Statistical Anomaly is a series where we explore all the mathematical nuances you may not have noticed watching the game the first time. Today, Kyle waxes Euclidian on Utah’s poor effort against Memphis in a must win situation.
Ed Davis record nine rebounds in 22 minutes of action, giving the Grizzles yet another effective glass cleaner. In fact, the former Tar Heel is averaging 20.2 rebounds per 48 minutes over his last eight games. With Marc Gasol and Zach Randolph in the peaks of their careers, Davis is getting a chance to learn rebounding from two all star level players. Davis is a bit lanky (6’10” 232 pounds) but the knowledge he appears to be gaining about positioning and timing seems to be outweighing his flaws. The future is bright for Davis, and his emergence of late gives the Grizzles the ability to go extremely big if they want to, something few teams can do.
The Jazz finished the season 2-5 when Paul Milsap fails to record a single assist. It’s not so much his passing that leads to success, but his overall involvement. The versatile power forward could hit the market this offseason (or at least be part of a sign and trade) and while his point production dipped a bit this season, his improvements on his all around game likely earned him a few extra bucks at the negating table. In his seventh season in the Association, Milsap set career highs in average assists and three pointers made while playing in personal best 77 games. In my opinion, he could very well prove to be a better version of this year’s Carlos Boozer for an already solid team like Boston, Atlanta, or even Golden State (if they would give up on Andrew Bogut).
If you subtract Al Jefferson’s stat line from the box score, you’ll notice that Utah shot 28.8% from the field and 55% from the free throw line. It isn’t unreasonable that the Jazz will begin the 2013-2014 season with Big Al, and that is a scary proposition for Jazz fans given the teams reliance on him when scoring is tough. Derrick Favors has promise and is still only 21 years of age, but I worry about his willingness to bloody his nose in the paint. He shot just 11 free throws in the final six games of the regular season, all of which were playoff intensity level games for Utah (196 minutes played). That equates to one FTA every 17.82 minutes, roughly half as often as Jefferson has gotten to the line over his career. Easy points go a long way in the NBA (eight of the top ten teams in FTA made the playoffs) and are a nice option when your team is struggling from the field. Here is a look at the percentage of each statistical category that Jefferson was responsible for in the biggest game of the season.
The Grizzles held one monster advantage when you line up these two rosters, and it proved crucial in the final outcome of the game. Memphis has two players in Tony Allen and Darrell Arthur who have first names for last names while the Jazz don’t have a single one. Those two players combined for 19 points in a 16 point victory. Don’t believe me that there is a correlation between players with two first names and winning? Before the Knicks waived Kurt Thomas, the top two seeds in each conference combined to have 13 such players with the best team in the league leading the way with five. In contrast, the four teams that will lead the way in ping pong balls come June, have six cumulative players (seven depending on how you feel about the name Davis). If that’s not reason enough to reach on Shabazz Muhammad or Isaiah Austin is this year’s draft, then I don’t know what is.
Statistical Anomaly is a series where we explore all the mathematical nuances you may not have noticed watching the game the first time. Today, Kyle waxes Euclidian on the Thunder’s blowout win over the Jazz.
Oklahoma City is the highest scoring second quarter team in the NBA (27.8 points per game) and are typically even better at home (28.8). Utah managed to hold the Thunder to a mere 21 points, but lost the quarter (12) by more points than the lost the other 36 minutes by (11).
There is no doubt that Kevin Durant is an elite talent in this league, but his 23 turnovers and 22 assists over the last week (5 games) is a bit concerning. When you consider that KD is shooting 50.5% from the field, his 4.6 turnovers per game over the week is costing the Thunder an average of roughly five points. It didn’t matter (OKC has outscored its opponents by 52 points) this week, but the playoffs are played in a much tighter window. Interestingly enough, Durant has excelled more than normal at the free throw line when he is plagued with the turnover bug. Over his last ten 3+ turnover games, Durant has made 101/108 (including 44/46 in his last four such games) free throws. This shows the maturation in the game of the three time scoring champion, as he understands when he is struggling and finds a way to positively impact the game.
Serge Ibaka managed only three rebounds and one blocked shot against the big front line of the Jazz. One would assume that rebound total and blocked shot total would be directly correlated, indicating a dominating force in the paint. However, entering this game, Ibaka was averaging 4.3 blocked shots in games in which he grabbed three or fewer rebounds. He isn’t your prototypical center of the past, but his style of play very well could be the new norm in our increasingly athletic league. Here’s a look at how many rebounds Ibaka averages this season based on number of shots blocked.
Everybody tends to focus on the shot count when it comes to comparing Russell Westbrook and Kevin Durant, but why not look at shot location instead? The Thunder beat the Jazz with Westbrook not making a single three pointer, something they have done on a regular basis over the last two regular seasons. In fact, OKC has a higher winning percentage in games in which Westbrook doesn’t make a three (0.767) than when he does (0.705). The Thunder will peak as a team when Westbrook plays his game (attacking the rim and pulling up for midrange jumpers) and lets Durant take care of the outside shooting.
