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In Which Yucca Opines at Great Length - The Downbeat - #666

It's no secret amongst Jazz fans that our team has done well these first thirteen games. It started with some wins against suspect teams, and suddenly crescendoed into big-time wins against the Nuggets and the Clippers. I want to pause and help us understand what kind of feat this beginning has been.

Last April, when there was much discussion amongst us about the team's future, about whether playoffs were realistic for 2012, etc., I decided to look at some NBA history to see what it told. My question was: how probable is it for the fifth-worst team to turn it around and win fifty games one year later (which has been a kind of threshold for Western Conference playoffs for several years now).

What I found was this: not likely. Since 1980, 16 teams improved by 22 wins from one year to the next (I started looking at 25 wins, since the Jazz were on pace for 23-25 wins post-Trade ... but I ended up going down a bit from my initial 25-win-improvement cutoff).

Amongst those 16 teams there were three consistent themes: 1) there was a major roster change in at least one spot, 2) a major player returned after missing at least half the previous season because of injury, and 3) extremely young stars, starting their 3rd-ish season, made a huge leap in overall effectiveness.

Virtually every team that improved so drastically could be attributed to at least one of these causes, and usually at least two of them.

There were a couple unique circumstances: Chris Mullin checked into alcoholism rehabilitation one off-season, got sober, and the Warriors improved by 23 wins (after also adding Mitch Richmond). And the 1996 Bulls didn't technically add Michael Jordan when they went from 47 to 72 wins. But going from rusty, not-quite-in-game-shape Jordan for 17 games to pissed off, work-like-hell-to-get-back-during-the-offseason Jordan was kind of like a change in personnel. Or like coming back from injury.

But aside from those two wrinkles, the story was the same every time: roster change, injured star returns, and/or kids come into their own.

So basically, what our Jazz have done this year to date is pretty damn unprecedented.

Aside from movement in the 2nd-stringers, the roster is pretty much the same as the one that stunk so badly last year. Devin was injured for a bit, but he still played almost 2/3 of the games. Hayward's getting more minutes this year, but has hardly taken The Leap. Favors is getting virtually the same line.

The Jazz don't fit the established story.

So what I'm saying is enjoy it. It's a unique team, a unique turnaround. It may not last another game. It may go on the entire season. It may be the beginning of five years of awesome.

However long it lasts, enjoy it and savor it. It may not happen again to any team for a while.

The major question about the Jazz improvement thus far is: How has it happened? Amar gave you a link to Clint Petersen's piece at Hardwood Paroxysm yesterday, and it was a very good look.

(Yes, I really thought it was good—despite what blew up after I made what was supposed to be a little eye-roll comment about throwing out Al's worst games to make his FG% look better than it is. Really it was a quick comment posted about 5 minutes before school started and intended to be a somewhat exasperated snark, not an angry huff-and-puff—but that's the internet for you.)

Anyway, I wanted to go at this in a different way: let's look at our players' actual numbers and see what they're contributing, box-score wise:

  • Millsap's been out of this world. This shouldn't be a surprise to us. There may be ten guys in the NBA who have been better over the first 13 games.
  • Al's been slightly worse. (calm down, rabid fans, calm down—I'll give you a total fact-based asterisk below).
  • Devin, Raja, and CJ have been dreadful on the whole (though huge improvement over the past three games or so).
  • Favors has contributed almost the exact same line as last year. Look it up. And ditto for Earl (though his assists, and blocks (!) have gone up a bit).
  • Hayward has a much bigger role, and he's filled it very inconsistently. Josh Howard, the new guy we've all fawned over as being the second or third most consistent guy after Millsap, is perfectly average. Seriously, his PER is 15. He is a downgrade over the guy he partially replaced: AK.
  • Burks and Kanter have had nice moments (and Kanter rebounds the hell out of the ball), but they also only play 12 and 14 minutes per game. The most we can say at this point is they are out-contributing Ronnie P. and Fes of last year.

That's where the team is at. One guy substantially better, two guys filling minor roles better than last year's scrubs, and everyone either a wash, slightly worse, or significantly worse.

So how are they better? How have they been successful during the past 11 games?

And we know the answer already: defense—About 88 ppg allowed from games 3-13.

What strikes me is that you can't pin this defense on any one guy. Every now and then someone finds a hole in the Jazz interior and you see Al's just as slow and non-explosive as ever. Someone posts up Millsap and you realize that no, he hasn't grown 6 inches over the summer. Hayward's physically outmatched by most SF's. I could go on. There have definitely been a few great moments by everyone, but nobody's been exactly a defensive beast to this point.

And it's not the much ballyhooed change to push guys to the baseline. Everybody does that—the good and the bad defensive teams.

