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Few past NBA teams have struggled like Utah and become contenders, can the Jazz?

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Mythbusting through the excuses and reasons to the Utah Jazz’s early season woes.

Los Angeles Lakers v Utah Jazz Photo by Alex Goodlett/Getty Images

The Utah Jazz have been disappointing. That’s odd to say because they are 12-10 on the season. But that wasn’t the type of team they were hyped to be. They were hyped to be a contender, not a pretender. They were hyped to be dominant, not dormant. They were hyped to great, not greatly average. Many have been trying to figure out if Utah can still turn it around and be a championship team or even just a playoff team.

There have been a lot of excuses out there like the schedule, travel, injuries, the bench, the floaters, Mike Conley, and the list goes on. I wanted to get to the meat of those excuses and see which ones held water and which ones were just excuses. Forgive me because this whole thing is long. But I promise you, it’s worth it.

This project has been going since about Tuesday. I started scraping data from 2003-2004 on strength of schedule, offensive rating, wins, losses, shot selection, and bench production. My goal was to see how all of them were correlated. We talk a lot about these excuses in their silos, but in actuality they’re all connected. Each one affects the other. So each one of these excuses is seen through the eyes of a lot of these different metrics. I’ve included the raw data at the end of this post so you can download and pull it and manipulate it for your own fun (or torture).

With that said... let’s get to some excuses.

Los Angeles Lakers v Utah Jazz Photo by Garrett Ellwood/NBAE via Getty Images

“The schedule is causing the losses.”

It’s quite possible. Of all teams from 2003-2004 that have had a Strength of Schedule of +1.6 or greater according to TeamRankings prior to December 5 (16 teams), ten of those teams had 10 or more losses by this point in the season. Half of them (8) finished with a record of .500 or better. Seven of those teams won 50 games or more and two of those teams (both LeBron’s Cleveland Cavaliers) finished with 60+ wins.

Here’s where things get tricky though. Of all those teams with tough schedules, only 6 teams had worse offensive ratings at this time of the season than the current 2019-2020 Utah Jazz (106.3).

But we’re spanning across NBA eras going back to 2003-2004. As far as where teams with rough schedules were ranked offensively at this point, only three had the same or worse offensive ranking at this point in the season. Two are a bad omen for Utah, one provides some hope. The first two are the 2003-2004 Miami Heat (42-40) and 2016-2017 Dallas Mavericks (33-49). The third is the 2018-2019 Utah Jazz (50-32). Two of these teams were able to get to .500, but only one proved to be one of the NBA’s top teams in its respective season.

The good news is a schedule like this does a number on defenses. Only four teams had a higher defensive rating rank than the 19-20 Jazz, and one of those teams was last year’s Utah Jazz.

One BIG thing to keep an eye on. Most teams’ defensive rankings improved dramatically after their tough schedule eased up. Most teams climbed four spots up on defensive rankings throughout the season. Offensively? Most hovered around their same mark. Most teams saw no change. The average change was only 13 of a ranking. That’s it. The teams that saw big improvement in their offensive rating had dramatic things turn it around. The 2003-2004 Miami Heat dumped Head Coach Stan Van Gundy and went to Pat Riley. Last year’s Utah Jazz made a midseason move for Kyle Korver.

One team that should give Utah some hope is the 2012-2013 Denver Nuggets who saw big improvement later in the season. Like this year’s Jazz they made a big move in the offseason by bringing in Andre Igoudala. However, their offensive rating rank never sunk below the Top 10. Their improvement was to Top 5.

Los Angeles Lakers v Utah Jazz Photo by Alex Goodlett/Getty Images

“The bench is what is ruining the offense and defense.”

Bench’s can have a huge effect on wins. With all the stats the NBA has, Bench players +/- has one of the highest correlations with winning. Kind of a duh, but the math checks out. So what about Utah’s bench? Is it really hurting their team’s chances of winning?

To start out, this year’s bench as far as shooting percentages, three point percentage, rebounding, free throw %, and turnovers is actually not bad in the context of the rest of the league. Those stats are average.