Each Jazz starter totaled at least 18 minutes of action, combining to shoot 25.7% from the field and score 26 points. Utah’s four bench players who played 18+ minutes shot 45.7% and scored 51 points. With Paul Milsap and Al Jefferson both playing at less than 100%, the Jazz are frantically searching for ways to make the playoffs. You have to wonder, though, would they be better off missing the playoffs? Qualifying for the eight seed isn’t really as much of a selling point to their free agent eligible paint protectors as a young and promising floor general they could acquire in the draft. With Derrick Favors playing well, is that far of a stretch to say that the Jazz (as currently constructed) are a top 10 PG away from being a similar team to Memphis?
Silver lining time for Jazz fans. Enes Kanter nailed all six of his free throws and has now converted on 90.9% of his freebies dating back to February 2nd. Kobe Bryant (83.4%) is considerably behind the 20 year old while the league’s leading FT shooter (Kevin Durant) is just slightly ahead (91.1%). If the Jazz lose one or both of their big men this summer, Kanter has showed promise as an interior presence (55.6% from the field and nearly 14 rebounds per 48 minutes) and seems to be developing an outside game thanks to the tandem of Jefferson and Milsap.
The Jazz seem to be in free fall, but the Lakers lost Kobe Bryant to the dreaded “severe ankle sprain”. Utah, when healthy, can dominate the paint on both sides of the floor, which gives them a chance in most games. Can they take advantage of the Bryant injury? If they do qualify for postseason play, can they ugly their way to a win or two? I realize they may lose most of their scoring/rebounding this offseason, but they do have some nice pieces, and may be closer than you think to being a legitimate playoff team who can win a series.
A relatively new tool in the world of advanced statistics, mySynergySports offers much in the way of furthering the conversation, as chronicled in HP’s Understanding Advanced Stats series. Author’s note: Please excuse the funky symbols occasionally encountered in older posts — they’re simply HTML leftovers from the Malaysian assault suffered earlier this year. The relevant content is still all there. One day I’ll get around to fixing up my previous posts, but for now my bucket is pretty full.
Synergy is unique in the stats world in it’s approach, giving researchers stats and annual ranks on players by the possession, specifically Points Per Possession (heretofore referred to as “PPP”), as well as logging and categorizing every possession by every player in every game in video logs on offense and defense. The defensive part is especially helpful since defense can often be difficult to quantify by straight numbers. Used in conjunction with other defensive stats we can now get a clearer picture of which players are truly having an impact on the D end of the floor.
However, Synergy is a subscription service with a finite number of ‘scripts available, so much of the basketball world doesn’t have access to these particular metrics. Never fear, we’re here to help!
OK, let’s do something new. You guys tweet me who and what you wanna know via Synergy and I’ll post your answers in a Synergy Session at HP
First up, expounding on the #NBArank conversation on Carmelo Anthony, I got into an interesting exchange with a couple of New York Knicks fans and a Utah Jazz writer wherein I intimated that Melo has been basically the same player his entire career.
@clintonite33 @daz_races Just wondering.Why can’t Melo make a jump in production but you believe that Al Jefferson can?
Aside from Melo and Big Al’s BasketballReference advanced stats, let’s see what we can find from Synergy, specifically in regards to passing and defense, two of the main points of contention in the convo. Both players posted career highs in AST% last season — Melo by a little, Al by a little more — but when it comes to Synergy, we don’t yet have specifics for the assist stat aside from being the Pick-and-Roll Ball Handler. Nevertheless, we can still learn something about how these players play offense by looking at the types of offensive plays they do post at Synergy. For instance, an isolation play is exactly what it says it is, and not assisted by a pass from a teammate.
As one would expect, Melo is primarily an Iso player, going to it 35.4% of the time, scoring a relatively meager 0.84 PPP on a mere 37.4% field goals, good for only 59th-best in the NBA. By contract, Al goes Iso only 6.3% of the time, scoring 0.83 PPP, 65th-best. Synergy has only been around for three seasons, but Melo went to the Iso about 37% of the time when with the Nuggets.
Jefferson’s go-to move on offense is obviously the Post-up, nearly half the time at 48.2%, scoring 0.96 PPP on 47.5% FGs, 18th-best in the NBA. The Post-up is Melo’s second-most common O play at 13% of the time where he lands 0.95 PPP on 44.3% FGs, good for the 21st ranking in the category. Melo should clearly be posting up more and going iso less. In Al Jefferson’s last year with the Minnesota Timberwolves he went to the Post-up an astonishing 57% of the time. His first year with the Jazz that dropped to 38% of the time. Clearly, once on a team known for passing Jefferson’s game met with adjustments.
Both players post their best PPP in the halfcourt offense on Cuts, a play made by slipping a defender, moving to the basket without the ball, then being found by a teammate. This would be Al’s second-most-used offensive play, 13.9% of the time, where he lands an astounding 1.27 PPP on 63.4% FGs. His last year in Minnesota Al Cut a paltry 6.8% of the time. He’s benefited greatly from the improved offensive system in Utah as compared to that in Minny. Melo goes to the Cut only 4.3% of the time, but he’s very successful when he does, posting 1.21 PPP on 61.1% FGs.
