The Jazz go big in a small-ball world
November, 16, 2012
By Kevin Arnovitz
Melissa Majchrzak/NBAE/Getty ImagesDerrick Favors, Al Jefferson and Paul Millsap: The Supersize Guys.
Prior to the 2011-12 season, coach Erik Spoelstra sat down with LeBron James and told the world's best basketball player that for the Miami Heat to overcome the shortcomings that held them back during Season 1 of their grand experiment, James needed to assume a role that was more power forward than small forward.
James accepted this premise, even if he wasn't enthusiastic about it at first. But once Shane Battier joined the fold and took on the responsibilities generally associated with a power forward's job description, James flourished. He played closer to the basket and expanded his game. Though the effects weren't instant, as the season went on, James became more comfortable and the seas parted for the Heat's offense. The floor opened up, and on the first night of summer, the Heat hoisted the Larry O'Brien trophy.
Two weeks after the NBA Finals, players, coaches, execs and scouts were touting the end of traditional positions in the NBA as the grand lesson of last season. For most, that meant that it was time to go small and spread the floor with shooters, irrespective of their size.
But wait a minute. Why does the end of traditional positions have to always mean "going smaller"? What if there's an equally reasonable argument that going the other way, leveraging size against stretch, is also a revolutionary idea?
We present to you the Utah Jazz, a team that has played three big men -- Al Jefferson, Paul Millsap and Derrick Favors -- together for 30 minutes over their past two games.
As a small-ball enthusiast, I've been somewhat skeptical of Jazz coach Ty Corbin's experiment, but the numbers show that it's working for Utah, at least on the offensive end of the floor. Granted, we're dealing with a small sample size, but during the 38 minutes Jefferson, Millsap and Favors have shared the floor with two perimeter players this season, the Jazz have outscored their opponents 95-79. The Utah Supersize lineup has posted an eye-popping offensive efficiency rating of 137.0 points per 100 possessions.
What about the defense? Favors is lightning quick for a 6-foot-10 forward-center, but you could time Jefferson's speed with a calendar, and even though Millsap hustles on every play, he is not exactly fleet afoot.
The defense suffers. The Supersizers have recorded a defensive rating of 111.1 per 100 possessions, which would qualify them as far and away the least efficient defense in basketball (Cleveland currently ranks 30th with a 107.8 rating).
But let's get back to this prolific offense. How do the Jazz score at such an insane rate with three guys who have drained a combined nine 3-pointers this season?
- Not surprisingly given their size, the Supersize unit is killing it on the glass. It's Putback City -- their offensive rebounding rate is 30.8 percent (the league average is 26.2). Here's a telling example from the Jazz's game on Wednesday night at Boston. Millsap is matched up at the 3 against Paul Pierce. Jefferson launches a 15-footer from the right side. Jefferson's shot caroms off the rim, but Millsap has sealed off Pierce on the weakside glass. There's a fight for the loose ball, but Millsap ultimately corrals it. He takes a single dribble and then scores his easiest bucket of the night.
- The Supersizers are getting high-percentage looks close to the hoop, chalking up an effective field goal percentage of 63.5 percent. In that crazy three-overtime win over the Raptors on Monday night, the big three scored the first 17 Jazz points after regulation. To start the third and decisive overtime period, Millsap brutalized Dominic McGuire to set the tone. With the Toronto defense watching Al Jefferson on the left block (where else would he be?), Millsap muscled his way past McGuire, a small forward, and sealed him off with ease. A nice interior pass from Jefferson found Millsap for another easy 2. Small forwards can't contend with Millsap when he's loose on the baseline, and few teams can throw a third big on the floor without compromising their style or offensive firepower.
- Put three big men on the floor, and defenses have to account for it. You can't contain that kind of size by surrendering the middle, especially against a post threat like Jefferson, a space-eater like Millsap and a giant like Favors who must be kept off the glass. But by tilting your defense low to cover these guys, there's space on the perimeter for the shooters -- and these lineups have capitalized on that. In the 38 Supersize minutes, the Jazz are shooting a blistering 8-for-11 from beyond the arc. During a crucial stretch in the fourth quarter against Boston, Randy Foye drilled two big 3-pointers on consecutive possessions to keep the Jazz within shouting distance -- the first assisted by Jefferson, who drew the entire Celtics defense when he flashed to the foul line, the second when Millsap kicked the ball out to Foye after collecting (yet another) offensive board.
This Jazz Supersize lineup isn't in defiance of the new position-less NBA -- it's a flip side of the trend.
To a great extent, this is simply Corbin's attempt to keep his three best players on the floor, and the Jazz happen to be the only team in the league whose three best players reside in the frontcourt.
Utah has historically been a team that's flouted convention in favor of unique systems and counterintuitive solutions. This exercise is the most unique and most counterintuitive scheme in the NBA this season. It's certainly big.