This one actually surprised me. Since 2003-2004, there have been 80 teams that had benches with the same or worse +/-/min (-2.32/min) as Utah’s bench on December 5th. Of the teams that had a bench that poor performing (or worse), only 16 teams were able to scrape by with +.500 record. Out of those 16 teams, only one—ONE—went on to have 50 or more wins: 2013-2014 Memphis Grizzlies (50-32).

Of those teams that had benches that poor performing, only seven teams had an offensive ranking that could be considered a top 10 offense. The best team with the worst bench? The 2017-2018 Minnesota Timberwolves (47-35).

Los Angeles Lakers v Utah Jazz Photo by Alex Goodlett/Getty Images

Rudy Gobert isn’t getting the ball enough.”

Rudy Gobert has said a couple times throughout the season that he’s not getting enough touches in the paint. Utah currently ranks at 19th in frequency for shots taken at the rim and only convert 52.3% of their chances there which puts them at 17th in the league. Last year, they were 6th. That’s a big sign that most of the players getting attempts at the rim are not named Rudy Gobert. So how does that bode for the Jazz this year?

By just filtering for teams that had a lower frequency of shots at the rim as the Utah Jazz (34.4% or worse), there are tons of teams 150+ that have had that similar mark. Nine of those teams won an NBA Championship. 72 won 50 games or more. The problem is not the frequency of shots at the rim. The question is more a “who” then “how many.”

Only 9 teams prior to this season have shot 52.3% or worse at the rim. Of those teams only three had an above .500 record and none of them surpassed 43 wins. That’s the issue. It’s not the low frequency of shots at the rim, it’s who is taking shots at the rim. Gobert is not getting the ball in the paint as much and the shots at the rim are being taken by Jeff Green, Donovan Mitchell, Joe Ingles, and Bojan Bogdanovic. Only one of the aforementioned players has actually been effective there (see also, Bogey).

Utah Jazz v Philadelphia 76ers Photo by David Dow/NBAE via Getty Images

“Utah takes TOO many floaters.”

Oh boy. Buckle up. This is the part of the data that will make your skin crawl. Let’s just get right to the meat of this. Utah shoots 22.3% of all their shots from short midrange (4ft-14ft). Since 2003-2004, 41 total teams have had a frequency this high or greater. There have been 10 teams with that shot profile finish with 50 wins or more. There has actually been a championship team with that shot profile. Ironically, it’s one Utah gets compared to a lot: the 2003-2004 Detroit Pistons. That bodes well for Utah, right? Well...not exactly.

If anyone remembers, the league went through an insane era change with the Golden State Warriors. The league changed overnight with the Splash Brothers in 2013-2014. Since then teams are chucking more threes and taking more shots at the rim. Since 2013-2014, only 15 teams have had a similar shot profile from midrange as Utah. Even worse, since 2013-2014, there’s a negative correlation between short midrange shot frequency and wins. Not midrange FG%, but just the act of shooting a midrange shot. It’s not a large correlation (-.1506) but it’s the only shot that that has any negative correlation with wins.

When you look at those 15 teams, only six of them had +.500 records. Three had wins of 50+, but those teams are remembered as playing above their talent (2017-2018 San Antonio Spurs with Kawhi Leonard drama of not playing and dealing with injuries) or struggling mightily to meet expectations in the playoffs (2015-2016 Toronto Raptors who almost got bounced in the first round by the Indiana Pacers).

But that 15-16 Raptors team went the Eastern Conference Finals, isn’t that good? It is. Here’s where the data isn’t as friendly.

The Utah Jazz are currently shooting 35.6% at that distance. That isn’t terrible, if you’re not taking more than 1/5 of your shots from that distance. But the 19-20 Jazz are. Since 2003-2004 there have only been 22 teams to arrive on December 5th taking more 20% or more of their shots from the short midrange and shooting 36% or worse from that distance.

Here’s the good news, there have been seven teams get to December 5 that have that shot profile and percentage with a record of +.500 or better. There has even been one 60+ win team in the 2003-2004 Indiana Pacers.

Here’s the bad news, there has not been a team with a winning record that has had that shot profile or percentage with a record of +.500 or better since 2004-2005. All those +.500 teams? They were in 2003-2004.

In other words, Utah’s reliance on the midrange shot has to change. Either Utah has to get SIGNIFICANTLY better at it—remember how few teams improve offensively after this point without a significant change?—OR they have to abandon that shot.

