outlined in regard to Hayward persuade me he can become a better than average defender. He’s already solid matching up against his man one on one. It’s complex action and coming off screens where he struggles. More experience should help there. His passing is a different story. His career 2.9 assists per 36 minutes is below average for his position, but this season’s uptick to 3.610 offers enough evidence to hope that he may be able to become a reasonably effective cog in a highly functioning SS machine.
The standards are much lower for Trey Burke, honestly, given the relatively minimal importance of the point guard position in the SS doctrine.11 The one essential skill of an SS point guard is the ability to shoot, and Burke is a bundle of mixed messages in that regard. He’s established his reputation as a player largely on his ability and willingness to take and make shots, especially from three. But halfway through his rookie season, he’s shooting only 39% from the field. That’s bad. His 35% from three is more respectable, but it’s almost exactly the same percentage as the “non-shooter” Alec Burks. In short, it isn’t good enough.
If Burke becomes a more efficient shooter, particularly from long range, he could conceivably work on an SS team. He’s a good passer by even point guard standards, and his leadership and willingness to take — and ability to make — big shots is an uncommon skill. That said, his current usage rate of 23.5 is substantially higher than it would need to be on an elite SS team. A team full of good passers is best utilized when both players and the ball moves frequently.12 Burke would need to cede the centrality of his role on the offense, and I have significant questions about his willingness to do so.
Unfortunately, there are little to no questions about Enes Kanter’s suitability for an SS system. Or more accurately, his unsuitability. Kanter fulfills the mandate that an SS center be an offensive threat, but he is both a poor passer and a poor defender, even by the standards of his position. While his assists per 36 have increased from 0.3 as a rookie to 1.2 this season, he is still below standard; meanwhile, his defensive rating has worsened every season and now lies at 110, a truly horrendous mark for a center. Combine these limitations with the salary he will almost certainly command coming off his rookie deal, and it is hard to envision any possibility of building an elite SS team that includes Big Turk.
The Jazz have some pieces with which to build a young, exciting share and stop team. Perhaps even more importantly, they have the heritage of beautiful passing and the determined objective of a dominant defense. The vision is there. The foundation could be, if they construct it.
This year’s draft picks will be a huge factor. There are several players who will likely be in play who fit nicely into a share and stop system. The following players, in particular, would be invaluable to building an elite SS team: Joel Embiid, Marcus Smart, Aaron Gordon, and Dante Exum. Non-lottery possibilities include Jermi Grant and Montrezl Harrell.
There are some free agent options who will be available this summer as well. Lance Stephenson, Luol Deng, Trevor Ariza, Shane Battier, Spencer Hawes, and Josh McRoberts could all play a role in the building of a young share and stop team.
Finally, what the Jazz do with Enes Kanter will be a determining choice. There may be ways to pair Favors and Kanter as the Jazz frontcourt for the next decade and contend for titles. (Read Ben Dowsett’s excellent piece on the prospects of such an outcome here.) But a share and stop system isn’t one of those possibilities. If the Jazz do foresee themselves as a pass-first, defend-always team going forward, then it will almost certainly mean parting ways with Kanter.
David Locke calls this year the “season of discovery.” Nothing is set. The Jazz’s decisions over the next six months will go a long way toward illustrating the principles by which they intend to compete, and maybe even the formation of the doctrine from which everything else grows. Personally, I hope that core is sharing the ball and stopping your man, because it’s one secular doctrine in which I fully believe.