The NBA is lucky to have the Utah Jazz. They’re out there in some weird time zone, in an area with no other major pro sports teams, playing their own strange style in front of the meanest fans in the NBA.1 They still foul the hell out of everyone,2 even though a league increasingly wise to basic rules of efficiency long ago discovered that fouls are, you know, bad. They have only recently realized the 3-point line exists and/or that three is greater than two, and in a pick-and-roll league, Utah’s UCLA-style flex offense ranks it near the bottom every season in possessions finished directly by a pick-and-roll participant.
In a copycat league, the Jazz stand out. They’re also generally successful, with only two sub-.500 seasons since 1982-83 and an offense that ranks among the top 10 in points per possession just about every year. Their front office operates with an admirable secrecy, which resulted in widespread head-scratching when the Jazz did absolutely nothing at the trade deadline — a surprising stasis, because two of their four highest-paid players, Al Jefferson and Paul Millsap, are outgoing free agents blocking the development of Derrick Favors and Enes Kanter.
That head-scratching was fair, though a bit uninformed, and it simultaneously obscured and highlighted a very basic fact about Utah: This is the most interesting franchise in the league right now, with dozens of different possibilities in front of it and a few franchise-defining mysteries to solve. And that doesn’t even factor in the ultra-exciting four-team race for the last three Western Conference playoff spots, a race that Utah, with its porous defense and by far the toughest schedule among the four combatants, is likely to lose.
That would land Utah in the lottery, a place the Jazz and the Miller family, the team’s longtime owners, would prefer to avoid. Winning matters in Utah, more than it does in most places. Snagging the no. 7 seed means something in Utah, even if it would likely result in a five-game dismissal. That desire to qualify for the postseason is one reason Utah held on to both its starting big men, according to multiple sources familiar with the team’s thinking. The Jazz weren’t proactive at the deadline, but they did engage some teams with offers and potential offers, including Toronto and Detroit,3 according to sources around the league. They came away with nothing, not even a second-round pick or a trade exception, in part because they just couldn’t find a deal that brought back a truly useful asset without an unfavorable long-term contract attached.
The Jazz could have constructed a deal in which they dumped either Jefferson or Millsap for a token second-round pick. But remember: That is not the kind of in-season downgrade on which the Miller family has historically signed off, and Houston the day before the deadline snagged a very good second-round pick from Phoenix in exchange for a bench player in Marcus Morris. Utah simply would not give up a starter in exchange for the equivalent of Marcus Morris’s trade return.
The Jazz probably weren’t aggressive enough shopping Jefferson and (especially) Millsap ahead of last spring’s draft, when multiple league sources insist they could have easily snagged a high first-round pick in that draft for Millsap. But it’s unclear if that pick would have brought an unwanted contract along with it, and given the intriguing play of Andre Drummond and Terrence Ross, it’s easy to forget that most league executives weren’t very excited about picks outside the top six or seven guys.
Still, if Utah could have snared a first-round pick in June, it should have. That it stood pat shines a light on three things:
• The impact of the new collective bargaining agreement. Utah, like a lot of teams, will not hamstring itself to a player performing below his dollar amount. That may be too passive a stance for a team that could have up to $30 million in cap space this summer, but that figure does not include cap holds for Jefferson and Millsap (which will eat up about $28 million of that space), and Utah has to plan for several big raises for its young players. Utah is betting it can sign and trade one of the Jefferson-Millsap duo, even though the new CBA, plus the sheer number of teams with lots of cap space, will cool that market a bit. But there are teams in that sweet spot between the cap and the tax that will come for Millsap.
• Utah’s willingness to slide back into the lottery, and its patience with young players. Dennis Lindsey is Utah’s new GM, fresh from San Antonio (and Houston before that), which means things will start changing slowly in Utah. Among those changes: Multiple league sources who dealt with Utah ahead of the deadline insist the Jazz presented themselves as willing to take a step back next season and snag a solid pick in a loaded 2014 draft. That is in part Lindsey’s influence, those sources say. And while that runs counter to the Jazz’s desire to make the playoffs this season, this roster was already set when Lindsey arrived over the summer, and new front offices are sometimes cautious in flexing their muscles.
