The Utah Jazz ranking higher on offense than they do on defense for the first time since Rudy Gobert's rookie season is one of the many surprises from this wild 2019-20 campaign.
The Jazz were 11th in defensive efficiency when the league suspended play in March, after ranking in the top three in each of the last three seasons. But this defensive fall-off was made up for with improved offense and more success in close games (a byproduct of the improved offense).
The Jazz rank in the top 10 for offensive efficiency and have been the league's best jump-shooting team, ranking first in effective field goal percentage on shots from outside the paint (54.7%) and tied for first in 3-point percentage (38.3).
Utah led the league in ball movement during coach Quin Snyder's first season with the team. Since then, they haven't moved the ball as much. This season, they've seen the league's biggest drop in assist percentage, recording assists on just 55.2% of their buckets (26th), down from from 64.4% (fourth) last season. Former Jazz guard Ricky Rubio's new team has seen the biggest jump.
However, ball movement doesn't necessarily lead to efficiency, as was noted in regard to the Boston Celtics' fifth-ranked offense. In fact, it may be better to be better off the dribble than off the catch.
Like the Celtics, the Jazz are in the bottom three in the percentage of their jump shots that have been catch-and-shoot jumpers, according to Second Spectrum tracking. The difference comes in drives per game, where the Jazz lead the league for the third straight season and Boston is in the bottom half of the league. Utah's 57.4 drives per game this season are the most for any team in the seven years of player tracking.
The Jazz have six of the 65 players who have averaged at least eight drives per game. Only seven of the other 29 teams have more than two, and the Celtics (four) are the only other team with more than three. Utah also ranks seventh in the percentage of their shots that have come in the paint (50.5%) and eighth in free throw rate (26.9 attempts per 100 shots from the field).
While the Jazz are in the bottom five in regard to both assist percentage and the percentage of their jumpers that have come off the catch, they do lead the league in both catch-and-shoot 3-point percentage (41.3%) and 3-point percentage on open or wide-open 3-pointers (39.7%), according to Second Spectrum.
The Utah offense, with Gobert having a critical role as a high-volume screen-setter and efficient finisher, is about getting into the paint and going from there. One Jazz possession could feature three or four guys attacking off the dribble. And they all have their strengths. Let's break down how five Jazz players get it done.
The Creative Shot Taker
Donovan Mitchell leads the Jazz and ranks 13th in the league with 15.5 drives per game. The third-year guard won the dunk contest as a rookie, but his drives don't always get him to the hoop.
Only 45% of Mitchell's shots in the paint have come in the restricted area. That's the sixth-lowest rate among 161 players with at least 200 total shots in the paint and that matters because there's a big difference between shots in the restricted area (made 63% of the time league-wide) and shots elsewhere in the paint (40%).
Mitchell has also passed on only 29.1% of his drives, the third-lowest rate among the 65 players who've averaged at least eight drives per game. So defenses can feel somewhat comfortable committing to his attacks.
They might not feel so comfortable trying to figure out how Mitchell is going to loft the ball toward the basket. He can sometimes get too cute or paint himself into a corner with his attempts to finish, but he's certainly creative in finding holes in the defense.
Play 1. One a sideline out-of-bounds play, the Jazz run a "stack" or "Spain" pick-and-roll, with Gobert setting a high screen for Mitchell and Joe Ingles setting a back-screen on Gobert's defender (Kristaps Porzingis). This leaves Seth Curry (originally guarding Ingles) in between Mitchell and the basket as he goes downhill. A Eurostep gets Mitchell to the other side of the basket for a reverse.
Number to know: Mitchell ranks fourth with 11.7 pick-and-roll ball-handler possessions per game, according to Synergy play-type tracking. The 0.94 points per possession he's scored on those ranks 18th among 49 players who have averaged at least five pick-and-roll ball-handler possessions per game.
Play 2. With the Rockets switching screens, Mitchell gets isolated against James Harden. He beats Harden to the right, but goes back to his left hand for the finish.
Play 3. When Ingles slips out of a screen for Mitchell, he starts to split the defenders. But then he uses a wicked in-and-out dribble to put both of them in his rearview mirror and get to the rim.
Number to know: Mitchell's 61.1% in the restricted area is up from 59.0% last season, but down from his mark of 61.7% as a rookie. It ranks 60th among 89 players with at least 200 restricted-area attempts.
Play 4. Mitchell dances around a few screens from Tony Bradley to get past Jayson Tatum. With Enes Kanter in drop coverage, he finds space for a short pull-up jumper.
Play 5. In transition, Mitchell doesn't quite get around Svi Mykhailiuk with a Eurostep, but still connects on a wrong-footed hook shot of sorts.
Number to know: Mitchell has scored just 0.89 points per possession in transition, the third worst mark among 101 players who have averaged at least two transition possessions per game.
There are those who drive to score, and those who drive to pass. Joe Ingles has recorded assists on 15.7% of his drives, the second-highest rate among the 65 players who've averaged at least eight drives per game.
