NBA Analysis: Are the Utah Jazz Disappointing?

| by David Berri

After 34 games the Utah Jazz boast a 23-11 record and currently are on top of the Northwest division (as of games of Saturday night). Despite this record, though, Deron Williams – the team’s star point guard – is unhappy. Here is some of what was reported on New Year’s Day in the Salt Lake City Tribune (the paper delivered to my house in Cedar City each morning).

Williams is frustrated, disappointed and unsure. He believes in the 2010-11 Jazz and knows exactly what it feels like when the unit plays Jerry Sloan basketball. But Williams also knows other things. Utah’s execution has often been sloppy this season. It is taking much longer than he expected for a significantly revamped team to jell. And the Jazz’s constant flirtation with major deficits and even larger comebacks is starting to wear seriously thin.

“We’re going to burn out,” said a candid Williams during a postgame one-on-one interview.

Buried beneath his on-the-court critique is a deeper concern. Williams knows that Utah’s 22-11 record looks impressive on paper, highlighted by the fact that the Jazz entered Friday night tied with Oklahoma City for first place in the Northwest Division. But to the All-Star guard who never stops thinking about victory and constant improvement, Utah’s 66.7 winning percentage is obscuring the obvious: The Jazz had issues when training camp ended, and those issues haven’t faded away. And Utah still has a long way to go before it’s ready to compete with the NBA’s elite once mid-April arrives.

“I’ve only felt we’ve played good in a couple stretches,” Williams said.

He added: “It’s not time to panic, but we’ve got to play better.”

Williams goes on to discuss problems the team has with offensive execution and the failure of the team to come together. 

Essentially, Williams – and other players on the team – seem to believe that the Jazz

  • are not currently contenders with the top teams in the NBA, and
  • could be contenders if the team simply came together.

In looking at the data, I think I agree with one of those statements.

After 34 games the Jazz have an efficiency differential – offensive efficiency minus defensive efficiency – of 3.1. Such a mark is consistent with a team that will win about 49 games across an 82 game season.

When we move from efficiency differential to Wins Produced, we can see the players responsible for producing these projected wins. As the following table indicates, the Jazz currently have five above average performers [average WP48 – Wins Produced per 48 minutes – is 0.100]: Williams, Paul Millsap, Andrei Kirilenko, Earl Watson, and Jeremy Evans. These five players are projected to produce 43.3 of the team’s 48.8 projected wins. 

If we focus on last year’s performance we see that Williams, Millsap, and Kirilenko were above average. Watson was slightly below average [WP48 of 0.091] while Al Jefferson was slightly above average [WP48 of 0.116]. But the remainder of the veterans on the roster were below average in the recent past and continue to be below average this season.

What is the point of this exercise? What we wish to note is that most of the veterans employed by this team are offering a level of production this season similar to what was seen recently. In fact, if we forecasted Wins Produced for this team based on what these veterans did in the past the forecasted wins would be about 47 wins (or only about two wins different from what we see this year).

Now maybe the Jazz didn’t come together last season. Or maybe the Jazz are just not that great of a team.

My sense is that the latter explanation is closer to the mark. The problem for the Jazz is that this team would like to contend for a title. And on a given night, the Jazz can defeat any team in the NBA. But a team that struggles to reach 50 wins is not likely to win a seven game series against a team that passes the 60 win mark. 

So the Jazz are probably not going to contend for a title in 2010-11. Again, this doesn’t reflect a failure of coaching or team chemistry. It simply reflects the quality of players the Jazz have assembled. And that means Deron Williams should have expected to be disappointed; and therefore, maybe he shouldn’t be disappointed.

Let me close with three more observations:

  • Al Jefferson is not much different from what he was in Minnesota. His shooting efficiency and rebounds have declined, but so have his turnovers. The net effect is only a slight drop-off in productivity. He is capable of playing better, but as noted before the season started, Jefferson was not likely to be as productive as Carlos Boozer (the player he is replacing) .
  • Gordon Hayward – the team’s lottery-pick in 2010 — is starting to get more minutes and is hitting his shots (at least this past week). But his overall productivity level for the season is in the negative range.  Jeremy Evans  – the team’s second round draft pick in 2010 – has been extremely productive in very limited minutes. Evans has only reached double figures in minutes in three games. One wonders if he played more minutes if he could continue posting the same per-minute numbers observed so far. Maybe if he could, Williams would be less disappointed.
  • And my last observation… Deron Williams leads this team in Wins Produced.  But Williams is not as productive as Chris Paul (and it isn’t really close).  Williams – despite the problems he has with this team – does have better teammates than Chris Paul.  So that is at least something (I think).

- DJ