Utah’s Offensive Evolution

November 27th, 2013 | by Ben Dowsett
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Richard Jefferson takes a corner 3. Are the Jazz becoming a more modern offensive team? Is this a good thing? Photo by Glenn James/NBAE via Getty Images

As part of my debut for Salt City Hoops last month, I wrote a two-part series on legendary Jazz coach Jerry Sloan and his impact on both the team and the league as a whole.  Much of part two delved into some of the systematical advances Sloan brought to Utah and, later, to the entire NBA.  Those who read the pieces will recall that by the end of his tenure with the Jazz, not only were most teams blatantly copying parts of Sloan’s playbook, but many staples of his system had simply become a normal part of every team’s offensive sets.

As I also covered in the Sloan series, NBA offense is a constantly evolving animal, and this hasn’t changed since Jerry stopped roaming the sidelines early in 2011.  In fact, many would say that the last five years or so have ushered in the most rapid series of major offensive changes in league history.  The rise of advanced metrics and the higher levels of understanding regarding efficiency that have accompanied this rise have given way to a plethora of systematical advances.

The Jazz have certainly not been immune to the ever-changing NBA game, going through a major transition stage with the departure of Sloan and the large player overhaul that took place not long after.  But with Jerry gone from the bench, would the Jazz continue his unique approach of bucking many league trends, or would they begin to conform in the face of some fairly convincing progressions that were developing?  Let’s take a look.

The Last Sloan Years:

While most would likely label Jerry’s best years as the ones where his system propelled Utah to consecutive Finals appearances, his mid-to-late 2000’s teams gave Stockton-to-Malone a serious run for their money offensively.  Sloan’s teams were in the top 10 for points-per-100 possessions every year from 2006-07 until his departure.  They peaked in the 07-08 season, with their offensive rating of 110.8 trailing only Steve Nash and the Suns.

The staple of the system, as I covered last month, was assists.  From the 04-05 season up until his departure in 10-11, the Jazz were never worse than third in the NBA in percentage of field goals assisted on.  Sloan’s flex system emphasized a ton of off-ball movement and screening to free up good looks, and he was ahead of his time in recognizing a theme that now seems elementary in the league: it’s way easier to score when you’re taking shots right around the rim.  Jerry’s Jazz constantly topped the league in shots attempted and made at the rim, as well as the percentage of these baskets that were assisted on.  The main ingredient was, of course, the pick-and-roll, but this was just due to its amazing effectiveness; the purpose of it all was simply to find the weak spots that would inevitably open up in opposing defenses.  Take a look at a mash up of a 2010 game in OKC, and as always, try to pay particular attention to what guys are doing when they don’t have the ball:

For any basketball purist, it’s just beautiful to see offense played this way.  No action stands alone; every ball-handler has multiple options available to him and gets to choose which is opening up the defense most effectively.  And while this video is obviously only a small sampling, it’s easy to see how Sloan’s Jazz teams were always among the best league-wide at creating easy looks at the rim.

One brief trend of note during Sloan’s years where he surprisingly wasn’t ahead of the curve was three-point shooting.  While the league’s emphasis on shooting beyond the arc was only in its infancy during these peak years from 06-10, Jerry certainly wasn’t on board.  The Jazz were always near the bottom of the NBA in three-pointers attempted during these years, especially from the corners (a major advanced analytics no-no).  This was despite the presence of several above-average distance shooters for their positions in the rotation – most notably Kyle Korver and Mehmet Okur, but also CJ Miles, Andrei Kirilenko, and even Deron Williams.

Sloan’s Departure, Corbin’s Continuation:

Corbin was Sloan’s assistant for seven years, so while he brought his own style to the table he was also heavily influenced by Jerry’s tutelage.  The team was embroiled in turmoil when he took over for Sloan mid-season, so for our purposes we can start our analysis with the 2011-12 season, Corbin’s first full year behind the bench.

One area where Corbin did switch things up significantly was in the post; per MySynergySports, Utah finished 17.1% of their possessions out of the post in Ty’s first full season, compared with just 9.4% of such plays in Sloan’s final full season of 2009-10.  This is mostly due to personnel changes – Utah’s acquisition of Al Jefferson gave them one of the league’s premier post players to pair with sneaky-good post-up man Paul Millsap – but other areas that decreased to make room for these extra post sets are certainly of interest.  Most notably, the percentage of Jazz plays finished via cuts and screens dropped noticeably when Corbin took over – after finishing nearly 25% of their possessions on these plays in 09-10, this number has hovered around 15% in both of Corbin’s full seasons.  These types of plays were cornerstones of Sloan’s offense, and while the data is incomplete because MySynergySports only tracks plays finished via these play types rather than plays initiated, the large drop-off is still quite significant.

