Three thoughts on the Utah Jazz’s 106-104 win over the Philadelphia 76ers from Salt Lake Tribune Jazz beat writer Andy Larsen.
1. Jazz defend huge starting Sixers frontcourt extremely well
This, on paper, was a size mismatch. At the beginning of the game, 6-foot-4 Royce O’Neale was guarding 6-9.5 Ben Simmons, 6-0 Mike Conley was guarding 6-5 Josh Richardson, 6-1 Donovan Mitchell was guarding 6-7.5 Tobias Harris, and 6-8 Bojan Bogdanovic was guarding 6-9.25 Al Horford. The Jazz did have the advantage at center: 7-1 Rudy Gobert against 6-11.75 Joel Embiid.
Aren’t the new heights, measured without shoes, fun?
But the Jazz did a pretty good job limiting the Sixers’ despite the size issues. The difficulties did creep up in one category: free throws. The Sixers went to the line 34 times tonight; Embiid had 18 of those. The Jazz had troubles dealing with him in particular.
Everywhere else? The Jazz did really nicely. Mitchell guarded Tobias Harris well, using his chest to stop Harris post-ups:
And Bogdanovic was even better on Horford, one of the best offensive bigs in the Eastern Conference. Horford went to the post repeatedly on the smaller Bogdanovic, but Bogey stood his ground.
Honestly, this is why teams don’t really post up anymore. The Sixers did it 23 times tonight, while the Jazz only went to that well three times, when Gobert had a mismatch down low in transition. But teams have looked at it, and it’s just not that efficient. Like, the Sixers are the biggest team in the league, and probably have the second-best post-up threats besides the Lakers’ LeBron James and Anthony Davis — and they’re still only averaging 0.88 points per possession when they go to that well.
(Interestingly, the Sixers have had even less success at pick and rolls and isolations, so maybe in their case, it’s a good call. Check this out:
They’re good at cuts, spot-ups, and plays off screens. So what kind of plays would you run if you were Brett Brown?)
2. Despite that lack of size, Jazz win rebounding battle
And after two games where it seemed they couldn’t rebound at all, the Jazz dominated the rebounding battle against the league’s best rebounding team so far. Seriously, coming into tonight, the Sixers were the best team at both offensive and defensive rebounding, and the Jazz not only kept them quiet with seven offensive rebounds, they got 14 of their own.
How? I’d attribute the defensive glass success to A) a Jazz emphasis on the matter and B) that Embiid looked very tired.
I went back and watched every defensive rebound the Jazz had Wednesday night, and I’ll be honest: something like 80% of them were uncontested. Embiid was hanging around the perimeter a lot tonight, and with him that far away, there were a lot of plays where he didn’t make an impact.
Horford tried to more frequently, but the Jazz did a very good job of boxing him out. Look how early Joe Ingles boxes out Horford here; it’s like five seconds before the shot even goes up.
Conley — who said that he would fine himself $100 for every boxout he missed — also helped by getting some loose balls on plays that otherwise would have been Sixer rebounds.
The rebounding deficiency was a talking point for the Sixers after the game. “That’s unacceptable, especially because we are so huge. Especially the starting lineup, we should be able to dominate the glass every single night.” And of course, had the Jazz gotten one fewer rebound, they may have lost the game.
The turns, they have tabled.
3. Rudy Gobert’s screen assists
This Triple Team point is dedicated to Jazz head coach Quin Snyder, who went on a diatribe (his word, not mine!) about Gobert’s screen assists ahead of the Sacramento Kings game Friday.
Why? Well, Gobert had 17 screen assists in the previous game against the Clippers. Tonight, he had 14.
Screen assists are easy to explain: if Gobert sets a screen that immediately leads to an open basket for his teammate, it’s a screen assist. What is less intuitive is how many screen assists is a lot of screen assists.
I am here to tell you that both 17 and 14 are examples of a lot of screen assists. The Jazz are second in the NBA in accumulating 13.1 screen assists per game, behind the Brooklyn Nets, who average 13.3 per game. The average team overall gets about nine screen assists per game.
Rudy Gobert averages 8.6 per game. That leads the NBA, and by no small margin: second place belongs to Domantas Sabonis, who averages 5.5 per game. Gobert, in other words, is the Bob Beamon of screen assists.
Now, a more important question: are screen assists a good stat? I think they’re useful in terms of how many screens a player sets — Gobert has typically led the league in this too — as well as a mildly effective proxy for how good those screens are.
But I do think it’s significantly flawed: perhaps the best way to accrue screen assists is to have a player use the screen and then hit a jumper. Who that player is will go a long way to determining how many screen assists a player gets — Mitchell has been great at midrange jumpers this year, so Gobert’s numbers have also been great. A drive all the way to the rim might result in a foul, and therefore no screen assist. A solid screen which forces the defense to switch wouldn’t likely result in a screen assist. A screen that forces the defense to rotate, which results in an open kick-out three: no screen assist.
Instead, we probably want some other useful screening metric, like “points after X player sets a screen” compared to the rest of the league. Or maybe you could use tracking data to find out just how much separation a player gets on average when using a screen. You’d also probably want to track how many offensive fouls a player gets on moving screens, and whether or not the advantage gained is worthwhile.
I do think that once we figure the value of screening out, it’s going to be bigger than we think. I always think of baseball’s discovery process with catcher defense: early in baseball’s statistical revolution, many thought catcher defense was essentially non-existent, and they didn’t understand why managers kept starting these terrible-hitting catchers behind the plate. Eventually, they figured out that how catchers framed pitches had much more importance than originally thought; they just didn’t have the pitch-by-pitch location data to measure it. Once they did, pitch framing became a recognized skill.
Screen assists nod towards something that we should consider an important part of the game. Many of the problems with screen assists are also a problem with normal assists, and we rarely rail against those. So let’s cautiously embrace the screen assist as a novel, but flawed, metric that can tell us a little bit, not a lot.