Game 17 Preview: Phoenix Suns at Utah Jazz

I'd love more Trey fist-pumps. It would mean that good things were actually happening. - Kevin Jairaj-USA TODAY Sports

We all know there's going to be a lot of grumpiness surrounding this game. There are a few facts that make this guaranteed:

  • Most fans I encounter do not think Ty Corbin is a very good coach.
  • Jeff Hornacek is doing a very good job with the Suns (a team I expected to be worse than the Jazz)
  • Jeff Hornacek used to be our assistant coach ... he was our guy
  • By holding on to Ty Corbin one additional year, we lost Hornacek to the Suns

There's no way to sugarcoat the frustration that's going to be coming out tonight. There's no way to pretend it's not on everybody's mind. There's just so much contrast:

  • Phoenix recently had a four-game losing streak, losing three games by six points total :: The Jazz recently had a six-game losing streak, losing by 74 points combined (and let's be honest ... they weren't even that close).
  • Phoenix recently lost its leading scorer and best player, Eric Bledsoe. They have won three straight despite it :: The Jazz have been losing terribly with role players injured.
  • Hornacek went into the pre-season preaching offensive efficiency (eliminating the long-2's) and sound defensive play. The team has responded with top-10 offenses and defenses thus far.
  • The Jazz went into pre-season emphasizing defense and player development. Until the Jazz ran into the Bulls (who lost their star) the team was ranked 30th in defensive efficiency. And player development has been spotty at best.
  • The Suns have won 3 road games thus far (out of 8 games). The Jazz have won 2 games total thus far.

I'll be honest ... Phoenix is where I thought the Jazz could be right now. The Jazz are where I expected the Suns to be right now. I don't mean this in terms of W/L record (Phoenix has had an easier schedule, Jazz early schedule has been brutal), but in terms of overall quality, in terms progress of young players, in terms of feeling that the team was better than many expected.

And now we get a back-to-back home and home with them.

What's going on with the Suns

They have won three of four, losing only on the road to the Heat. They ended Portland's 11-game winning streak on Wednesday. Eric Bledsoe has missed 5 games due to a bruised shin (running into a teammate), and it hasn't been improving. So he's likely out.

But here's some really interesting stuff from Bright Side of the Sun

The Suns are taking efficient shots. Here's a nice table:

Let's compare the Suns' 2012-13 shot distribution to this season:

Screen_shot_2013-11-29_at_7

As you can see, last year the Suns shot fewer three-pointers (league-average 1.05 points per attempt) than long two-pointers (league average 0.7 points per attempt). Not coincidentally, the Suns had the 29th-ranked offense out of 30 teams in the entire league.

Conversely, this season you can see a mighty shift. This season, the Suns are shooting more than twice as many high-value three-pointers as long two-pointers. As a result, with many of the same shooters as last season (the Morrii, Dragic and Tucker anyway), the Suns are now 10th in offensive efficiency after 15 games.

The Suns have a good plan on offense, and they are carrying it through.

Again, from Bright Side, here's what Hornacek explained he wanted to do with the team:

"When you look at the good teams," Hornacek said over the summer, exclusively to Bright Side. "They either have the shot or they're creating something for somebody else. Consequently, they'll get more open looks which will help their percentages. I think that every guy that you saw on this team last year can have a better shooting percentage in the coming year" ...

"When we look at things now with analytics, you see that the effective field goal percentages are 51%," Hornacek said in an exclusive interview with Bright Side over the summer, in preparation for the season. "That's why a bunch of these teams are shooting a ton of threes because they get more value for their shot."

I'm sorry, but I read this and want to weep. And it's not the analytics or shot selection that kills me most. It's this: "they either have the shot or they're creating something for somebody else. Consequently, they'll get more open looks." He gets how to help players work together to get good shots.

We're not talking about a team with LeBron James. We're talking about Eric "I couldn't shoot straight in LA" Bledsoe. Miles freaking Plumlee. The Morris Twins. Gerald "six different teams have already given up on me" Green.

Seriously, every bad habit we see in Alec Burks was manifest 10x stronger in Gerald Green ... and he's suddenly an effective player.

I cannot believe we let Jeff Hornacek go. I cannot fathom how differently the Jazz would be playing right now if they him coaching ... with his combination of understanding of how to win and ability to get ordinary NBA talent to carry the plan out.

What's going on with the Jazz

They recently won won the worst game of the entire NBA season thus far ... a game so ugly that several national voices (including Grantland's Zach Lowe and CBS Sport's Matt Moore) pleaded with all basketball fans, including Jazz and Bulls fans, to turn it off and save your souls.

Gordon Hayward got hurt seven games ago, and hasn't been the same since. Burks is a mess. Kanter was replaced in the starting lineup by a SF who has been one of the more notorious mistakes of the past 10 drafts. Favors keeps fouling. JL3 keeps playing. The front office keeps telling us that it's not fair to expect Ty Corbin to have gotten the team to perform better (way to throw the players under the bus to support the coach!).

Ugh.

In better news: Jeremy Evans has been playing well. Kanter hopes to play tonight. Brandon Rush may play tonight. Trey has been fully healthy.

While the Suns have a coach willing to discuss, with a "fan blog", some of the strategies he's trying to implement on offense, our coach can't even answer a national reporter's question about the Jazz's P&R defense.

* * *

I'm ranting and dying inside. I didn't mean this preview to turn out like this, but I can't stop.

I pulled this up from Grantland two years ago. Sebastian Pruiti is praising Kanter's brilliant P&R defense:

According to Synergy Sports, when Kanter shows against pick-and-roll ball handlers, teams score just 0.622 points per possession. That puts him in the top 15 percent of pick-and-roll defenders ... and Kanter's sample size is significant — 45.6 percent of his defensive possessions include him showing against ball screens.

Kanter doesn't show hard against pick-and-roll plays, which is very smart because Kanter isn't that quick. Instead, the Jazz let Kanter play a zone of sorts when he shows. He tends to fall back and stay in front of the ball handler. By doing so, he has been effective at stopping dribble penetration. Kanter either forces the ball handler to pick up his dribble or he uses his size to stay in front and bother the driving player's pass attempts.

Watch the video:


If you notice, this is completely different than what Favors and Kanter are asked to do this year. Completely different. Kanter came into the NBA as a raw rookie with a good understanding of how to defend the P&R well. And after two years, he doesn't do it anymore. Is this more likely that Kanter, on his own, decided to change what he does? Or is it more likely that the coaches have requested he play differently and is trying to do what the coaches ask?

* * *

I'm sorry for the ranting. But the more I researched into what's going on with the Suns, the more frustrated I got with the Jazz.

What a disaster.

I do think the Jazz have a chance at winning tonight. The Suns, for all the success and praise, are still a just over .500 team. They are still missing their best player. And the Jazz have, no doubt, really worked the past couple days and focused every thought on winning tonight.

But that doesn't change that one team is over-achieving. And it doesn't change that the other team has been a mess.

Nor does it change that the over-achieving is directly related to the coach's decisions. Nor does it change that it's terribly unfair for anyone to suggest that Ty Corbin could have done a better job thus far.

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