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NBA Elite Scoring, and being constructive about Utah Jazz Center Al Jefferson

Russ Isabella-US PRESSWIRE - Presswire

I don't even know if I have a thesis statement for this post. Or even a hypothesis that I'm trying to find an answer for with statistics. I do have a bunch of sorta-connected thoughts. Maybe together we can work them out as a group, essentially brain storming about Utah Jazz starting center Al Jefferson...

Last night I asked you how you felt about a hypothetical Al Jefferson scoring 24.0 ppg, while not needing to take a Kobe's worth of shots to get there. I didn't single out Kobe there, but the point was "What if Big Al could score 24 a game without getting more inefficient?" That question presumes that right now Big Al is kinda inefficient. (Carlos Boozer was much more efficient, as we pointed out as well last night) But it's not just an issue of inefficiency though. The issue here is that right now the majority of us Jazz fans are unhappy with the production we're getting from our "best" player. Big Al is not an average offensive player, and not an average defensive player. His talent and production skews heavily in favor of offense. That, in itself, isn't the worst thing in the world.

The bad news is that while Al is offense heavy, his production as a first option is:

I think Jefferson wants to be a great team mate who plays well, and helps his team win games. I want Jefferson to not only be successful, but it's in his, mine, all fans, and the Utah Jazz franchise for him to be great. Now is not the time for finger pointing and pro-Al or anti-Al rhetoric. Now is the time for both sides to come together and have a discussion about Al, and work together.

Let's "Fix" Big Al...

Looking at Big Al

Right now Big Al is our big time scorer. He's our first option. We go to him at the beginning of games. We go to him when we need a bucket with the game on the line. This is not up for contention, or debate. That just IS who he is for our team. You could argue that the team would have been more successful if you ran a play to get Paul Millsap an open, spot up, midrange shot. But when you have one of the best one on one scorers, your hands are kind of tied.

No one on our squad really knows the whole "one on one" deal better than Al. Of course he has the most experience. He played on the Minnesota Timberwolves for years. He knows all about playing 1 on 5. We'd want him to play 5 on 5 though. And there is evidence in both camps to suggest that he is or is not moving towards doing that.

Jefferson has been the 1st option on the T-Wolves and on the Jazz. 'Sota is less successful than Utah; so that may be a factor here. But . . .

  • on the Wolves: 208 games, 20.11 PPG, 17.02 FGA/Game, 1.18 PPS, 4.38 FTA/Game
  • on the Jazz: 143 games, 18.87 PPG, 16.55 FGA/Game, 1.14 PPS, 3.26 FTA/Game

What's the difference? Well, with the T-Wolves Big Al shot 0.47 more times a game, but scored 1.24 more points per game. He's "worse" at scoring now, overall, based upon averages created by the last 5 seasons. He's still the best option we have right now.

He is, implicitly, our first option. But compared to who he USED to be, he is less efficient. What's the biggest change for me? Well, Al Jefferson was on the precipice of being an ELITE (read as 24.0 ppg) scorer. In 2008-09 he was scoring 23.12 ppg, was going to the free throw line 5.04 times a game, and scoring 1.19 PPS. He was RIGHT THERE, but got injured and never got back up there.

Let's go deeper and investigate ALL of this.


What's the deal with being an Elite Scorer?

The main point is to try to look at how Al Jefferson can remove the concern we have of him being on the floor. He's only going to 'win us over' if he becomes so good that he HAS to be on the floor. I don't think he's that guy right now. After all, we were a Linas Kleiza Hero Mode game from going perfect last season with Al Jefferson out of the lineup. For the majority of us who are vocal, we would embrace Big Al if he was a much better defender. The teams that usually stomp us in the playoffs have at LEAST 6 solid defenders on their team playing most of the minutes. (Or at least, that's what it seems like in retrospect) Al is deficient on defense, and we've seen how that song and dance goes with Carlos Boozer.

