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The Jazz’s next step for improvement is valuing possessions

The Jazz must now concern themselves with the battle for possessions to take the next step

Utah Jazz v Denver Nuggets
The battle for the ball should be the Jazz’s next focus of continued improvement.
Photo by Kevin C. Cox/Getty Images

The Utah Jazz have fallen short of their goals two seasons running, falling short in the first round of the Playoffs consecutive years.

The Jazz employed two strategies: 1) a defense oriented team with an approach of continuity in 2018-19, and 2) an offense oriented team with an approach of roster turnover in 2019-20.

The result?

Utah Jazz season comparison; past two years
Utah Jazz season comparison
Cleaning the Glass, Adam Bushman

Utah won the same percentage of games and failed to win another first round series. Worse still, the offense improved less than the defense worsened, resulting in a lower net rating (source: Cleaning The Glass).

Grain of salt time: the season long numbers don’t account for the roster adjustments made in December to bring in Jordan Clarkson and release Jeff Green. From Dec. 23rd on the ORTG was +3.6 and the DRTG was +0.5 for a NRTG of +3.1.

The point remains: the two strategy extremes the Jazz tested the past two seasons didn’t accomplish the mission. Why is that?

Perhaps the answer can be explained via the concept of “Four Factors”.

Four Factors

The four factors in basketball have been identified as eFG%, FTA%, OREB%, and TOV%, with each having greater importance than another. The idea behind this concept is to outperform one’s opponent in every category by as much as possible. Doing so increases a team’s likelihood to win.

Four factors explained in two games: Jazz vs Bucks and Jazz vs 76ers
Four factors explained in two games
Cleaning the Glass, Adam Bushman

On November 25th, the Jazz played the Bucks in Milwaukee without Rudy Gobert. Despite shooting 13% better in eFG, the Bucks came back to beat the Jazz. How? In part due to superior offensive rebounding, fewer turnovers, and shooting more free throws.

On November 6th, the Jazz played a disheartened 76ers team. The Jazz won comfortably in part by shooting better, securing more offensive boards, and committing fewer turnovers, even with Philly shooting more free throws.

The “Four Factors” is really about opportunities to score (OREB, TOV, FTA) and efficiency (eFG). OREB and TOV are mediums to get extra possessions. By forcing more turnovers than you commit and/or grabbing more offensive boards than you allow will “swing” possessions from your opponent to you.

Possession/Points Swing

These extra possessions and the points scored off of them I’ve come to call “Possession Swing” and “Points Swing”. Check out the short video for a better explanation:

Ultimately, if you aren’t going to force turnovers, then don’t commit them. If you aren’t going to get offensive boards, then don’t give them up. The trouble comes when the opponent forces turnovers and/or collects offensive boards more often than your team does.

So how does “Possession/Points Swing” explain why the Jazz didn’t take the leap they were expecting? Let’s take a look.

In 2017-18 the Utah Jazz had a +0.6 possession swing and a +0.9 points swing per game. In other words, the Jazz were able to swing over half a possession more than the opponent per game and scored nearly 1 point more on such possessions.

In 2018-19 the Jazz had a -0.2 possession swing and a +1.7 points wing per game. They got more efficient despite the opponent swinging more possessions from the Jazz.

In 2019-20 things took a significant dive. The Jazz had a -3.2 possession swing and a -2.4 points swing per game. In other words, the Jazz’s opponents were able to swing over 3 possessions away from the Jazz per game and scored over 2 points more than the Jazz per game on such possessions.

“Possession/Points Swing” by season for the Utah Jazz
“Possession/Points Swing” by season for the Utah Jazz
Jabber Jazz, Adam Bushman

While the Jazz certainly improved offensively with the 2019-20 offseason acquisitions, Utah lost possessions and points because they lost the OREB% and TOV% factors more often and allowed the opponent to score more points in those extra possessions.

Last season the Jazz ranked dead last at 30th in the league in possession swing and 25th in points swing. Fortunately, they remained a good team thanks to their excellent shooting (2nd in eFG%) and shot defense (9th in eFG% defense), but the “Possession/Points Swing” put a cap on their success.

“Possession/Points Swing” by team in the 2019-20 season
“Possession/Points Swing” by team in the 2019-20 season
Jabber Jazz, Adam Bushman

The 2020 NBA Champion LA Lakers (yes, I’m disgusted with myself for bringing it up too) were a good shooting and shot defense team similar to the Jazz. A key difference? They were exceptionally positive in both possession swing and points swing, aided in no small part by their size at the hoop and scrappiness on the perimeter.

2020-21 Season Outlook

Last season the Jazz lacked size and perimeter defense. This season the Jazz are hoping a daily does of Derrick Favors and a measure of Shaq Harrison every so often can help on both fronts. Ultimately, personnel alone won’t push the Jazz from the lower-left quadrant to the upper-right; it will be focus and strategy.

Ahead of opening day for the 2020-21 season, the Jazz have shooting, better size, more scrappiness, and unparalleled 1-8 talent. The area to monitor in the early going is can they swing possessions and points their way.

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