In other words, the Jazz aren’t going to cry if they lose Millsap or Jefferson for nothing in July. It’s an NBA cliché that losing an asset for nothing is bad, and that cliché is generally true; the Nuggets didn’t really want Nene, but they re-signed him anyway at a price they knew could move.
But a lot of GMs don’t view this as a universal rule, and it appears Utah is in this camp. Several front-office folks outside Utah framed the issue this way: Jefferson and Millsap are salary slots who also take a certain number of minutes. Letting one walk for “nothing” wouldn’t really net Utah nothing; rather, it would open up both salary and minutes Utah could fill with Favors and Kanter, and down the line with another signing — this summer or next. This line of reasoning holds special value for teams under the cap, because they can actually sign any players they can attract on the open market. Utah losing Millsap without replacement compensation is not the same as capped-out Chicago losing Omer Asik without replacement compensation.
Keeping one of Millsap/Jefferson, by far the likeliest outcome, also gives Utah more flexibility on the trade market going forward in some ways. Millsap and Jefferson both just turned 28, meaning they are still in their primes. Keeping one allows Utah to be more comfortable dangling Kanter or Favors as the key component of a true blockbuster deal, should one ever come up. It’s axiomatic that Utah must make way for the young guys, but the Jazz don’t necessarily subscribe to that axiom. Kanter and Favors should both be very good players, and they are already a defensive upgrade over Jefferson/Millsap. Kanter can get turned around a bit when helping and rotating on defense, but he’s active, and he’s showing more polish as a varied offensive threat — including as an artful slipper of screens. See here:
Favors is already a defensive wrecker whose offense has stalled out a bit — understandable, because he’s only 21. He’s still awkward in traffic and in the post, and though both he and Kanter have flashed useful midrange shots, neither jumper has been anything close to consistent, and spacing can be an issue when they share the floor.
• Utah wants a point guard. If the Jazz are going to take a poisonous salary attached to something they really want, that prize is going to be a lead ball handler. Had they found one, perhaps they’d have done something. But they didn’t. The Millsap–for–Eric Bledsoe talks never got serious, per three sources close to the (non-)talks, and the trade market wasn’t teeming with quality point guards beyond Bledsoe — especially since Utah can wait to spend in the offseason.
But finding one will be a challenge. The free-agent market for point guards both this summer and in the summer of 2014 is ugly. The top-tier free agents, and even some of the second-tier guys, are restricted. Utah is either going to have to sign a decent placeholder unrestricted guy (Jose Calderon, Beno Udrih, old frenemy Devin Harris, et al.), make a home-run offer for a restricted free agent in line for a big deal (Jeff Teague, Brandon Jennings, Bledsoe next summer), or make a slightly above-market offer to a flawed restricted free agent with a stagnant game and an unclear positional future (Evan Turner, Tyreke Evans, Darren Collison, et al.).
Given those options, expect Utah to continue to search the trade market for available point guards.
The point guard it finds, even more than the choice between Jefferson and Millsap, will say a lot about those defining franchise questions: What style does Utah want to play on offense? Are they really still committed to Jerry Sloan’s flex-style system? And is Tyrone Corbin the right coach for that style — or any style?
Utah is a very bad defensive team, and it’s tempting to blame all of that on Jefferson. He’s slow and has an astoundingly high failure rate when it comes to containing point guards on pick-and-rolls, to the point that Utah goes to crazy lengths to avoid having him help at all. This is the main reason Utah would be better served picking Millsap as a long-term piece over Jefferson. Millsap isn’t a great defender either, and he’s at a length disadvantage against skilled power forwards. But he’s a steals machine with quick, smart feet and a rounded offensive game, and he’ll likely earn less than Jefferson going forward.
