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.
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.