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NBA Free Agency 2014: Utah Jazz crowded front court ripe for experimentation

Right now the Utah Jazz have six variables, and a lot of tests to do

Defense is going to be the easy part of this experiment
Defense is going to be the easy part of this experiment
Steve Mitchell-USA TODAY Sports

A few seasons back the Utah Jazz had a "log jam" inside because Andrei Kirilenko, Carlos Boozer, Mehmet Okur, Jarron Collins, Kyrylo Fesenko, and Kosta Koufos all were on the roster at the same time. However, things weren't that bad as the best talented bigs played the most minutes, and one guy sublimated his game to play out of position for the greater good. More recently the Jazz created another one with Al Jefferson, Paul Millsap, Derrick Favors, Enes Kanter, and Jeremy Evans. The players best equipped to help the team win were the ones who played; despite the tell-tale signs that the team was in transition. Today the Jazz are clearly in a rebuilding phase, and also have another possible log-jam on their hands with Derrick Favors, Enes Kanter, Trevor Booker, Steve Novak, Jeremy Evans, and Rudy Gobert all on the squad. The paint is only so big that on draft night the Jazz traded away Jarnell Stokes for virtually nothing.

It was almost something to lose sleep over.

The good news this time around happens to surround the possible outcome of this log jam. First, the team is clearly rebuilding, so the emphasis is going to be on improvement -- not trying to squeeze out that double over time win against the Minnesota Timberwolves. Second, they all have similar experience levels, and there's no outright pecking order beyond Derrick Favors being ahead of everyone else. Third, they all have question marks to their games, but bring something to the table. Favors looks to be a future All-Star. Enes Kanter could be even better than him, and his offensive game is a throwback to a more savage time in the NBA. Trevor Booker runs the floor the best and hustles. Jeremy Evans is an out of this world athlete who has been hyper efficient everywhere. Steve Novak can shoot, shoot, shoot. And Rudy Gobert, if properly developed, will have a hook shot that just cannot be stopped.

And probably most importantly, what happens this year will be a big experiment. Sure, the guys who play defense are going to be the guys who play; but there's just so much to work with here the offense is going to be a quilt of questions that need to be answered.


Setting up the Experiment:

One thing we know is that, for the most part, four of the six bigs have played between 4,000 to 7,000 minutes at the NBA level. The two 'greener' guys are aged 26 and 21. No one is really old, save for Novak who will be 31 when the season starts.

  • Derrick Favors (age 23, 4 seasons, 300 games, 7000 minutes)
  • Steve Novak (age 31, 8 seasons, 400 games, 5500 minutes)
  • Trevor Booker (age 26, 4 seasons, 250 games, 5000 minutes)
  • Enes Kanter (age 22, 3 seasons, 250 games, 4000 minutes)
  • Jeremy Evans (age 26, 4 seasons, 200 games, 2000 minutes)
  • Rudy Gobert (age 21, 1 season, 50 games, 400 minutes)

There are some things that we know about these guys, and many things we do not know. But of the things we know, it's that they all -- save for Steve -- do most of their work in the paint. Within the paint they are still quite varied and different. Some guys crash the glass, others run the floor, others can create their own shot, and still others are mobile to move without the ball. So let's investigate what we know so far.


Scoring like a Bigman:

Today's game is changing. You have guys like Chris Bosh taking three pointers in crunch time. Twenty years ago the best power forwards were still trying to dunk it on guys at the end of games. Synergy Sports breaks down offense plays between Post Ups, P&R Ball handlers, P&R Screeners, Isolations, Cuts, Offensive Rebounds, Spot up, Transition, Hand offs, Off Screens, and other. Not everything here is important to scoring in the paint. I think the most important ways to look at our bigs when trying to score are to focus on:

  • Post ups -- because duh
  • Pick and Roll (Screener) -- because this involves both pick and rolls and pick and pops
  • Cuts -- moving to the basket, getting the ball, and finishing is always important in non-stagnant offenses
  • Offensive Rebounds -- sometimes the smartest things to do is just finish the play yourself
  • Spot Ups -- because the NBA is moving towards this more and more
  • and Isolations -- sometimes you just gotta go to work

The vast majority of the ways our guys have scored over their careers fall into these categories. I looked at the data Synergy had for the last four seasons (2010-11, 2011-12, 2012-13, and 2013-14) and calculated it all up for you. This work includes games from a player in seasons they got traded or moved to another team, and it includes the data from when they played in playoff games, if any. As a result, if you rely on just the data for regular season stats you are not going to get the same numbers.


Play type frequency (as a % of all offense):

Some players are really just spot up guys (like Novak), others are back to the basket beasts (like Kanter). Let's take a look at what plays they most frequently are involved in on offense.


Favors, Kanter, and Gobert are the most traditional, with more than 50% of their offensive plays coming from post ups, pick and rolls, or cuts. If you add in Offensive rebounds then each of them go over 65% -- with both Kanter and Gobert approaching 80%.

Novak really has specialized in shooting. Nearly 60% are just spot ups -- and if you add in the 13% in transition (not dunks, but most are three pointers taken in transition) and the 3% in pick and roll (in his case, pick and fades to an open spot for a jumper) then you have over 75% of his offensive plays that are just jumpers.

Trevor Booker, it seems, is as close to a 'control group' as we are going to get because almost five of the seven plays here are something he does about 15% of the time.  And Evans, well, cuts and offensive rebounds are his bread and butter. That makes sense, because he's an athletic guy that doesn't have any plays run for him.

When you look at which guy does which play the most there are few surprises. Kanter posts up the most. Novak spots up the most. Evans cuts the most (alley-oops are cuts). Gobert dominates the offensive glass. We did learn that Booker isos the most, and that Gobert is actually involved in the most pick and rolls.