In the playoffs what I saw was:

  • Big Al playing the pick and roll poorly
  • Not defending the ball handler off of pick and rolls
  • Not challenging the shot the ball handler would take
  • Not, at the very least, FOULING the ball handler, conceding the layup
  • Conceding the series to reporters in-between games, before the series was over
  • Throwing sloppy passes in the 4th quarter, AT HOME, IN AN ELIMINATION GAME
  • Not running back on defense, in the 4th quarter, AT HOME, IN AN ELIMINATION GAME
  • and generally not playing as hard as I would have liked.

Those are the lasting impressions I have of him, he wasn't killing himself out there on the court after mistakes, and he wasn't fighting for his life out there. Maybe that's another product of being in Minnesota for so long -- he KNOWS losing so well that he didn't feel like fighting to extend the series. All of that said, he did more things than just that.

I was not a fan of his belly out, arms up escorts on defense. He'd run behind Tony Parker like a body guard, funneling him to the basket for layup after layup. He didn't challenge the shot. Stop his penetration. Or foul him. But -- there is no doubt -- that Big Al was the only guy on our team who was playing well on offense.

On the other side of the ball, Al Jefferson was the opposite of what he was on defense. On Defense he made me angry. But on offense he shot 52.9 fg% (up from 49.2 fg% in the regular season), scored at a higher rate, and was trying.

This is beyond pointing fingers and getting mad at him though. We saw him play well on offense, and play poorly on defense.We have to understand that he's the big man on campus and he is GOING to get the minutes. Regardless. He's in a contract year, and in the off-season the front office made move after move to surround Big Al with the conventional talent to help him succeed.

*IF* we have to live with Big Al, we'd want him to be a player that HAS to be on the floor. We want Al to deserve to be the man. It's going to take a lot of time, effort, and pain to get him to be the defensive player he needs to be to deserve being on the floor right now. That's frankly not going to happen as he's going into his 9th year in the league. No one makes the jump from their 9th season in the league from "below average / disinterested defender" into "shut down defender".

Setting the condition for supporting Big Al at -- he's a good scorer now, we need him to also be a good defender -- is setting the condition for self-failure. The condition needs to be revised.

The justification for playing Big Al has to be that he truly IS important to the team, and truly HAS to be out there. The only way he can fulfill that niche status is if he's an elite scorer. And by elite, I mean he has to score 24.0 ppg as the 1st option -- while not getting WORSE on offense.

Really, I think making the jump from good scorer to great is an easier jump to make than from below average defender to good defender. I think that if those are your two options then you would tend to agree with me. And I think we ALL know that for Jazz fans -- for Big Al to get our love he'd have to somehow turn into one of those two guys. Al has to augment his current offensive production with a huge leap in defensive ability; or Al has to take a smaller leap from his current offensive production to being a guy who just gets the job done. Period.

As of right now, 53.3% of the people who voted seem to agree that for Al it has to come from becoming a better scorer. An Elite Scorer.


Who are Elite Scorers?

In the last 10 seasons there have only been 72 individual "Elite scoring" seasons from players. And these 72 scoring seasons were accomplished by 23 different players in total. There are only 30 teams, so you know that not every team *could* have one. Being elite is rare. But, there were still 7.2 of them PER season. Who were they?

Players who have averaged at least 24.0 PPG ('02-03 to '11-12)

Player Times Capable of winning a game with scoring?
1 Kobe Bryant 9 Yes
2 LeBron James 8 Yes
3 Dirk Nowitzki 6 Yes
4 Carmelo Anthony 5 Yes
5 Allen Iverson 5 Yes
6 Dwyane Wade 5 Yes
7 Kevin Durant 4 Yes
8 Tracy McGrady 4 I can't do it, man . . . *sniff*
9 Gilbert Arenas 3
10 Vince Carter 3
11 Amare Stoudemire 3
12 Ray Allen 2 Yes
13 Monta Ellis 2
14 Danny Granger 2
15 Paul Pierce 2
16 Michael Redd 2
17 Elton Brand 1
18 Kevin Garnett 1
19 Joe Johnson 1
20 Kevin Love 1
21 Shaquille O'Neal 1
22 Derrick Rose 1
23 Peja Stojakovic 1

Well, all of those guys are known for scoring. Big Al is also known as a scorer - but is he in the same echelon? To demand the minutes he'll get - we need him to be. (Again, because I don't expect his defense will ever improve to the level that'll be acceptable to us, and I know he's going to get the minutes if we like it or not.)

