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Opposing point guards have torched the Utah Jazz this year, but what’s the real trend?

Do you like math? Can you at least pretend to for over 1,500 words about the Utah Jazz defense, hot scorers, and game planning?

NBA: Oklahoma City Thunder at Utah Jazz Russ Isabella-USA TODAY Sports

So far this season in 65 games the Utah Jazz have had an opponent score 20 or more points on their vaunted defense 70 different times. So that’s 1.08 guys per game dropping at least 20. That’s not bad. The normative breakdown should be 20% each for PG, SG, SF, PF, and C. But that’s not what we’re seeing. Point guards comprise 34.29% of the 20+ point games against the Jazz. (This value bumps up to 42.86% if you include combo guards who play or start at SG — guys like McCollum, Murray, and that LaVine guy.)

These percentage values continue to increase if you limit it to players who dropped 25+ on the Jazz (56.67% PG / 63.33% PG + SG/PG); 30+ on the Jazz (75.00% / 75.00%), and 35+ (100.00% / 100.00%).

So the initial conclusion here is that the Utah Jazz get torched almost uniformly by point guards. And thus, that just sucks for the Jazz. (A secondary, but related, conclusion was that the Jazz defense really kicks the butt out of any PFs or Cs who may try to score.)

But after looking at the data a little more, and comparing the Utah Jazz results against that of the rest of the NBA . . . well . . . what we figure out is that in today’s NBA point guards are just scoring out of control right now.

In fact, there’s a stronger correlation between 2016-2017 NBA season average and what a player scores against the Jazz than there is between what they score against the Jazz and what the Jazz defense is trying to do against them. (Critical component here is the Delta between “PTS vs Jazz” - “Season PPG”) [In English that just means that players that score a lot are going to score a lot, and it’s not influenced at all by any Jazz defensive deficiencies against point guards.]

So let’s look at the Data:

  • Scores 20+ points in a game against the 2016-17 Utah Jazz: 70
  • Scores 25+ points in a game against the 2016-17 Utah Jazz: 30
  • Scores 30+ points in a game against the 2016-17 Utah Jazz: 12
  • Scores 35+ points in a game against the 2016-17 Utah Jazz: 6
  • Scores 40+ points in a game against the 2016-17 Utah Jazz: 1

So some hot shot as gotten to 30 or more points in only 12 of the Jazz 65 games this year. That’s only 18% of the time. That’s a lot better than the 70 / 65 for the 20 point scorers. A big games are very rare, only 9% of the Jazz games we’ve had this season has an opponent drop 35+. That wasn’t the case during the Tyrone Corbin coaching era. Heck, that wasn’t the case during the Mehmet Okur and Carlos Boozer protecting the rim era either. #Progress

If you break it down into the five normative position groups, the scorers have been:

  • PG: Russell Westbrook (OKC) 43, 38, 27; Damian Lillard (POR) 39; Lou Williams (LAL) 38, 22, 20; Kyle Lowry (TOR) 36, 33; James Harden (HOU) 35, 31, 26; Eric Bledsoe (PHX) 31; Isaiah Thomas (BOS) 29, 29; Elfrid Payton (ORL) 28; Goran Dragic (MIA) 27; Stephen Curry (GSW) 26, 25; John Wall (WAS) 23; Mike Conley (MEM) 23; Dennis Schroder (ATL) 21; Kemba Walker (CHA) 21; and Kyrie Irving (CLE) 20
  • SG: Zach LaVine (MIN) 28, 24; C.J. McCollum (POR) 25; Devin Booker (PHX) 25, 21, 20; DeMar DeRozen (TOR) 24, 23; Eric Gordon (HOU) 24, 20; Jamal Murray (DEN) 23; Bradley Beal (WAS) 22; Evan Fournier (ORL) 21; Andrew Wiggins (MIN) 20; Jimmy Butler (CHI) 20; and Will Barton (DEN) 20
  • SF: Giannis Antetokounmpo (MIL) 33; Kawhi Leonard (SAS) 30, 29; LeBron James (CLE) 29; Carmelo Anthony (NYK) 28; James Johnson (MIA) 24; Kevin Durant (GSW) 22, 21; Michael Beasley (MIL) 22; Aaron Gordon (ORL) 21; Jae Crowder (BOS) 21; Rudy Gay (SAC) 20; Vince Carter (MEM) 20; and Wilson Chandler (DEN) 20
  • PF: Harrison Barnes (DAL) 31, 21; Kristaps Porzingis (NYK) 28; Zach Randolph (MEM) 28; Blake Griffin (LAC) 26; Julius Randle (LAL) 25; LaMarcus Aldridge (SAS) 21; Terrence Jones (NOP) 21; Anthony Davis (NOP) 20; and Dirk Nowitzki (DAL) 20
  • C: Nikola Jokic (DEN) 23; Marc Gasol (MEM); 22, Al Horford (BOS) 21; DeMarcus Cousins (SAC) 21; Karl-Anthony Towns (MIN) 21; and Clint Capela (HOU) 20

N.B. If a player has played on two or more teams this year, the team listed above is that of the team he was currently playing for.