As for defense, in 2009-10 on Minny, Jefferson was overall ranked 299th giving up 0.93 PPP. In 2010-11, his first year in Utah, he leaped all the way up to 70th giving up 38.5% FGs on 0.82 PPP and only 0.74 PPP on 35.5% FGs on Post-Up defensive plays, which was 49% of the time. Surprisingly, his best D-ranking came this year on PnR defense, ranked 36th-best while giving up 0.83 PPP, his being the target of opposing PnRs about 10% of the time. 2011-12 saw some regression on defense, Jefferson falling back to 199th overall, giving up 0.84 PPP. His Post-up D remained solid giving up 0.77 PPP, and while he was targeted on PnRs less, 9.3% of the time, he gave up a not-so-hot 0.91 PPP. Clearly there’s work to be done here on Al’s part. It may worth noting here that Al Jefferson is one the top three clutch-time shot-blockers, so we know he’s capable of a better effort when the chips are down. Utah was in a lot of late-game situations last year.
2009-10 Carmelo saw him ranked a lowly 398th overall on defense, giving up 1.03 PPP in Iso situations, 0.98 in Post-Up, and 1.01 on Spot-ups, his three most common defensive stances. Remember, there’s only about 400-450 active NBA players at a given time, so that’s really bad. 2010-11 saw a moderate improvement to 331st overall, but he was still giving up nearly 1.00 PPP in most defensive situations. As noted by both Knicks fans and Clark, Melo improved — for him — fairly dramatically on defense last season for New York, giving up 0.84 PPP overall, good for a 240 ranking. His Post-up defense was an incredible 0.52 PPP, good for 2nd in the NBA, although he is quite a bit bigger than much of his competition at the 3-spot. He showed little interest for chasing his man, however, posting a dismal 1.13 PPP on D in Spot-up situations, ranked 344th. It’s pretty clear Melo still only plays D when it suits him, and I’d bet without looking that he leaks out in transition often on said Spot-ups.
With his third team in just over a year’s time, and before we bounce to PDX, it should be noted that Felton wasn’t even close to the same player in NY as in Denver, where he was a cog in the Carmelo force-out trade. Obviously, he is primarily a P&R Ball Handler, an average of 42% of the time for an average 0.81 PPP, but his role changed dramatically in Iso and Spot-up between the two locales.
In New York he rarely went Iso, only 7.8% of the time, good for 0.80 PPP. Once traded to Denver Iso became more prevalent, 10.9% of the time, but good for only a measly 0.59 PPP on 28% FGs. This negative effect was counteracted, though, by the most stark contrast to be found, in the Spot-up game. With the Knicks, Felton took Spot-ups only 8% of the time, whereas once in the Mile High City it skyrocketed to 19.8% of the time, 1.25 PPP on almost 48% FG shooting. Where Felton scores best seems to be in Hand Off situations. There were far more of these in New York where it was 9.4% of his offensive game, good for 0.95 PPP. In Denver he only did so 2.7% of the time, but hit on 1.44 PPG, on 66.7% shooting.
On defense he was again two different players between the Knicks and Nugs. As the PnR Ball Handler on D he went from giving up 0.88 PPP in NY to 0.71 in Denver. In Spot-ups he went from giving up 1.24 PPP to 1.04 PPP. But these gains were negated Off Screens where in NY he gave up only 0.64, to Denver where he failed to fight over or through screens properly giving up 1.26 PPP.
Once in Portland Felton played Ball Handler less often, 39.6% of the time where he scored poorly at 0.70 PPP, only ranked 116 on 40% FG shooting. The Spot-up trend obtained with the Nuggets continued where he did well 17.8% of the time for 0.99 PPP, but shot only 37.8%. Isolation, never a strength, was seen nealry 10% of the time, but he scored only 0.74 PPP and 33.8% FGs. The Trailblazers were a bad fit. But that’s not news to you.
Felton wasn’t awful defensively for Portland, defending the PnR Handler 45.9% of the time and holding him to 0.79 PPP, but that’s where the D highlights end. In Iso, Spot-up, and Off Screens he gave up at least 0.90 PPP, and was particularly susceptible to opposing Post-ups, giving back 0.97 PPP.
It will be interesting to see what Mike Woodson does with Felton now back in New York once again, but I wouldn’t hold your breath. Hey, at least he’s reportedly less fluffy.
Kanter posted up 112 times, 30.2% of the time he was on the floor on offense, but scored only 0.79 PPP on his man. Yes, he had trouble getting above the rim. Billed as a rebound beast coming in, he certainly lived up to that end of the deal where he’s extremely fundamentally sound, going glass 25.6% of the time, scoring 0.97 PPP on Offensive Rebounds, a massive proportion of percentage on O. He was most successful on Cuts, 17.5% of the time for 1.14 PPP. A pretty clear pattern emerges here for the Jazz, that being ball and player movement, where their big men can get easy looks.
On defense Kanter still has some work to do where he gave up 1.05 PPP in Post-ups. He showed some promise on PnR defense, but didn’t defend it enough to qualify for a ranking, and often lost his man in the screen switch.
It’s exciting to see a player work so hard to buff up in the offseason. I just hope he worked on his basketball skills just as hard.
If I didn’t get to your Synergy Session question this time keep ‘em coming, I’ll be sure to fit you in in future posts.
Late last season Utah Jazz head coach Ty Corbin had little to lose in a season not of his making, and so embarked on an experiment, one Jerry Sloan had contemplated but never found the inclination to employ for whatever get-off-my-lawn reason.
