For more that two decades, that’s been the mantra in Salt Lake City. And with good reason. Since 1988-89, the season in which Jerry Sloan took over as head coach (17 games in), only once have the Jazz failed to win at least half of their games. In 19 of Sloan’s 22 seasons, the Jazz have featured an elite point guard-power forward combo, and in 15 of those seasons the team has won at least 58% of its games.
It was this system that produced one of the most unexpected winning seasons in NBA history. In 2003-04, the season after the Jazz lost both Stockton and Malone, the team rode Andrei Kirilenko, Matt Harpring, Carlos Arroyo, young Raja Bell and Gordon Giricek to a 42-40 record and missed the playoffs by a singe game. So, yeah, the system works, and is more than worthy of the fans’ trust. And clearly, it’s not remained static for multiple decades, but rather evolved and adapted to changes in the team’s identity and top personnel.
Previously, there had been no mistaking the identity of the Jazz. In the 1990s and the early 2000s they featured Stockton and Malone, surrounded by perimeter scorers (Thurl Bailey, Jeff Malone, Jeff Hornacek, Bryon Russell, even Blue Edwards and Shandon Anderson) and hard-nosed big men (Mark Eaton, Antoine Carr, Greg Ostertag and Greg Foster) who didn’t need touches to be effective. From 1988-89 until 2002-03, the Jazz advanced past the first round of the playoffs eight times, each of these postseason runs preceded by a regular season in which the team own at least 65.9% of its games.
Based on pace (possessions per 48 minutes), offensive efficiency (points per 100 possessions) and defensive efficiency (points allowed per 100 possessions), these teams’ approach was simple, predictable, but also deadly- play solid defense (top 11 in efficiency in seven of those eight seasons; the 1998 Finals team was uncharacteristically 17th) and limit available possessions (ranked #17-27 in pace) to a number that would allow them to take advantage of their superior offensive efficiency (top-seven in seven of eight seasons; top-four five times). They utilized a) their knowledge of the tempo at which they could out-execute the opposition and b) the personnel needed to do so to control the flow of games and maximize their chances of victory.
Following the 2003 departure of his legendary duo, Sloan was forced to remix his formula. A year after signing Carlos Boozer away from the Cavaliers, he endured the leanest year of his coaching tenure. Following the shocking overachievement of the franchise’s first post-Stockton-and-Malone season, the 2004-05 Jazz encountered the difficulty that many (all?) had expected, and finished with a 26-56 record. That spring’s draft lottery saw the Jazz come away with the third overall pick which, combined with Billy Knight’s fetish for rudderless offenses, allowed them to nab Illinois’ Deron Williams.
After the impressive on-the-fly rebuild, once again led by an elite PG-PF combo, the Jazz reemerged as a perennial playoff team and potential contender. Comparisons to previous on-court regime were inevitable, and sure, Boozer and Williams developed an excellent rapport on the pick-and-roll/pop and were surrounded by similar perimeter scorers (Mehmet Okur, Kyle Korver, Ronnie Brewer, Wesley Matthews, Gordon Giricek, C.J. Miles) and tough vets (Matt Harpring, Derek Fisher, Andrei Kirilenko), but there were stylistic differences that would have to be accounted for. This is due primarily to the fact that Williams entered the NBA at just over half of Stockton’s age at retirement, and with more strength and athleticism than his predecessor had ever possessed.
While the Jazz continued to run their vaunted flex offense, it was tailored to strengths their new floor general. For starters, Sloan recognized that this incarnation of the Jazz wasn’t elite defensively (middle-third in efficiency) and that in order to get the best offensive production out of them, the pace of play would have to be ratcheted up (top-10 twice, no lower than 14th). This recognition and accompanying flexibility allowed the Williams-Boozer Jazz to rank among the NBA’s best offenses (top-eight in efficiency three times), win at least 48 games in four consecutive seasons, including 50+ three times, and advance past the opening round of the playoffs three times.
After a year rife with roster upheaval, highlighted by the departure of Boozer, the Jazz once again have one of the NBA’s better records in 2010-11. As of the end of January they’ve played 49 games, winning 29, or 59%. Their excellent record is deceiving, however. After winning 27 of their first 40 games- including impressive wins over the Lakers, Heat, Thunder, Hawks and Hornets, and a season sweep of the Orlando Magic (by double digits each time)- the Jazz have lost seven of nine, including unimpressive efforts against the Wizards, Nets and Sixers, and embarrassing blowouts at the hands of the Celtics and the Lakers.
Of course, NBA teams go through slumps all the time, and there’s a case to be made that this team’s on its way to righting the ship. They’ve won two of three without Deron Williams, suggesting a return to the NBA’s elite when their superstar is back at full strength. Unfortunately for the Jazz, their play at both ends of the court has deteriorated from recent years. This season they’re playing at a slower pace (93.5; 20th), are less efficient on offense (106; 11th) and rank in the league’s bottom third on defense (106.1; 21st)- signaling further difficulty ahead, rather than a return to form.
So what’s gone wrong this season? Well, at the risk of oversimplifying, the Jazz just don't have many good basketball players.
In the past year, they’ve not only downgraded in the paint, but lost a knock-down shooter (Korver), a smart, talented and reasonably priced young player with heart (Matthews) and an athletic wing that could help on D (Brewer). In their place, the Jazz now feature Al Jefferson, old Raja Bell, Earl Watson and “Luke Jackson: Redux,” err, Gordon Hayward.
