Drinking the Kool-Aid, Carefully

Much has been written, and much more will be said about what Al Jefferson brings to the Jazz. YouTube videos have been posted. Stats have been analyzed. Opinions opined, and even his laugh has received judgement (for what it's worth, his laugh is really awesome).

I wanted to write something a little bit different. I want to write about what kind of player he is and what we needs to happen for it to work out well. I want to point out what we fans should look for this season to determine whether Al fits or not.

So let's first get into:

Who the guy is

He's like Kevin McHale!!!!!

That, of course, has been one of the most frequent descriptions. 

And looking at the vids, it's a great way to describe it. Low post moves up the wazoo. Pivots, back-pivots, pump-fakes, reverses—it's all there. Not as effectively as McHale yet, but still it's there. And it's something pretty rare to see—remember that Dwight Howard hasn't yet developed 1 post move (of course Howard's mentor is Ewing, so it's not too surprising).

Kblaze-Kevin Mchale (via kblaze8855)

So there's a lot of potential there.

He's not like Kevin McHale!!!!!

One of McHale's most astonishing abilities was his combination of quickness and toughness—particularly on defense. He could guard any opponent except the guards. Centers, power forwards, small forwards—Kevin could do it. He was the best defender on those classic Celtics teams. Sure, we all wonder how much of that came from armpit hair flying out everywhere. But still, but holy cow he was long, strong, and quick on the defensive end. A once-every-ten-years kind of defender.

And Al, we're told, is pretty lousy at defense.

So, let's not go TOO crazy with the McHale comparisons yet.


And that's good for who Al is. So let's get to:

Who the Jazz are

Pick-and-roll ... or maybe not

The Jazz game plan myth states that they are a pick-and-roll monster, and their offense is structured around a strong PF doing his thing in the post. So Al, of course, will fit right it. Sure, he needs to work on his pick-and-roll, but the dude's a beast in the post. It'll rock, no questions asked, right?

Sadly, this is total myth.

The Jazz originate plays via pick and roll less often than any other team in the league.

They do use pick-and-rolls, and when they do it they do so effectively, but it's actually not the heart of their offense. Here's the play that they DO use to start most plays: Deron brings the ball up; as he approaches the three point line he veers left; after taking a few steps to the left he immediately passes to a wing*. Deron then cuts and the remaining players engage in a series of screens, cuts, and post-ups, weak-side drifts, etc. designed to free up the post player, create match-up problems, double-teams, and weak-side opportunities. Ideally, as they follow this through the ensuing passes, screens, cuts, fakes, decoys, etc. are supposed to result in players more and more open for a good shot until they end up with a layup or other high-success shot.

*Incidentally, this is why I say the offense ran through AK after he was reinserted in the lineup. When you look at it this way, in the Jazz most commonly used half-court sets, Deron's pass is totally scripted: drop it off to the wing (AK once he was put back in the starting lineup). AK actually makes the first ball-handling decision—based on what happens in the screens, posts, and cuts that follow the pass. Why this worked so well is a whole new post, but for right now just remember that the offense originates with Deron but runs through AK. I'm not dumb when I come up with these things.

The Jazz offense is the flex: screens, cuts, interior passes, fake screens, fake cuts, weak-side drifts, cross-court passes, rifle passes around the horn, etc. That's what Jazzmen have to master to be successful and make the team better. And that's why the Jazz are more successful when there is balanced scoring, rather than one guy dominating it all—the flex works best when all players are threats from multiple areas on the court.

Defense—funnel to the middle

List the centers on the most successful Jazz teams of all time. There are really only 3 worth mentioning: Mark Eaton, Greg Ostertag, Memo. And what's the connection between them? Anyone? Anyone? Defensive presence in the middle (I know, you're thinking I'm smoking something silly when I say Memo, but bear with me just for a bit).

Here's the basic idea of how the Jazz play defense. They acknowledge that getting past the perimeter is the easiest thing to do. Think about it: players are more widely spaced, there's no hand-checking allowed, bodying up to hold position doesn't apply for the most part, and the offensive player gets to have a running start while the defensive guy is backpedaling. Of course getting past the perimeter is the easiest part. It is on every team—regardless of how good the perimeter guys are at defense. They are simply going to be beat a lot of the time.



