Ironically, it is the second team to enter the NBA Finals – the one without LeBron James – that every other franchise wants to be.
The Golden State Warriors are in the midst of a well-extolled historic season: exquisite offense, league-leading defense, the most physically mensch-like MVP in decades, and massive favorites to win the Larry O’Brien trophy. And as is said ad nauseam, the NBA is a copycat league. This is particularly true when it comes to how franchises choose to build teams.
For the last several years, the en vogue approach has been the Oklahoma City model, or rather, method: turn a bevy of early first round picks into a sheer talent advantage. Viola, championship contender! Several teams, most notably the Philadelphia 76ers, have gone all in with the strategy. The whole objective of the draft-your-way-to-a-title method is to find that rarist of prizes: a superstar player.
Then the San Antonio Spurs smacked down LeBron James and the Miami Heat in a Finals display of team ball as perfect as anything seen in decades. A sea-change began. Now come the Warriors, confirming evidence in the form of team-oriented, highly skilled, defensively dedicated basketball. The only #1 overall pick on the roster scores six points a game while #7 and #11 picks snipe the rest of the league into submission – including in all likelihood, once again, LeBron James, the best player in the world.
Symphonies are now beating the superstars. Thus, a new formula is established:
Shooting, shooting, and more shooting, the rangier the better.
Unselfish, defensive-minded role players anchoring the frontcourt.
Depth beyond imagining.
Frenetic speed, frequent quick shots, and loads of fun.
In the near future, the NBA will see team after team seek to employ this new model of skilled, flexible players with defense in the middle and shooting everywhere else. As a team with plentiful young talent, a fistfull of future draft picks, and financial flexibility, the Jazz are as well-positioned as any team in the league to employ the formula.
But they shouldn’t.
What is often lost in a copycat league is the fact that doing the same thing everyone else is doing, only better, is extremely difficult. The “playmaking 4,” as recently coined by Zach Lowe in a fantastic post, only a few years ago would have described Shane Battier or Boris Diaw, role players paid $5 – $7 million dollars in their prime. This offseason there is a real chance Draymond Green will receive a max contract. Devin Booker, among the best shooters in the draft but also a player with essentially one NBA-ready skill, is increasingly being whispered as a top ten pick. Offensively selfless rim protectors have always had value in the league, but Andrew Bogut’s importance to the Warriors has intensified teams coveting these players. Now, everyone needs their Bogut. Who would have thought that two years ago when he had just missed 120 out of the last 164 games?
In competition as fierce as the NBA, trying to adapt and apply another team’s formula is certain to fail. No team is going to leverage a #7 pick into the likely best shooter in the history of the game. No team is going to turn a #35 pick into a Mr. Everything and All-League defender. No team can count on bringing two former All-Stars off its bench, or tanking a season for Harrison Barnes rather than, say, Ben McLemore or Bismack Biyombo (the #7 picks the year before and after Barnes), or luck shining on two of the most injury-riddled players in the league (Curry and Bogut of three seasons ago).
The Warriors couldn’t recreate their path to the present if they tried. The Jazz would be fools to attempt the same.
But the copycat nature of the league provides the Jazz a valuable opportunity, if they have the ingenuity and courage to take it: creating a new path to the title while others try to take the road already trod.
What may this as-yet undefined formula look like? We’re unlikely to know until we see it, just like the Warriors, but some of the variables are already clear.
Component #1: An elite pairing of two-way bigs.
Derrick Favors and Rudy Gobert are the foundation of the Jazz’s alternate path to title contention. While a few other NBA teams play two traditional bigs – most significantly Memphis (Marc Gasol and Zach Randolph), the L.A. Clippers (Blake Griffin and DeAndre Jordan), Chicago (Pau Gasol and Joakim Noah), and New Orleans (Anthony Davis and Omer Asik) – none equal the possibilities presented by Favors and Gobert.
Asik and Jordan are offensive liabilities, most clearly demonstrated by their career 55% and 42% free throw shooting. Rudy Gobert doesn’t light it up from the line at 62%, but he’s already a notably better shooter than these players and is improving.1
Pau Gasol and Noah will be 35 and 30 respectively next season; Favors and Gobert will be 24 and 23. This doesn’t even account for injuries.