Outside these changes, much of Sloan’s emphasis stayed the same through Corbin’s first two seasons.  The Jazz were markedly less effective basically across the board (especially in assists and rim attempts, areas we discussed earlier), but it’s hard to find solid evidence of reasons for this outside of the simple fact that the Williams trade had deprived the Jazz of their main playmaker, destroying a lot of the precision needed to execute this sort of system at a high level.

This Year:

Corbin’s most drastic departures from Sloan’s style, by far, have taken place so far in this young season.  It starts with lineup composition; Sloan, like everyone during his time, favored the traditional lineup with two big men on the court at all times.  And at first, even with the league rapidly trending toward small-ball offense (only one traditional big man on the court, which creates added driving lanes and spacing for jump-shooters), Corbin stuck to the script.  In fact, no lineup with less than two big men played more than 12 minutes for Ty in either of the last two full seasons, which is basically equivalent to saying he never played these lineups.

The Jazz still start a traditional two-big lineup with Enes Kanter and Derrick Favors, but the combo of Favors as the only big man alongside Burke, Hayward, Jefferson and Marvin Williams has already logged 33 minutes since Burke’s return from injury – nearly triple the time afforded to any small-ball lineup in either of the previous two seasons.  Groups including semi-tweener Michael Harris as the 4-man have also gotten some run, although Burke’s return to full health seems to have piqued Corbin’s interest in using small-ball lineups with Burke alongside a big man and three wing players, something he’s been doing more often in the last three games.

The results haven’t been revolutionary, but a large portion of this is due to Utah’s players simply not being good at making baskets.  With Kanter sidelined for Monday’s win over Chicago, check out how breathable the spacing was for Utah’s starting lineup when Corbin went small-ball by inserting Marvin Williams at the 4-spot:

The theme for this year will always be “baby steps”, and this is absolutely one of them.  This particular roster would never be an above-average offense regardless of what system they were running, so major kudos to Corbin for his willingness to experiment given the nothing-to-lose situation he’s in.  Not only is it having some small effects now – the Jazz rank in the top half of the league in 3PA, the most threes per game in franchise history, a big sign of more modernization being introduced into the offense – but this sort of comfort in these smaller lineups could have major impact in future years once the core players hit their prime, as NBA offense is only projected to get smaller and more efficient.

Here’s hoping Corbin continues his willingness to think outside the box.  It would be great to see the Jazz approach league-average in three-point proficiency, particularly from the corners, now that Burke is healthy and these sort of small-ball lineups are more available.  The shooting can’t possibly get much worse, and adding some spacing and breathing room should only help things along.  Jerry’s influence will no doubt remain no matter how far the league advances, but it’s refreshing to see a few tweaks for a team that is clearly in need of some new energy.

Ben Dowsett

Ben Dowsett

Ben Dowsett is a life-long Jazz fan and general sports fanatic based in Salt Lake City. He also contributes at all-things-basketball site Not Your Father's Water Cooler (nyfwc.com), and has made appearances on local talk radio. With a strong background in statistics, he writes primarily as an in-depth strategic analyst. He can be found on Twitter at @Ben_Dowsett.
Ben Dowsett
Ben Dowsett

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12 Comments

  1. robin says:

    Corbin thinking outside the box? I’m not sure there is a box to think in or out of, or an offense to speak of. It is a mess. I think moving Williams to the starting lineup is a failure of Corbin to teach Kanter, after three years, some basic defensive awareness, and the result is a painfully unathletic and small starting lineup at a time when we have the most athletic team and biggest team, through ten players, we’ve possibly ever had.

  2. Ben Dowsett says:

    It’s been a tough year no doubt, but considering that the Jazz haven’t given a small-ball unit more than 12 minutes on the court for an entire season in the Sloan/Corbin era, I’d say starting such a unit (and having success against a still-potent Chicago defense) and having such a unit log your fourth-most minutes through 15 games definitely qualifies as “outside the box.”

    I’ve been critical of Corbin’s player development and other areas at times as well, but that was far from the purpose of this piece – the purpose being to examine how the Jazz have modernized their offense after two decades of running a system that’s now considered somewhat old-fashioned (parts of it, at least).

  3. Max Rosenzweig says:

    I haven’t read an article this factually stimulating about Utah’s coaching situation in a while. Mr. Dowsett really dives into some great details that this site has lacked for a while. Ball so hard. Hey Ben, who you want? Parker or Wiggins?

  4. Ben Dowsett says:

    Wiggins. Wiggins Wiggins Wiggins. One of the five highest ceilings in history for an 18-year-old.