The Jazz have a specific philosophy about this: as much as possible, the perimeter is supposed to funnel opponents into the paint—to get beat going to the middle rather than along the baseline. The idea is that by pushing the drives there, (a) the post defenders know where they are most likely to be needed, and (b) the post players are already in decent position to help. So a lot of the Jazz defense depends on the post defenders. If they don't rotate, if they are late helping, or if they shout "Memo, help!" the result is ridiculously easy buckets. The kind of scores the team was trying to avoid by funneling dribble-drives to the middle in the first place.

So the post defense is HUGE.

* Back to Memo. Back in 2007 the Jazz made the WC Finals. One of the forgotten bits about that postseason was the matchup between Memo and Yao in round 1. Memo played phenomenal defense. Unbelievable. He was so good and so active that his offense fell off a cliff. He was great against Yao, and he was great as a help defender. So while the Jazz had some luck that year in reaching the WC Finals, I don't think it's coincidence that Memo also happened to play the toughest, best interior defense of his life that postseason.

So, back to Al and what to look for this season

First of all, we all need to remember that Al hasn't played on a good team with a good coach. Actually, it's worse than that. He's never played with even a moderately crummy team with a moderately crummy coach. It's been atrocious from the beginning to now (his rookie year doesn't count).

So anyone expecting miracles immediately is crazy. Al's not going to suddenly pass like the Mailman. He isn't going to suddenly start defending like Hakeem. He isn't going to know how to play balanced and with his teammates. It'll take time. He's going to do a bunch of pivots and up-and-unders, drawing double or triple teams, and throw up lousy shots while ignoring a wide open Millsap under the freaking basket. Count on it. It will happen. But hopefully it will happen a lot less in the 70th game than it does in the first 10. And there are specific things to look for to see if the right parts of his game are improving:

How much of a black hole will he be?

Danny Ainge, when talking about McHale, said that once they threw the ball in to him everyone knew it was never coming out. McHale was an absolute, complete black hole. He had so much confidence in his post moves that he wouldn't even consider passing the ball out.

So why didn't Boston self-destruct with that kind of a player? 1) He only shot 14-17 shots per game—seriously, 26 ppg off 17 shots and 6 free throws per game— 2) he shot freaking 60% from the field, and 3) it was Ainge and DJ who gave McHale the ball—that's right, the players whose touches and shots would be most hurt by the black hole were the ones who chose to give him the ball. That made the black hole a team decision rather than one guy ignoring everyone else.

Another aspect of the black hole is what Al's kind of post play can do to the rest of the team. It eats up the shot clock while he pivots, reverses, fakes, reverses again, etc. Plus the rest of the players inevitably just stand around and watch—and that's when the Jazz offense simply dies.

So here's what to look for. 1) What are Al's shot attempts like compared to Millsap and AK? 2) Is Al's FG% going up? 3) How much do the Jazz rely on throwing Al the ball and letting him do his thing? Is it occasionally used, maximizing efficiency? Or does it become the dominant half-court play, stagnating the rest of the team? And 4) who's getting Al the ball? Is it always Deron, relegating the other 3 players into standby's? Or is it AK, Raja, CJ, and Hayward? Or is it from Deron after Millsap sets a pick and goes for a decoy roll (a play the Jazz did very well with Boozer. Seriously a lot of Boozer's dunks came after a Millsap pick and decoy roll)?

If we see balanced shot attempts between all front-court players, if we see intelligent use of his post play and the high FG%, if we see Al's post moves used as a wrinkle to the flex offense rather than a hijack, if we see the post-up plays involving everyone, not just Deron tossing him the ball while everyone watches—then we'll know things are working.

Can the dude learn to pass?

Al is going to command double teams. He's going to command them more than Boozer did. Watching YouTube videos shows this very clearly. But what happens when the double team comes?