“…the admission was made, and it provided insight into whether Millsap hopes to return next season as a power forward or a small forward.
The 6-foot-8, 250-pounder has no problem switching positions and sliding over to the 3 spot on occasion â€” something he did toward the end of the season to play alongside fellow bigsÂ Al JeffersonÂ and Derrick Favors.”
The short stints at the 3 were interesting, if mostly uneventful, last season, and hotly contested by fans and media. The prevalent thinking was that Millsap was too much the tweener — not big enough to impact the towering 4s, but not fleet enough to guard the quick 3s of the NBA — for him to be successful there. The sample size was so small there wasn’t much to be gleaned from Millsap’s 2% of the team’s minutes at the small forward in 2010-11. Yet even then, before the addition of Enes Kanter to the Jazz’s big man rotation, it was enough to spark debates centered around moving Millsap over so that natural defender Derrick Favors could get on the floor more.
Corbin had seen enough potential for a situational move to prompt him to tease us by saying he’d comtemplate using Millsap at the 3 more in the next season, the current one. So Paul set out in the offseason with the goal of adding to his rigorous routine more lower body training to develop the leg muscle required to try and keep the quick 3s in front of him should he see time on the floor with Jefferson and Favors manning the frontcourt.
There was some talk of seeing this bigger, longer lineup coming into the 2011-12 season, talk that was soon forgotten in vain when it never happened. Until a recent series of injuries that coincided with a slump, a seeming blessing in disguise.
On a three-game skid with Utah’s season hanging in the balance, the offense stagnating on the floor while opposing wings found their way into the paint too easily, once again Ty Corbin had little to lose. So he took a chance.
Midway through the second quarter early in April in the Rose Garden the Jazz were down 13, floundering while Nicolas Batum and Wesley Matthews were having their way with Utah when Paul Millsap entered the game at the small forward position. Bigger and stronger than both Batum and Matthews, the Jazz would close the quarter on a 21-11 run closing the gap to three by the break. And never look back.
Corbin trotted out his longer lineup to start the third quarter and it responded with a 14-1 run, Millsap dropping 19 second-half points, Batum and Matthews frustrated and helpless, stymied, unable to stop the stout tweener. These are precisely the types of players Millsap wasn’t supposed to be able to defend, but when you’re wearing out your man with a mismatch it has the inevitable effect of making an impact on theÂ availableÂ energy reserves used on offense as well.
Since moving Millsap to the 3 for longer stints in that Portland game midway through 2Q, the Jazz have gone 4-2, the 22nd-ranked defensive squad holding four opponents to less than 100 points, Millsap, Favors, and Jefferson on the floor together a +32 plus-minus. The most effective lengthy lineup of Jamaal Tinsley plus Gordon Hayward — extremely lengthy at the 2-spot — in the backcourt, plus these more-traditional 4s have been wreaking unscouted havoc on the opposition.
From BasketballValue, this lineup boasts the best defensive rating of any of the most-used top 25 five-man units trotted out by Ty Corbin this year.
Even as this potent quintet sees more floor time as a spark plug when the system breaks down, and is reported as potential trouble by scouts, in a league where individual matchups dictate much of the odds of the outcome many times opposing coaches may find themselves powerless to hold back an often bigger and stronger Paul Millsap on the wing, especially with him netting career levels in FG% out to nine feet, leading the NBA in scoring on cuts to the basket, more able than ever to put the ball on the floor, a solid assist rate, and a career-low turnover percent.
It’s moving time in the playoff picture. And Ty Corbin and the Jazz always have extra options with an ever-improving, flexible hard worker like Millsap willing to get in there and mix it up in any fashion required to win.
Recently, while doing research for another post, I stumbled across the following: of players getting starterâ€™s minutes, Al Jefferson has the highest PER for a player not named to the All-Star team this season (Note: since that search, he’s been leapfrogged by Ryan Anderson and Greg Monroe, but just barely). His PER also beats out Dirk Nowitzki, Deron Williams, Roy Hibbert, Chris Bosh, Marc Gasol, and Andrew Bynum. Per 36 minutes, heâ€™s scoring and rebounding more than Bynum and several others. Neither advanced stats nor All-Star appearances are the end-all-be-all of a playerâ€™s worth, but seeing Big Al so high up on that list got me thinking about how close Big Alâ€™s time on the Timberwolves came to ending my Timberwolves fandom, about how much Iâ€™ve always respected but never liked Tim Duncan, about why Kevin Love feels so different, and what all of that says about how we might lie to ourselves about basketball.
Al Jefferson highlightmixes on YouTube are a little weird, often consisting of highlight reel passes to Big Al for strong, secure two-handed dunks. There will be a bunch of up-and-unders, some blocks on shots by shooting guards and small forwards, some excessively smooth and effective drop step spins to the hoop. He is, in essence, doing everything you could want from the power forward and center position according to those positionsâ€™ traditional roles. And I almost fell asleep watching those videos.