Of all the combos, Marc Gasol and Zach Randolph are probably the greatest comparison. With 33.5 points, 18 rebounds, and six assists between them, the Grizzlies duo has become the class of the NBA. Can Utah’s young pairing grow to match or exceed them? It will take some notable improvement, but it’s possible. Last season after being paired as starters, Favors and Gobert combined for 24.4 points, 17.7 rebounds, and 2.8 assists. Both the points and assists will increase as the pair continue to develop and are featured more prominently in the offense.
But where they truly stand out is on the defensive end. Favors and Gobert combined for 6.8 blocks per 100 possessions, outstripping every other starting frontcourt except for Davis and Asik, who they matched. The Jazz players ranked 2nd (Gobert) and 17th (Favors) in BLK%, forming the only tandem in the NBA with each player a top-20 rim protector.
Offensively, Derrick Favors and Rudy Gobert have the potential to approximate the impact of Gasol and Randolph – but defensively, they will be better. Better rim protectors. Possessing more lateral quickness. Wielding greater range and recovery ability.
Jazz title contention will be built upon the foundation of Favors and Gobert in and around the paint, especially defensively. This makes their formula different from every other team in the league.
Component #2: Interchangeable perimeter players.
The Jazz certainly are applying one modern NBA theme: interchangeable guards and wings. Between Dante Exum (6’6″), Alec Burks (6’6″), Gordon Hayward (6’8″), Rodney Hood (6’8″) and possibly Elijah Millsap (6’6″), Utah’s cupboards are stocked with elite height and excellent length at the perimeter. This allows for frequent switching2 and greater ability to contest jump shots.
Combining these traits with the team’s elite rim protection creates the potential for a lockdown halfcourt defense from the rim to the three point line.
Component #3: Elite rebounding.
The Jazz were the #1 rebounding team in the league per 100 possessions following the All-Star break. In that same time frame, the four teams to reach the Conference Finals all ranked in or near the bottom half of the league: Cavs (14th), Warriors (16th), Rockets (21st), and Hawks (30th). This gives the Jazz an advantage in two ways. First, their excellent defensive rebounding (4th) solidifies their elite defense. Second, their elite offensive rebounding (2nd) cushions the demand for a sky-high field goal percentage. Essentially, the Jazz’s margin for offensive error increases somewhat while that of other team’s shrinks.
In a league moving increasingly toward more three point shots – and stretches of cold shooting – the Jazz’s ability to increase their own possessions while limiting an opponent’s could be hugely significant.
Component #4: Willing and (Hopefully) Skillful Passing
Last season, the Jazz led the league in passes per game at 364.6. However, they ranked 25th in points created via assist per 48 minutes (a measly 47.5). Clearly, their willingness to embrace Quin Snyder’s “play with the pass” currently outstrips their skill in doing so. But there are reasons to believe that will not always be the case. Start with age. Players’ decision making will improve and quicken with maturity overall as well as with more experience in Snyder’s system.
Another reason to be optimistic in this area are the initial signs of a top passing team in formation. While statistics don’t yet bear this out, both Rudy Gobert and Derrick Favors have shown vision and willingness to distribute above the norm at their respective positions. Gordon Hayward’s 20+ AST% the past two seasons illustrates he is already a good passer by wing standards. Add in Dante Exum’s notable court vision, which has yet to translate much on the floor as he learns the NBA game, and four the Jazz’s five starters project as above average passers by the standards of their positions.
For a team predicated on defense and lacking somewhat in sheer scoring and shooting punch (typical of a defense-first squad), the ability to move the ball so as to get the best shot available will be essential.
These four components form the core of a winning formula distinctive from, and perhaps even built to counter, the Warriors’ configuration that will increasingly be copied throughout the league. By committing to this alternate approach, enhancing rather than mitigating it, the Jazz improve their chances of reaching genuine title contention. After all, each NBA champion forges their own unique path to the top of the mountain. The Jazz would be well advised to pioneer their own trail to the summit rather than try to fit into the slot already filled by the Golden State Warriors and their eager imitators.