The arguments for Jefferson:
• He’s a low-turnover offensive centerpiece who can draw endless double-teams to his home on the left block, and he has vastly improved his passing in Utah’s system.
• He’s a “real center.”
You’d be surprised how often you hear that last one around the league, and how often it’s followed by: “I love Favors, but he’s not a real center.” This is another one of those foundational questions: Is Favors a “real center”? And should Utah care? Favors is 6-foot-10 with a 7-foot-4 wingspan — the exact dimensions of Anthony Davis, only with more bulk. Kanter is an inch taller with a slightly shorter wingspan. One of them should be able to play center on most nights, and they can both envelop power forwards too big for Millsap.
We have almost a decade of evidence now that Jefferson’s failings on defense outweigh his very real value on offense. His teams have generally been worse with him on the floor than with him on the bench, and that’s been true on the defensive end in almost every season in which he’s played meaningful minutes, per NBA.com and 82games.com. Let’s be clear: He is a valuable offensive player, even though he shoots just 49 percent, rarely gets to the line, and does little out of the pick-and-roll. There’s value in an automatic double-team who never turns it over, and Jefferson has been one of the league’s best crunch-time scorers for years. This is one reason I suspect Utah has used the Jefferson-Favors pair much more in the last two seasons than Millsap-Favors: Could Jefferson be part of a good defensive team if the other big man is a real game-changer on that end?
The results are unclear. Utah was very stingy last season with Jefferson-Favors, but it has been a disaster with that duo this season, surrendering points at a rate that would rank dead last by a mile. Given the longer-term trend of Jefferson’s teams playing sieve-like defense,4 I’d be in no rush to bring him back at a high cost.
The team is probably already playing Jefferson too much, which brings us back to Corbin. Here’s a remarkable thing: Utah’s five most-used lineups this season have been outscored. Ditto for 17 of its 18 most commonly used three-man groups, and usually by margins much larger than Utah’s overall negative scoring margin.
Only two of the 80 teams that have qualified for the playoffs in the last five years have done so with their top five lineups being outscored: the 2008-09 Bulls, and … last year’s Jazz. This is very strong evidence that Corbin is basically just playing the wrong guys and wrong combinations in the wrong minutes distribution. His better defenders and all-around guys — Favors, Kanter, DeMarre Carroll, Gordon Hayward, et al. — deserve a larger chunk of the time going to Jefferson, Mo Williams (now back from injury), and others. Lineup data can be pretty noisy over short sample sizes, but the noise is getting really loud at this point.
There’s also the fact that Utah’s defense plays with a weird lack of discipline and unclear, unproductive rules. That’s partly on Corbin. Jefferson and Millsap are both slow, but Corbin’s de facto strategy for defending the high pick-and-roll — the play that kills the Jazz5 — is to have the big man defending the screener jump out so that his body is positioned perpendicular to the baseline, as Jefferson does here in failing to prevent Brandon Jennings from turning the corner:
Or here, as Damian Lillard turns the corner around a blurry Big Al on his way to a dunk:
The goal is to block the opposing point guard for a split second while giving Utah’s point guard a clear lane to get around the screen. (Smart point guards who know that Jefferson will slide out behind the pick can fool him by faking a dribble toward the screen, watching Big Al make that slide, and then calmly driving away from the screen, where there is suddenly no defense in sight.) A lot of very good defensive teams use this strategy; this is how David West defends pick-and-rolls for the Pacers.
But it just doesn’t work for Utah, and especially for Jefferson. It takes Utah’s bigs very far from the hoop, and any minuscule screw-up in timing and positioning results in a fatal collision between the big man and point guard; in the below photo, Randy Foye is about to collide with Millsap, freeing Klay Thompson for an easy layup over Jefferson’s slow help under the rim:
The Jazz would probably be better off having their big men drop back toward the foul line more against pick-and-rolls, as the Bulls do. Utah does go this route sometimes, and when it does, point guards often just build a head of steam and cross over Jefferson or whatever other non-Favors big is defending the play.