When the Wolves were casting about for a reason to get Big Al out of town, the argument that kept coming up was that he was a black hole on offense. Once the ball went into him in the post, it wasnâ€™t coming back out until he scored or turned it over. You see, his propensity for stopping and scoring the ball was taking away chances from, well, Jonny Flynn, I guess. And other deadeye shooters on the 2009 Timberwolves like Corey Brewer, Ramon Sessions, and Sasha Pavlovic. Sure, Jeffersonâ€™s usage rate was highest on the team at 24.3%, but numbers two and three on that list were Flynn and this guy. (For what itâ€™s worth, number four was Kevin Loveâ€”this was his rookie season.) Jefferson was also (supposedly) creating a logjam in the frontcourt alongside Love, a charge that seems kind of ridiculous when you look at a Wolves team that started this season with three to five natural power forwards and zero serviceable centers, although Pekovic has since emerged as a bruisingly effective five.
And when he was on the Wolves, I bought every justification for shipping Jefferson out with relish. He was such a letdown from the energy and furor of Kevin Garnett, and there was no way he would ever be the face of the franchise. His exemplary low-post footwork, his effective spins, his decent midrange shot, his competent rebounding and blocking: it was all just so solid that it drove me crazy. I didnâ€™t watch basketball for the subtle beauty of the back-to-the-basket game. My first love was the Human Highlight Film, my second was The Answer. I wanted basketball players who defied gravity and physics. I wanted drama. I wanted players to overcome their maladjusted, Frankenstein games and achieve the impossible.
Itâ€™s why I never liked Tim Duncan. I never once picked him for an NBA 2K fantasy draft team, despite his reign as one of the (if not one of the two, alongside Garnett) best power forwards of his generation. By 2003, Iâ€™d developed a healthy distaste for the Lakers, and so by rights, when Duncanâ€™s Spurs knocked them off in the conference semis I should have crowned him my new favorite player. Instead, I rooted for the Nets in the Finals. Heâ€™s clearly an all-time great, a lock for the Hall of Fame. But I find it impossible to drum up any enthusiasm for his hook shots, his low-post passing, his bank shots. His game has virtually no defect, and that, at least to me, is the defect with â€œThe Big Fundamental.â€ (Well, his free throw shooting has been on-and-off problematic, but even that has improved to respectableâ€”not impressiveâ€”levels.)
Iâ€™m sure there will be those who read this and have the reaction that Iâ€™m â€œhatingâ€ on Duncan and Jefferson, but hating would be an improvement. My feelings about these two players are more like The Nothing from The Neverending Story, and itâ€™s not their fault. Itâ€™s mine, and I know it. As I gradually warmed to Kevin Love, I thought maybe I had learned to love a solid, unflashy player. Loveâ€™s consistent double-doubles, his lunchpail work on tip-ins and putbacks, his ability to get rebounds via positioning and timing, not sizeâ€”all of it points to an unglamorous player. He barely jumps on dunks, and if he punctuates them, itâ€™s more with a boldface period than an exclamation point.
But then again: his post game is fine, but hardly the subtle machine of Jefferson or Duncan. Instead of acting like a archetypal big man, his preference is to score from midrange, and (hereâ€™s the rub) the arc. Heâ€™s kind of a stretch four, but kind of not, and so, he exists in a liminal space. His propensity for threes (and especially for game-winning threes) is what unbalances him as a player, and ultimately what endears him to me. Realizing that has also helped me realize that Iâ€™m a fraud.
I like to think of myself as cultivating a refined sensibility in many areas of my life: I like a classic gin martini made with Plymouth, Noilly Pratt, and olives; Iâ€™m one of those people who gagged on Dan Gilbertâ€™s Comic Sans letter, who appreciates the clean, utilitarian lines of Helvetica, the timeless beauty of Garamond; one of my top three movies of all time is Wong Kar Waiâ€™s â€œIn the Mood for Love,â€ a tremendously restrained, lushly shot meditation on love and loss. I love Steely Dan. And what are Al Jefferson and Tim Duncan if not the basketball embodiment of Steely Danâ€™s cooly professional and misunderstood contemporary jazz-rock?
My ho-hum feelings about Duncan and Jefferson (and other blandly solid players like Andre Miller) belie my idea of myself as a basketball aficionado. Because down at the root I still fell in love with basketball because of Dominique Wilkins, because of Iversonâ€™s crossovers, because of fast breaks and dunk contests, because of style over substance. My other two top movies? “Aliens” and “Die Hard.” My head wants crisply efficient offense and staunch defense. It knows the bank shot is better than the circus shot. But Iâ€™m sorry, Timmy and Al, the heart wants what it wants, dammit.
SLCDunk: What single story went under the radar that you thought was important, and why?
Clint: The way the Jazz bigs finished the season.
I don’t think anyone would dispute that the Jazz struggled with chemistry issues last year, for obvious reasons. But the frontline of Al Jefferson, Paul Millsap, and Derrick Favors began to find a groove by season’s end.
If you ask George Karl or the Denver Nuggets what’s been the single most important thing that’s contributed to their ability to flourish as a team despite having no stars you’ll be told it was the loss of the distraction that was Carmelo Anthony. We saw a similar effect during the Memphis Grizzlies’ Cinderella playoff run last season as well after they lost their top talent and rising star Rudy Gay to injury for the remainder of the 2010-11 season. And the Utah Jazz are rocking some of this same mojo this year, beating a nigh unbeatable Nuggets team in the Pepsi Center by out-teaming what’s been the best “team” in basketball in recent memory.