These guys can take over a game. And they can demand the ball and score at the rate needed to be a net positive for their team.


Al Jefferson's career scoring, year by year:

This data is from the regular season, mainly because the regular season data of 550 games is a larger sample size than the 11 games in the playoffs Al played. And anyway, I'm giving Al his props for scoring in the playoffs, even if he only scored 18.3 ppg last year. (He still managed a PER of 21.1 which was tops on the team) (Not counting the higher PER scores for Blake Ahearn and Jeremy Evans, who played a grand total of 15 minutes combined.)

Earlier I mentioned Al Jefferson was ONCE on the precipice of being an Elite 1st option scorer. He was really damn close in '08-09. Since then he has drifted off a bit.


This table shows a few things. It shows progress as he ages, and by which team he plays for. It also shows you his PPG, shots per game (FGA/G) and his PPS (points per shot). The last stuff, the *critical* stuff are how many shots he would have NEEDED to take to average 24.0 ppg that season (at that seasons' individual scoring rate), and how many more FGA that would have been.

In '08-09 Big Al was close, less than 1 more FGA per game would have put him in that Elite category. While his PPS value was down from his best years, it was still "right up there" with Al at his best as a younger player. Big Al has only scored 20 or more points per game for a season twice, and yes, they both happened before his 25th birthday.

  • In Boston Big Al wasn't a big scorer, but he was an efficient player.
  • In Minny he was a big scorer, but less efficient
  • In Utah the wheels somehow fell off. He's way less efficient right now.

From what we've seen of Big Al in a Jazz uniform for him to be that Elite 24.0 ppg scorer he'd have to take 4.5 more shots a game. There just aren't 4.5 more shots a game to give him though. IF Al is going to be that Elite 24.0 PPG scorer it's not going to be JUST because he shoots more. It's impossible here with our team, with the number of offensive possessions we have a game, and with the spread of talent on this team.

If Al is going to be that Elite 24.0 ppg guy he's also going to have to be more efficient at scoring.


Scoring Efficiency

Did you know that for that n = 72 group of 24.0 PPG scorers from the last decade that they averaged 20.20 FGA per game, and 8.27 FTA per game? Did you know that for that n = 16 group of the 1st option scorers for the 2011-12 NBA playoff teams the average PPG was 20.9 PPG, with averages of 16.4 FGA per game and 5.8 FTA per game?

Did you know that in both cases Big Al falls way below in terms of getting to the line? Against his first option peers last season Big Al (2.9 FTA per game) was nearly 3 FTA behind. Against the Elite scoring group over 5 FTA behind.

If it's going to be hard to get a player more shots, you need to make the player either MAKE more of their shots, or get put in situations where they can score without taking a FGA. That means either get Al easier buckets (which would be, honestly, cuts and transition baskets) or get him to the line.

We only have to look at Big Al's own history here. When he got to the line over 5 times a game he was less than 1 FGA off of BEING a 24.0 PPG scorer. The other big britches1st option guys all get to the line. Al needs to be more like them in this regard. Let's take a look at Al's yearly progression with respect to getting to the line, and his ratio of FTA to FGA.


Okay, so by focusing in on the important stuff (PPS, and that ratio) we see some sad things. Big Al went from being way above average in PPS to being increasingly below average. And he went from being a Big man who went to the line once for every three shots he took (Boston years) to being a Big man who goes to the line once for every six shots he takes (Utah years). He's going in the wrong direction in terms of being a veteran scorer who has all the savvy tricks to get to the line.

Al is a better scorer now. Other metrics easily point this out. But his inability to get him to the line really holds him back. Last season, his 8th in the NBA and 6th straight as the first option, saw him go to the line 2.9 times a game. In his second season in the NBA he used to go to the line 2.3 times a game. This last season he took 669 more shots, and went to the line only 43 more times. And his ratio reflects that.

