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Stagnant or shift of priorities: Spacing > weak side action for Snyder’s Jazz

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Assists and off-the-ball movement seem less important parts in Snyder’s offense

NBA: Utah Jazz at Toronto Raptors
Snyder’s offense seems predicated on spacing
Peter Llewellyn-USA TODAY Sports

I love off-the-ball-movement. Backcuts, backscreens, backdoors; to me they are the pillars of a beautiful offensive system. Not surprisingly, as Jerry Sloan ingrained his offense into my brain ever since I was a wee nipper, and his system is a perfect example of this kind of basketball. Someone, out there, somewhere, was always setting a screen for a teammate, leading to easy hoops, open jumpers, and a bucketload of assists. The Utah Jazz played beautiful basketball with the ball in their hands.

Quin Snyder’s offense, not so much predicated on that. Assist numbers last season were downright dismal at 19 per game (and I understand, slow pace, low scoring, etc., but still…). Taking a random year with the 04/05 season, the Jazz scored a paltry 93 points per game, but still averaged 22.3 apg, ranking in the top 10 of the league. With 96 ppg and 24 apg Jazz ranked number 1 in the league in assists in 01/02. Jody Genessy even noted the lack of assists under Snyder in an article written at the start of Snyder’s tenure way (waayyy) back in 2014.

Disregarding any stats, the eyeball test let me to believe the offense was rather stagnant last year. There seemed to be little off-the-ball movement, not a lot of weak side action, and an easy dunk from a backdoor cut was, it felt, a rare sight.

But is that stagnancy, or is it a shift of focus? One from weak side action to optimal spacing, and is that the main cause for this different form of offense in the modern Jazz?

Keeping that optimal spacing thingy in mind, then it makes more sense that players are not moving about so often, as if that’s the case it is all about picking the perfect spot to give the opponent the maximum amount of spacing issues. So instead of weak side action to get people open off-the-ball, you try to create the perfect situation for the guy on the ball to score (or force a reaction from the help defender having to leave his own man open). A high pick is a premium set-up for this one.

Looking at that high pick-and-roll, it isn’t your grandma’s pick-and-roll anymore. Where, to me, it always seemed to be the ideal way to rack up your assist total, in this rendition it seems that the initial option is the ball handler as scorer (especially with anyone but Favors being the screener). The ball handler uses the screen, and then positions himself in such a way that he keeps the defenders on his back, creating an open mid-range jumper. Rodney Hood used this play a lot last year, and this year I’ve already seen veterans Joe Johnson and George Hill put it to work.

I, for a long time, was convinced that playing as a team meant that you’d automatically have a huge stack of assists at the end of those 48 minutes. But, if we accept the notion of spacing, then teamplay means providing the optimal situation for the ball handler to score. The screener needs to set a good screen, and the other teammates need to take the place on the court that helps create the best spacing so the ball handler can work his magic. Team play, then, is making sure you enable the person on the ball to score, instead of running off-the-ball action to create a weak side scoring option.

Look at the very first play of the Blazers game last week. High screen, open mid-range jumper, no intention of anyone but the ball handler to score (unless, obviously, the defense uses help to cover the ball handler coming off the screen). Start of second half, same play (twice, I believe).

Sure, maybe everything I just said in the above isn’t the case at all, and anchored by willing passers and some veterans who can showcase their instincts for the game the Jazz will have loads more assists and backdoor cuts leading to easy dunks this year. The first two games do not necessarily indicate as much (19 and 14 assists respectively).

However, where I used to feel the Snyder offense was too stagnant, now I’m not so sure. Maybe a complex offensive system can’t be detected by the amount of scoring options through weak side action, but maybe complexity is also created by getting all the spacing and angles so right that an increased chance to score results from that. Which is about putting the defense in tough situations, however one does it.

It’s going to be interesting to see Snyder’s Jazz offense at work this season, with a year of extra maturity, and some veterans who might be able to help execute it more crisply than ever before. Maybe it’ll shift my interpretation of what a good offensive system is even more.