BREAKDOWN—Are the Jazz improving defensively?

Have the Utah Jazz made defensive progress this season? One way I look at Utah’s defense is that I take the first 25 games of the season and then compare it to the last 20 games of the season. The Jazz were 6-19 after 25 games and by then Trey Burke had worked his way into the lineup comfortably.

Dean Oliver, in this brilliant book, broke the game down into four factors: defensive effective field goal % (which weighs 3-point shooting),  DFTA rate (the rate at which you send opponents to the free-throw line), DTO% (the percentage of possessions you force a turnover) and DREB% (percent of defensive rebounds you get).

Here is how the Jazz have changed over the course of the season:

First 25 games 24th 26th 24th 29th
Last 20 games 9th 16th 30th 13th

The Jazz have shown considerable growth in three of the four categories. The ninth in DEFG% over the last 20 games is really exciting. In addition, the Jazz have long been notorious for the amount they foul—and that has subsided. Finally, the Jazz have moved to above average in defensive rebounding despite playing with a stretch 4.

The only area where the Jazz have been inadequate is their lack of forcing turnovers.  Ranking 30th doesn’t tell the whole story. The current rate of forcing turnovers over the past 20 games is historically low at only 11.8% of opponents possessions.

Overall, the Jazz have improved from ranking 30th defensively in the first 25 games to 23rd, and if they can begin to force some turnovers they will be near average in a hurry.

BREAKDOWN—Favors’ presence has a major impact on Utah’s defense

Watching the Jazz against the Celtics on Monday night was a clear reminder of how important Derrick Favors is to the Jazz defense.

By excluding the 14 games to start the year—when Enes Kanter and Favors started together—and isolating the games the games Favors has started as the center without Kanter and the nine games Kanter has started as the center without Favors, the impact of Derrick becomes lucid.

Favors’ absence has been felt most vividly early in games with paint defense. In the games Favors missed, the Jazz allowed 13.8 points in the paint in the first quarter, contrasting to the games with Favors as the center at 12.4 points in the paint in the first quarter.

In addition, in the games when Favors starts as the center, the Jazz allow 60% shooting in the restricted area in the first quarter. In the nine games Favors was absent, the Jazz allowed 69.5% shooting in the restricted area in the first quarter.

Moving beyond the first quarter into the entire games gets a bit complicated statistically. In games when Favors starts, Kanter gets most of the back-up minutes. Whereas when Kanter starts, Rudy Gobert gets the back-up minutes.

According to the player-tracking data, Rudy Gobert is a very good defender at the rim.  Gobert allows only 43.2% on shots within five feet of the rim. Favors allows 51.2% and Kanter allows 53.7%. For game-long data, an argument could be made that Gobert assists the numbers when Favors doesn’t play.

With the aforementioned weakness to this data, it is still revealing in regards to the impact of Favors. In the games Favors started without Kanter, the Jazz have allowed 46.2 points in the paint. In the games Favors didn’t play, they allowed 49.8.

In the restricted area for the entire game when Favors starts without Kanter, the Jazz allow 62.7%. And in games when Favors doesn’t start, it is 64.8%—despite the impact of Rudy getting more minutes.

The biggest number of all, however, is points allowed. In games when Favors starts without Kanter, the Jazz allow 98.6 points per game. In the nine games Favors missed, the Jazz allow 105.3.

Thanks to Bloomberg Sports for this data.

BREAKDOWN—How much do “smart” shots matter?

How much do “smart” shots matter?

On the offensive end of the floor, the in-vogue style is to take your shots either in the restricted area (1.19 points per shot), take a corner three (1.17 pps) or take an above-the-break three (1.05 pps)—while avoiding mid-range shots (.79 pps) or paint non-restricted area shots (.78 pps).

The Houston Rockets are the best team in the game at taking “smart” shots. They take 71% of their shots from the “smart” areas. The Memphis Grizzlies are the worst in the league at 51%.

Another way to look at this is if every player in the NBA was a robot who shot the same percentage on every shot, how much would it matter if you took “smarter” shots than your opponents?

To answer this question, I created “expected points per shot” for teams. The Houston Rockets’ expected point value per shot (based on where they shoot from) is 1.038 points per shot. The next best in the NBA is the Philadelphia 76ers at 1.022. Only seven teams’ expected points per shot is over 1 point per shot: Houston, Philadelphia, Miami, Detroit, Minnesota, Phoenix and Denver.