Play Type Frequency (as a total number per game):

It's one thing to have a diverse set of offensive possessions. It's entirely another thing to actually take a bunch of shots in a game. Here are the cumulative career averages of possessions per game these fellows have earned over their careers.


What stands out? Well, only about four guys have actually taken shots in the NBA. Favors and Kanter both post up over 2.5 a game, every game. No one else comes close. Favors, Kanter, and Booker all get about one shot at finishing a pick and roll though. (That's it? Karl Malone must be rolling over in his bed right now, having a nap.)

Booker is second in spot ups, to Novak who is way ahead of everyone.

Kanter leads in offensive rebounds, everyone is useless in transition (Booker the least useless), and none of them have had to isolate much over their careers in the NBA.

Who shoots the most per game? Favors does, and that makes sense as he's the best player here, and the only full-time starter. I would have liked to have seen what Karl Malone's breakdown was, I bet he ran the floor and got the ball more than 0.50 times a game.


Points per Possession:

It's not always about taking shots, or being given a number of possessions that matters most. Sometimes actually getting points is important. So who is the best at getting points from these different play types?


Favors and Kanter post up the most, and are pretty okay at it -- but inferior in pure PPP than three other guys. Gobert looks like a solid performer here, but let's also not forget that this is off of 0.36 possessions per game, or one post up attempt per week (basically). The small sample size there has to hurt him. Would I like it if our two main engines here were closer to 0.90 PPP on posts up? Yes. Are they on track to get there? Kanter's PPP in posts ups are trending upwards, but last season Favors' went down. Yikes.

Favors is the best (tied with Evans, who also suffers from 'only in garbage time"-itis) in pick and roll situations, and he takes the most on the team. So that's good. Kanter and Booker are both solid here as well.

You know who's good at scoring off of cuts? Jeremy Evans. You may be surprised to know that Booker is also a recipient  of a lot of alley-oops as well. That's a product of playing for a young team led by John Wall, though. I really hope that guys like Dante Exum can bring some of that vertical passing to the club. Favors is right there too. Cut's aren't only oops, so I am surprised to see some of our guys not be great at this.

Eventually you see the pattern here that Jeremy is just too efficient, across the board. He is the best in four of these categories -- including offensive rebounds and isolation plays. This guy just can't get on the floor for whatever reason.

What are the best situations for PPP, then?

Gobert in transition, Evans in transition, Kanter in transition, and then Novak on spot ups. Guess which one of those three things we're actually going to see regularly? Go back to the last section -- Gobert, Evans, and Kanter ADD UP to 1,21 transition possessions a game; while, Novak is at 2.68 spot up attempts per game.


Success by Score %:

I'm going to be honest, I don't know what goes into this, or how this is different than PPP, but I think it includes things like And-1s and drawing fouls. But the results are mostly the same...


... basically, Jeremy Evans is really effective on offense, but his smaller sample size and strength of opponents makes it hard to take him seriously.

There are some very interesting things here. Okay, so Novak is #1 in Spot up Score %. That's not hard to believe. Kanter is #2 in that. He's only 7.5 score % worse. And that Kanter is just about as good at scoring off of post ups (41.7%) as he is at spot ups (40.9%). This looks like someone who may have the makings of a true inside-outside game. (The difference between the post ups and spot ups for all our other bigs aren't within 0.8% of each other, to put it kindly)

It's possible that he may be able to be a guy who scores from a number of different areas, and if you believe GM Dennis Lindsey, he'll get a shot at it.

What else is cool is that Rudy Gobert is somewhat cognizant of what he's good at. The largest parts of his offensive arsenal are offensive rebound putbacks, cutting to the basket, and pick and rolls (63.6% of what he does on offense). Those are the three things he does the most per game, and somehow (probably the exchange rate from the metric system), some of the worst things he actually does when trying to score.

How do you resolve these pieces of information?

Easy, he's getting to the line a lot on these plays -- getting fouled -- and missing the free throws. If he hit free throws more to what we hope for him he's not leaving points on the table, and the things he does the most of then showcase how effective he is. If you look at his drawn foul % (not listed in these charts) it's really off the chart. He basically draws 2x as many trips to the line on the same play types (post ups, pick and roll, cuts, offensive rebounds) than Favors does -- and Favors is on the long list for most USA Basketball events and going to be an All-star in a few years. (Once guys like Dirk and Tim retire)

So what's the deal with Booker? Well, if you go beyond these numbers and look at how he plays -- he is ridiculous in transition. These aren't all transition buckets where it's a steal or a block. He scores in transition after the ball is inbounded off of a score. And he also scores in transition not just because of his speed, it's because his team mates look for him and he's the trailer and scores a lot of times. And mainly, he scores in transition off of rebounds other guys on the team gets -- not him. Karl Malone used to get the rebound and finish in transition. And he used to beat other guys down the court, not be the trailer. So that's an interesting difference for sure. But he does run very hard, and while other guys may have higher PPP or Score% values for transition plays -- he has been doing this for four years in the NBA over 5k minutes. It's not garbage time, or against bad players.

But at the end of the day while a guy like Booker is the litmus test for each individual player by themselves; in this experiment the main control has to be Favors. And more reasonably, the variables are going to be:

  • Favors + Kanter vs.
  • Favors + Booker vs.
  • Favors + Novak vs.
  • Favors+ Evans vs.
  • Favors + Gobert

If it's decided by defense (as most Spurs coaches are wont to do), then it's an obviously easy solution. But it's the offensive side of the ball that's going to be the grand experiment all season long. And if you look at how these guys play, how they score, and how good they are -- it's going to be one that requires a lot of data, and create a lot of discussion.