Despite importing Al Jefferson and Raja Bell last offseason, the Utah Jazz remain a talented, yet still-flawed team that is perhaps worse than their previous incarnations. These flaws were on full display during a 112-105 loss to the San Antonio Spurs. Let’s analyze the game to pinpoint exactly why the music has stopped playing.
Utah began the game trying to execute its various UCLA cuts, cross-screens, flex-screens, down screens, with all the various continuity that evolves from each specific play. While Utah generated some open looks, and the continuity created good spacing for Utah’s frontcourt to post or isolate one-on-one, the Jazz spent much of the first half turning the ball over on poor passing and forcing execution that wasn’t there.
In the second half, Utah changed its approach, relying more and more on early assaults in transition and one-on-one moves involving Deron Williams to exclusively generate offense, a tactic that worked thanks to Williams’ prolific talents.
Discounting transition and broken plays, the Jazz had 84 offensive possessions. Of those 84 possessions, offense was run through Williams on a whopping 42 times. On isolations (a term I use to describe one-on-one, or one-on-more attacks, not strictly clearouts), Williams’ offense generated 8-11 Utah shooting for 24 points on 17 possessions, a spectacularly efficient number that looks even better when you subtract two end-of game desperation heaves.
Williams was simply too strong for Tony Parker (and is too strong for most other players) to handle, and too fast for San Antonio’s mediocre help defense to cut him off. It's this combination of strength and speed that makes Williams a premier player at getting penetration and attacking the paint.
Williams also posted up nine times, usually after completing his UCLA cut to the box, leading to 4-7 shooting (with one of the misses coming from Andrei Kirilenko when the Spurs fronted Williams and had Kirilenko’s man drop down to provide help even before an entry pass was made) for 11 points. Williams was, again, too strong for the Spurs to handle without sending extreme help, even against a respectable post defender in Tony Parker.
Williams also ran 11 screen/rolls or fake screen/rolls, which turned into 15 Jazz points as Williams made excellent decisions when confronted with every screen. He’s a master of the pocket bounce pass, and is a reliable mid-range shooter off the bounce.
Also, where most teams set up a strong side triangle and have a strong side player in the corner drag to the wing to take advantage of a strong-side perimeter defender rotating to pick up the roll man, Utah does things a little differently. The Jazz usually clear a side on their screen/rolls and have Williams attack towards the baseline as opposed to the middle. To take advantage of help defenders rotating, they sneak a weak-side corner along the baseline behind the help defender as a release valve. This is where cutters like Ronnie Brewer used to feast in Utah’s system, with Kirilenko and Paul Millsap doing most of the baseline work this year.
On plays designed to get Williams attacking towards the basket, Williams generated 50 points for Utah on 37 possessions, an exceptional ratio highlighting Williams’ supreme ability to create offense when not matched up with an exceptional defensive counterpart, or well-coordinated help defense.
However, Williams is rather ordinary as a shooter. On four catch and shoot plays run for Williams, he only connected on one shot. He also curled around a screen and fed Al Jefferson for a layup, rounding out his possessions used.
Williams is also in complete control of Utah’s offense. He completed nine assists against four turnovers. Of those turnovers, one came when he attacked multiple Spurs in transition and had the ball slapped off his knee, and one came when he slipped on a drive. His other two came on a lazy read on an entry pass to Kirlenko when he was swarmed in the post, and his final came on a misread on a C.J. Miles cut. In truth, Williams forces a pass or makes a careless play a couple of times per game.
Williams also sets sturdy screens, can be used off-the-ball, and plays terrific defense—but not against guards that operate at warp speed like Tony Parker.
On 16 possessions where Williams was the primary defender, the Spurs scored 19 points, a respectable defensive number. However Williams was often eating Parker’s dust on screens and isolations and needed a number of missed Parker layups to make his numbers respectable. Worst was on one third quarter sequence where Williams chased Parker, ran into a screen, and died. Parker was cut off by Utah's help, but because Williams stood around and didn’t get back into the play, Antonio McDyess was able to walk in and dunk.
