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Utah Jazz point guard Trey Burke looks to redefine role, place with team

A casual investigation of on court performance that agrees with the eye-ball test -- the game has changed. And so have the players.

Chris Nicoll-USA TODAY Sports

The Utah Jazz have been blessed with historically fantastic ball handlers. You can't throw a bad pass without hitting a Hall of Famer if you look at the franchise roster: John Stockton, Pete Maravich, Gail Goodrich, and lesser but still systematically important guys like Deron Williams, Jeff Hornacek, Rickey Green, Jim McElroy, Mo Williams, Ron Boone, and our current point forward Gordon Hayward. Mark Jackson doesn't really count because he is an awful human being, and yes, some of those guys were combo guards. But while the strong ball handling has remained a hallmark of Jazz basketball over the last four decades the NBA game has changed. Today coaches try to run their sets from the wing, putting the ball in the hands of a dynamic triple threat shooting guard or small forward, while the point guard is either a designated shooter on the court, or a one-man-show. Stephen Curry and Russell Westbrook types seem to run this league, while many teams bereft of their all-world talent still start an offensive minded point -- though one who plays without the ball in his hands all of the time. Which brings us to the issue of Trey Burke.

Trey Burke was a big name college player who won all the awards, and still seems to be living off of those glory days. Perhaps he was picked a little too high in a weak draft, or maybe there's another reason out there, but he hasn't really made the transition from college star to NBA player quite yet. He lost his starting spot to a rookie teenager straight out of high school midway through the season . . . and it seems like a stardom filled NBA career may never happen. I'm a big Trey Burke fan. I'm not crazy about everything he does out there on the court, nor am I blind to his flaws. But I'm not going to give up on a 22 year old kid who a) played his rookie year for a coach who was fired after 28 games in his most recent coaching stint, and b) in his sophomore season has the unenviable task of trying to go from being the guy with the ball in his hands all the time to playing in an offense system where the point guard just doesn't do that.

It's too soon to proclaim his death. But after two seasons we do have some data on his NBA performance. To keep things very simple I'm just using box score results for games, minutes, field goals, assists, and turn overs. With these numbers you can create some ratios for total value, and also fixed minute values. And if you look at the last six Utah Jazz seasons (2009-2010, 2010-2011, 2011-2012, 2012-2013, 2013-2014, and last season's 2014-2015) you have fourteen different point guards to judge him against.

If you add it all up, regular season and playoffs combined, you see a clear breakdown of 1st stringers, 2nd stringers, and 3rd stringers.

Field Goals Att
Player Seas G Min MPG /G /20 min /G /20 min A:TO AST/FGA
1 Deron Williams 2009 - 2011 139 5,209 37.47 14.45 7.71 10.17 5.43 3.01 0.70
2 Trey Burke 2013 - 2015 146 4,550 31.16 13.03 8.36 4.96 3.18 2.84 0.38
3 Mo Williams 2012 - 2013 46 1,418 30.83 11.59 7.52 6.20 4.02 2.28 0.53
4 Devin Harris 2010 - 2012 84 2,391 28.46 8.01 5.63 5.04 3.54 2.45 0.63
5 Dante Exum 2014 - 2015 82 1,817 22.16 5.07 4.58 2.41 2.18 1.68 0.48
6 Earl Watson 2010 - 2013 178 3,429 19.26 3.30 3.42 3.85 4.00 2.54 1.17
7 Jamaal Tinsley 2011 - 2014 115 1,903 16.55 3.61 4.36 3.90 4.71 2.59 1.08
8 Diante Garrett 2013 - 2014 71 1,048 14.76 3.73 5.06 1.69 2.29 1.60 0.45
9 John Lucas III 2013 - 2014 42 591 14.07 4.52 6.43 1.00 1.42 1.91 0.22
10 Eric Maynor 2009 - 2010 26 363 13.96 5.12 7.33 3.12 4.46 2.89 0.61
11 Ronnie Price 2009 - 2011 129 1,613 12.50 3.69 5.90 1.50 2.39 1.71 0.41
12 Bryce Cotton 2014 - 2015 15 159 10.60 4.60 8.68 1.00 1.89 1.25 0.22
13 Sundiata Gaines 2009 - 2010 37 224 6.05 2.38 7.86 1.05 3.48 2.79 0.44
14 Blake Ahearn 2011 - 2012 7 38 5.43 2.43 8.95 0.43 1.58 0.60 0.18

Trey does really shoot a lot, his raw FGA and 20 min FGA were among the tops of this group. He's not the worst offender, but with his high minute count he's just on the court more and more than other guys, so you see him shooting more and more.