Here's the truth: If Al learns to (1) recognize when he has a good shot and when he doesn't, (2) have the court awareness to see Millsap and AK available for uncontested dunks, and (3) develop passing skills to get them the ball—if Al can develop these three skills, it's over. The Jazz offense will be completely unstoppable. Millsap and AK will eat opponents alive when Al gets the double-teams.* Their FG% will go through the roof. And then add to this the idea of CJ, Deron, Memo (when he's back), Raja, and Hayward available for spot-up 3's, or curling around back screens, or making secondary cuts or weak-side fades.

*Boozer was overrated about a lot of things. Rebounding skills? Overrated. Post play? Overrated. But his passing? Very, very underrated. A lot of the dunks from Millsap and AK came from Boozer passes. When Boozer was injured two seasons ago and Millsap filled in, points from Ronnie B. and CJ fell off a cliff. Millsap wasn't getting them the passes that Boozer had. It took Millsap another year before he was passing as well as Boozer. The awesome side to this is that Boozer wasn't a great passer when he first arrived. He developed the skills here. That gives a lot of hope for A.

I'm cautiously giddy about this. Giddy because Al's post moves will get double-teams game after game after game. Cautious because it will take time to reverse 5 years of his old habits—habits developed with nobody to pass to, nobody making cuts, nobody drawing up actual plays. But if/when he learns to spot who's open and make good passes—wow. Like I said, the Jazz will be completely unstoppable.

But hare are the signs that Al's passing is getting there: FG% of CJ, AK, Millsap, and Hayward go up and up and up. % of these guy's shots in the paint go up and up and up. Plus Al's FG% will go up (because he'll be deciding whether he or the cutter has the best shot). That's what we're looking for.

Can the guy set screens?

This is one of the most interesting questions. Because this shows a complete devotion to team play at the expense of his own shots and scoring stats.

Because I'm not talking about pick and rolls. I'm talking about weak side screens to free up somebody else. That's the heart of the Jazz offense. How well will Al set a screen for Hayward to brush around for an open drive down the paint?

Al's reputation is that of a mediocre screen-setter. Well that will have to improve.

So what do we look for to see if it's happening? How open will the wings and guards be when they make backdoor and through the paint cuts? If they are wide open, then Al's doing the screens well. If they're covered all the time, Al's screens aren't doing it.

Does he play big or small?

Al's going to be the center. At 6'10", he's serviceable but slightly undersized. But that's not a worry by itself. Kevin McHale was 6'10". So was Hakeem. Offensively and defensively they destroyed any center in the league. Moses Malone was even smaller, but he tore the league apart for 5 straight years. For 3-4 years Ben Wallace was by far the best defensive center in the NBA. He was 6'9".

So size isn't everything.

The question is whether Al plays big or small.

So what do I mean? Playing big means that your gameplay doesn't change when you're guarded by someone 4" taller. Sure there will be minor adjustments, little things that have to be done differently, but the basic plan of attack is the same. This was one of Boozer's major problems. Put a giant PF on him and he suddenly relied on jumpers (fade-away and 18-foot spot ups). Millsap, on the other hand, stuck with the same basic game plan.

So, with Al we need to see how he plays when guarded by someone bigger. Does he suddenly shoot more jumpers? Or can he still back them down and dunk in their mugs? His YouTube highlights show promise—including one little sequence where he backs down Yao, powering his body to move the much bigger defender, then suddenly turning, hopping, and dunking in Yao's face. Boozer could never do that.

But still, we're looking at YouTube highlights. 1 or 2 sequences like this per season won't cut it. We need to see trends and consistency.

So, what to look for: ratio of paint shots vs. jumpers depending on the size of the opponent. If they don't change much, then Al's playing big. If there is a big change, he's playing small.

What can he become on defense?

We all know his reputation by now. Lousy defender. David Locke writing that he's never seen Al play any defense whatsoever.

Well, tough beans—because the Jazz are going to funnel players to his spot in the middle. That didn't change with Boozer and Memo. It won't change with Al.

But there is hope. Again, Al's never had a decent team or a decent coach. Has anyone ever taught him how to play defense? Ever? Remember, he came straight out of high school—where a dude can be a force just because he's tall. he missed having a good college coach making him learn the defensive ropes.

