More than any other team in the NBA, the Jazz need their players to be open to be efficient offensively.
Think about their Western Conference competition. Golden State has five All-Stars now, three of whom are among the 10 best shotmakers ever. Houston has an all-time backcourt with James Harden and Chris Paul, and Portland has a talented one with Damian Lillard and C.J. McCollum. Oklahoma City has its elite pair, too: Russell Westbrook and Paul George. Minnesota has three: Jimmy Butler, Andrew Wiggins, and Karl-Anthony Towns all take and make a lot of contested looks. Denver features tough-shot-takers by committee: Nikola Jokic, Paul Millsap, Gary Harris, Jamal Murray and Will Barton take and make their share of contested looks.
And the West is loading up on these guys: Houston added Carmelo Anthony, and San Antonio added DeMar DeRozan to its group featuring LaMarcus Aldridge and Rudy Gay. New Orleans traded for Niko Mirotic to put next to Anthony Davis and Jrue Holiday. Oh, and the Lakers added LeBron James.
Now look at the Jazz. Who is even average at making tough shots? The list is short: Donovan Mitchell. There are skilled shooters on the Jazz, but players like Joe Ingles, Thabo Sefolosha, and Raul Neto need space to elevate. Ricky Rubio, Dante Exum, and Royce O’Neale all have been up and down with consistency in their careers. Jae Crowder and Alec Burks do take some tough shots, but they’re both bad at making them. Last year, Burks shot 28 percent and Crowder shot only 20 percent with a defender within 2-4 feet, per NBA.com.
If anything, the Jazz have dumped the quality contested shooters they did have. Before the trade deadline last year, Rodney Hood and Joe Johnson combined for nearly as many shots with defenders within four feet as the rest of the team put together.
Now, the rub.
Under conventional wisdom, if a team loses its best shotmakers, their offense should get worse. For the Jazz, it got better: they scored 1.8 points per 100 possessions more after the trade. The defense improved, and the Jazz finished with a 22-6 record after the deal.
What did decline was the Jazz’s ability to get efficient offense late in the shot clock. Before the the trade, the Jazz were one of the better teams in the league with the shot clock winding down, scoring 96.8 points per 100 possessions. After the trade, the Jazz scored only 83.7 points per 100 possessions in those last 4 seconds.
The margins for the Jazz are more unforgiving than for other teams. If the West’s other top teams stop executing, they can always throw the ball to multiple stars to score at the last moment. The Jazz rely on Mitchell, and if he’s not in the game, it can get ugly.
But nevertheless, the Jazz improved without Hood and Johnson overall. How? By taking fewer of those tough looks. After moving Hood and Johnson, the Jazz took nearly 10 percent fewer shots in late shot clock situations. And there was a significant decrease in the number of outside shots they took with a defender within four feet: by the end of the year, down to 9.1 percent. That number was the lowest total in the league by a wide margin.
|Shot clock||Defender distance|
|< 4 sec||7-4 seconds||0-2 feet||2-4 feet|
A couple of things could be going on here. First, Hood and Johnson weren’t good distributors with the ball. That probably leads to harder shots as a team. But one can also wonder if having a bailout plan made the Jazz more likely to wait until the last moment to take shots.
Regardless of the cause, the Jazz responded to losing some shooting talent by improving their shot profile through execution, eventually taking the fewest guarded shots in the league. It’s another validation of Quin Snyder’s system that the Jazz are able to score as well as they do, as the efficiency would likely crumble without those open looks.