Wednesday, January 18, 2012

And All That Jazz

Quick, who is sitting 2nd in the Western Conference? Spurs? Lakers? Nuggets? None of the above. It is the Utah Jazz who would be proud owners of home court advantage in a first round series if the season ended today. This is at the very least weird. Utah looked to be in some form of rebuilding mode after Jerry Sloan left and they shipped their franchise player Deron Williams out to New Jersey for a relatively unproven Derrick Favors. Couple that with the high draft picks they have had recently and you have a blueprint for a contender down the road.

Yet, the Jazz sit in 2nd place. Their point differential is only +2.2, behind 6 other teams, and John Hollinger's Power Rankings also have them trailing 6 Western Conference teams. In fact, if you look at most team statistics you'll find that Utah is pretty much average at almost everything. Not great, not terrible, just average. There are just a couple things that stand out and it completely revolves around the bigs.

Utah doesn't turn the ball over. Just a shade under 23 percent of their possessions end up in turnovers. This puts them at 5th best in the league. It is a surprising fact considering the amount of minutes played by the young guys like Burks, Hayward, and Favors. Burks is the biggest surprise as rookies tend to suffer the most in terms of turnovers when jumping to the league. Their pace also isn't overly sluggish, which can aid turnover rates. Maybe point guard Devin Harris greatly slashed his turnover rate? False, in fact it is the highest of his career.

Instead it is Al Jefferson and Paul Millsap who both have turnover rates hovering around 6.5. Considering these guys account for 45% of possession used in Utah, we can see why the Jazz are holding onto the ball. Ever since Jefferson left the rapid pace of Minnesota he has barely turned the ball over and Millsap has further brought down his rate. While Utah's True Shooting % isn't anything to write home about, the more possessions with which they can produce shots, the better.

Opponent Shot Selection
Utah gives up the 3rd fewest percentage of shots at the rim. The Jazz's opposition get only about 20 shots there per game and finish only 60.1% of them (league average is 63%). By keeping the opponents away from the rim, Utah has taken away some of the best shots in the game. This is due in large part to the presence of Jefferson. He is close to his career high in blocked shots per game, while Favors sends back over 1 shot per game. Even Kanter has even joined the party, averaging 0.5 blocks per game despite only playing about 14 minutes per contest. Millsap is the odd man out blocks-wise, but while he is not a high flyer, his mobility and solid body can keep opposing 4's from getting to the rim.

By keeping opponents from shooting at the rim, the Jazz have forced more attempts from 3-9 feet than any other team in basketball. It might sound easy to hit a shot from 3 to 9 feet, but the NBA average shooting percentage from this distance is 37.3%. Utah is winning the battle of feet on the inside and it is leading to less efficient shots for its opponents.

I don't see Utah lasting long at number 2 in the west. In fact, I find it unlikely they make the playoffs. They play Raja Bell far too much and are a below average offensive team. But they've clearly found a decent game plan to hang around despite having less developed talent than other Western Conference contenders.

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