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Could the Utah Jazz be following in the footsteps of the Golden State Warriors?

How does an NBA team go from good to great to elite?

NBA: Memphis Grizzlies at Golden State Warriors Kyle Terada-USA TODAY Sports

The Utah Jazz are entering the season with big expectations this season. In just one year they have gone from a lost lottery team to a contender out West due to the meteoric rise of Donovan Mitchell and stout defense of Rudy Gobert. Their motto “The Strength of the team is the team” aptly described the necessity of the next man up coming in and contributing as they battled injuries last year. This year with the hope of health on the horizon, the Jazz’s season looks promising. With big expectations, a bigger question looms.

How can a 49 win team improve dramatically without adding a significant talent to the roster?

The answer to that question may reside with the juggernauts of the NBA in the Bay Area: the Golden State Warriors.

If you had asked anybody after the 2014 NBA Playoffs who the next “super” team would be in the NBA, they probably would have pointed to the Oklahoma City Thunder. The Thunder had Kevin Durant, Russell Westbrook, and Serge Ibaka. Or they might have said the Los Angeles Clippers would be next to rise as they had Chris Paul, JJ Reddick, Blake Griffin, and DeAndre Jordan. Few would have pointed to the 6th seeded Golden State Warriors. The Warriors were fun to watch, sure, but a super team? Nah. The following year the Warriors would go from winning 51 games to 67. The league would take notice. A super team was born.

There was one significant change that occurred in that offseason: Steve Kerr. While no changes to the roster were made, the staffing change was significant. Steve Kerr tuned the offense to his player’s strengths and they went from being a fun team to watch to an offensive buzzsaw fueled by vine worthy highlights. But beyond Kerr, there were no major additions to the team, right?

Strength into pillar

When Quin Snyder was asked how the Utah Jazz were going to improve this season, it seemed like the perfect softball of a question to answer with their offense. After all, Utah’s 16th ranked offense seems like the perfect candidate for a remodel. But that wasn’t the first thought. Snyder countered with a different school of thought:

“More than anything, it’s a question of being better at something we’re already pretty good at: defense. We can be elite defensively. Not just good, but elite. If we can do that, we’ll have a chance to win.”

- Quin Snyder

Differentiating to build an advantage

In business speak, we refer to this as differentiation. What makes you unique, makes you who you are. McDonald’s differentiation was their flat-top grill and execution. That allowed them to have breakfast items and transition flawlessly to lunch items. Apple has their ecosystem. That differentiation makes you unique. To match a competitor’s differentiation is called creating parity. Parity is not a bad thing. Like how Taco Bell created a breakfast menu to compete with McDonald’s, it’s not a bad thing. Parity can become a dead weight if you’re not careful. How? By losing focus of your main differentiator. When Taco Bell went into breakfast, they didn’t copy McDonald’s. They brought their sick, twisted view of Mexican food to breakfast items and it worked.

The Golden State Warriors are built on their overpowering offense, right? WRONG.

So how does that relate to basketball? Let’s take a look at the Golden State Warriors. Their differentiating strength? Their insane overpowering offense, right? Wrong. While it is true that once Steve Kerr got to Warriors-land, he opened up the floor for the splash brothers, brought more shooters onto the floor, and created an nightmarish offense that fueled Steph Curry’s MVP season, Kerr made sure to reinforce a strength: their defense.

Teams mistakenly tried to match Golden State’s offense punch for punch, but couldn’t match it. One even came close: the Houston Rockets. Injuries ended up bringing the Rockets experiment down in the playoffs, but you could argue that playing the Golden State Warriors game eventually led to Chris Paul’s injuries in the playoffs. He was gassed and his body wore down. But they tried to beat the Golden State Warriors at a game that the Warriors were not really playing.

Quin Snyder and Dennis Lindsey recognize this. To take the throne, you can’t use the exact same strategy as prior coup. The Utah Jazz are taking a different route to the same problem. Quin Snyder correctly identified what made the Warriors the Warriors. Instead of focusing on the Utah Jazz’s offense and figuring out how to make it more Warriors-like, he’s looking at how to make the Jazz’s defense even more Jazz-like. D.J. Foster talked about this in his piece for The Ringer in August.

That’s the goal of this Jazz team: How not-fun can we make this for you? Fly into the city, everything is closed. Come to the arena, the fans are right on top of you. Game starts, there’s a defender climbing inside your jersey and a C.O.U.S. (Center of Unusual Size) waiting at the rim for you. Shootouts in Houston can be fun. The rock fights in Utah never are.