It’s hard though. Only 12 teams have made significant shot selection changes to the short midrange this far into the season after starting so reliant on it.

You hear that? That’s the sound of the air coming out of the balloon of Utah’s playoff hopes.

2010-2011 Orland Magic knocked theirs down 5% points and the 2004-2005 Detroit Pistons knocked theirs down nearly 5% points.

The Pistons can serve as the example. They started out the season 8-8 following their upset of the Los Angeles Lakers in the NBA Finals the prior season. Their offensive and defensive ratings were ranked 21st and 9th in the league at December 5th. Their shot profile wasn’t great. They started taking it to the rim more. While they’re shooting percentage at the rim went down a bit, it increased their efficiency. Something of note, their Strength of Schedule was weak to start out the season. They finished strong despite a strong schedule and went to the NBA Finals for the second year in a row.

Utah Jazz v Toronto Raptors Photo by Vaughn Ridley/Getty Images

“Should we be worried about offensive rating or defensive rating right now?”

Yes and no. As illustrated above, there are other factors at play. But if we’re just using offensive rating there are some interesting findings.

The only teams to win 50+ games that had either off rtg in the bottom 10 on 12/5 are: 2018-2019 Jazz and 17-18 Sixers. The only teams to win 50+ games that had either def rtg in the bottom 10 on 12/5 are: 16-17 Houston, 18-19 Houston, 18-19 Portland.

There is a caveat. Every time there was a turnaround, one of these teams had their opposite rating in the Top 10 in the other category. 18-19 Jazz were 10th in Defense. 17-18 Sixers were 9th in defense. 16-17 Rockets were 27th in defense, 4th in offense. 18-19 Rockets were 24th in defense, 9th in offense. 18-19 Blazers were 22nd in defense, 8th in offense.

Only three teams since 2014-2015 that had a Bottom 10 O-Rating and were outside the Top 10 in Defensive Rating on December 5th finished the season with a +.500 record.

2015-2016 Washington Wizards

  • 12/5 O Rtg: 26
  • Final O Rtg: 22
  • 12/5 D Rtg: 20
  • Final D Rtg: 7
  • 12/5 W/L: 8-9
  • Final W/L: 46-36

2017-2018 Miami Heat

  • 12/5 O Rtg: 27
  • Final O Rtg: 13
  • 12/5 D Rtg: 20
  • Final D Rtg: 8
  • 12/5 W/L: 11-12
  • Final W/L: 44-38

2016-2017 Indiana Pacers

  • 12/5 O Rtg: 21
  • Final O Rtg: 15
  • 12/5 D Rtg: 17
  • Final D Rtg: 14
  • 12/5 W/L: 10-11
  • Final W/L: 42-40

Out of 60 teams over the past 6 years who have had one of the ten toughest schedules, Utah has the 40th worst offensive rating. The 2014-2015 Utah Jazz were among those teams with the ten toughest schedules and they arrived at December 5 with a better offensive rating: 106.6.

The best record someone has finished with despite a Top 10 schedule difficulty is 61-21, 2016-2017 Spurs. They however had 17 wins at this juncture and the 6th best ortg and 13th best drtg.

“My head is about to explode, what does this all mean???”

It means the Utah Jazz can still be a good team, but once again, they have cornered themselves in a dark alley and have to fight their way out. There’s not a lot of sample size for a team with their bad shot selection and shooting percentages that has had this bad of a bench unit that has faced this difficult of an early schedule and become a contender.

There are teams that have had one of these issues that turned it around, but combined? It brings Utah down to a sample size of one. At the end of the day, Utah can improve to become the first, the unicorn, the anomaly. They have the ability. They have the talent. Now it requires the discipline, stability, and continuous improvement at an elite level to turn it around.

The last two seasons, Utah has found themselves in a hole. None quite this season... as if they have been trying to consistently outdo themselves since the historic season turnaround of 2017-2018. This organization has shown in the past that they can do it. But a lot of the players with those special teams are gone. New ones take their place. Can this new roster pick up the family business of turning it around in a big way?

We’ll soon see.


Stats from Cleaning The Glass, NBA.com, and Power Rankings Guru. If you’d like to see all the stats together in their glory. Go here.