All NBA teams are in a constant struggle to build themselves into perennial title contenders with a chance to eventually win it all. Given how talent is distributed in the NBA and that you almost certainly need one of the 7-8 best players to win a championship, there really are only two types of teams – teams who have LeBron James, James Harden, Stephen Curry or Anthony Davis… and teams who don’t.
In the hierarchy of the latter group, the Utah Jazz are now in as good a position as anybody going forward. Though they don’t have a single player even close to being in the Top 10 discussion, or anyone who’s a lock to be there anytime soon, the Jazz are deep and have high-level talent at every position. And at each of those positions they have players who project to be at the very least decent starting caliber players in the future. Unlike other young teams in a similar situation – such as the Magic, Pistons or the Timberwolves – the Jazz have already played very well for an extended period of time.
You’re unlikely to ever see a team have a better second half compared to what they did in the first half as the Utah Jazz did in 2014-15 without any significant improvement to the roster. Through their first 53 games until the All-Star break, Utah posted a 19-34 record. After trading Enes Kanter for future assets (mainly Tibor Pleiss and a 2017 first-round draft pick), the Jazz won 19 of their last 29 games. Their net rating jumped from -3.1 to 6.9. A leap from the 21st to the 4th best mark in the NBA. The Hawks, Rockets, Grizzlies and Bulls all behind them.
A team’s net rating is the difference between points scored and allowed on a per 100 possessions basis, and when predicting future performance, net rating is actually a better indicator than a team’s record. A net rating of 6.9 is equivalent to a 56-win team, and the Jazz managed to keep that pace for over a third of the season.
The most impressive part of what the Jazz did was on the defensive end, where they allowed only 94.8 points per 100 possessions, a mark that blew away Golden State’s No.1 ranked defense for the season. The subtraction of Kanter, who is by all accounts the worst defensive big in the NBA, in conjunction with increased minutes for Rudy Gobert transformed Utah’s defense completely.
In fact, when Kanter was on the court the Jazz allowed 108.0 points per 100 possessions compared to only 94.7 points post All-Star break with Gobert on the floor – a difference of 13.3 points. To put that in perspective, the difference between the Warriors’ No. 1 defense and the 30th ranked Timberwolves was only 11.4 points, and the Jazz defense would have ranked by all measures as one of the three best defenses this century.
The chart above shows a team’s average scoring margin adjusted to the strength of schedule they played compared to ‘expected playoff wins’. The most important part is the white line, which shows the average net rating of teams that won a certain number of playoff games based on the past four seasons of data. In simple terms, all you have to know is that every time your scoring margin increases by one point, you’re likely to win two more playoff games than before. The idea in the playoffs is of course to get to 16 wins and an NBA title and when you outscore opponents by 8 or more points, you’re extremely likely to get there. This projection model puts the post All-Star Jazz comfortably in the “Conference Finals” range.
These numbers will have hopefully convinced you that something interesting is happening in Utah, even if you’re not sure how all of this translates into the future. Dante Exum, after all, tore his left ACL during the summer and winning is probably easier when you’re out of the playoff picture and playing without pressure.
Certainly, the Exum injury doesn’t help, although it could be argued that Exum was one of the worst starting players in the league last season. ESPN’s Real Plus-Minus ranked him as the 47th best point guard, and Exum shot only 31.4 percent on three-pointers despite taking them at a Korver-esque rate (in terms of percent of field goal attempts that are three-pointers). On the other hand Exum is big, moves well laterally on defense, cuts very well and understands how to move in the offense. Exum is a low-usage player, using up only 13.8 percent of his team’s offensive possessions while on the court, a very low number for a point guard.
But that’s okay, since it leaves the bulk of the offensive possessions to Gordon Hayward and Derrick Favors, both incredibly efficient offensive players. The biggest minus from Exum’s injury probably comes from being forced to give more playing time to Trey Burke, who has been a terribly inefficient player in his career so far. Burke has only shot 37.4 percent from the floor in the NBA and he ranked as the worst isolation player in the league, going only 5-of-46 on those types of plays last season per the Synergy stats on NBA.com.
The Jazz did very well with Burke on the floor, however, and in their frontcourt Utah has three players who could very well make an All-Star team one day – including Gobert, probably the frontrunner for Defensive Player of the Year. The French center fundamentally changes all offensive possessions as teams are scared to death to come into the paint against him. With Gobert near the rim, opponents only shot 40.4 percent at the rim, the best mark in the NBA among all big men. Gobert isn’t just a shot blocker, by the way. He also has great instincts and advanced understanding of angles and timing for a young player. Gobert averaged only 2.9 fouls per 36 minutes last season, a number unheard of for a young defensive player.
Hayward and Favors have both blossomed into two-way stars, and perhaps the most underrated part of Utah’s turnaround has been head coach Quin Snyder.
Snyder introduced a motion-based offense which requires all five players to know how to cut, pass and read the defense. Understanding the intricacies of the offense took some time, and the Jazz still have a long way to go, but all the ingredients are there. Just take a look at this beautiful set that starts off with a double screen that flows into horns, which then immediately turns into a dribble pitch where Hayward is screened in the corner for a rhythm jumper.
This is great stuff! Both Hayward and Favors benefit tremendously from the ball movement, allowing them to attack the defense on the move and in favorable situations. It’s no accident that both produced were in the high-fifties in True Shooting percentage, solid marks for high-usage players.
If Utah’s top players stay healthy, the roadmap to success seems clear – continue to play defense at an elite level, and slowly build an offense that can hopefully be in the top half by the end of the year. That’s a model the Grizzlies, Pacers and Bulls have worked to multiple 50-win seasons recently.
Overall, the Jazz have done a brilliant job with their rebuild, jumpstarted by the Deron Williams trade for Favors, picks that turned into Burke and Pleiss, and another first rounder yet to know. For a young team, success is taking tangible steps forward every day, something the Utah has done exceedingly well so far.
And there’s no reason to expect the trend to stop.
Mika Honkasalo is an NBA writer, geek, chart maker and most of all fan. He studies computer science and works in software development and business analytics. His writing can be found at Nylon Calculus and Vantage Sports, and you can find him on Twitter @mhonkasalo.