  • Last year: 1 free throw for every 5.92 shots taken
  • 2nd year: 1 free throw for every 2.83 shots taken

Al's just not getting to the line, a) like a 1st option should, and b) like he USED to when he was a more efficient and dangerous scorer.


Visual Interlude:

Let's look at Al's career progress in terms of FTA per game, his PPS each season, and the inverse ratio. (Now it's not how many FGA needed to earn 1 FTA, it's how many FTA is earned per FGA)


No, this isn't a Pizza Hut logo drawn by a mental patient. This is a sad chart. The blue line is Al's free throw attempts per game, by season. He took a big jump by getting to the line more between season 2 and season 3, and a lesser but progressive jump over his career in Minny. Then it took a big drop his last year in Minny (post injury season), and in his two seasons in Utah. The Pink line is his PPS value which has gone down every year in the league for the most part. And similarly, the ratio line, in Green, has gone down in a similar rate.

How similar are each line to one another? Well, The Blue Line (FTA) isn't related that well. But the Pink and Green lines have a Correlation of 0.9579689. Essentially, they are almost identical. (Seriously bro, > 0.95 !!!)

What does this mean? This means that Al's increasing inefficiency isn't JUST a free throw thing. Free throws would give him a boost, and get him more points, and make him more dangerous (esp since he has raised his FT% almost every year in the league, going from 62.96 ft% as a rookie to 77.40 ft% last year) -- but it's something else. What is it? Well, Al continues to miss more shots than he shoots. That's the other component besides free throws.

Either the defense is getting better on him, making him need to shoot more to achieve the same result. Or . . .dun dun dun . . . he's taking harder shots than he should be. And let's all be honest here. There is a real reason why they don't teach young players the 180-degree-one-handed-half-jump-hook-shot-while-floating-away-from-the-basket-before-you-square-your-shoulders shot. That's also known as The Wheezie. And that shot, my friends, is money when Big Al is "on". But the results show that Big Al isn't "on" nearly as much as he needs to be, if he is going to be an Elite 24.0 ppg scorer.

That's a hard shot to make. The fact that it ever goes in (have you watched it up close? He's releasing it from his palm, not his finger tips) is remarkable. Al can get better shots. He HAS gotten better shots before. He needs to take more of those good shots if he wants to reverse the trend of ever decreasing PPS values and FGA to FTA disparities.


"Better shots?"

Big Al is a great inside scorer. The sad thing is that he's taking less and less shots from inside.


Really, click on this to get the full size and look it over for 5 mins...

Wow. It's that simple huh? In his best ever season, the one where he scored at the near Elite level (Gold cell shading, '08-09), he shot 7.7 shots A GAME at the rim. And last season he shot only 4.1 shots a game from that close. Additionally, last year he shot the most ever shots from 16' or farther. And yes, he got better from this range (34% up to 41%), it's still not where he needs to be shooting from.

What was the reason? Does the offense make Al shoot less shots at the rim, or was it Big Al himself? I think the major culprit is that in order to get his shot off w/o getting blocked he does all these post moves -- but all with the purpose of avoiding contact / juking out the defender. He does this but isn't shooting AT the rim anymore, he's shooting while going AWAY from the rim. Last season was his second highest ever FGA per game from 3' to 9'. And he shot fairly well from there, it was still about 20% lower than his fg% AT the rim. It's a good shot, nearly 50/50. But it's not as efficient as it needs to be as a first option's first weapon.

Taking a look at his PPG and PPS for these splits also finds this to be the case. Big Al was a way more efficient player when he didn't have an outside game. Part of maturing is having an outside game. And Big Al has improved his outside game. But his bread and butter needs to be the inside game. He shoots great at the rim. And he would get to the line more too if he kept that his main course on offense.

For the record, I think Yucca came to the same conclusion last night / today as I did. Great minds . . .


