During the All-Star break, NBA.com unveiled yet another set of intriguing and informative stats, this time in the form of Synergy Sports figures that had been largely unavailable to the public since the site’s fan version shut down over the summer. For those in need of a quick refresher, Synergy tracks possessions by play type: pick-and-rolls (both ball-handler and roll-man), post-ups, transition, isolation, and several others. They roll out numbers for both teams and individuals, both offensive and defensive, that include field-goal percentages, points-per-possession (PPP from here on out), turnover percentage, fouls-drawn percentage, and more. It’s a great way of parsing out which areas of the game certain players excel or struggle in, and NBA.com even added a number of filters on Monday that made it even more informative.1
It’s easy to see some of the improvements the Jazz have made on the year, but with this data just becoming more readily available, now seems a great time to gauge their success in this manner. Before we dive in, a couple quick caveats and reminders:
Synergy tracks (publicly) only finished plays – that is, those that ended in a shot attempt, a drawn foul, or a turnover. This does mean it’s a limited snapshot, particularly for plays like pick-and-rolls and post-up sets that often result in passes out and plays finishing in other manners. The experienced eye does know how to separate the most useful data, however, and a number of such sets do end up resulting in spot-up attempts, which are tracked.
Sample sizes for certain areas will be small, but I’ll try and provide appropriate context.
Unfortunately, for the time being Synergy does not allow filters based on game dates. There have been whispers that this will roll out in the public data before the end of the year, however, which would be huge.
One of the areas where their development is readily apparent, but what do the Synergy figures think? Here are a few of the more common actions2 and how the Jazz have done defensively both this year and last, with their league-wide rank (efficiency-wise – 30th is bad, 1st is good) in parentheses:
The largest improvement is easy to spot right away: Utah’s pick-and-roll defense. The Jazz have only been marginally better against ball-handlers in these sets, which is understandable given that their guard defense has been somewhat shoddy outside Elijah Millsap, with an above-average on-ball defender in Alec Burks out for the year. But excellent play from the bigs, highlighted of course by Rudy Gobert, also plays a role here, hence the improvement.
They’re even better comparatively against roll men, allowing a lower frequency of finished plays here than last year, a signal that the team’s communication has grown more effective and they’re giving up fewer incisive passes for easy looks at the rim. They’ve gone from allowing 51.5 percent to 42.0 percent, truly a remarkable drop. Gobert is the tipping point here, but we’ll discuss him in a little.
They’ve also done a tad better against spot-ups, but a couple months early in the season where the defense was disorganized and hadn’t yet grasped the scheme may honestly be bringing this down. We can’t view numbers only in the last month, of course, but I’d be willing to wager they’re far better than 25th recently.
Utah’s D has stagnated in the post, though the departed Enes Kanter is a large culprit here (more also on him soon). And though their transition numbers appear bad, this may be a situation where play tracking is imperfect; NBA.com’s traditional stats database has the Jazz allowing only the 19th-most fast-break points this year compared with the fifth-most in 13-14 despite Synergy figures indicating they allow both a similar efficiency and frequency. All in all, the most reliable figures here back up the eye test and other statistics in the assumption that Utah has improved markedly on defense.3
Favors is actually one of the more interesting studies, mainly because he’s actually regressed by Synergy figures in his strongest area, rolling to the hoop. Derrick scored at a robust 1.18 PPP rate last year as the roll man on over 60 percent shooting, but is down to 1.00 PPP on 53.1 percent this year. A big culprit is also his free-throw rate on these sets, which has dropped from nearly 25 percent to just over 13 percent.
Much of this is definitely opponent scouting; Derrick hasn’t regressed here in a vacuum. Some is also likely due to the fact that he’s shooting jumpers out of the short roll at the free-throw line more often (these are counted as roll man plays by Synergy), and though he’s done so with excellent results to the naked eye, these are often still less efficient than his looks right at the rim. He’s attempting more shots in these sets per game and many of these are likely on such short rolls, which contributes to his figure.
Synergy also tells us that his post game has remained roughly the same, though the Jazz are relying on it to finish plays far less often. He’s turning the ball over here less frequently, which is a positive. On the other side of the court, though, he’s made a big leap as a post defender, likely due in part to more minutes beside Gobert where he can defend his natural power forward position. He’s also been downright beastly defending roll men in P&R sets, allowing 26.5 percent on such actions and causing opponents to attack him there far less frequently. Derrick is fine, even if teams are putting more emphasis on bottling up his bread-and-butter sets.
