NBA Analysis: Can the Jazz Replace Deron Williams?

| by David Berri

The Utah Jazz entered the All-Star break with a 31-26 record and a playoff berth a real possibility.  And then Deron Williams – the teams leading scorer – was sent to the New Jersey Nets.  Since this trade happened, the Jazz have only won 5 out of 17 games.  Such a mark has dropped the Jazz out of playoff contention and started fans of this team dreaming about a lottery pick this summer (I know this since I talk to these fans everyday).

The situation in Utah bears some similarity to what has recently happened in Memphis and Denver.  Like the Jazz, the Grizzlies and Nuggets also recently lost a major scorer.  But unlike Utah, both Memphis and Denver have done quite well without Rudy Gay and Carmelo Anthony.  Why haven’t the Jazz survived the loss of Williams?

To understand the difference, let’s consider the productivity of the Jazz players this season.  The following table reports the Wins Produced of the players employed by Utah in 2010-11.

As one can see, the Jazz have been led in Wins Produced in 2010-11 by Williams, Paul Millsap, Al Jefferson, and Andrei Kirilenko.  Of Utah’s 33.1 Wins Produced, 31.3 can be traced to the play of this quartet.  And if we look at performance in 2009-10, we can see that it was expected that this quartet would lead the Jazz this season.

Across the past 17 games, though, the Jazz have obviously not had Williams.  The team has also missed Millsap for five games and seen Kirilenko play less than 30 minutes (or simply not play) in eight contests.  So although Jefferson has played (and actually played better without Williams), the Jazz have struggled. 

Such a result teaches a simple and obvious lesson: When a team loses productive players, winning happens less often.  In contrast – as the Nuggets and Grizzlies have learned – losing a player who is not amazingly productive (like Rudy Gay and Carmelo Anthony) does not matter as much.

So where do the Jazz go from here?  Williams is not coming back.  And for this team to contend, it needs replace that production.  So what are the possibilities?

  • Because both the Nets and Jazz are missing the playoffs, Utah has two lottery picks in 2011.  And lottery picks can be productive players.  Of course, that requires that you pick the right player.  Last year the Jazz decided to demonstrate – as Stumbling on Wins (and a study I published with Aju Fenn and Stacey Brook) contends – that appearing in the Final Four enhances a player’s draft position.  By selecting Gordon Hayward – the star of the Butler Bulldogs team that appeared in the NCAA title game in 2010 – the Jazz were able to land a player who was a Final Four star but not yet a productive NBA player.  The Jazz have two opportunities to avoid that mistake this year.  And maybe one (or both) of those opportunities will work out.
  • The trade of Deron Williams also landed Derrick Favors, the youngest player in the NBA.  Right now Favors is below average.  But young players do get better.  So maybe Favors can replace Williams.  Of course, Favors also plays the same position as Millsap and Jefferson.  So even if Favors does get better, it is hard to see how he gets major minutes.
  • Then there is Jeremy Evans.  After selecting Hayward in the lottery, the Jazz chose Evans in the second round of the 2010 draft.  Like Hayward, Evans is a small forward. But unlike Hayward, Evans has been quite productive in limited minutes.  In just 344 minutes, Evans has posted a 0.344 WP48 [Wins Produced per 48 minutes].  Average WP48 is 0.100, so Evans is quite a bit above average.  In fact, on a per-minute basis he has done more than Williams.

But so far, minutes for Evans have been limited.  He has yet to play more than 20 minutes in a game (in fact, he has only played 20 minutes in a game once).  In contrast, Hayward has averaged 20.6 minutes in the 64 games he has played.

The minutes Hayward and Evans have seen illustrates another observation made by the academic research examining the NBA draft: Players taken earlier in the draft will get more minutes, even after we control for player performance.

Should the Jazz resist this bias with respect to Hayward and Evans?  Both are young and neither have played much (although Hayward has played more than Evans).  So we cannot be sure yet who will be a better NBA player. 

That being said, Evans has shown in limited minutes that he can be amazingly productive.  And Hayward has shown in more minutes (although still limited), he has yet to be productive at all.  So maybe the Jazz should invest more minutes in Evans.  He just might be the player the Jazz need to replace Williams.  

Let me close by noting that the Jazz don’t necessarily need to find another point guard as productive as Deron Williams.  Yes, having a productive point guard – as the Jazz have seen – is helpful.  But what matters most is just having productive players someplace on the roster.  The Jazz have a few such players.  But obviously they need more to contend again.  And as long as they can get those players on the court – and that means not have all those players at the same position – the Jazz will win again.

- DJ