Before the first horn solo in Entrance of the Gladiators was done Jerry Sloan was gone. Before the second bar could begin so was Deron Williams. It was suddenly Al Jefferson, Paul Millsap, and Ty Corbin’s team, and they were briskly dubbed the worst team in basketball with fans calling for Corbin’s head on a silver platter. They were supposed to lose in Denver by 10.5 points, instead winning by 10, a 20.5-point swing. They somehow stand among the elite in the standings when they were supposed to be challenging the Washington Wizards for the rights to Anthony Davis or Harrison Barnes in the next draft.
What sort of sorcery or (forgive me) “Al”chemy is this?
While their schedule has been fortunate at times thus far, they’re also a fundamentally changed ball club, making hay while the sun is shining, picking up momentum and confidence by the bushel, now not only beating teams they should by what they should be, but also pushing the mighty LA Lakers to the limit and soundly trouncing a Denver team that’s had the best home record over the last several seasons.
With this Utah team there’s no single standout area that you could pinpoint statistically that would comprehensively or logically explain a turnaround this dramatic.* It’s rather a product of a sum of improved parts that are buying into what Ty Corbin and assistant additions Sydney Lowe and Mike Sanders have been selling. The Jazz are protecting the paint — over their last three games they’ve given up only 36.0 points in the paint while dropping 46.5 — and chasing opponents off of the 3-point line — giving up 16.2 PPG from 3, down from 21.7 last year — something Sloan never did preferring to play the percentages, an ill-conceived strategy in a league dropping from range at an historic rate. Indeed, that’s basically Denver’s entire game, all inside or out, with little in between. The Jazz forced the Nuggets out of their comfort zones and into unfamiliar territory, a league-wide lower percentage long mid-range game. Utah’s improved defense is controlling pace and dictating where opponents get looks.
*As SI.com’s Zach Lowe points out, if you had to pick one it would be Paul Millsap, who somehow adds something new to his game every year. Watch out for his passing, this, he’s clearly been working on his court vision.
Sample sizes are still small, but early returns have Al Jefferson as anchor on three of the four best defensive five-man units among the ten most used on the Jazz, including the best one,Â and he’s has never been more focused on the defensive end, his improved effort given a double-dose of help by his coming into camp in the best shape of his career coupled with a D-scheme devised by Corbin, and vocally enforced all game long by Sydney Lowe, that’s far more conducive to all the Jazz’s personnel than the antiquated one run by Sloan. To put it plainly, Corbin is using the tools he was given in a more efficient manner than Jerry Sloan was at the end of his magnificent run of greatness.
According to mySynergySports, Al Jefferson cut to the basket only 1.22 times per-game his last year with the Minnesota Timberwolves. Last season, his first in Utah, he ran cuts 3.35 times per-game, and now he has the conditioning and explosive physique to make those cuts count. Throw in a willingness to pass out and reset the post now when the double-team comes — and the double and even triple-team is coming a lot, watch for it — instead of forcing his way through it every single time as he always had before and he’s found a new threat to dangle over opponents on offense.
A cursory glance at Jefferson’s statistics don’t tell the whole story — what he’s doing his subtle, but extremely effective. Throw out his outlier offensive struggles with the Lakers and he’s hitting on .556 field goals, where the 6th-best player there in the league sits this year. It’s taken several games for his FG% to recover after running into the LA Towers each time. Lucky for him Millsap seems to finally have the Lakeshow figured out. Maybe Paul will share his secret.
On this play Al gets the entry pass and the double comes causing him to reset to Devin Harris who returns the favor. All the while Millsap is lurking on the weakside, stalking the play, waiting for the right moment. When it comes, Paul cuts, turns and finishes strong off the glass on the Al dime. And no one’s scoring better on cuts this year than Millsap, Paul putting down 1.69 points-per-possession, good for number one in the NBA.
And this play can go the other way as well. Either Millsap or Jefferson has recorded two assists in every game this season but one, the overtime tilt with the Lakers where each logged one.
And their odd chemistry doesn’t end there. Here’s a few more examples of how the coaching staff has found ways to play to each player’s strengths:
â€¢ Both are posting career bests in defensive rating, Al 99 and Sap 97. This after Jefferson posted four straight years of a heinous 108 (lower is better for D-rating). Under the new D-scheme Corbin has Jefferson defending the post 61% of the time where he’s 7th-best in the NBA allowing a mere 0.60 points-per-possession.
â€¢ Together they’ve netted 32 steals and posted 30 blocks, Sap the better pickpocket with 22 and Al the better rim stopper with 21 blocks. Their blocks and steals on the season are a virtual funhouse mirror, Al 1.9 blocks and 0.9 steals and Sap 0.8 blocks and 1.8 steal per game. Jefferson is currently at career highs for both steals and blocks percentage and Millsap for steals percentage. They are each “helping the helper.”
â€¢ In only one game this season did one or the other fail to score at least 18 points, the home opener where Millsap had 14 and Al sat out injured.
â€¢ Last season Jefferson led the league in lowest turnover percentage at 6.8%, although he’s always been good there due to his ability to keep the ball and get a shot off as opposed to this year where he commonly passes back out when Corbin hasn’t intentionally called an iso for a mismatch. But he’s still one of the best there at only 7.4%, only now he has company. Millsap is Al’s near equal now turning it over only 7.9% of the time, down from a career 12.4%.