If we were to rank each player on the Jazz roster as either “great” (top-25 in the league), “good” (nebulously defined as “considerably better than average”), “average” and “poor,” all but three members of the Jazz fall into the bottom two categories:
Deron Williams- No need to spend too much time here. D-Will is phenomenal. He’s one of the smartest and most talented players in the NBA, a top-two PG and one of the most efficient and productive players around.
Paul Millsap- The best non-D-Will member of the Jazz. Millsap is fairly efficient, in terms of both raw PER (17th among forwards averaging 20+ minutes per game) and Adjusted PER (18th in the same sample), comparing favorably to Chris Bosh and Luis Scola. As both a shooter and rebounder (across the board, his rebound rates are almost identical to those of Ersan Ilyasova- not sure what to do with this info, but thought it was interesting) he’s better than average, but nowhere near the top tier. The problem with Millsap is that he’s part banger and part skilled forward, but not great enough in either capacity to be a top-two option in an elite offense.
Al Jefferson- By the numbers, Al Jefferson is a “good” and efficient NBA big man. And while his skill set is difficult to ignore, the reality of the situation is that Big Al’s an awful fit for this offense and his performance has steadily declined over the past half decade. He represents a massive downgrade from the recently departed Carlos Boozer.
Offensively he’s nowhere as efficient as the numbers would imply, with below average eFG% and TS% (both are at five-year lows), and an insistence on venturing out of the paint despite shooting 38.8% (2.1-of-5.4 per game) on attempts outside of 10 feet. He’s a fairly efficient scorer in the paint (4.9-of-9 FG per game within 10 feet), but attempts to use him properly- as an old-school, slow-it-down post-up big man- are partly to blame for the Jazz’s loss of pace and efficiency, given the frequent need to work deeper into the shot clock (they get worse the more time they use) on offense.
To make matters worse, Jefferson is also an atrocious defender and his rebound rates, while still better than the NBA average (and marginally better than Millsap’s) have declined and now also sit at or near five-year lows.
C.J. Miles- An average player made better by playing the wing alongside Deron Williams. The upside to Miles’ game is that he’s extremely athletic, plays hard and does a fantastic job of attacking the rim on the break. He’s cut down his turnovers (2 fewer per 100 possessions) and improved on the defensive glass (13% DRR, compared with 9.7% last season), and has thus seen both his PER and Adjusted PER climb to the highest levels of his career. He hits enough 3-pointers (34.4%) to (kinda) justify his 4.3 attempts per game, but would be better served attacking the paint. He’ll probably never be a star, but at just 23 years of age, should be a solid NBAer for some time.
Andrei Kirilenko- Andrei just kinda is what he is at this point. A good passer, but otherwise not a very good offensive player, but a solid rebounder and still one of the NBA’s more effective perimeter and weak-side defenders. In terms of efficiency, he’s a shade better than Miles this season, but could stand to improve his shot selection. A lanky, below average shooter that hits 80% of his free throws should not be attempting almost as many shots from 16+ feet (3.7) as he does from 15 feet in (4.4).
On the bright side, Kirilenko is (finally!) in the last year of his big-money contract, giving the Jazz a $17.8M asset with which to add some talented pieces.
Earl Watson- Statistics suggest that he’s actually a below average player, but I’m going to be more kind to Earl. He’s a career backup and a journeyman- “a guy,” essentially- but he plays within himself and is capable of giving a team a few mistake-free minutes here and there.
Jeremy Evans- The one upside to the Jazz recent swoon has been watching Evans’ exploits in garbage time. Not sure if he’s any good or not, but this dude can fly. Hope to see him in the 2012 Dunk Contest.
Kyrylo Fesenko/Francisco Elson- A pair of seven-footers, each of whom has a pulse, that have not been inefficient in very limited minutes.
Mehmet Okur- When healthy, Okur is a very good player. However, he’s currently a shell of his former All-Star self. In 13 games in 2010-11, he’s averaging 4.9 points and 2.3 rebounds in 12.9 minutes, and has scored in double figures just twice. It’s possible that as the season progresses he’ll regain his conditioning and give the Jazz the versatile big man they’re lacking, but I’m not sure just how much I want to wager on a 31 year-old big man coming off of a ruptured Achilles and currently suffering from lower back pain.
Gordon Hayward- A “shooter” that, at the moment, can’t shoot (below average eFG% and TS%) or get his own shot (78.7% of made shots are assisted) and is putrid on the defensive end. While he might be able to establish himself as a spot-up threat, Hayward lacks the speed and strength to force defenders to pay him any attention. Not sure how many current NBA players are definitively worse. On the bright side, he seems like a great guy and is not a terrible (far from good, but still) rebounder!
Raja Bell- Arguably the worst NBA player that actually gets minutes. In terms of PER and Adjusted PER, no player averaging more than 30 minutes of burn a night is worse than Bell. He’s below average in terms of both eFG% and TS%, is incapable of getting his own shot (88.9% of his made baskets have been assisted) and thanks to the drop in athleticism that comes with advancing age (34), is no longer capable of playing the rugged perimeter defense with which he once made a name for himself.
Ronnie Price- A below-average sixth-year, third-string point guard. No need to burn more calories than that.
statistics most correlated with Jazz victories as well as two pieces by SI.com’s Zach Lowe on Utah’s defensive issues and 5-man units used by Jerry Sloan.