Throughout this season, I’ve said that the best way to look at the Jazz is in 10- or 20-game stretches. Last night, the Jazz played their 60th game of the season, completing the sixth 10-game stretch. Over the last 40 games the Jazz are 17-23 and far better than they were in the opening 20 games of the season.
Here’s how the Jazz rank offensively and defensively in the NBA over the six 10-game stretches:
The Jazz have increased their 3-point shooting, but (as the graph below shows) they have not increased their accuracy. However, even with this drop in shooting percentage, the Jazz are still getting the same amount of points per shot from 2s and 3s. The Jazz are receiving .99 points per shot on 3-pointers and .99 points per shot off their 49.7% 2-pointer shooting.
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.
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.
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.
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.
This is the next step for Kanter in his third year in the NBA: playing head-to-head with first-line big men.