The Rockets average at least .038 points per shot more than 22 other teams in the NBA.   The median team in the NBA takes 83 shots a game, which gives them an advantage of 3.15 points per game. In the statistical world, a point is worth 2.7 wins over a season. If everyone shot the same, the Rockets would gain at least 8.4 wins a year simply by taking the correct shots.

Clearly, the impact of shooting in the correct spots on the floor is enormous.

The worst in the NBA is Cleveland at .969 points per shot. The difference between Houston and Cleveland over an average NBA game is 5.7 points—simply on taking shots in the “smart” areas.

The median team in the NBA scores .986 points per shot. The tenth best (the Clippers at .994) and the 27th best (Sacramento/Utah at .976) are all within .01 of the average. Overall, 13 teams (or almost half the NBA) are all within the range of .986 and .976 expected points per shot.

This is a sign of how few teams have truly made it a priority to take “smart” shots. The league is giving a lot of lip service to “smart” shots, but few teams are truly executing them.

The seven aforementioned teams that are over 1 expected point per shot are gaining a 1.6 points per game advantage over 12 other teams in the league.

Putting this information into action, let’s look at the Jazz’s next two games.

Tonight, the Dallas Mavericks (.977 expected points per shot—23rd in the league) play the Jazz (.976 expected points per shot—27th in the league) and there is no difference.

However, tomorrow night the Jazz play Miami, who is 1.02 points per expected shot—or 3.65 points better over a course of the game. To make up for this, the Jazz would have to make two more two-point shots in a game or shot about 2.5% better than Miami  in traditional field goal percentage simply to equalize where the two teams shot from on the floor.

Despite all the talk, the league is still very slow to adapt to “smart” shots. The change has began, but there’s still a long way to go until everyone institutes this into their offense. Those teams that are doing it right now have a significant advantage over the rest of the league.

BREAKDOWN—Kanter playing better against first-line bigs

Last year, Enes Kanter did most of his damage against second-team big men as a bench player and then struggled this year when confronted with playing in the starting lineup against first-team bigs.

Tyrone Corbin has done a nice job staggering Kanter’s minutes with Favors, allowing Kanter to play primarily against second-team big men. So when he struggled miserably against Minnesota in two games against starters Kevin Love and Nikola Pekovic, it felt like a huge setback for Kanter.

His performance Saturday night against Washington, however, may have been the culmination of a gradual improvement against main-line bigs over the last month.

In early January, Kanter got back on track with a good game against Milwaukee where Corbin matched him almost exclusively against the Bucks’s fourth-string big Miroslav Raduljica. Kanter followed with a nice night in L.A. against the injury-riddled Lakers frontcourt of Ryan Kelly, Jordan Hill and Robert Sacre. It was more of the same against Oklahoma City as Kanter made inroads on rookie Stephen Adams but was quiet against veteran Nick Collison.

With his confidence increasing, Kanter started playing against better bigs. Against Cleveland he got rolling against the limited Tyler Zeller, but continued a good first half against Anderson Varejao. In the next game against Denver, he was solid playing against Kenneth Faried, Timofey Mozgov and the defensively poor J.J. Hickson.

Playing with great confidence, Kanter had a career-high 24 points in San Antonio. However, almost all those points were against Jeff Ayers.

Then in Detroit, Kanter lit up Andre Drummond and the Pistons.

After the two poor games against Minnesota, Kanter was going to have to play a front-line big against Washington’s combo of Nene and Marcin Gortat.

Looking at Kanter’s 11-for-13 shooting night, you can see that he did an equal amount of damage on Gortat as he did on the Wizards’ second-team bigs.

kanter v. wizards

This is the next step for Kanter in his third year in the NBA: playing head-to-head with first-line big men.

BREAKDOWN—Who allowed what?

Today on TIPOFF I mentioned this idea: What if box scores also mentioned what the player you were guarding did? It certainly would change the behavior of players. However, it is a bit of an unfair way to judge defenders. For example, last night Richard Jefferson’s man came around on a curl and Gordon Hayward slid down to the nail to stop his penetration and the kick-out pass to Corey Brewer (Hayward’s man) resulted in a 3-pointer. On the same level, dribble penetration gets into the lane and the Jazz big cuts off the dribbler and the ball gets dropped off to the opposing big who would be on the Jazz big … who actually made the right play.