The goal for Utah is build their monster of a defense into an undead Frankenstein monster that will bring teams to their knees much like how Golden State’s offense can run a team out of their gym. Consider the improvement Golden State had year over year. Most will point to their offensive improvement—which is remarkable—but they took a strength and turned it into a pillar of their team. That strength? Their defense.

Build a defense and wins will come

The 2013-2014 Warriors were a top 5 defensive team. They had a defensive rating of 102.6. Kerr turned that defensive team and poured gas on its fire. The following season the Golden State Warriors were the number one defense in the league. They improved on all categories. Going from 13th in steals to 4th, 10th in blocks to 2nd, and 4th in opponents FG% to 1st. They pillaged and burned the land behind them to provide for their army.

The Utah Jazz in 2017-2018 are a much better defensive team than the 2013-2014 Golden State Warriors. For starters, part of Utah’s defensive rating (103.9, 3rd) is due to playing two months without Rudy Gobert. Once Gobert returned in January, the Utah Jazz were far and away the best defensive team in the league. They ranked 4th in steals, 9th in blocks, and 6th in opponent field goal percentage. If the Jazz want to follow Golden State’s blueprint, they’re already working with better defensive materials. Utah could be taking the Taco Bell differentiation route. They’re about to make an unholy union on the defensive end: the best perimeter defense in the league with the best interior defense in the league.

Utah’s perimeter defenders of Ricky Rubio, Donovan Mitchell, Dante Exum, Royce O’Neale, Joe Ingles, and Thabo Sefolosha are already top tier defensive players. Three of those players are young players who still have a lot of potential on the defensive end (Mitchell, Exum, and O’Neale). There’s another wrinkle to this that makes Utah’s defense next year more frightening: the developments we learned at media day. Jae Crowder and Derrick Favors have slimmed down considerably so they can close out on the perimeter easier. The Jazz’s four spot will no longer be a liability for Utah when teams switch when Favors is on the floor. Adding insult to opposing team’s injury, Gobert has even said he has improved his speed and quickness so he can guard stretch 5s.

The Utah Jazz are doubling down on their differentiation.

Offensive improvement

So where does that leave the offensive end? The Utah Jazz can’t become a juggernaut without improving by leaps and bounds on that end. After all, the Golden State Warriors improved from 12th to 1st. What areas did they improve most in?

The 2013-2014 Warriors were one of the best catch and shoot teams in the league. They averaged a 53.9% catch and shoot eFG% per Second Spectrum. Unfortunately, they ranked as one of the bottom teams in terms of catch and shoot field goals per game (24.1 FGA per game). Under Mark Jackson, they were not maximizing on their strength. That’s where we get back to differentiating. Kerr took their strengths and doubled down. The following season, the Warriors offense was still one of the best teams in catch and shoot eFG%, but they increased their catch and shoot FGA attempts to 28.0 a game.

Most people identify Golden State’s offense with the flashy pull up threes by Klay Thompson and Steph Curry from deep, but did you know they actually took less pull up threes off the dribble the season they went from good to elite? They dropped from 8.1 pull up three point attempts per game to 7.3, almost one less FGA less a game. But their percentage climbed from 33.6% to 39.1% year over year. They went from having a green light to a structured green light. Steve Kerr’s system allowed them to know when to fire from long range, but his system also taught them that they if they could find a catch and shoot three, they had a better chance of making it (40.1%) than a pull up off the dribble three (39.1%). The threat of their catch and shoot also opened up their isolation game to allow for off the dribble pull ups.

Remember how Golden State’s defense fueled their war machine offense? This is where that jump in offensive efficiency really comes into play. The easiest basket is the one in which you are playing with an advantage. In 2013-2014, the Golden State Warriors were ranked 11th and averaged 15.1 points per game in the fast break. The following year that number climbed to 20.9, 1st in the league. That’s an extra 5.8 points a game in a situation that allows for the offense to play with an advantage.

What about those turnovers? In 2013-2014, Golden State averaged 17.0 points off turnovers, good for 12th in the league. The following year? 19.7 points off turnovers, good for 1st in the league. They were not only taking possessions away, but making teams pay in a big way.

What about Utah?

