Fixing The Utah Jazz’s Offense: Getting The Blender Whirring

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As anyone familiar with him is well aware by now, Utah Jazz coach Quin Snyder isn’t big on generalizations.

Ask Snyder about major league trends or shifting tactical approaches at your own discretion; he’s likely to defer, instead preferring to frame an issue through a narrower lens. When the pre-Kevin Durant Golden State Warriors were taking the league by storm with a fast-paced, push-the-ball approach, for instance, Snyder was one of the first to preach caution. That approach won’t necessarily work for every personnel grouping in the league, he said, even if those Warriors teams used it to great success (the numbers prove him right).

It’s no surprise, then, that when Snyder was recently asked about a noticeable drop in his team’s nightly passing output – the Jazz are making roughly 283 passes per game this year, compared to 310 last year and numbers as high as 350 early in his tenure – he largely demurred.

“I think the thing about passing and assists that we gravitate towards is [they’re] usually reflective of unselfish play or efficient offense,” Snyder said. “Often times that is the case, but sometimes it’s not. So it’s a little more complicated than the statistics might show.”

To be clear, Snyder wasn’t dismissing the premise outright. Rather, he spoke at length about the individual factors that might impact that number, from the way some of his team’s elite shooters are being guarded to the balance between taking the right shots and finding that “good-to-great” pass when it’s there.

But for as reluctant as Snyder may be to pin success or failure on any single trend, a generally smart approach in a game as complex as NBA basketball, a closer look reveals a pretty glaring reality: How much the Jazz pass the ball has been directly connected with their offensive performance this year.

Here’s a list of the Jazz’s five best per-possession offensive performances so far this year, courtesy of (in order 1-5). Next to each game is the number of passes the Jazz threw as a team, and how that number ranks among all their games this year:

1.    Dec. 11 @ Minnesota – 340 passes (2nd-most among all Jazz games this season)

2.    Dec. 7 vs Memphis – 318 passes (4th)

3.    Nov. 11 @ GSW – 353 passes (1st)

4.    Nov. 23 vs New Orleans – 298 passes (12th)

5.    Nov. 25 @ Milwaukee – 323 passes (3rd)

Each of the Jazz’s top four games for total passes made shows up among their five best offensive performances. This is a trend that persists even once you move past their top games; in general, the more passes Utah makes, the more successful its offense is.

(For math-y folks who want some more proof: There is a correlation of 0.54 between the Jazz’s nightly passes and their single-game offensive rating, for an R-squared value of 0.29. That’s quite a decent number for any single stat, actually higher for the Jazz than three of the “four factors” for NBA offense – offensive rebounding, turnovers and free-throw rate. Of those four, only effective field-goal percentage correlates more positively for Utah.)

The flip side is also true: When this year’s Jazz don’t move the ball, they don’t score as efficiently.

In part one of our Fixing the Utah Jazz Offense series, we looked at several factors contributing to the team’s diminishing ball movement this year. Teams are defending them differently, dropping their big men back against pick-and-rolls and inviting inefficient floaters while staying attached to three-point shooters. The Jazz are second in the NBA in catch-and-shoot three-point percentage, but they don’t get enough of them.

“People take away open passes because it’s a good shooter,” Snyder said. “You’d think spacing would help you make passes, but oftentimes teams game-plan against [that].”

How, then, can this Jazz team “get the blender going,” as their coach and TV broadcast alike are so fond of saying (correctly, as the numbers show us)?

The answer we’ve begun to see over recent games has been somewhat counterintuitive: Guys often need to hold the ball longer before making decisions.

In pick-and-roll, the Jazz’s base offensive set, the ultimate goal is to force the defense into a lose-lose decision. A good pick knocks one defender off his path and behind the play; ideally, the resulting two-on-one forces the defense to commit to stopping one option, leaving another available.

Too often this season, Jazz ball-handlers have not forced that choice. Take a recent play from Donovan Mitchell, who got past his man after a solid screen from Rudy Gobert. Mitchell telegraphed his intention, though, not challenging Steven Adams in a meaningful way and settling for a floater (he made it, but that’s not the point):

Compare that to a play from earlier in that same game, actually, one where Mitchell ran a nearly identical pick-and-roll with Gobert. But on this occasion, he got a step deeper, drew in Adams with a fake floater, and lobbed to Gobert for an easy finish:

It may not seem like much, but these extra beats of time mean everything. They force the sole defender to make that all-important choice rather than letting him sit back and wait.

This doesn’t always have to come out of pick-and-roll, either. Any advantage within Snyder’s movement offense is a chance to get keep the D a step behind.

Bojan Bogdanovic had his defender off-balance on the catch on this play, for instance, and immediately used the edge to get into the paint. Notice how he waited until Karl-Anthony Towns committed – drawing in help from the corner – before whipping the pass that started a chain of swings culminating back in Bogdanovic’s own hands for the corner triple:

“I think for our team, it’s important for us to break the paint,” said Joe Ingles. “There’s a pretty big focus on us being able to [do that], either with a screen or without it.”

It’s no coincidence a few of these high-movement games have come recently, with Ingles playing a bigger role. He’s great at using picks, especially from Gobert, to get downhill and force those impossible decisions for the defense. His trademark pass-fake still works all the time:

Ingles is probably the Jazz’s savviest ball-handler, even with Mike Conley now on the roster. He’ll use the defense’s own scouting report against them, especially when they aggressively try to keep him away from his left hand.

He recognized Dillon Brooks overplaying him here, so he simply cut into his own manufactured version of what’s known as the “Blind Pig” action. By the time he picked up the pass, Jonas Valanciunas had no choice but to commit fully to wall off a layup, leaving Gobert free for another dunk:

The problem: These are just select clips. This kind of pressure on the defense isn’t happening consistently enough, and it’s the reason the Jazz’s offense is still in the league’s bottom-10.

Some will tell you it even infects other areas of their game.

“I think we have some stretches where we move the ball, and it’s almost magical,” Gobert said. “When we move the ball offensively, we play better defense because we’re more connected.

“When we stop sharing the ball, our defense becomes not as good. We have more breakdowns, we don’t communicate as well, we give up transition baskets because we take [worse] shots. I think it’s a cycle.”

As the bard would tell us, there’s the rub.

This Jazz team has shown us flashes of brilliance, just enough to prove they have this kind of thing in them. Now its about making this the norm.

“I think it’s a mindset,” Mitchell said. “Just going in there and attacking.”

Attacking, yes. Just in the right ways.