So there's a chance he'll turn things around on the defensive side—a decent chance but it's not guaranteed at all.

But here's a little wrinkle I've stumbled on. All but one of AK's top seasons for blocks came when he had ... wait for it ... Greg Ostertag in center. We've all noticed that AK's blocks have become fewer. But has anyone investigated why? I mean he's only 29. Most players' physical primes are 25-30, so why hasn't AK been blocking like he used to? 

Well, think about it. AK was never a dominating in-your-face and protect-the-rim blocker. He's always been a weak-side blocker. So what if the problem, all these years, wasn't AK at all? What if the problem was that there was no strong defensive presence in the middle? Nobody to cause opponents to alter their shots? And what if that was the difference between AK blocking a shot and coming 1 inch short?

Well, Al's not a great defender yet, but he is a decent shot blocker. So I am really curious to see three major stats this year: AK's blocks, Millsap's blocks (because they're similar to AK's, though not really the same), and Millsap's steals.* I have a crazy hunch that they will go up a little. And I have an even crazier hunch that they'll go up drastically if Al becomes a good defender—not just a decent shot blocker.

*Why not AK's steals? Because most of AK's steals come from reading and disrupting passing lanes with his ridiculously long arms. Millsap's steals, on the other hand, often come from ripping the ball out of guys' arms in the post. If Al becomes a defensive presence and opponents are consciously trying to avoid and work around him the opportunities for these kind of steals will go up dramatically.

So here's what to look for: points in the paint for opposing non-centers. If the number starts going down, the Al's moving and getting the hang of his help-defensive role. Also look at blocks by AK and Millsap, and steals by Millsap. If Al's doing his job, they very well may go up drastically.

And there's one more wrinkle. What if the blocks from AK and Millsap go up significantly? Then opponents suddenly have to worry about Al, but then they worry about AK and Millsap, so they put themselves back into position to be blocked by Al. So Al's blocks go up. So players worry about him even more, and they get blocked by AK and Millsap more. Obviously it will plateau at some point, but still.

That's called synergy. That's why adding one good defensive player actually makes all 5 players better defenders. The same is true on offense—if they play team ball (memo to Denver). The more opponents have to worry about one guy, the more opportunities are created for the others. Selfish play by talented scorers may rot teams hearts, but selfless play by talented scorers eats opponents alive.

What will his rebounding be like?

Obviously, the guy can rebound. 3 straight seasons at 11 per game. His entire career at 10+ per 36 minutes. But not all rebounding is equal. Here's why:

Last season various Jazz players joked that Boozer wouldn't let any of them get rebounds. That he'd grab them out of their hands. Now nobody was mad about it. It was a total jest. But still, there's something to think about.

This means that Boozer's rebounding was overrated. Instead of preventing opponents from getting an offensive rebound, there were many, many times he simply prevented a teammate from getting a rebound. So why does this matter?

It limits quick transition opportunities. The Jazz are a briskly paced team. During their strong finish they averaged about 111 ppg. Jerry Sloan has always wanted his teams to quickly transition because there are often chances for quick layups (Jerry loves layups, remember). This doesn't mean the Jazz play 7-seconds or less basketball. But they do better when they rush up the court, get the easy bucket if it's there but ease into the half-court offense if it isn't.

What does this have to do with rebounding? Well when Boozer was taking rebounds away from somebody else it meant there was one fewer guy available to run during transition. Because two guys were going for a rebound when only one was actually needed. Fewer guys running in transition means fewer easy buckets. (Best example: Game 4 1997 Finals: Stockton gets a rebound and tosses a full-court pass to Malone for the lead. What if Malone hadn't recognized that Stockton was going to get the rebound. What if Malone had rushed to the paint and ripped the ball out of Stockton's hands? What if Malone hadn't dashed before everyone else? It makes a difference to let your teammate get the rebound when they've got it and instead rush into transition).

What's needed is some rebounding awareness. Recognizing when another guy has it so you can dash immediately into transition. Recognizing when nobody else is in position, so you need to fight for the position, box out, and steal the rebound from your opponent—not your teammate.