You have to have that guy that you can pencil in nightly numbers for, and on the Jazz this is Al Jefferson. You also need that big-game-moment guy, and your man here is Paul Millsap (Hi, Miami!). If one is off the other has been there to pick up the slack. And if they’re both clicking, well, you’re boned.
In The Can on Sunday night Al Jefferson got ripped off by the Pepsi Center scorers of a beauty of an entry dime as he spied a cutting Millsap in the fourth quarter who deftly plucked the floater from space and hovered as he spun mid-air and set the Spalding on a straight and true course for twine.
An ecstatic Al Jefferson threw a hay-maker of a fist pump then met his stone-faced ‘mate with glee in a moment of pure team emotion and appreciation I’ll never forget.
It’s hard to beat good coaching and chemistry when executed properly within the team concept. Ty Corbin is laying the foundation, drawing up the plans, and mixing up a brew of win that’s difficult to overcome if you’re on the wrong side of the floor. And his students are intently carrying out their instructions practically flawlessly right now.
We’re so much more familiar with each other now… The guys are counting on each other, trusting each other on both ends of the floor. We’re continuing to grow because we’re making the right passes. We’re making great cuts on the offensive end, pushing the ball up the floor, we’re searching for early opportunities. And when we get in half-court sets we’re doing a good job of executing our offense.
So here we are. Itâ€™s been joked about and threatened on the internet, in the papers and around the league for a while.
Darko Milicic has been such a disappointment in this league that heâ€™s been a running joke for seven seasons now. Thatâ€™s right; heâ€™s been running longer than The Office, 30 Rock, and is three seasons away from being a longer running comedy than Seinfeld.
Now a lot of that is unfair scrutiny on Darko Milicic and he really shouldnâ€™t be the ire of ridicule amongst basketball fans. Itâ€™s not his fault he was taken second in a draft that put him ahead of Carmelo Anthony, Dwyane Wade, Chris Bosh, Chris Kaman, David West, Boris Diaw, Travis Outlaw, Kirk Hinrich, TJ Ford, Leandro Barbosa, Kendrick Perkins and Josh Howard. Itâ€™s not his fault that as an unproven and relatively unknown prospect he didnâ€™t fall to the second round like Rashard Lewis and Maciej Lampe. None of that is his fault and he shouldnâ€™t be criticized for something Joe Dumars reached on.
Just like with this new contract with the Timberwolves. Heâ€™s signing a four-year, $20 million deal to probably be the starting center for the Wolves. Itâ€™s not his fault he was offered this insane contract. Itâ€™s not his fault David Kahnâ€™s comically incompetent stylings have lead to Darko Milicicâ€™s agent doing back flips and pinching himself to make sure this isnâ€™t a dream.
Darko isnâ€™t a bad player and Iâ€™m not opposed to him being on the Wolves. Heâ€™s also not a good player and not someone I want getting an almost fully guaranteed four-year commitment. People donâ€™t even like agreeing to a two-year plan to get a new cell phone and the Wolves have doubled that with Darko. The money isnâ€™t bad either; itâ€™s just unnecessary.
Hereâ€™s what theyâ€™ll try to sell you on with Darko: heâ€™s the defensive presence the Wolves have needed inside. Hereâ€™s the problem with that sales pitch: itâ€™s a load of crap.
In his time with the Wolves last season, Darko was ranked 420th in the NBA in Points Per Possession given up defensively (according to Synergy Sports). 420th!!!! If all of the teams in the NBA had a full 15-man roster then there would be 450 players. And that means only 30 guys would be worse than Darko at defense. In the post, he was a lot better at a ranking of 215th. Iâ€™m sorry but that doesnâ€™t exactly scream progress to me.
I like the fact that the Wolves are bringing Nikola Pekovic over from Europe. Heâ€™s shown some decent promise by putting up big scoring numbers for such a young big man. The problem is that the importing of Pekovic and the re-signing of Darko Milicic is what David Kahn had to do to justify trading away Al Jefferson. While Al Jefferson isnâ€™t exactly the messiah in post player form, heâ€™s certainly much better than the two options being brought in to replace him.
Some will argue that Al Jefferson being replaced by Darko is an upgrade on defense. But looking back at Synergy Sports, Al Jefferson ranked 278th in overall defense and 187th in post defense. Heâ€™s not exactly making Bill Russell watch his legacy here but at the same time, he was better than Darko defensively. So how can that be an upgrade?
The Milicic move is just an example of faking progress and itâ€™s something that bad decision-makers do in the NBA. They give guys unnecessary contracts and pitch them as reclamation projects on the verge of boosting a franchise when in reality itâ€™s just a way to distract people from focusing on the two horrible drafts youâ€™ve executed in your one year on the job. Darko Milicic is an okay player. Heâ€™s not an answer or a cure-all for a team. Heâ€™s not a guy I would eat up precious cap space with for four years, ESPECIALLY when there is a new collective bargaining agreement coming in a year and everybody assumes the cap flexibility is going to get a lot tighter.
