The Jazz and the Three Point Shot

Photo: Andrew D. BernsteinPhoto: Andrew D. Bernstein

Quick – think of some instances where the Utah Jazz and a three-point shot can be mentioned in a positive breath.  Besides John Stockton hitting ‘The Shot’ that sent the Jazz to the Finals in 1997, Darrell Griffith in 1986 against Dallas in the old Salt Palace, Sundiata Gaines dethroning King James in 2010, followed by the ‘Miracle in Miami’ that fall, and Mo Williams miraculously defeating the timeless Spurs in 2012, the Utah Jazz aren’t really known to be a three-ball shooting club.

Part of that is due to the nearly two and a half decade influence that Hall of Fame coach Jerry Sloan had on the team. I’m sure there’s a quote somewhere in which Sloan refers to shooting a three as, “Jackpotting around.”

Sloan was the product of a different NBA, and he imposed that presence on the Jazz well into the first decade of the 21st century, during which the game of basketball in the NBA deviated from dominating post play to speedy guards and sharpshooting players. The Jazz never really shot a lot of threes because their offense wasn’t built around it. The flex offense was built around hard cuts towards the baskets, screens, and the pick and roll.

You could always argue that the presence of Jeff Hornacek, now head coach of the Phoenix Suns, indicated a willingness to shoot the deep ball during the mid-to-late late 90s for the Jazz. Hornacek definitely helped open the floor up, mostly for Karl Malone down in the paint. However, Hornacek made his living off the quick screen-and-pop from the free throw line.

This isn’t meant to say that three-point shooting was non-existent in 90s basketball – that’s far from the truth. In 1994-95, teams in the NBA shot 33,889 threes, meaning that the 27 teams in the league during that season shot about 15.3 deep balls per night. In contrast, the Jazz only shot 9.8 threes per game in the 1994-95 season, pretty far under the league average. Utah shot 801 threes that season, the lowest number by far in the NBA. This low mark came with a team stacked with shooters such as Stockton and Hornacek.

Now, in the current 2013-14 season, teams are averaging around 21.2 attempts per night, nearly six more shots a night than 20 years ago. The Jazz are still below the league average, at 18.5 attempts per game, but that mark is nearly double what it was the 1994-95 season.

In the 2009-10 season, the last full season in which Sloan was at the helm of the Jazz, Utah shot 14.7 threes per game. Sloan’s influence still held strong then, but the three-point shot has since blossomed under coach Ty Corbin.

The NBA game has just gone towards a flashy, sharp offense that’s focused on scoring and scoring quick. Adding to that, players are becoming more adept shooters from behind the arc, which in turn means that a three-point shot has become that much more valuable than a long two. Simple math dictates that taking a three is worth more points, and hopefully more wins. While three-point percentage hasn’t exactly increased in a dramatic fashion since 1994, the amount of shots taken per night has increased.

So how does this apply to the Jazz? Well, for starters, Utah is shooting 34.8% from the three-point line, but this is important because, in the 11 wins the Jazz have on this season, they’ve shot 43.8% from behind the arc, 9% better than their season average.

For a team that hasn’t historically been a three-point shooting team, this is a very interesting stat. What’s the driving force behind Utah shooting such a high percentage from behind the arc on the rare occasion that they do win?

There are a few reasons, namely Trey Burke, Richard Jefferson, and Marvin Williams. Burke averages 33.3% from three, Jefferson 41.8%, and Williams 39.8%. Jefferson and Williams especially are doing a great job of helping to create space when they’re on the court because of their great percentage from deep.

When teams scout the Jazz, obviously the focus will be on trying to find a way to contain Burke, limit what Derrick Favors can do in the post, and to limit the amount of looks Jefferson and Williams get from three-point land. Having two guys who are above the team average for three-point shooting is a huge asset.

With the way the league is trending, keeping around some sharpshooters is definitely in Utah’s best interests, especially if Favors keeps developing into a serious low-post threat.  Trying to defend a team that has a bruising post presence and a deadly outside game is like trying to defeat the legendary Greek monster Hydra – you cut off one head, and another one pops up.

Look at the Portland Trail blazers, for example. LaMarcus Aldridge is having a career, MVP-like season for the Blazers, and his post play is becoming absolutely lethal. Meanwhile, Damian Lillard, Wesley Matthews, and Nicolas Batum are helping Portland shoot 39.9% from behind the arc. Consequently, the Blazers have the third-best record in the Western Conference at 26-8.

Becoming a team that will make serious noise in the post-season, as the Blazers are definitely going to this year, is becoming more and more dependent on how effectively a team can use the three-point shot. Without an offense that incorporates a good post game and a potent outside presence, it’s going to be incredibly hard for any team to make a push for a title.

If the Jazz can build some solid shooters around Favors as they have this season going forward, added to the hopeful development of the current young talent, Utah could turn into a very solid and dangerous team in the NBA.

Spencer is an avid sports fan and fisherman. He’s a lover of classic rock and Sundays filled with football. You can find him on Twitter, @Spencer_Durrant
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