No, it's about individual defensive effort nor about the scheme. It's work, persistence, and dedication to team defense by everybody. Two recent moments show me exactly how this has been accomplished.

  1. Against the Lakers there were several sequences that Millsap just manhandled Pau. Think about that: Pau has Sap outmatched physically in just about every way. And Millsap was pestering him the entire night, pushing him out of the box, snapping after every opening to the ball, knocking him over a couple times.
  2. I don't have Synergy, so the details are hazy and I can't relive the moment yet. But it was against the Clippers, early 3rd quarter. A guard got past the perimeter on the baseline. It should have been an easy path to the hoop, but the help post D suddenly appeared in the form of Hayward (of all people). The other guys (Al, Millsap, and Raja if I remember right) suddenly all shifted about three steps each, going into kind of a mini-zone that both cut off any great passes to open guys and repositioned themselves to within four feet of everyone—even the Hayward's guy. Last year Hayward's man would have had a wide open shot. In this sequence there was nothing.

That's what the Jazz are doing. Pestering everyone and attentively, intelligently helping each other in ways that work with what each player can realistically do. They're not relying on Al to dance on air like the second coming of Hakeem. They're not demanding Hayward to replace AK's magic. They are figuring out how to make everything work with the things they CAN do well, as long as everyone works and dedicates themselves to it.

Diana, Clint, and David J. Smith got to sit courtside with Greg Miller. It looked like a blast. But do you know what I'd give anything to see: a practice in which they work at their defense.

My favorite Millsap factoid, from ESPN listing five underrated players: Paul is out-rebounding 21 starting centers. Sadly, it isn't mentioned that Millsap accomplishes this in only 29 minutes per game.

*Two PSA's to anyone going to read the article at ESPN: 1- to anyone longing for Kyle Lowry, it's clear Houston would have to be brain-dead to trade him, and 2) if you still pine for Wesley Matthews during those lonely evenings, this article won't help.

One thing the Jazz could still improve is free throw shooting. They rank 22nd in the league at .728. That rate has also increased dramatically over the past couple of games. Among the offenders for bad FT shooting are: Millsap (worst rate since '08), Al (second worst since '08), Devin (worst since '06), Favors (worse than last year), Kanter (68%).

Even guys who aren't in the running for personal worst FT% ever aren't exactly tearing it up (Hayward, Earl, CJ, Burks).

Only three guys are pulling off better than 75%: Cj, Raja (4-4), and Josh Howard. In fact, without Josh the team is shooting 70%. That would be third worst in the league (i.e. worse than Cleveland). So let us all thank Josh for this.

I once commented that it seems like the Jazz go 1-2 at the line more often than they go 2-2. So, being a bit of a masochist, I decided to go through every single game's play-by-play and see if the hunch is right.

Sadly, no. The team has gone 1-2 sixty-four times. They have pulled off 2-2 seventy-three times. Other fun FT factoids:

  • 0-1 twelve times vs. 1-1 eighteen times
  • 0-2 six times.
  • A single set of three free throws: CJ went 2-3.

According to my tally marks, the worst games were Milwaukee (0-1 once, 1-2 nine times, 1-1 three times, 2-2 twice) and Memphis (0-1 once, 1-2 ten times, 2-2 four times).

And I can't tell you how aggravating Josh Howard was during this tallying exercise. Every now and then I'd be mid-third quarter, getting this rush of adrenaline wondering if the Jazz really could go an entire game without going 2-2 from the line a single time. Josh spoiled it every time.

In the Clippers game thread there was some disappointment among some late-comers that they didn't get to see the 4th quarter Clippers carnage, and SportsCenter (of course) wasn't playing the highlights. Well, fret no more. NBA247365 put together a highlight video just for you.

Enjoy (even if Tinsley did travel):

My promised Al postscript after the jump

Al's line this year compared to last year:

  • Lower FG% (but more shots), lower FT%, fewer FT's, lower rebound rate, higher turnover rate
  • Same assist rate, same block rate, higher steal rate

Put it all together, and it's slightly worse than last year. Before anyone throws their hands in the air and calls for my head, remember—the point is that it's NOT the regular box score stuff that's making the Jazz better.

And do you want to know what HAS improved? His defensive rating: from allowing 1.07 points per possession to 0.97. That's a ridiculously huge improvement.

And do you know what else? Virtually every player who is both a major contributor now and was also last year has about the same kind of improvement: Millsap, Hayward, Devin, Raja, Favors, Earl. It's an across-the-board 10% improvement.

The team defense has been phenomenal. Everyone has bought in, everyone is giving every effort. And I'd say Al, MIllsap, and Raja are the leaders in the crusade.