And that’s the thing: There are no clear, consistent rules to Utah’s defense. Sometimes the big men drop back. Sometimes they stick to the screener, allowing the point guard to blow by them, a stance that indicates they expect help to come from behind them. But there are possessions on which that notion appears to make little sense. Here’s a Mario Chalmers pick-and-roll in which Jefferson decides to stick to the screener (Udonis Haslem), allowing Chalmers to get into the lane.
Chalmers is going to his left, meaning the help really should come from the weakside corner — from Foye (no. 8). But Chalmers is going too fast for Foye to cover all that ground, which leaves the unappealing option of helping off either LeBron James or Chris Bosh on the strong side. That is death.
The Jazz’s inability to contain pick-and-roll ball handlers opens up shots everywhere — in the lane, from the corners, and from elsewhere around the arc. Utah opponents get a lot of the highest-value shots in the game.6
The Jazz have a weird tendency to rotate off shooters in the corners nearest the ball handler — a huge no-no on smarter teams. Here’s Marvin Williams abandoning Paul George in the near corner, allowing an open 3:
And here’s Hayward leaving Alonzo Gee alone for an easy 3:
They routinely fail to send side pick-and-rolls toward the baseline, often having the man defending the ball handler position himself in a passive, straight-up stance instead of cutting off the path to the pick — and to the middle, where Kevin Martin is about to get here, creating an open 3 elsewhere:
And god forbid the Jazz face a team with a post-up threat who requires extra attention. The team is fine sending help to the post, but its recovery is putrid, with multiple defenders rotating toward the same shooter, guys leaving the player “one pass away” wide-open, and a general tendency toward total breakdowns:
Not all of this is on Corbin, obviously. The Jazz have below-average defensive personnel, and young players are notoriously slow to grasp the rules of complex NBA defense. And bad defensive teams are often better off mixing up their base defensive strategies to at least introduce some unpredictability. But the Jazz’s general lack of coherence is alarming and raises questions about Corbin’s future after next season, when his contract is up. Not every team can be as maniacally rule-bound as Chicago, but when teams are prone to confusing breakdowns over a long period, it’s time to ask some serious questions.
But those same questions make Utah exciting. A coaching change might mark a wholesale change in on-court style, which would in turn influence the massive decisions Utah has coming in the next two years. They won’t reveal much until they actually make one of those decisions — until then, keep an eye on the Jazz.
10 Things I Like and Don’t Like
1. The Sleeves in Golden State
I gave it multiple games before a first judgment, and after that waiting period, I’m surprised to say I like them. It might be that Golden State has only worn them at home, and in bright yellow; I’m a fan of the yellow/gold jersey look in general, and the sleeves just provide more of a color scheme I find pleasing. I might hate them if they wore them on the road, in blue, but we haven’t seen that yet.
But I find nothing inherently objectionable about the sleeves. I’m as surprised as you are. Also: Andrew Bogut sporting this jersey and a Fu Manchu on Friday was almost too much.
2. The Hard Hedge in Detroit
The Pistons often have Greg Monroe and Jason Maxiell jump far out on pick-and-roll ball handlers, with Maxiell especially using the same tactic Jefferson favors in Utah. (Monroe mixes it up a bit more.) Cutting off the opposing point guard is important, and this strategy at least gets Monroe moving with energy. But covering ground isn’t Monroe’s strong point, and he’s prone to confusion when he’s recovering back toward the paint and has to make a snap decision about whether to find his original man — now rolling to the basket — or switch onto the other big.
It just feels like a more conservative strategy might work better, even if it involves surrendering some open midrange jumpers.
3. Antawn Jamison, Guarding Small Forwards
I get the reasoning, but it still makes me queasy, especially when the Lakers — looking good on defense for a change against Chicago on Sunday — run with the Jamison–Dwight Howard–Metta World Peace trio, which features a natural wing defender in World Peace. But coach Mike D’Antoni likes World Peace guarding power forwards, and that leaves Jamison to chase around wings — something that at least takes Jamison away from the hoop so that there is a step or two between his defense and a dunk.
