Sunday, February 13, 2011

Sloan Or No Sloan, The Utah Jazz Could Use A Backcourt Shakeup

When I began planning this piece Jerry Sloan was an active NBA head coach and the Utah Jazz were pro basketball’s model of stability. In the days since, Sloan, more than halfway through his 23rd season as head coach, stepped down from his role with the team, after the coach’s latest (but by no means first) disagreement with superstar point guard Deron Williams. Tyrone Corbin, a former assistant and player, has taken Sloan’s place on the Jazz bench. While it now seems somewhat silly to write anything regarding the Jazz’s on-court performance, I’ve elected to proceed because a) as a member for Sloan’s staff, Corbin’s not likely to overhaul the system completely, b) the team’s personnel remains identical and c) I’ve come across a pattern in this team’s play that’s worth noting, irrespective of who’s steering the ship.

In an article published here last week, I looked into the Jazz’s recent struggles and concluded that the team’s drop-off in efficiency- at both ends of the floor- could be attributed to a combination of playing at a slower pace to accommodate a talented-but-ill-fitting newcomer (Al Jefferson) and a shortage of talent in the 4-12 slots on the roster. In researching the article, I came across an interesting proposal that’s been the subject of ongoing debate (here and here are examples) with the Jazz- the idea of moving Deron Williams to the two-guard.

I've since given this idea a lot of thought. Based on certain strengths in D-Will’s game- his physicality and his ability to move without the ball, whether cutting to the bucket (where he’s a great finisher) or curling off a screen for a jumper (this is something he does as well as all but a few of the very best shooters)- there’s little doubt that he’d quickly develop into one of the league’s premier perimeter scorers, were this to be his primary focus. However, any team that commits to converting Williams into a pure shooting guard would be willfully ignoring two extremely important facts. First, Williams himself has no interest in changing positions, and second, and more importantly, Deron Williams is an exceptional point guard. Not good. Not very good. Legitimately great. Potentially Hall of Fame great. Great enough that the idea of turning him into a 25-30-point scorer seems terribly wasteful.

Whether Williams is consistently a hyper-aggressive, alpha dog floor leader is debatable, but he regularly flashes an implicit confidence in his own skills that’s seldom seen in any lead guard at any level. On any given play he’ll nonchalantly throw a 65-foot baseball pass, a 45-foot bounce pass through traffic or bury a pull up 3-pointer from five feet behind the arc in transition.

Beyond the spectacular, Williams ranks among the league’s elite PGs in assists (9.5 per game; 4th, behind Rajon Rondo, Steve Nash and Chris Paul), assists adjusted for 3-pointers (10.4; 4th, behind the same trio) and setting up high-percentage shots for teammates (3.6 assists “at the rim”; t-6th in the NBA with Baron Davis- and D-Will doesn’t have Blake and DeAndre). Additionally, Williams is good for 2.75 assists for every turnover he commits, good for 14th in the NBA (I can’t be the only one surprised to see D.J. Augustin is fourth with 3.46 assists per turnover, right?) which, while not exactly elite, is very good. On his worst day, Williams is probably no worse than the fifth-best point in the NBA. At his best, he’s the undisputed champ. I’m gonna say that if you’ve got a guy like that on your team, you probably want to play him at the point.

With that said, however, why is it set in stone that Williams’ backcourt mate must be a traditional two-guard? Thanks to the work of a number of versatile, multiskilled players, the NBA no longer clings dogmatically to the traditional, rigid PG-SG-SF-PF-C structure of years past. We’ve seen the “twin towers” concept attempted in the NBA several times (Duncan-Robinson, Olajuwon-Sampson, Ewing-Cartwright and currently Gasol-Bynum), as well as a number of championship-caliber non-PG backcourts (Michael Jordan with both Ron Harper and B.J. Armstrong, Kobe Bryant with Harper, even Nick Anderson and Penny Hardaway, who was more combo guard than pure PG). Why not a dual-PG backcourt?

I should point out that my suggestion isn’t intended to address some shortcoming in Williams’ game- I am a huge fan of his and believe he’ll one day be a top-two guy on a championship team- but rather the inability of the Jazz to find an ideal backcourt mate for him. Williams is among a small group (Russell Westbrook and, to a far lesser extent, Rodney Stuckey, are two others that come to mind) of guards that are excellent scorers and big (tall & strong) enough to defend two-guards, but simply too gifted as point guards to be converted into scoring-centric Iverson-esque combo guards.

According to the NBA’s conventional way of thinking, Williams should be used as a dedicated lead guard and teamed with a low-usage wing that doesn’t really command the ball- Ronnie Brewer, C.J. Miles and Gordon Giricek come to mind (Wesley Matthews, it should be noted, is looking like “the one that got away”). While this might make sense on the surface, it begs a question- why willfully start a two-guard that’s either offensively passive or deficient?

I’ve said in the past that Dwyane Wade is an elite two-guard with a latent point guard gene. I’ve watched Williams quite a bit during his career, and having now delved into the numbers, have come to realize that the comparison for him is less Chris Paul and more “bizarro D-Wade”- an elite PG with a heavy dusting of two-guard. Given this, I’d look to start a second point guard beside Williams and allow the duo to share point guard duties, eschewing the classic two-guard altogether.

Need proof? It’s already working with less-than-ideal running mates. According to 82games.com (this data has not been updated in recent days, but does cover a great deal of the season thus far), four of the Jazz’s five most frequently used lineups (all featuring a Williams-SG backcourt) have been outscored this season (for more on the team’s utilization of certain units, check out this great piece by SI.com’s Zach Lowe). Meanwhile, six of the Jazz’s 20 most frequently utilized 5-man units feature a backcourt of Deron Williams and another point guard- three each with Earl Watson and Ronnie Price. These units have played very well together (+42 in 79 minutes of Williams/Watson; +23 in 82 minutes of Williams/Price), and in none of these six scenarios have the Jazz been outscored. Finally, just six of the team’s 14 remaining units have a +/- of zero or better, and four of these feature a Watson-Price backcourt, which has been +61 in ~112 minutes.

So, what does the ideal running mate look like? It will take some of trial and error to know for sure, but at first blush, a guy like Kyle Lowry (via HoopData) comes to mind. In more general terms, I’d say we’re looking for an unselfish but offensively capable veteran, with a usage rate in high-teens/low-20s (an important part of a team, but not the guy) that truly knows his place on the food chain (this is where Andre Miller and his inflated sense of his place in the basketball world fall out of the running) and thus will not challenge Williams for the title of backcourt alpha dog. In the meantime, however, Williams’ ballhanding and playmaking workload would be lightened significantly, allowing him to expend more energy as the team’s a) primary offensive threat and b) “big guard” at the defensive end.

Admittedly this is a limited sample and some serious game-planning and role-defining would be necessary, but with the right type of running mate, a D-Will-led, two-PG backcourt could be pretty successful.

1 comment:

gravityandlevity said...

I'll just throw this idea out there: Mo Williams. I think a Williams and Williams backcourt might work pretty well.