I touched on this last week, and Utah’s offense will indeed take a bit of a hit post-Kanter. He’s great in the post, and even a high turnover percentage is masked by a field-goal percentage that’s second among 53 guys with at least 100 post possessions.
But by the same token, Kanter has been awful as a spot-up shooter this year. He was shooting a miserable 31.5 percent in Utah at the time of his trade, 120th of 127 players attempting at least 100.4 He brought some valuable spacing and could definitely score on the block, but as I detailed last Monday, the team will likely find its way offensively without him.
And of course, they won’t miss him defensively. Utah’s struggles versus the post are almost completely on Kanter for the year – he allowed an unreal 60 percent shooting during his time in Utah against these sets, dead last among 113 guys facing at least 50 post attempts, and was second-last in overall efficiency allowed here. Trey Burke, an undersized point guard who many opponents target specifically on the block due to his physical limitations, has a better defensive figure against these sets than Kanter did in a Jazz uniform. Enes was also easily the team’s worst big at defending roll men; the Jazz have managed the fourth-best defense here despite him, and would almost certainly be first overall had he been elsewhere all year.
We don’t need any numbers to tell us how awesome Rudy has been, but they say so anyway, so why not?
Opponent figures for many of the league’s most frequent play types are simply comical when Rudy is defending. He’s been even better than Favors versus roll men, allowing 25.6 percent shooting and the lowest per-possession efficiency here in the league among guys defending at least 40 such sets. Partially as a result, guys go at him in the post even more frequently per-minute than Derrick, which seems like a silly idea: Rudy is allowing them to shoot 32.9 percent, stingier than all but Steven Adams among guys defending at least 100 post possessions.
Gobert is also allowing a team-low percentage against those foolish enough to go at him in isolation, though guys don’t do this very often. Further, the frequency with which he allows guys to attempt spot-up looks while he’s in the vicinity is nearly half that of any of his teammates and one of the lowest in the league, not a shock whatsoever given his length and the fear he strikes in opposing shooters when approaching their space. It’s also no surprise to see his company in this regard include many of the league’s premier shot-blocking big men.
His Synergy numbers offensively showcase a limited skill set, but one in which he’s brutally efficient. He basically never goes in the post and doesn’t have a single logged play in isolation, and obviously doesn’t do any ball-handling. His efficiency figure in transition is predictably obscenely large (it’s virtually dunks only), but he’s involved here far less than anyone else on the roster.
Rudy’s developing at a remarkable rate as a roll man, however, and is among the league’s top 15 in PPP for guys with at least 50 possessions (there are 98 of these players). His turnover rate is on the higher side here unsurprisingly, but he’s actually improved his hands notably and many high-volume big men cough it up more often than him in these sets.5 He’s already the type of guy who forces defenses to bend when he rolls to the basket, and his frequency may dip as teams look to eliminate him and force Utah’s spot-up shooters to beat them.
His other area of strength is on putbacks, from which he collects over 30 percent of his finished offensive plays, the fifth-highest figure in the league regardless of games or minutes played. His efficiency here is above-average for guys attempting a qualified number, though not quite elite, and he may actually take a small unintended hit here because of the sheer number of tips he attempts on rebounds that most other guys couldn’t even reach. But overall, Synergy figures absolutely love Rudy just as much as the rest of us.
We view Gordon as the team’s offensive captain and occasionally their crutch to lean on, and Synergy data supports this assumption. He’s far and away Utah’s most effective and most prolific isolation scorer, attempting nearly triple the iso shots of any other Jazz player. His team-best PPP of .98 is way up from a .84 figure here last season.
Hayward has improved so much as a one-on-one offensive threat that he’s among the league’s best. 57 players have finished at least 75 possessions in isolation, and his field-goal percentage (46.7 percent, eighth) and PPP (.98, 10th) are both elite among them. He’s attempting free-throws in these sets at a higher rate than any of these guys save for Jamal Crawford and Paul Millsap, though his turnover rate is up a bit from last year and on the high side among volume guys.
He’s also fine-tuned things in transition and is a hair more efficient on the break, and has also seen a massive improvement in his spot shooting. He shot just 31.9 percent on spot-up attempts last year, but is up to a hair under 40 percent this season on slightly more per-minute attempts. Gordon has truly blossomed offensively this year, and Synergy stats back this up in spades.
There were many other fun nuggets, but they’ll have to wait for another time. Some of these themes could be worth a revisit at the end of the year along with a few new ones, particularly if NBA.com and Synergy do indeed launch date filters that would allow us even more context. Until then, continue to enjoy an increasingly encouraging Jazz season.