But smart teams will exploit this by running Jamison around off-ball picks and using point guard/small forward pick-and-rolls to get him involved in the main action.
4. The Game of Inches in Memphis
The Grizz have scored at a top-10 rate since the Rudy Gay trade, a huge (early) victory for a team whose offense with Gay just wasn’t good enough to win a title. The real test comes now, with a four-game road trip and a much harder closing schedule, but the early signs are good. Tayshaun Prince might not stretch the defense to the 3-point line, but he moves both himself and the ball around in smart ways, allowing Memphis to generate tiny slivers of space it needs to breathe inside the 3-point line. I mean, look how small the margin for error is on all these quick-hitting interior passes that lead to a semi-open Prince look:
The spacing is probably too tight to vault Memphis into title contention, but the smart movement — and more Marc Gasol at the elbows — has been fun to watch.
5. DeMarcus Cousins, Ejected Again
If Gasol is the guy I’d most want as my teammate, Cousins is last on that list. He’s got obvious talent, but he’s been a flat-footed minus on defense to date, and he’s just a pouting, violent, insufferable mess on the court who loudly blames his teammates for every defensive possession he plays a part in screwing up. I’d want no part of giving this guy a eight-figure annual salary; he hasn’t shown nearly enough to merit one.
6. The Binary Reaction to DeAndre Jordan’s Epic Dunk
Like the rest of the NBA world, I tweeted something about Jordan’s violent lob smash Sunday night. And like the rest of the NBA world, I found my timeline littered with remarks about how sad/stupid/TERRIBLE it was that the world mocks Brandon Knight for actually trying to challenge a dunk. Woe for our declining culture and appreciation of basketball.
Nonsense. It may shock some folks, but people are capable of holding multiple thoughts at once on the same topic — of approaching things with nuance. Jermaine O’Neal in his prime was one of my favorite defenders to watch precisely because he challenged damn near every dunk attempt right at the rim. You do that, you’re going on a few posters and starring in a few YouTube clips.
It’s possible to joke about Knight’s misfortune, marvel at Jordan’s dunk, and feel sympathy and even admiration for Knight — all at the same time!
7. Nic Batum’s Zigzaggy Versatility
Batum has been reluctant at times to shoot because of some wrist pain, but he continues to mature into a smart, creative off-ball cutter. He uses a sort of off-ball Euro-Step to change directions on cuts, and he’s always making smart decisions like this from a game last week against Charlotte:
The play was designed for Batum to run off LaMarcus Aldridge’s pick and into the middle, but as soon as Batum saw his man, Michael Kidd-Gilchrist, try to jump that action early by darting toward the paint, Batum cut off the initial play and faded behind the pick and into the corner for a potential open 3 that also drew the attention of Aldridge’s man. Gorgeous.
8. The Chris Paul Vanishing Commercial
Not getting its due because of the justified love for the Cliff Paul ads. Watching Mike Conley shadow an invisible ball handler somehow highlights how much a defender has to shift around even when a play isn’t yet going anywhere.
9. The Shaun Livingston–Luke Walton Give-and-Go
This is somehow a thing that is happening regularly in Cleveland, and it is splendid:
Walton is clearly the winner of the 2013 “I Can’t Believe He’s This Relevant” Award. Congrats.
10. Brian Scalabrine, Announcer
Amid a morass of unlistenable League Pass homerism, a few nonpartisan but still excitable pros stand out. Scalabrine, improbably, is already among them, and it is a treat when he substitutes for the King of Homers (Tommy Heinsohn) on Boston broadcasts. Scalabrine announced his intention to bring serious TV analysis during last year’s playoffs, when at a press conference during the Boston-Philly series he used his temporary perch as a TV reporter to ask about a specific Boston defensive tactic. It was the most enlightening press conference question of the spring, and White Mamba has been killing it since. (Negative points, though, for comparing Jeff Green to James Worthy in a preseason game.)