Most things have gone extremely well for the Jazz this season.
Continuity, health, experience, and refined strategies have all aided in a blistering hot start to the season that’s carried Utah to a 27-7 record with just two games left in the first half schedule: @NOP and @PHI.
While important to be self-aware and self-critical for continuous improvement, there’s not much to nitpick, frankly.
Here how the Jazz measure up to highly correlated metrics of team talent and success:
Point Differential: +12.6 (1st) per CleaningTheGlass
eFG% Advantage: +6.1% (1st) per NBA Stats
Adjusted 4 Factors: 0.132 (1st) per NBA Stuffer
Simple Rating System (SRS): 10.31 (1st) per Basketball Reference
Full-Strength Rating: 1698 (1st) per FiveThirtyEight
In short, the Utah Jazz belong in the elite tier of the NBA.
Does that ensure playoff success? Does that mean we matchup well with the other elite squads? Does that mean we are the team the rest of the league fears to play?
Unfortunately, no. In fact, I think the last question is proving a resounding no.
During the Golden State Warriors’ 73-9 campaign, it was clear to every opponent, every night that they should lose. But it was that obvious fact that pushed teams to new levels of intensity. The motivation to knock off a historically great team was enough for even below .500 teams to treat the matchup as their version of the Finals.
We’re seeing a watered down version against the Utah Jazz. Teams will bring their absolute best to knock us off and join the short list of franchises to best Utah.
With more to prove in the playoffs and tough sledding still ahead in the regular season, let’s analyze the Jazz’s 7 season losses for any common threads and areas to focus in game-planning or team construction.
As a reminder, here are the 7 losses Utah has on the season:
vsMIN, vsPHX, @BKN, @NYK, @DEN, @LAC, @MIA
Let’s break our analysis into four sections: Personnel, Strategy, Talent, and Results.
Team make-up is a crucial element of matchup analysis. The physical, mental, and tendency factors of the opponent’s whole team, lineup combinations, and individual players can have a great impact over a game’s results.
For example, the Utah Jazz split the season series against the New York Knicks, yet blew out the Milwaukee Bucks twice. MIL is certainly a superior team to NYK, so how do we explain a counter-intuitive result?
Among other factors, the Knicks have have a set of personnel that is more difficult on the Jazz than the Bucks.
Which brings us to the question posed in this article. What personnel characteristics are common amongst teams Utah has lost to?
- Every team but the NYK has a borderline Top 20 player and, in some, cases several. For LAC it’s George and Leonard. For BKN it’s Irving, Harden, and Durant. For DEN it’s Jokic. For MIA it’s Butler. For PHX it’s Paul and Booker. Teams with such players have the ability break an opposing team’s plan in non-sensical ways.
- Every team but NYK and MIA has a dynamic, potent guard. For LAC it’s George. For MIN it’s Russell. For BKN it’s Harden and Irving. For DEN it’s Murray. For PHX it’s Booker and Paul. Dynamic guards have caused Utah problems in the past when our perimeter defense isn’t locked in and focused.
- Every team but MIN has big, powerful forwards. For LAC it’s Leonard and Batum. For BKN it’s Durant and Green. For NYK it’s Barrett and Randle. For DEN it’s Porter Jr. and Millsap. For MIA it’s Butler and Robinson. For PHX it’s Bridges and Crowder. Size at the forward spot means a team can create defensive havoc and/or break a defense caught in a disadvantage with ease.
- Every team has a stretch big except for NYK. For LAC it’s Ibaka. For MIN it’s Towns. For BKN it’s Green. For DEN it’s Jokic and Green. For MIA it’s Olynyk and Leonard. For PHX it’s Ayton and Saric. Stretch bigs force Rudy to cover more ground and can result in the timing of his defensive help to be off.
- Every team, except for BKN, has a reputation for playing physical. We saw a “get-in-your-face” type of outing from each of these teams. They got in our way, the jumped our passing lanes, swiped at our dribbles, and pushed us for every rebound. Such physicality can be intimidating and off-putting if caught on your heels.
There are certainly more common threads personnel-wise than mentioned thus far. Also, you could likely find instances of a team Utah has beaten this year with similar personnel characteristics.
However, what we’ve learned here is that teams Utah struggles against have the ability to attack a Jazz weakness at every position, break a defensive game plan, and knock the Jazz off their game momentarily with physicality.
Identifying future teams with similar personnel abilities is the first step to neutralizing a personnel advantage. The next step is countering common strategies.
“What a team wants to do” is arguably more important that “what a team actually does”. Game results vary wildly from night to night. Often the Jazz have gotten a team’s best game of the season resulting in a loss.
The Minnesota Timberwolves came into Utah on the second game of the season and delivered a shocking 116-111 loss. Since that night, MIN has won just 5 games. They’ve been riddled with injuries and drama contributing to the worst record in the league.
In short, Jazz caught the T-Wolves on the worst possible night when they played their best game of basketball.
However, from a strategy perspective, or “what a team wants to do”, MIN isn’t quite like the other six teams in our list. What are the common team strategies Utah has lost to?
- All but one team (NYK) are in the top half of the league in offensive 3P frequency. These opponents like the 3 a lot. Given that the 3 (corner and above-the-break) are the 2nd and 3rd most efficient shot locations, it’s understandable why Utah wants to run teams off the 3P line and why opponents launch at will.
- All but one team (MIN) are in the top 17 teams in not fouling. This is an issue for Utah because we go to the line at an average rate. This means the Jazz rarely have an opportunity to supplement scoring at the line.