While his Assist to Turn over ratio is also Top 3 out of all these point guards, his APG is almost worst out of that first Tier of point guards. His assists per 20 mins is one of the worst, lower than most 2nd string guys. Now, more useful would be comparing FGA against ASTA, a mythical Assists Attempted stat. Having watched Jazz basketball pretty closely there's no Kyle Korver or Carlos Boozer on this team. There are a bunch of guys who miss layups and open jumpers (Trey included). Lower time with the ball in his hands, lower primacy as a facilitator, and worse finishers . . . these are excuses for Trey that I am making. However, at least two of those are somewhat valid. Fundamentally his AST:TO ratio elevates his poor performances in assisting, but it's a tie breaker and not a saving grace.

I guess the functional ratio here is AST/FGA. Again, it should be ASTA/FGA, but I don't have that data. So this is skewed. The first tier point guards, or top five in MPG, or "starters" have a combined 3044 assists to 5532 field goals attempted. That ends up being an AST/FGA ratio of 0.55. Deron is better, so he's up there. Trey is below average for this group. For the record, so is Dante, but we already knew his on court production from last season wasn't so hot. We're not even debating that.

Making things WORSE for Trey is that, traditionally, the second string guy was a pass first facilitator. Or, mildly, a very gun-shy point guard. That group from Earl to Eric had 1376 assists to 1590 field goals attempted, a ratio of 0.87. And that's with JELLO SHOT's ridiculous 0.22 AST/FGA ratio boosting that up. Of course, Quin Snyder may not need a facilitator to be his back-up point guard. Especially not if Dante Exum continues to take a back seat to Gordon Hayward and one of Rodney Hood or Alec Burks as a starter.

And I guess, this is where things are harder to even figure out. The third string guy, either because of desperation or relative floor talent, has been a guy who shoots way more than they dish. Garbage time results in very few assists because some of these guys are only playing in garbage time because they can't finish. This is where assists attempted really is missed the most. But as it stands, the third string point guard is a guy who is getting that AST/FGA ratio that's a lot closer to what Trey Burke is getting. And by a lot closer I mean it's identical: 0.38 to 0.38. (Unpopular opinion -- was starting a whole year for Ty essentially just playing a whole season of garbage time?)

So is Trey Burke a third string point guard?

Absolutely not.

Does he shoot very frequently?


Is the point guard position changing in the NBA, and does that make evaluating it against previous eras (not to mention much more functional offensive teams under a Hall of Fame coach) further complicate this experiment?

Also, yes.

Is this a "nice thought, but bad experimental design" analysis, because you don't have assists attempted data?

Yes, this is the main critical error here.

But Trey Burke still does shoot a whole lot, even if the functional ratio doesn't point him out to be the worst offender, right?

Very yes.

Trey is on the precipice of being either a bad starting point guard, or a very good bench point guard. His performance hasn't fully put him in one but not the other category just yet. He could me more suited for volume shooting position on the right team, or his perception could be somewhat rehabilitated if he was on the floor with a bunch of shot makers, thus giving him somewhat inflated assists numbers to go along with his almost ideal assist to turn over ratio.

Sadly, I think that Trey is closer to the current NBA model for a point guard than the old version I still cling too -- the one who would be a pass first guy, almost to a fault. And really, the good news is that Trey COULD still be exactly who he was traded for on draft night to be. He gets killed in the box score for his FG%, but many of his shots are the correct shot to take in that situation -- shots he has made before at a somewhat consistent rate about 30 months ago. He's also passing the ball to open guys who miss. This seems to be a problem the ENTIRE team is having a problem with, but we seem to single out Trey's missing more than the rest of the roster.

The big question is if he has discovered that confidence that made him so deadly in college. I believe in his self-concept. I believe in Quin Snyder, a former championship level point guard at the NCAA Division I echelon. I also believe in Dennis Lindsey and his scouting department. It's in the best interest of all three parties to make this work over the next few months -- even if it will be only for the next few months.

A healthier team will mean higher quality players on the floor all of the time. That will mean, hopefully, that there are better help defenders out there and better finishers out there. Combined with a focus on fixing offensive problems (the Jazz were defense heavy last season in practice), there could be an altogether better looking team out there next season. A better team will be a product of better play from the players, and in result, will make the players look better themselves.

I don't think Trey Burke is going to re-take the 1st string spot with the Jazz. But with Raul Neto and Bryce Cotton right behind him, I think Trey can't assume he's the 2nd string for life either. After all, 12 months ago he may have thought he was the 1st string for life point guard. Things change. And while things change, sometimes things change for the better. And at the end of the day, I believe that Trey Burke has the capacity to change for the better as well.

More confidence, hitting that shot he was made to take, and thus drawing in defensive pressure . . . it leads to more open team mates, guys he is willing to throw the ball to. And guys who'll make that shot.

The team will be better next year. And third year point guard Trey Burke could be a big reason why. Even if he becomes the first second string Utah Jazz guard to take a whole bunch of shots. Maybe that will be his new role in the evolving Jazz offense? Maybe all of this discussion will look silly in a few years after he figures it out . . . dude is still only 22.