Play 1. Ingles comes out of the right corner to take a hand-off from Gobert (an oft-seen action in the Utah offense) and gets a step on Luka Doncic. With Maxi Kleber protecting the rim and Curry tagging Gobert's roll to the rim, Jordan Clarkson is open in the corner where Ingles started. Ingles' blind pass is accurate enough.
Number to know: The Jazz rank second with 4.1 corner 3-pointers per game. 28.4% of their 3-point attempts, the league's second highest rate, have come from the corners.
Play 2. Ingles' initial foray into the paint doesn't produce much, but he gains an advantage when he relocates, attack's Curry's close-out, and circles around another screen from Gobert. Curry holds up Gobert's roll to the rim, but Ingles has just enough hang time to wait out the big man.
Number to know: Ingles' 87 assists to Gobert are tied for 19th most from one player to a single teammate.
Play 3. Another secondary-action screen from Gobert gets Ingles going downhill against the drop coverage of Bam Adebayo, who gets fooled by Ingles' delayed drop-off to the rolling Gobert.
Number to know: Gobert's effective field goal percentage of 69.8% and true shooting percentage of 70.0% are both the highest marks among 137 players with at least 500 field goal attempts.
Play 4. Ingles comes out of the right corner again, this time to take a hand-off from Mitchell. He gets another screen from Gobert, gets into the paint and then passes Mitchell into a corner three behind the recovering Cam Johnson.
Number to know: Ingles has recorded assists on 33.5% of his possessions, the seventh highest rate among 265 players who have averaged at least 15 minutes in 40 games or more.
Play 5. When they're expecting you to pass, you can get 'em with a simple fake. Kleber is the victim here.
Number to know : 48.2% of Ingles' buckets have been unassisted. That's the highest rate of his career by a wide margin.
The Burst of Speed
While Ingles' drives are more methodical, Mike Conley is still using his quickness at the age of 32. Conley struggled in his first two months with his new team, and Utah really took off offensively while he was injured. But he saw improvement upon moving back into the starting lineup in February, averaging 16.5 points on an effective field goal percentage of 56.5% over his last 13 games.
Play 1. The Blazers switch a transition hand-off from Ingles to Conley, who catches Damian Lillard with his feet out of position and drives by.
Number to know: Only 39% of Conley's shots in the paint have come in the restricted area. That's the fourth lowest rate among 161 players with at least 200 total shots in the paint
Play 2. On the first play of the Jazz's March 6 win in Boston (one of Conley's best games of the season), the Celtics switch a hand-off from Conley to Bojan Bogdanovic, who gets the ball back to Conley on the left wing. He quickly attacks Tatum baseline and draws help from the weak side. That results in an open corner 3 for Mitchell.
Number to know: The Jazz have outscored their opponents by 6.3 points per game, the league's third best differential, from 3-point range.
Play 3. A very similar play three days later (Conley likes to attack baseline from that spot on the left wing) results in another open 3-pointer from the same corner, this one from Conley, who relocates (Stephen Curry style) after Ingles passes on the initial open look.
Number to know: Conley has averaged 13.8 ppg, down from 21.1 last season. That's the second biggest drop among 234 players who have played at least 40 games each of the last two seasons. He's also seen the fifth biggest drop in assists per game (from 6.4 to 4.3 per game).
Play 4. Another switch on a hand-off has Chris Boucher trying to guard Conley at the top of the floor. A hesitation move puts Boucher in the dust, collapses the Toronto defense and gets Clarkson open in that same right corner.
Number to know: Conley's assist-turnover ratio of 2.34 is the lowest mark of his career and down from 3.45 (the second highest mark of his career) last season.
Play 5. With the Jazz taking the ball out of bounds on the sideline, the Raptors are in zone. A clever pair of screens from Clarkson and Ingles opens a path for Conley down the middle of the paint. His drive draws help from Serge Ibaka and he finds Tony Bradley on the baseline.
Number to know: According to Synergy, the Jazz have faced 137 total possessions of zone, 18th most in the league. The 1.08 points per possession they've scored against zone ranks fifth among the 22 teams who have faced at least 100 possessions of zone defense.
Mitchell might not be the most crafty finisher on his own team. Jordan Clarkson has a reputation for being a less-than-willing passer, but that shouldn't overshadow just how crafty a scorer he is. Every team needs guys who can get buckets, and Clarkson has been able to do so relatively efficiently since coming to the Jazz in late December.
Since his arrival, Clarkson has been the Jazz's third leading scorer at 15.6 points (in just 25.3 minutes) per game. His effective field goal percentage (55.1%) and true shooting percentage (58.3%) this season are both career-high marks, and have both been higher in Utah than they were in Cleveland.
Clarkson is just 6-foot-4 and 194 pounds, but he's not afraid of attacking bigs in the paint. He can score around those bigs from a myriad of angles.
Play 1. Clarkson takes a circular route to a sideline pick-and-roll with Bradley. He crosses over to his left hand, gets into the paint, and bumps Porzingis under the basket. He then spins back to his right hand, takes some contact, and finishes over the 7-foot-3 Latvian.