  5. cw says:

    -Great article.
    -I agree on Wiggins.
    -It is my understanding that much of the Jazz system came from Phil Johnson. Is this correct?
    -Can we blame Corbin for player development the past two years when the FO was obviously OK with what he was doing? I think the FO wanted to win AND develop, which is pretty much what happened. They won just about as many games as would be expected and integrated the young guys at the same time. People have argued, based on advanced stats, that Corbin would have won more games if he played the young guys more. For example, if he’d played Burks instead of Foye. But the results so far this year kind of obliterate that argument. It also shows that you have to use advanced stats in context with team needs. You play Foye over Burks because Foye’s 3 point shooting makes the offense work better, even though Burks advanced stats are slightly better than Foye’s (at least they were last year). You can’t just go with whoever has the better advanced numbers. You have to also consider what jobs need to be done and who can do those jobs. The whole point is to win games, not to put out the “best” line-ups, like you would in fantasy bball.

    I also think some of those arguments were based on small sample sized 5-man plus/minus, which I think are almost always useless.

  6. Ben Dowsett says:

    I can’t claim to have any insider information that couldn’t likely be found online somewhere, so I can’t answer that question with complete accuracy, but that said I do believe Johnson was quite influential, if not the driving force behind the flex system.

    I think there’s a big difference between blaming Corbin for lack of player development versus blaming Corbin for disappointing on-court results. There are several legitimate areas of concern in terms of young player development – Kanter’s defense and much of Burks’ overall game are two that come immediately to mind. Unfortunately, some of this is hard to gauge given the backdrop of bad results, especially this season, but I don’t really think Corbin can be blamed for these results specifically. It’s a complex analysis, one that becomes sufficiently more so when you factor in the idea that losses might secretly be just fine for some of those in the FO this season.

  7. cw says:

    I don’t even think you can blame him for lack of player development. Player development is ultimately under the FO’s control. If the Jazz FO wanted more development they would have traded Milsap and Jefferson at the trade deadline or in the previous summer. I think the FO wanted Corbin to win AND develop, which he more or less did. I don’t think he is a great coach. He’s obviously not an Xs and Os guy and has been slow to learn about making game plans and in game adjustments. But to lay all the blame on him covers up all the other problems. For instance. It is very possible that the young guys are not a good as everyone thought. Talent evaluation is very hard. Everyone thought Phoenix would be the worst team in basketball. A whole bunch of teams passed on Kawhi Leonard. Etc….

  8. Ben Dowsett says:

    Oh absolutely, there’s no doubt he’s in a tough position and it’d be very hard for him to keep everyone happy. Jazz FO has always wanted to remain competitive (until this season at least), so asking him to do that plus develop several 21-year-olds straight out of college is no simple task. I think Corbin has actually done a reasonable job offensively, especially given the improvement Favors has shown this season and the overall system seeming to improve as the year goes on. I’d like to see him make some changes in the way he develops defensively (a more consistent pick-and-roll system, better footwork), but as you say, it’s impossible to put all this only on a coach when there are clearly other factors at work.

    • robin says:

      I think you are looking through rose coloured glasses. Jazz offense has been atrocious. And I think Spoelstra ‘thought outside the box’ when he invented an offense designed around Lebron’s special talents, that has been aped to some degree by the move towards analytics and three ball (this has become hegemonic), so thinking outside the current box always involves using the special talents and skills of your team to the best of their ability, whatever that is (and for the jazz that involves length and athleticism in the front court), noty aping the hegemonic league offense.

      • cw says:

        Again, I think there are way better coaches than Corbin, but you just compared LeBron James’ Miami Heat with Gordon Hayward’s utah jazz. What if your team doesn’t have any “special talents?” You mention length and athelticism in the front court, but Kanter is very unathletic and both Favors and Kanter are about 6’9″ -10″. Miles Plummly advanced stats are actually better on the defensive side than Favors’ and he’s not that far behind on offense. The jazz are currently a pretty below average collection of players that can’t even run a simple pick and roll, score in the post, or consistantly make three point shots. That’s all down to player skill and not offensive schemes. I think a better coach could squeeze a couple more wins out of them, but that the result would be more or less the same.

  9. Ben Dowsett says:

    CW covered most of what I’d have said, in so many words. The piece was not about the actual results of the offense recently, nor any actual results from any period. It was about the way Corbin has integrated some of the more modern elements of NBA offense into his schemes over the years, and how that contrasts to Sloan’s coaching style. When viewed through that lens, Corbin starting small-ball units and playing them in crunch time of close games absolutely qualifies as “outside the box.”

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