So that’s a great list of some of the best ball-dominant guards in the league, and a few randos. The bigmen who are usually big scorers were noticeably quiet — that’s really the Rudy Gobert effect loud and clear. So that’s what got me thinking about that second variable — not just the Jazz defense, but also just looking at scoring at large.

It was my longstanding opinion that the Utah Jazz were absolutely torched by Isaiah Thomas. He dropped 29 points on Utah in Boston, and 29 points on Utah in Utah. Well, for the season he’s averaging 29.4 ppg . . . so the Jazz held him under his average. (Or within a respectable normal range of +/- 2.5 points from his season average.)

If you look at that “+2.5 ppg over season average” to “-2.5 ppg under season average” range of outcomes, the list of players who dropped 20 or more on Utah within that zone is 15 players long. And that group includes hot scorers like Harden (29.1 ppg avg, scored 31), Steph (24.9 ppg avg, scored 26 and 25), and so on. Having C.J. McCollum drop 25 is bad, but not as much when you realize he averages 23.2 ppg. It’s less bad still when you realize that Kemba averages 23.2 ppg as well, but was held to 21 points against Utah.

There are a BUNCH of guys who the Jazz held to -2.6 or fewer points from their season ppg average as well. (From -3.1 points to -7.8 points: Harden, Towns, Wiggins, Durant, DeRozan, Butler, Durant, DeRozan, Westbrook, Irving, Cousins, Davis.) A better descriptor for this group could be called: defensive focus points. The most effective defenses were on Cousins and Davis. I love that.

Of course, the opposite end of the spectrum also exists. There were a bunch of guys who aren’t scoring a lot of ppg this year who busted out against the Jazz. For the most part these guys were not focuses of the defensive efforts: Elfrid scored 28 while averaging 12.5 ppg for example. Among the guys averaging fewer than 15 ppg this year who hurt Utah for 20+ were: Payton, Murray, Randolph, Beasley, Randle, Carter, Ja. Johnson, Jones, Aaron freaking Gordon, Capela, Crowder, Horford, Barton, and some Nowitzki guy. Some of those guys are scorers who got old (Vince Carter, Dirk, Z-Bo). Others were just really not guys Quin Snyder set out to stop.

The other thing which I want to point out is that there are many other times where the Jazz held a scorer to way lower than -2.5 ppg, but they didn’t score 20 points so they don’t show up on this list. (For example, Harrison Barnes at 14 points doesn’t show up here, so the impression here may be that Barnes has killed the Jazz all season long. That’s not true. Same with Lou Williams who has faced Utah 7 times so far this year. Some games he’s just going to go off!)

OF course, part two, there are cases where a good scorer is one of the primary points of the defensive game plan - and they just destroy the Jazz. Jazz fans can hold onto that one time where Westbrook was held to 27 points. He averages 31.9 ppg, so that’s great! But he’s also dropped 43 and 38 points on Utah this season, which is +11.1 points and +6.1 points respectively.

Another? Sure. Kyle Lowry. He dropped 36 and 33 points on Utah while averaging only 22.8 ppg. That’s +13.2 and +10.2 in those games.

Damian Lillard peeks his head in here too, 39 points against Utah while averaging only 25.9 ppg (+13.1 points).

It doesn’t stop there, even forgotten problems like Eric Bledsoe stop by to drop 31 on Utah while averaging only 21.2 ppg.

So I guess we come full-circle here, when Utah is hurt by someone having a big scoring night . . . it’s probably a point guard doing it. Of the 12 games this year where Utah’s had a player score 30+ points on them only three times someone other than the point guard did it (Giannis 33, Harrison 31, Kawhi 30). And again, 100% of the time someone drops 35+ it’s a point guard.

So what’s the bottom line? I hold fast to the correlations in Excel. Season average PPG is a stronger force in determining how many points you put up on the Jazz, vs. being a PG or whatever.

It’s just that this year there are a lot of high scoring point guards. And Utah has to play them as best as they can.

Also, these refs sure love rewarding floppers.

But that can’t be my official, stats-based answer.

I’d rather have a point guard score big by taking jumpers and flopping than have some big guy waltz into the paint and drop a big number. And yea, the most a center has scored on Utah this year was 23 points. Rudy Gobert = DPOY. Let the little guards shoot. Their little arms will get tired. Hopefully one day. Like, tomorrow . . . when the Jazz play Westbrook again for a fourth time this year.