And this is where we are with the Wolves. There is not an ounce of foresight in the decision-making that goes on. A year ago, we were pitched two point guards with back-to-back picks in the first six picks of the draft. Overall, there were five guards (four of them point guards) selected. Kevin Love and Al Jefferson went through trade value assassinations over the last few months and instead of bringing in the proper dominant big man or defensive presence to balance out their weaknesses, the team decided to take four small forwards in the draft and elicit numerous five-year plan jokes over the past week. Now, theyâ€™re carving out an increasingly precious amount of cap space for a guy that doesnâ€™t defend better than what they have, is worse offensively and was on the verge of going back to Europe because nobody wanted to play with him.
The worst part about it is Kevin Pritchard is just sitting out there, waiting for a job offer to be tossed his way. Putting him in the same division of the team that fired him would guarantee you getting the most genius and diabolical team building weâ€™ve seen in a long time. Instead, weâ€™re left with a guy who flips D-League franchises like theyâ€™re used cars, alienates every single coworker and colleague he has and then performs personnel moves that are so abhorrent that they can only be correctly classified as espionage.
Iâ€™m not mad at Darko one bit. He was offered way more money and way more years than heâ€™s worth or proven to deserve and he took the contract. Weâ€™d all do the exact same thing. Iâ€™m mad at the smug face with incompetent motives and execution that is single-handedly keeping a two-second clip from a sci-fi movie that came out nearly 30 years ago preserved like itâ€™s saturated in formaldehyde.
This move likely means the trading of Al Jefferson, whose trade value was ultimately shattered over the past two weeks when David Kahn shopped him around for anybody and everybody that has ever picked up a basketball before. Heâ€™s found a way to shoot himself in the foot with these upcoming trade negotiations before he even picked up the gun. I donâ€™t know why any of this surprises me anymore. Actually, the sad thing is that it doesnâ€™t. You expect to be defeated before anything even happens. Itâ€™s depressing. Itâ€™s life as a David Kahn Refugee.
Suns general manager Steve Kerr met with Stoudemireâ€™s agent, Happy Walters, on Thursday, and league sources say there was little sense an agreement could be reached before the trade deadline. With Stoudemire able to opt out of the final $17.7 million season of his contract, the Suns donâ€™t want to risk losing him for nothing in free agency this summer.
As they did when shopping Stoudemire last season, the Suns want a combination of young talent, salary-cap relief and draft picks for him. Some teams are hesitant to trade for Stoudemire for fear he wonâ€™t want to re-sign with them this summer. The Minnesota Timberwolves lead that group of teams, sources say. The Wolves are mostly eyeing small forwards, including the Memphis Grizzliesâ€™ Rudy Gay(notes), the Bullsâ€™ Luol Deng(notes) and the Washington Wizardsâ€™ Caron Butler(notes). No one is untouchable on the Wolves roster, sources say.
Okay, we’ll get to the actual information here in a second. But can we all stop and realize for a second that Amar’e Stoudemire’s agent is named Happy? Happy Walters. “Hi, I’m Happy Walters, and I’m here to play hardball.”Â Or, “Nobody disrespects Happy! NOBODY!”
Okay, we’ll get back to Amare in a second. The Wolves would like to acquire Rudy Gay, Deng, or Caron Butler. What do they have to give? There’s a lot of talk (yes, unsourced) about Jefferson not digging the triangle and that he’s on the block. But what in God’s name are the Grizzlies going to take for Rudy? They have Randolph and Gasol, who are both end of the bench All-Star reserve candidates. They can’t send Flynn, they’ll have no point guard on this continent! What, are they going to send Memphis Rubio’s draft rights and some scrubs just so Memphis can trim its payroll down even mo….ooooooooooh. (The CBA required minimum payroll prevents this, but you get the idea.) The Grizzlies seem to be in a “if we can’t outspend the other teams in RFA, fine, but we’re not trading him for .50 on the dollar” which is exactly what they should do.
Chicago, though, is interesting. If they can pry Jefferson out of their hands for Deng, they should absolutely do it. Jefferson with Noah at his back is a significant low-post upgrade. They’ll be weak at SF, but at this point, who cares?
If they can wheedle Caron out of Washington for draft picks or some other peanuts deal, it’ll be the first good one of Kahn’s reign.
On to Amar’e.
The more I look at this rumor, I can’t buy it. What, Kahn’s going to trade his biggest chip for a player who obviously won’t re-sign with them so they’ll have more cap space to pursue a free agent? I still think Ellison plus Jefferson is a reasonable price for Amare, but you’d have to send a pick back with Amare, and the Suns can’t be dumb enough to send another pick away. Oh, wait, it’s the Suns, they’re exactly that dumb.
Here’s all you need to know about any take-aways from this game: The Wolves’ big 3rd quarter run to briefly take the lead consisted of a rotation of Ramon Sessions, Sasha Pavlovic, Damien Wilkins, Oleksiy Pecherov, and Nathan Jawai. Outside of Sessions (who seems to be outplaying Jonny Flynn by a large margin quite a bit these days) who do you hang your hat on in that group? Watching these games is like going to Target Field to root for Denard Span surrounded by the St. Paul Saints.
That’s right. The Wolves have gotten to a point where the fans are looking forward to baseball season. In November.
And yet, they steadfastly defend David Kahn, because really, the state of this franchise can’t be attributed to the GM who handpicked most of the talent that’s not performing well. I think Love will have a huge impact and I understand Big Al’s health. But I’m starting to be concerned Stockholm Syndrome has set in.