Editor’s note: Riley Gisseman is a writer for Salt City Hoops. This story is part of a collaboration between SCH and The Tribune that seeks to create more dialogue and community for Utah Jazz fans.
The NBA’s 3-point revolution is old news.
Between 2010-19, the world watched Stephen Curry break practically every shooting record in existence — and we’ve seen teams scramble to find answers ever since.
A lot of them have looked the same: Sure, a team can take 50 three-pointers per game by planting two spot-up shooters in the corners and having a cornerstone player create for everyone, but that results in 60% of their players going totally unused besides “spacing” the floor during a significant percentage of our games, and it depends heavily on one piece. Some look to improve by adding more shooters or another primary creator. Some look for other ways to attack the space the NBA’s revolution has created.
The Utah Jazz are surprising the NBA so far — at 12-7 heading into Wednesday’s game — precisely because they took a U-turn from the common direction of relying on one or two table-setters to start possessions. Instead, they’ve bought in on having skilled passers, shooters and decision-makers everywhere. Each player has distinct strengths and weaknesses, but new coach Will Hardy has created sets that focus on maximizing each player’s strengths.
Let’s break down a play that highlights what they’re doing so well.
1. Mitigate weaknesses
The ball starts in Mike Conley’s hands. At 35 years old, he no longer possesses the quickness to beat defenders off the dribble, and sometimes even struggles to get a step on his guy in pick-and-roll situations. When he’s coming downhill, it’s often with a defender at his hip that nags at his ability to find passing lanes to shooters and lobs to his roll man. He was still quite good at it last year, but that has more to do with his passing and decision-making ability than being placed into the correct situation. Solving for that lack of separation has been part of Hardy’s challenge.
2. Use strengths
Jarred Vanderbilt is waiting for a pass on the wing. Vanderbilt has not been known as a shooter in his young NBA career, with just three triples made coming into this season. So defenders are prone to sag off of him at the 3-point line and disregard his ability to shoot. “Vando” is also undersized, so his finishing ability is often negated in the shadow of a larger defender — often the opponent’s center.
So why then has Vando had enough success in the NBA to start in playoff games just weeks after his 23rd birthday? Vanderbilt thrives in open space — in fact, disregarding putback attempts (a size-related weakness), Vando scored nearly 65% of his attempts last season. Finding scenarios where he can use his explosiveness and finish in a downhill capacity — while simultaneously limiting his size and shooting weaknesses — turns him into a very capable offensive player.
3. Solving for both
So how do the Jazz put Vanderbilt in a position where he can be successful while also mitigating some of the issues with an older Conley?
Enter Jordan Clarkson. On this play, the Jazz use Clarkson as an on-ball screener in a way that diverts attention and gives other players an advantage.
Clarkson has an immense amount of gravity around the 3-point line because of his constant threat to pull the trigger. The Jazz can use this to their advantage in a few different ways, but here, Clarkson’s defender has to hedge, pulling him farther out on the floor. Neither Clarkson nor Conley are immediate threats downhill, so the default strategy for an opponent is to attack the pull-up three-point strength between the two players.
With both defenders above the 3-point line and worried about pull-up attempts, the Jazz flip the screen downhill to create the advantage. Conley finds Vanderbilt waiting, and they attack with a give-and-go that punishes the one defender from this 3-man action who is back in the paint. It’s a two-on-one that will accentuate the team’s strengths and mitigate weaknesses. Adams steps up to stop Conley’s signature floater, but as soon as Adams is in a position to make the impossible choice of which guy to stop in the lane, the play has already been won.
4. Read and React
The other two Jazzmen on the court for this play are Lauri Markkanen and Kelly Olynyk, but they are much more than passive observers. Olynyk psuedo-screens Markkanen’s man to keep the defenders occupied. Both players stretch the floor (both are 7-feet, too!), and you see Markkanen begin to toy with the decision on whether or not to cut from the weakside by reading his defender’s response. In the end, since his defender does not commit to sinking in to help on the Conley-Vanderbilt action, Markkanen doesn’t clog the lane and instead stays in the corner ready to shoot.
Markkanen’s strengths come into play not as a direct participant in the action, but to read and react to how the defense plays once the advantage is made. In the scenario that his defender were to commit to the helping on the drive, Markkanen would be found as a second-option roller for either Conley or Vanderbilt.
Of course, you could run this same set with Markkanen instead of Vanderbilt, but that would extinguish the advantage Utah has in the weakside; Vanderbilt has the same prowess as a roller/cutter as Markkanen but Markkanen has added value to beat his assignment both as a shooter and as a release-valve cutter.
As Hardy has said: “Cutting is a big part of how we play. In order to get 3-point shots up, you have to collapse the defense a little bit and create some pressure on the rim. Some teams are able to do that by one-on-one dribble drive, some teams do it with pick and roll, with a threat rolling down the middle of the lane. For our team with our personnel, the way that we’re playing with our spacing is cutting — that ends up helping us put some pressure on the rim. We’ve seen Lauri in that spot a good amount this year.”
The future of the revolution
When Utah visited Denver, Nuggets forward Michael Porter Jr. talked about how much fun his former teammate Jarred Vanderbilt seems to be having. “He really loves their coach over there, how he lets them play loose,” Porter said.
To bolster a team built of so many unique talents, Hardy asks each simply to play to their strengths, negate their weaknesses, and make the correct decision.
In the front office, the background behind decisions seems to be ever-delicate. Olynyk was introduced to remove rim pressure for the offense and create dish-down actions. If teams opt away from defending him with their center, Utah will attack with the pick-and-pop or handoffs. Where Bojan Bogdanovic offered a skillset already available to the team but to a higher degree than others, Olynyk removes a layer of redundancy and introduces a layer of optionality. Everything is built around using the driving lanes created by modern NBA space — and each piece answers a different “what if” question as it relates to the actions the team will be taking. It is quite literally piecing together a team from an island of misfit toys.
Teams don’t trade All-Stars and then win games, and the Jazz not only traded two stars but also overhauled 80% of their starting lineup. It would be counter-intuitive for Utah to attempt to win, the thought went. If you can’t win a championship and there are generational players to be selected at the top of the draft, why try to win at all?
But the reality is that the organization of the pieces involved has been extraordinarily tailored. The Jazz have signaled that it was always the intention to win, and to do so in a trailblazing manner. The choices made to avoid returning to on-ball dominance and instead attack space in a new way were not only correct, but are the future of spacing in the NBA.
The days of unused spot-up shooters may not yet be over; but the days of spacial revolution lie ahead, and Hardy and the Jazz could lead the way.