This is a really subtle kind of awareness. And it's a really subtle thing to look for—because even the best of the best will end up taking rebounds from teammates plenty of times. I mean, we want all our guys crashing the boards, right? And when they're all crashing them, only one will get the rebound, right?

Of course.

But still, this is something to look for. How many of Al's rebounds come from ripping the ball down when opponents had a good shot at getting it (the Mailman, incidentally, was awesome at this)? How many of his rebounds come from grabbing it away from teammates? And do Al and the other rebounders (particularly Millsap) have the awareness to recognize when their teammate has it so they can go straight into transition? Because if they do, this can turn into 3-4 additional easy buckets per game. The benefits are: higher FG%, more total shots and points (more available mean more to spread around, which means more players are happy because they get more opportunities and involvement).

But a lack of awareness will get in the way. Too many teammates fighting each other for rebounds. Or even worse: everybody sprinting downcourt, leaving nobody there for the rebound.

So, what to look for: Rebounding balance between Millsap and Al (both have shown 10-12 per game ability). Increased rebounds from AK, Hayward, and crew. Increased transition points and transition FG%.

Or, there's one other possibility. Al goes nuts with his first good coach and becomes the second coming of Moses Malone—desperately fighting for and winning every rebound in the freaking game. Maniacally fighting through opponents and teammates alike on every single shot.

In that case, you're looking for 16 rebounds a game for Al and everyone bolting into transition immediately.

Can he run?

He had knee surgery. Talk around the blogosphere and twittersphere is that Al was a lot slower last year. So does that continue? Or will he get back into fast running shape?

Easy things to look for here: Al's transition and fast break points, and whether we watch the Jazz wait several seconds to start their offense before Al finally plods past midcourt.


So, there's a lot to hope for, but a whole lot yet to develop. A whole lot of maybes and whatif's. But here are the trends we're looking for:

  1. Balance of shots between Al, AK, and Millsap
  2. Increased FG% from Al, AK, and Millsap (possibly others too, but these are the three for whom a drastic increase would make a lot of sense if their team play and interior passing is working)
  3. Open looks in the paint for players cutting off Al's back screens (and subsequent increase in paint shots vs. jump shots—particularly regarding AK, Hayward, and CJ)
  4. Number of times the Jazz simply throw the ball to Al and let him do his thing while everyone else stands around and watches
  5. Al's shot distribution and FG% against smaller centers vs. bigger centers
  6. Who is actually getting the ball to Al—Deron, or is it via an indirect route through AK and the rest
  7. Increase in blocks from AK and Millsap
  8. Increase in blocks from Al
  9. Increase in Millsap's steals
  10. Opponents' FG% in the paint going down. Opponents' number of shots in the paint going down.
  11. Rebounding balance between Al and Millsap
  12. Increase in transition and fast break points, particularly from AK and Millsap
  13. Increase in number of players running fast breaks and transition
  14. Fast break points for Al
  15. Wait time before Al is in position and the Jazz can start their offense

Obviously, if all this clicks right the Jazz will be unstoppable, offensively and defensively. But I don't expect it to—at least not at first. But hopefully we'll start seeing these things happen more and more. And if Al can pull this off, then wow. What a team.

We'll be able to guzzle the Kool-Aid without any worries.

P.S. Hopefully this shows why just looking at a player's stats alone to gauge effectiveness doesn't work. To see if Al's defense is improving, you look at blocks and steals for AK and Millsap. Plus look at how many points in the paint and paint FG% are scored by opposing SG's and PG's. To see if Al's offense is fitting in, look at FG% from AK and Millsap. Look at how open Hayward, AK, and CJ are when making cuts. Look at the number of paint points vs. jump shots from the wings. Look at whether Deron alone is racking up assists or whether AK, CJ, Hayward, and Co. are getting assists from Al's scoring. To see if his rebounding is working, look at how often Millsap and Al are running in transition.

Al could average 25 & 13 and the team could muddle about in mediocrity. He could end up with 16 and 10 and the team kicks butt. The story's not the stats, but in how the gameplay behind the stats.

All comments are the opinion of the commenter and not necessarily that of SLC Dunk or SB Nation.

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