I went on a statistical quest about 2 weeks ago. My mission: to find the reason for the Jazz's slow starts in first quarters. I know what the temptation is: you want to say, "as long as the Jazz keep winning, I don't care what they do to start the games." While I agree that I would rather have the Jazz finish games stronger than start them, there is no reason that the Jazz can't do both. Matt Harpring even agreed with this during the broadcast of the Knicks game. The Jazz should be starting fast and finishing well. In the NBA the best teams blow out inferior opponents. Historically, you can tell the strongest NBA teams by looking at the winning margin. Right now, the Jazz have a winning margin of a .500 team. In fact, the Jazz are lucky they aren't 21-17. They very well could be. But I would argue, that with better starts, the Jazz might be 4 or 5 games better than they are now. If nothing else, it gives us fans something to talk/complain/discuss about.
Originally, I wanted to present you all with the numbers, bare and unexposed, and leave you all to the interpretations. I don't know if I can do that. But in the spirit of full disclosure, you should all know that I am a big Paul Millsap fan. You could probably tell by my title. But I also didn't break down these numbers in hope that they would tell me that Paul Millsap needs to get more touches and shots in the Jazz offense to improve it. But there are other things that would improve the Jazz starts, besides that. Let's look at the numbers:
The First Step to Change is Acceptance
Do the Jazz even have a problem with starting games? Is that the stupidest question I have ever asked? In 39 games the Jazz have trailed in 28 of those games after the first quarter. But it gets worse. The Jazz have lead 10 times after 1 quarter, and they have been down by double digits 7 times after one quarter. That isn't a recipe for success. The Jazz have averaged 22.8 points per first period, which isn't bad, especially considering the slow pace the Jazz play at. But on average, the Jazz are being outscored by 3 points per first quarter. If you don't think the slow starts are a problem, you are delusional. That is the only explanation.
Is The Offense of the Defense to Blame?
The easy answer is both and in this case, it's probably true. At the first of the season, I think the offense was the bigger problem. The Jazz were consistently losing quarters, but limiting their opponents to 20 points or so. But the defense has gotten progressively worse as the season has gone on. Ten games in the Jazz held their opponents to 43% from the field in the first quarter and up to this point it's now 48% 1st quarter shooting. Teams also score 1 more point per 100 possessions now as opposed to the 102.9 points the Jazz held opponents to in the first quarter of the season. The 1st quarter defense has been all over the map, but appears to be trending in the wrong direction. The Jazz certainly have some improving to do on both ends. We are equally worse (by 1.5 points per 100 possessions) in both categories.
Surprise! Raja Bell is the Only Jazz Starter Who is Better Offensively in the 1st Quarter
I say "surprise" because if you polled Jazz fans with the question, "who is the starter who shouldn't be a starter," I think about 58% of them would say Raja Bell. Forty-one percent would say AK, 100 disgruntled Jazz fans would say "Deron Williams", 27 more disgruntled fans would say "none of them should be starting because they all suck" and I would say "Al Jefferson." In more full disclosure, I really like Al Jefferson and I like a lot of things about his game. It's more a deal of him helping the second unit than not being a great starter when I say things like that. In any case Raja Bell has performed well in first quarters.
Raja Bell has shot 48-97 in first quarters this season for 49%. He is 18-19 from the free throw line and leads the starters in 1st quarter TO's with only 9. I would hope so since he has the ball so seldomly. Bell averages 1.28 points per shot attempt in the first quarter. And he is the only Jazz starter who has a better points per shot attempt (ppFGA) number than his overall point per shot attempts. Bell's overall ppFGA is only 1.18.
Deron is the most offensively bad offensive starter on the Jazz. Deron leads the entire team in ppFGA at 1.45. But in the first quarters his ppFGA is a measly 1.1. He only shoots 40% from the field and leads the team in 1st quarter field goal attempts (182). That's almost twice as many as Raja Bell for those taking score at home. He also has 35 TO's in 1st quarters this season. He is attacking the rim at a decent rate, as he has shot 37% of his 1st quarter shots in the paint. He's just not making them. Deron does get to the line. He is 40-46 from the line in first quarters this season. Bottom line: Deron shouldn't be shooting this much or this ineffectively in the first quarter. When your least efficient players are taking the most shots, it's hard to be good offensively. Just ask the Warriors. Much of the blame can be placed on D-Will's shoulders.
