Three thoughts on the Utah Jazz’s 109-101 win over the Houston Rockets from Salt Lake Tribune Jazz beat writer Andy Larsen.
1. Good Jazz defense or bad Rockets offense?
I don’t want to take anything away from the 4-1 Jazz.
But when I was trying to figure out why the Jazz won this game, I first looked at the offensive and defensive ratings. The Jazz’s offensive rating was a below-average 104, while their defensive rating was an excellent 95.
Was their defense that excellent? I think there were some bright moments, but in large part, it was a really young Rockets team making some really poor decisions with the ball.
We’ll start with the good Jazz defense parts. I was impressed with this Collin Sexton play, for example: he stayed attached through the screen, then when Kelly Olynyk helped, Sexton swapped to the middle to prevent the dump-off pass. This is good pick-and-roll defense!
But, goodness, do the Rockets take some bad shots. Here’s a short compendium of shots where I said on press row “that’s the worst shot I’ve ever seen” — perhaps a bit dramatic, but, yeah, they have a quick trigger in the worst way.
Also, elite defensive performances don’t usually have a team commit 28 fouls in a game, like the Jazz did tonight.
Still, I guess you’ll take the ugly wins — I thought Wednesday’s game certainly qualified.
2. Vanderbilt’s foul trouble
Jarred Vanderbilt has gotten 6, 5, 5, 4, and 6 fouls in his first five games with the Jazz. He’s probably cost himself an accumulated 40 minutes of playing time as a result. That’s not the only cost of this, though: obviously, fouls put the opponents at the free-throw line, and increment the bonus count, making it harder for the rest of his team to play defense, crash the glass, and so on.
Do I think it’s a long-term issue? Eh, not really. He is currently averaging 7.7 fouls per 36 minutes — they don’t let you get that many fouls — but he doesn’t have a history of fouling that much in his career.
I thought Will Hardy had it right:
“It’s not his physicality, it’s not his activity, it’s two or three a game that are just unnecessary. I think his fourth was pushing someone in the back 16 feet from the basket on an offensive rebound that he really wasn’t even going for.”
“I think it’s just trying to, again, find ways to understand the moment of the game, understand his own foul situation, to just try to keep away from some of those cheap ones. You know, I never want Vando to play with any less energy or force or aggressiveness, because that’s what makes him such a special player.
You don’t want to rob Vanderbilt of his inherent Vando-ness, the honestly Dennis Rodman-esque ability to know where a ball is going to be and get there before everyone else. Many of his fouls are still unwise, even in that context.
Vanderbilt, meanwhile, had his own explanation.
“I think they’ve called it a lot tighter this year. I’ve kind of got to work through it, and try to limit the ones that I can.”
Tonight’s game had a ton of fouls called, for sure, but I don’t think they’ve called it tighter this year in general. Still, the second part of the sentence speaks to what he needs to do, and given this hasn’t been a historical problem for him, I’m not too concerned.
3. The offensive rebound strategy
Here’s the graph of NBA teams’ offensive rebounding percentage over the last 20 years.
There used to be a lot more offensive rebounds. What changed? Teams started putting fewer resources at crashing the glass. The success of Doc Rivers and Gregg Popovich’s teams for a decade, teams that prioritized transition defense over offensive rebounding, inspired a wave of copycat teams doing the same thing.
Interestingly, this was despite the analytics essentially telling teams to crash the boards more — almost as much as possible.
I remember attending the Sloan Sports Analytics Conference in 2013, and reading this terrific paper called “To Crash or Not To Crash.” The MIT team analyzed how effective teams were at getting the offensive rebound by the number of players attacking the glass, and then analyzed how much better teams were at transition defense by not having them crash.
Their conclusion was simple: “Our results suggest that focusing on the offensive rebound immediately after the shot goes up seems to trump the gain a team gets with a head start on getting back.”
The teams now seem to be catching up to the analytics, and more teams are crashing more offensive players to the glass. Quin Snyder chose to send a whopping two players to attack the boards in the 2020-21 season, to great effect.
But I was still stunned about what Hardy said about the issue tonight:
“Yeah, I’m comfortable crashing as many guys are willing to go.”
“Okay, we’re trying to make it a point of emphasis for our group to attack the offensive glass. I think from a coaching standpoint, the only thing that kind of drives you crazy is when guys do neither, they don’t go to the glass nor sprint back. It’s one or the other. But if everybody’s committed to going to the offensive glass? Go for it.”
It’s working for the Jazz, though: they’re first in the league in offensive rebounds per game right now, and fourth in second-chance points. It’s been a big part of their success.
This kind of ebb and flow makes analyzing basketball especially interesting. A non-center offensive-rebound specialist like Vanderbilt might be more valuable in the years to come, because he’ll be more and more encouraged to do his thing. Even with the foul trouble, for example, he’s having his best rebounding season ever.
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