Number to know: With the Jazz, Clarkson has scored 1.07 points per possession as a pick-and-roll ball-handler, up from 0.95 with Cleveland.
Play 2. A transition cross-match gets Clarkson iso'd against Dario Saric. He initially drives left before spinning back to the right. Saric is able to cut him off, but not quick enough to recover back to one more change of direction.
Play 3. When Gordon Hayward "ices" a screen from Gobert, Clarkson goes baseline and draws Daniel Theis into another isolation. He goes baseline again, gets Theis on his heels with a little nudge, and finishes strong.
Number to know: The Jazz have seen the league's third biggest drop in the percentage of their shots that have come from the restricted area, from 35.9% (seventh) last season to 30.6% (20th) this season.
Play 4. After an offensive rebound, Clarkson attacks just as Delon Wright is recovering out to the perimeter. Justin Jackson is there to help on the baseline, but Clarkson squeezes between the two defenders and finishes on the other side of the rim.
Number to know: The Jazz have outscored their opponents by 14.8 points per 100 possessions in 421 minutes with Clarkson and Ingles on the floor together. That's the best on-court mark (by a healthy margin) among 33 Jazz combinations that have played at least 300 minutes.
Play 5. Clarkson gets another defender - Danuel House - on his heels, finishing him off with one of his five dunks in 34 games with the Jazz.
The Missing Link
If the season resumes in Orlando next month, the Jazz will be without Bogdanovic, the team's second-leading scorer and the biggest reason they've taken such a step forward offensively.
It's the shooting numbers that stand out for Bogdanovic. He leads the league with 111 wide-open 3-pointers, and the 50.5% he's shot on wide-open 3s is the third best mark among 128 players who have attempted at least 100. He's tied for third with 133 catch-and-shoot 3-pointers, 57 more than any of his teammates have made.
Bogdanovic's absence will create more minutes for some combination of Conley, O'Neale, Clarkson and Georges Niang, who have combined to shoot 41.1% on catch-and-shoot 3-pointers this season (including Clarkson's time in Cleveland). That's much better than the league average (37%) and not far off Bogdanovic's 42.6%.
But Bogdanovic offers more offensively than just his ability to shoot off the catch. Catch-and-shoot opportunities account for just 6.4 (31%) of his 20.2 ppg. Catch-and-shoot points account for 64% and 59% of Niang's and O'Neale's total scoring, respectively. Those are the sixth and 12th highest rates among 264 players that have scored at least 300 total points this season, according to Second Spectrum.
He's not a prolific passer. Bogdanovic has recorded assists on just 9.8% of his possessions, the second-lowest mark among 40 players with a usage rate of 25% or higher. But he can be used in a lot of ways, he can create shots for himself when a possession has broken down, and he can take advantage of mismatches, either against lumbering bigs or small guards.
Play 1. In an after-timeout play, Bogdanovic sets a ball screen and then curls off a Gobert pin-down, drawing a foul on a drive to the hoop.
Number to know: Bogdanovic ranks fourth in free throw percentage (90.3%) and his free throw rate (29.6 attempts per 100 shots from the field) is the highest of his career.
Play 2. Bogdanovic again starts as a screener, but when the initial action doesn't produce an advantage, he's a secondary pick-and-roll ball-handler. He gets Curry on his hip and drops in a short floater over Porzingis.
Number to know: Gobert ranks second with 7.0 screen assists per game.
Play 3. After Duncan Robinson pinches toward Ingles with the ball, Bogdanovic is able to attack the seam in the Miami defense and finish with his left hand.
Number to know: Bogdanovic has scored 0.456 points per touch, second most among 294 players with at least 1,000 touches, according to Second Spectrum.
Play 4. Another Gobert screen gets Hassan Whiteside switched onto Bogdanovic, who's able to beat the seven-footer off the dribble.
Number to know: Bogdanovic and Gobert have played 1,911 minutes together, most among any pair of teammates this season.
Play 5. This time, a switch has Bogdanovic being guarded by the 6-2 Monte Morris, who can't handle Bogdanovic in the low post.
Number to know: Bogdanovic has scored 1.09 points per possession on post-ups, the second best mark among 58 players with at least 50 post-up possessions, according to Synergy.
An Uncertain Future
Offensive improvement, along with the league's biggest increase in clutch winning percentage, had the Jazz in position to have home-court advantage in the first round of the playoffs for the first time since 2001. Alas, should the season resume next month, there will be no home-court advantage and the Jazz. They'll also be without Bogdanovic, who had season-ending right wrist surgery in May.
Of course, the restart could feel like an entirely new season, one where anything can happen. Better shooting from Mitchell and Conley could help make up for the absence of Bogdanovic. And with Gobert in the middle, Utah can still have one of the best defenses in Orlando.
It seems like the Jazz are in a tough spot in regard to advancing to the conference semifinals for a third time in the last four seasons. But we can be sure that the Jazz will attack the paint and go from there.
* * *
The views on this page do not necessarily reflect the views of the NBA, its clubs or Turner Broadcasting.