Understanding the flaws in this system, I thought I would try it for last night’s game and see what I discovered. Here’s how the Wolves’ first 100 points came about. It is possible that I missed a shot here or there, but this is pretty close.

v, minnesotaHere is what jumped out to me:

* Marvin Williams had a good defensive night against Kevin Love, who did almost all of his damage on Jeremy Evans.

* The Wolves were going at Alec Burks and took advantage of his inability to get off a pick. The guy he was guarding took 14 shots, and the next closest is Hayward’s with 10. Feels as though Hayward over-helps at times.

* You have to stop transition in this league.

Overall, I found this to be an interesting exercise. I’m not sure it is perfect, but I think if you did it for each night the flaws would be minimal and you could learn a lot.

(Note: Created play means the man he was guarding created a play that led to points for another player’s man.)

BREAKDOWN—Jazz players’ offense, games 31-40

Now let’s look at the Jazz players’ offense in games 31-40.

jazz games 31-40This is sorted by Locke offensive rating—10 is about average offensively, 20 is a high-level starter, 30 is elite and 0 is replacement value. This is only how this individual is using his possessions.

Richard Jefferson is using 15% of his possessions to go to the free-throw line. That is stunning mostly when you consider he is also using 39% of his possessions to shoot threes. Jefferson is playing very well.

Interesting for all the Alec Burks talk is that his lack of 3-point shooting is still preventing him from being a highly efficient offensive player. Going to the line 13% of his possessions is important, but not shooting the three is a detriment to his play.

Both Favors and Kanter have been high-level starters on the offensive end over the last 10 games.

Gordon Hayward was the best offensive player for the Jazz in this period of time.

The nice change here is that all but four players were using their possession above the league average. Previously it was reverse.

Trey is not an efficient offensive player yet. This is not a surprise—he is a rookie point guard getting huge minutes. Historically, players in his circumstance don’t have efficient seasons.

BREAKDOWN—10-game stretch #4, games 31-40

In this season of discovery, rather than getting caught up in the day-in, day-out performances, it seems more prudent to look at the team in 10-game stretches.   Truthfully, it might be better to look at four 20-game stretches.

Last night, the Jazz concluded their first 40 games of the season. Let’s take a look at the Jazz’s performances in their first four-game stretches.

Jazz game 40 10 game stretchesjazz game 40 by rankingsGames 31-40 showed some really significant changes in Utah’s season.

  • The offense was the 11th best in the NBA over that stretch, jumping from 100.1 to 106.3 points per 100 possessions. The EFG% and TS% jumps are remarkable. The offense looks different and has better ball and player movement than it had earlier this season.
  • The defensive change is remarkable. The defensive rebounding went was 7th best in the NBA over the last 10 games. Previously, it was in the bottom 15% of the league. The Jazz jumped from grabbing 72% of defensive rebounds to 78%. This is an increase of about two rebounds per game. The Jazz were allowing 13 second-chance points per game, and over the last 10 games they’ve allowed just 9.8. This is key to a good defensive team. If you are a bottom 20% defensive rebounding team, you can’t be a good defensive team.
  • Interestingly, the Jazz have stopped offensive rebounding. The Jazz were the top offensive rebounding team in the NBA during the first 10 games and are now 26th in offensive rebounding percentage. This should parlay into a much better transition defense.   However, that has not played out. Over the last 10 games, the Jazz allowed 17.2 fast-break points per game, but in games 21-30 the Jazz were down to 13.6. In this small sample size this could be opponent-based, but it is still surprising that the Jazz have lowered their offensive rebounding percentage yet not been able to limit opponents’ fast-break points.
  • Utah’s defense hasn’t gotten remarkably better despite changing how they are playing.   The defense has improved to 25th in the NBA and is down about three points per 100 possessions. Digging deeper, it is interesting to see the changes.
  • jazz gmae 40 4 factorsThe Jazz have reduced the amount of fouls they are committing considerably. The defensive rebounding we mentioned before is in a different stratosphere. However, the Jazz are no longer forcing turnovers and their defense of the shot has not changed. The Jazz only allowed opponents to hit 33% on threes over the last 10 games, but opponents have increased the amount of threes they took over last 20 games from 17.7 over games 21-30 to 20.7 in games 31-40. (Again, this could be small sample size theater.)

Bottom line is that Jazz games 31-40 were by far the best 10 games of the season. The overall efficiency rating was 19th in the league (-1.5) in contrast to being 30th, 26th and 29th in the three previous 10-game stretches.