Getting Al the Best Shots

Well, according to we know that Al does well for himself when he posts up. He ranks #18th best in the NBA. That's a very interesting thing. He is a Top 20 guy on Post ups. He's not Top 10. He's Top 20. And that said, while his NBA rank is high . . . he's not really scoring GREAT off of post ups. His FG% is 47.5 fg%, which is LOWER than a) his shots at the rim fg%, or his b) overall fg%. On the relative scale Big Al is good on offense when posting up. But on the actual scale he is not. Furthermore, his PPP (the main metric at Synergy, Points per Possession, which is a different value than PPS) off of post ups is only 0.96. Which means that each time we post Al up we get 0.96 points. We get 2 points for a made basket though. A made basket by Al, whatever it is, is better than what we get from all of his post ups.

You know what Al is GREAT at, not on the relative scale, but the actual scale? Big Al is a monster when he's scoring off of hand offs (when someone drives and dumps it off to him). And he's a monster when scoring off of cuts.

Overall 0.98 49.2%
Post Ups 0.96 47.5%
Dump Off 1.25 62.5%
Cut 1.27 63.4%

Al is CLEARLY a way better scorer when he's the guy finishing the play, not the guy doing it on his own. With guard (or point forward - I see you Gordon Hayward) penetration, or posting up someone else (Derrick Favors? Paul Millsap?) and cutting we see Big Al being unstoppable.

Overall Al almost gets you 1.00 PPP off of almost 50 fg%. Off of cuts and getting that hand off / dump off -- dude is a killer.

So why the hell do we not divorce ourselves from feeding Al for the inefficient isolation shot that turns into a 3' to 9' foot wheezie? Why don't we re-structure our offense so Al is on the move and getting the ball GOING TO THE BASKET where he doesn't have to do anything but SHOOT AT THE RIM? If we're trying to run a system that makes AL better, and gets him to play his best on offense, this is how you do it. Not post him up, and watch him struggle as he takes more and more shots out of his sweet spot.

OF course, this takes the ball out of his hand. The most simplest offensive sets suggest you need the ball in the hands of your top dog. Well, when Karl Malone was our top dog (you know, a guy who averaged 31 ppg for a season, which is 12 more than Al did last year) he got the ball where he could finish the best from. And he finished. Al's not finishing the way we need him to as a 1st option. And all the data supports that (where he's shooting from, his fg%, his PPP, his PPS). Getting Al the ball on the move is also going to get him to the line more as defenders will HAVE TO foul him, instead of just wait for him to take an off-balance push shot from 7' out.

If we're serious about playing Big Al big minutes in a contract year, and we're serious about having him deserve those minutes, he's going to have to be an Elite scorer.

And he CAN be an elite scorer if he: goes to the line more, and takes more shots where he makes them from.

It's almost too simple.

To fix Big Al he needs to do more of what he's good at. I could care less that he improved his fg% from 16 feet by 7%. He shot 68 fg% at the rim last year. He only shot there 4.1 times a game. That's the problem on offense.


Conclusions, I guess . . .

I think it's more likely Al becomes an Elite scorer than an average or above average defender. We'd want to field the best team possible with the best defenders possible. I don't think that's going to happen with Al on the floor. But we all know Al is going to be on the floor a lot. A whole damn lot. In order for Al to be useful when he's on the floor would be for him to tip the scales of his bad defense by being really damn good on offense. He needs to be an Elite scorer. Guys like Durant, or Melo, or Dirk, or Kobe . . . these guys all get passes on defense because of their premier scoring ability. If Al can get to that level he can also get a pass on defense.

And the only way he's going to get there, the only way he's going to score 24.0 ppg on THIS team, with this group of other, hungry offensive players - is for him to take and make more shots from where he's best at it, and to get to the line more. Historical evidence supports this as he almost DID that years ago. He's older now. Smarter now. And playing with better team mates. He needs to grow up and move over "having to do it himself." If the Jazz play Jazz basketball, and feed Al the ball when he's on the move, or as a product of dribble penetration Al can be a super efficient scorer. If the Jazz reject Jazz basketball, and feed Al on the post and watch him wiggle his way into an awkward shot it'll never happen.

Now is the time for a discussion on improving Big Al. You heard my piece. What do you guys have to say? What can we pro-Al and anti-Al people bring to the table here? He's going to play lots of minutes this year. And I don't want to write negative pieces all season long. So let's talk about this now. Let's talk about a future where Big Al can be "solved."