I think Andrei should be removed from the starting lineup just so I don't have to see him announce his name in that super creepy way each game when they do starting lineups on the TV broadcast. I know you are nodding your head in agreement right now. But besides that, Andrei has been really bad in first quarters this season. AK is 37-98 in first quarters for a super crappy 38%. His total ppFGa is 1.35 and in 1st quarters it's 1.12. I hate his 20 foot jumpers to kick off the game, but he is actually shooting more than half of his 1Q shots in the paint. He also draws a lot of fouls. He's 33-40 from the line. But he also has 25 1Q turnovers. The biggest problem is that AK turnovers are worse than any other Jazz turnovers, because 40% of his TO's lead to fast break opportunities for the other team. Bottom line: If Ak will promise to attack the rim and throw down swinging dunks every 1st quarter like he did against New York, then I will forgive him. But until then, Jazz fans might be right when they say that AK isn't cutting it as a starter right now.
Paul Millsap is 84-151 in first quarters. That is 56% which is pretty much what he shoots from the field overall. He's also 22-24 from the FT line to start games and he only has 11 first quarter turnovers. His overall ppFGA is 1.36 and that number is 1.25 in the first stanza. That's second place behind only Raja Bell so far, if you are keeping tabs. I don't know what else to tell you. Paul Millsap is really really good offensively, even at the start of games. His offensive numbers are equal to or greater than Amare Stoudemire in almost every offensive category other than shot and free throw attempts.
Big Al Jefferson
I can't say or type his name without adding big to it. I love Al Jefferson. I am really glad he is on the Jazz right now. But the numbers don't lie and like Deron Williams, his numbers get much better as the game progresses. I don't know why. Big Al is 66-157 from the field in 1st quarters for 43%. He is 12-18 from the line. He has 11 turnovers. He is also shooting most of his shots (86) in the paint as opposed to the 69 attempts he has taken from midrange. I know that Big Al feels he can shoot his "weezy" over anyone in the league, but when you only make a shot 33% of the time, it doesn't matter when you can or can't shoot it. Here's the kicker: his 1st quarters have yielded a ppFGA of 0.94. That's really really bad. Overall, he is only scoring 1.15 points every field goal attempt. And I know that it is tempting to attribute that to his ACL injury, but even in his most efficient season he was having to shoot 19 shots a game to get 23 points (1.18).
The Jazz Don't Need to Change the Starting Lineup, Just the GamePlan
I felt this way (and wrote most of this post) long before the Jazz came out with a good 1st quarter effort against the Knicks. For one thing, I think that the lineup changes that have been discussed won't really fix the problem. Unless, you are starting Fesenko in place of Al Jefferson, I don't see a big change. And I realize that I am alone in that opinion. I agree with CJ Miles that it is an effort thing more than a personnel issue that is hindering the Jazz. But I think there is another thing that will fix the Jazz when starting games. If you still think that the offense should be run through Al Jefferson and that he is a better low post threat than Paul Millsap, I think you should probably just stop reading now and continue believing that. I can't do anything for you. By the way, there are tons of Jazz fans that still feel this way. Just go check out yesterday's discussion on kfan's Live Blog
The Jazz should be dictating their offense by feeding the ball to the best inside scorer and all the evidence suggests that this is Paul Millsap, not Al Jefferson. In fact, do yourself a favor and go check out the website mysynergysports.com. Then type in the names Paul Millsap and Al Jefferson into the players search box. It will bring up a detailed description of everytime Paul and Al have had a possession and in what capacities. For instance you can learn that 10.7% of Paul Millsap's offensive scoring opportunities have come in the pick n roll. You can also learn that Millsap is the 10th best player in the NBA at scoring in the post. For many of you, that won't mean anything, but it doesn't make it less true.
But you know what else I learned at that site? Al Jefferson is better than Paul Millsap at scoring off an offensive rebound. It makes sense, since he is taller and has longer arms, but it begs the question. "If Paul Millsap is better than Al Jefferson at scoring other than offensive rebound putbacks, why doesn't the offense run through Millsap? Why isn't Paul shooting the shots with big Al crashing the boards trying to get tip ins?" If Al Jefferson would simply focus on playing defense and crashing the boards, while Millsap did his work in the paint or the low post, the offense would improve. I know that seems a little simple to explain the Jazz's problems, but I can guarantee it is better than watching Al Jefferson work in the post and have a 47% chance of making two points or watching Deron frustratedly drive on 3 defenders because we are down 19-6. Just a thought.