Williams’ best attribute, his size and strength, wasn’t needed against Parker’s rocket speed. However, Williams’ moxie was on display when Richard Jefferson tried to post him and D-Will fronted him destroying any passing angle. The over-the-top lob pass was broken up for a turnover.
Williams’ value over other elite point guards is in his ability to excel in many different areas. Rajon Rondo has nowhere near the scoring arsenal, while Derrick Rose is still learning how to run an offense, how to negotiate being a scorer and a playmaker, and how to make good decisions close to the basket. Steve Nash is a vastly inferior defender, while Chris Paul coasts too often, can’t play without the ball in his hands, and is totally gamble-oriented on defense.
Only Tony Parker can approximate Williams ability to excel near the basket and in the mid-range while playing solid defense, making good decisions, and understanding five-man principals---but the degree of Parker’s defense, passing, vision, and range shooting is less than Williams, and he doesn’t have a post game. Parker also has less offensive responsibility.
However, while Williams is one of the NBA’s jewels, his teammates aren’t up to snuff.
Al Jefferson has a convincing pump fake, a soft touch, and various back-to-the-basket and face up moves to produce points. However, despite Hubie Brown’s praise, he takes a few precious seconds to survey the floor and is both an unwilling and a poor passer, stalling Utah’s offense.
He’s an inept screen defender who can’t hedge properly, has slow feet, and is a slow jumper on the boards. His presence affected a pair of Tony Parker’s layups, but he failed to provide adequate defense on several more. Offensively, he contributed 12 points on 13 featured possessions (plus five more points that were created by screen/rolls in tandem with Williams and are credited to Williams and not Jefferson), while defensively he allowed 13 points on 13 possessions—an average number for a player whose misgivings average out his offensive talents.
Paul Millsap’s defense was awful. He was posted once for a score, gave up an offensive rebound for a score, and missed a pair of rotations for two more field goals. His method of playing help defense involved reaching with his hands and not moving his feet—a far cry from the hard-working bowling ball who entered the league.
Because his porous defense led to foul trouble and ineffectiveness, he didn’t get to show much on the offensive end, scoring no points in two isolations, and hitting a fadeaway in the post over DeJuan Blair. He does cut along the baseline well, and he knocked down a 20 footer, but he’ll have many more quiet offensive nights if keeps having quiet defensive nights.
Raja Bell’s defensive numbers are misleading because there are several plays where he successfully defended San Antonio’s first options forcing the Spurs to go to another option. Because the possessions end without Bell being the primary defender of the ultimate play, he doesn’t get credit for doing a good job.
When Bell was attacked by a possessions’ ultimate play, he was torched by Manu Ginobili, yielding 15 points in ten possessions. Twice in three possessions he let Ginobili have too much space to simply face up and shoot a three with minimal defensive pressure. He also missed a rotation for a score, was posted by Ginobili leading to a lob, gave up five points in four screen possessions, and successfully defended a cut. While Bell’s defense is ornery, he no longer has the foot speed to keep up with the NBA’s best wings, like Ginobili.
Offensively, Bell factored into four possessions—two isolations and two variations of catch-and-shoots—and the Jazz scored no points. His three-point shooting is down, he hasn’t made the most of his mid-range looks off of Utah’s flex, and he doesn’t have any post or dribble-drive skills.
Bell is no longer a difference maker at either end of the court and isn’t as effective as Ronnie Brewer, Kyle Korver, or Wesley Matthews, all of whom have been let go by the Jazz within the last 12 months and replaced with Bell. This drop off has crippled the Jazz, particularly during their recent losing streak.
Andrei Kirilenko is still the same versatile, but sporadic offensive player he’s been in recent years with most of his points coming on wide open jumpers or cuts to the basket. He only generated five points on eight possessions against the Spurs, though the majority of his three failed post possessions have to do with botched entry passes.
When Kirilenko isn’t scoring, he’s a good passer—3 AST, 1 TO—and a decent rebounder—6 REB—but he’s tailed off on the defensive end. He’s not as quick as he used to be so he has to cheat more as a weak-side shot-blocker. This, combined with Utah’s porous screen/defense at the point of attack means Utah is constantly forced into rotation on defense. This forces players like Kirilenko to overhelp at times when it isn’t necessary.