In catch and shoot situations, the Utah Jazz had one of the best percentages in the league last year averaging 54.9% eFG% with a 38.7 3P%. But just like the 2013-2014 Golden State Warriors, the Utah Jazz are not taking a lot of catch and shoot field goals. The Utah Jazz ranked 24th in the league at just 24.0 attempts per game—SHOT THE BALL, INGLES.

The Utah Jazz could take a serious leap if they knock off the bad habit they had last year of holding onto the ball when they had the advantage and the open shot in the offense. How many times did we see Joe Ingles, Royce O’Neale, Ricky Rubio, and others hesitate to take the open shot?

Just like the 2013-2014 Warriors, the Utah Jazz have a great defense, but they don’t make teams pay on the offensive end as a result of their great defense. Utah ranked 11th in the league in points off turnovers with 17.0 points off turnovers a game. Fast break points are a huge opportunity for Utah. Last year they only averaged 10.2 fast break points a game. If they were to become a top 5 team in fast break points, that would mean at least 5 extra easy points in transition.

Not only that, but Utah last year only allowed opponents to score 9.5 points a game in fast break opportunities. Part of that is due to Utah’s extreme love of the Euro foul. The other part of that is their stellar transition defense. If Utah averages ~15 ppg in fast break opportunities and still allows around 10 ppg in fast break opportunities to their opponents, they are building a huge advantage in their games.

From good player to great player

The Warriors giant leap also came from internal development from their young players. They got an MVP year from Steph Curry. Klay Thompson became a lockdown defender and All Star. Draymond Green became a defensive player of the year candidate. Andre Igoudala slotted into his role. Role players like David West, Andrew Bogut, and Shaun Livingston stepped up and had improved years in limited minutes.

This is what Dennis Lindsey and Quin Snyder talked about Media Day today. Quin Snyder talked about how all Jazz players from the top end of the roster to the bottom have to improve in order for Utah to take the next step. Role player’s minutes have to go from average to above average. Starters minutes have to go from above average to All Star caliber. Donovan Mitchell and Rudy Gobert have to go from All Star caliber to All NBA in order for Utah to go from 5th in the West last year to 2nd and a championship contender.

The seeds for such improvement are already there. Donovan Mitchell talked about focusing on having the game slow down for him and already looks more built as he is eating healthier than last year—no more Ruth’s Chris Steakhouse for him. Rudy Gobert talked about how he has had to get faster to cover stretch 5s. Derrick Favors and Jae Crowder slimmed down to cover the perimeter better. Dante Exum has talked about how he has to be a significant contributor this year. Ricky Rubio understands his leadership role and how he has to improve offensively with shooting. Joe Ingles just has to be Joe Ingles, who are we kidding? The point is, everyone on this team knows the microscope is on them because Utah didn’t make any significant changes. They bet the farm that everyone on this team can improve, and so improve they must.

If we’re being honest with ourselves even internal improvement is not enough for Utah to take that next leap to a juggernaut like the Golden State Warriors unless something really special happens for Utah. Steph Curry’s MVP year propelled the Warriors into the NBA’s upper echelon and they never looked back. For Utah to do the same, they would need Donovan Mitchell to do something similar. That feels unfair to even insinuate that Mitchell must take that type of leap for Utah to have success, but it’s true.

His star performances in the playoffs changed the way Utah played. It changed their trajectory altogether. He’s a special player. The type of a guard that doesn’t come around every so often. Hell, he’s a rookie season similar to Michael Jordan. Just chew on that for a second. But for Utah to reach terminal velocity and escape the pull of a middle tier Western Conference playoff team, Mitchell’s star will have to go supernova. He will have to have a sophomore year that rivals the jump in efficiency that Michael Jordan or Steve Francis took. Can he do it? It seems blasphemous to say he can’t because of how quickly he’s adapted to every new challenge. His ability to learn and master new skills can put some of the best Artificial Intelligence’s to shame. If Spida takes that next step, this team goes from annoying thorn in the side to the Warriors to a peer. It’s not likely that Donovan takes that type of leap this year—or any year for that matter—but when has Donovan been anything but extraordinary?

The hope for Utah is that some of these improvements can occur. They differentiate based on their defensive skillset, that defensive skillset fuels improvement on the offensive end, and that improvement coupled with the developmental improvement of Utah’s roster can cause Utah to go from 5th in the West to a juggernaut Golden State has to take notice of. It’s unlikely, but so was Golden State’s meteoric rise. One can only hope.