- All but two teams (BKN, MIN) are in the top half of the league in keeping opponents in the half-court. What’s truly revolutionized Utah’s potency this season are shot attempts (particularly from deep) that are early in the shot clock while he defense is still getting back. This means the Jazz go from a great offense to a good one.
- All but three teams (MIN, MIA, DEN) are in the top 12 of offensive isolation frequency. Those who like to go ISO, really like to go ISO. The Jazz are top 5 in defending isolations this season but ISO’s against dynamic guards and big forwards sporting at least one top 20 player is a different beast.
What we learn here is that generally the defenses limit obvious mistakes and on offense are committed to a team advantage from 3 or an individual advantage in isolation.
The most concerning of all these strategies is the isolation since such a scenario often removes Gobert from the defensive equation. The counter is a difficult application of weakside zone or double-teaming and quick rotation. There’s only so much that can be done on the Jazz personnel front to improve the perimeter defense.
Next, let’s analyze talent, specifically how well the teams perform in certain areas.
A team can put up all the smart shots (FGA at the rim and from 3) that they want, it doesn’t mean they are talented, just that they have a solid strategy. A talented team may not take many smart shots but the ones they do take result in a great efficiency.
A great example of talent is the Brooklyn Nets. Early in the year Utah got hammered by the Nets which resulted in the 2nd worst defensive outing for the Jazz all year. Through half the season, the Nets have the most efficient offense in the league. No wonder they caused us problems. They have a lot of talent.
What are the common talents of the 7 teams Utah has lost to?
- All but two teams (NYK, MIN) are in the top 10 in rim FG%. Shots at the rim are naturally the most efficient shot and for a team that’s naturally talented at such shots, this has to be a particular focus area. Fortunately for the Jazz, they have the best defender in the world protecting the rim.
- All but two teams (BKN, MIA) are even or better in “Points Swing”. “Points Swing” is a metric that calculates the net points scored off turnovers and offensive boards. These 7 teams are good at capitalizing off of extra opportunities, a strategy that helps offset a cold shooting night.
- All but two teams (NYK, MIN) are top 17 in offensive half-court efficiency. Half-court offense is preferable to transition offense because of the efficiency difference. However, these teams generally have successful half-court offensive talent. Fortunately the Jazz have the best half-court defensive talent.
- All but one team (MIN) is top 17 in defending corner 3 efficiency. The Utah Jazz LOVE the corner 3. Whether it’s the physical style of play or the big forwards flying around the perimeter, these teams generally force opponents into more difficult shots from the corners.
What we learn here is that these teams are pretty well-rounded. They are efficient at a multitude of play types and focus on limiting their opponents efficiency from smart shot locations.
Sometimes talent is just better than what an opponent can throw out there with personnel, strategy, or talent. The Jazz need to stack as much advantage in every area possible to overcome the type of talent depth present in these types of teams. It’s all about preparation and focused execution at every level.
Let’s chat now about the results of the games.
Ultimately the results are what make the difference between win and loss. Personnel, strategy, and talent all contribute to the results. The results allow us to measure how impactful the opponents are in each area.
There are times, however, when the results don’t coincide with an opponents personnel, strategy, and talent. A great example was the game in Denver when the Nuggets had their best 3P shooting game ever.
So what are the common results of the 7 teams Utah has lost to? Let’s actually divide these up into the good and bad areas:
- Normally, the 7 opponents Utah lost to shoot 43% from the midrange. When they faced the Jazz, they shot 47%. In some instances (like @MIA), they shot 16%, 11%, and 10% better than normal. While a less efficient shot, when team’s want the midrange and are good at it, Jazz may need to adjust.
- Normally, the 7 opponents Utah lost to shoot 38% from 3. When they faced the Jazz, they shot 47%. Even removing the Denver outlier, they shot 43%. When teams are beating the Jazz, they are going nuclear from deep. Against dynamic guards, popping bigs, and big forwards, how do the Jazz stop them?
- Normally, the 7 opponents Utah lost to score 1.25 PPP in transition. When they faced the Jazz, they scored 1.46 PPP in transition. While they didn’t get in transition as much as usual (see below), they were extremely efficient. Transition defense isn’t one of Utah’s strengths.
- Normally, the 7 opponents Utah lost to take 32% of their shots from the midrange. When they faced the Jazz, they took 41%. Opponents got worse shots, which is a good strategy most of the time.
- Normally, the 7 opponents Utah lost to are stuck in the half-court (as opposed to transition) 76% of their possessions. When they faced the Jazz, they were stuck in transition 79% of possessions. Opponents faced the Jazz set defense more than normal. A great sign.
What we learn here is that teams have one of their best shooting nights despite the Jazz having a fairly normal (if not better) strategy game. This is likely, in part, due to the personnel and talent of these 7 teams.
As Utah looks toward the second half of the schedule, they are in an excellent spot.
FiveThirtyEight projects the Jazz to finish with the #1 seed in the West by 8 games and Basketball Reference projects the same seed by nearly 9 games. None of these losses will come back to haunt the Jazz towards the end of the regular season.
However, as the Jazz look toward the playoffs and a goal to land in the WCF and Finals, the themes discovered from these 7 losses are sure to resurface and challenge the Jazz.
Utah should take a holistic approach to protecting themselves against the personnel, strategy, and talent commonalities that have caused them issues in the past. They should consider everything from minute allocation to trades.
The Jazz aren’t perfect, and while they are an odds-on favorite to win the West, we’ve agreed that it doesn’t ensure playoff success.
This is the best chance Utah has to win the chip in 25 years. Whatever it takes to stack the odds and insulate yourself from weakness, Jazz must pursue it.