While AK47 allowed 14 points on 12 possessions, he allowed five points in the fourth quarter on three close out opportunities where he wasn’t able to contest an open Spurs jumper. On both successful shots, Kirlenko was helping on plays he didn't need to help on. He was also isolated three times for five more points, and is neither the helper nor the stopper he used to be.
Mehmet Okur has never been fleet, and he’s always been a horrendous interior help defender, but he’s not providing anything on the offensive end to counter his bad defense. He’s still gimpy from his achillies injury and isn’t comfortable as a shooter. He missed all four of his attempts and his only three-pointer. He isolated twice leading to a drive and dish to Jeremy Evans, and was fouled on a post up leading to a free throw, but shooting the ball and providing spacing for Utah’s offense is his most valuable trait. It’s doubtful his interior game will be good enough to compensate if he can’t regain that outside stroke.
Not surprisingly, Okur allowed nine points on five possessions, failing to adequately defend a screen, not closing out on a pair of shooters, and not stepping up on a penetration. His only successful possession came when Duncan missed a makeable jumper.
As of right now, Okur is dead weight.
C.J. Miles has a world of talent and can shoot, drive, and cut, but he still hasn’t put everything together. He only generated seven points on eight possessions, mostly because he only shot 1-5 on various catch-and-shoot sequences.
His defense looks good on paper—five points in seven possessions—but there were at least three wide open shots the Spurs missed that artificially inflate Miles’ numbers. He missed several rotations, didn’t close out strong, and turned his head getting beaten backdoor for a layup.
Earl Watson isn’t great at running an offense and is a steep dropoff from Williams. His best attribute was his lob passing, where two of his assists came. He didn’t have a single offensive possession run through him. Defensively, he pressures the ball, makes aggressive mistakes, and is better at creating chaos than keeping anybody in front of him. He failed to closeout on a Parker three, not the worst offense, but also committed a bad foul with seconds left in a quarter allowing two unnecessary points that look huge in a seven point loss.
Francisco Elson had a strong game, posting once leading to a Miles three, and allowing two points on three possessions. He’s not a particularly accomplished defender, but he’s tall and fluid and has limited value as a third string center.
Ronnie Price successfully defended a cut in his brief moment on the court.
Evans received a lot of praise from Hubie Brown, but he’s incredibly raw. He dunked in a pair of lobs when the Spurs hedged too high after Evans moved to set a pair of screens. However, the one opportunity he was asked to post up, he took too long to gather himself and badly missed a layup. Evans needs to get much stronger before he can reliably be counted on, though his athleticism could provide a spark in games where the Jazz big men are unproductive.
Defensively his numbers look great—four points, seven possessions—though he’s tentative in his rotations and help assignments. Still, he worked hard and made good things happen simply by playing with energy.
Overall, the Jazz offense isn’t quite as crisp as it used to be, mainly because Utah’s exported players were all better passers than their imported players. Utah also lacks wing firepower, and needs C.J. Miles and Paul Millsap to play better to keep the offense from stammering. Finding an upgrade over Raja Bell is a must, while it’s doubtful Jefferson’s bad habits can be unlearned within the next season or two.
Defensively, Utah has desperately needed to improve its interior defense for years but whether its Okur and Carlos Boozer, or Jefferson and Millsap, the Jazz are adamant about not acquiring an expert help defending big. In the past, Kirilenko would clean up a lot of mistakes by rotating from the weak side on screen/rolls, but he’s not as spry as he used to be.
The Jazz are forced to rely more and more on Williams to win games, but against the best teams in the league, that won’t be enough.
Utah will fight its way out of the doldrums they’re experiencing and will capture a middle-tiered playoff berth, but as in years past, their ceiling is strictly a second-round team at best.
Without the Jazz taking major steps forward, and with talented players in Korver, Brewer, Matthews, and Eric Maynor all given away for free or on the cheap, no wonder Williams is frustrated. For the sake of the franchise—and make no mistake about it, Deron Williams has become this franchise—the Jazz need to accumulate more wing firepower and interior defensive talent, or they could be singing the blues when Williams approaches free agency.