The surprising Utah Jazz and how to construct a small market NBA contender

At the Quarter Pole of the 2010-11 NBA season, the Utah Jazz are on track to post a record that would be nearly identical to the 53-29 record they posted last season.  This is somewhat surprising, given the fact that the team lost their starting power forward, center, shooting guard, and sixth man, and backup swingman.  In all, those players accounted for 28.8 wins, and a cumulative win contribution of +0.582, which translates to 8.9 games more than the .500% mark (49.9 wins) over an 82 game season.  That’s nearly all of the 12 wins the team was actually over .500% last season (if you consider a 53-29 record to be 12 wins over 41-41, some people would call that record “24 wins” over .500%)  How did the Jazz make up the stagger?

Personally, I would like to credit the team’s improved karma as a result of the decision to switch from their awful Rocky Mountain Snow Cap uniforms and logos and return to their killer music note New Orleans style uniforms and logos.  HUGE improvement.  From lame to monster cool (I kind of like the “Digger Phelps Era” Notre Dame Basketball colors too). But that’s just the sizzle.  Who’s providing the steak?  Let’s find out.

Here is the team’s Win Chart so far this season:

Utah Jazz
Win Score
Win Contribution
Player Winning
D Williams
1.1 +2.28 3.3__0.4 +0.357 .889%
A Kirilenko
3.2 +2.59 3.1__0.2 +0.359 .942%
P Millsap
4.0 +1.94 2.9__0.6 +0.284 .831%
A Jefferson
4.9 -0.55 1.5__2.1 -0.082 .408%
C Miles
2.7 +0.38 1.3__1.0 +0.036 .568%
E Watson
1.0 +1.59 0.9__0.3 +0.082 .772%
R Price
2.0 +1.00 0.7__0.3 +0.043 .673%
F Elson
4.7 +0.70 0.7__0.4 +0.031 .621%
R Bell
2.0 -1.60 0.6__2.1 -0.177 .231%
K Fesenko
J Evans
3.7 +3.10 0.2__0.0 +0.026 1.029%
G Hayward
2.8 -3.29 0.0__0.7 -0.093 -.055%

MWS Record: 15.5__8.5


In order to understand what’s happening, you should also compare last season’s Win Chart, which you can see here.

You will first notice that PG Deron Williams’ MWS is down slightly, resulting in a Win Contribution that is -0.056 less than the one he made last season.  So initially we are in an even deeper hole. (though this is not to suggest Williams is playing poorly, he is playing very well).  Now you have to make up a win contribution deficit of 0.584.

If you continue looking, you can plainly see where the Win Contribution is NOT coming from.  C Al Jefferson, who was supposed to be “Carlos Boozer Lite” has been the same slightly below average producer he was in Minnesota (his MWS is just a bit lower than the -0.46 he posted for the Wolves, and his Win Contribution is just slightly less than the -0.057 he provided the Wolves).  So now we are even deeper in the hole, with a combined Win Contribution deficit of -0.666.  So how is the team doing as well as they did last season?

(1) Andrei Kirilenko is healthy

Kirilenko is posting a MWS that is just slightly better than the +2.50 MWS he posted last season, but he has played a considerably higher percentage of the Utah Jazz minutes, resulting in a greatly improved Win Contribution (+0.147 better than last season).

(2) Paul Millsap is shooting better

Secondly, Paul Millsap has raised his MWS from +0.55 to +1.94.  When combined with substantially more playing time, Millsap’s overall Win Contribution has increased by +0.221.  Millsap’s ability to hit that level should not be a surprise.  Two seasons ago when Carlos Boozer was plagued by injury, Millsap stepped in and produced a Win Contribution that is almost exactly the same as the one he is currently producing.

(3) CJ Miles switched positions and became more productive

Over the last two seasons, CJ Miles has produced MWS of -1.00 and -2.17, both substantially worse than the above average +0.38 he is posting this season.  And last since Miles was a regular last season, his poor MWS resulted  in a highly negative Win Contribution that has improved this season by +0.198.  Why has Miles improved?  Several reasons.  First, improved defense, bolstered by a position switch in which he is playing more small forward.  Second, he is taking more shots and converting them at the same rate.  Finally, he has cut down on his turnovers, increased his rebounding, and increased his assists.

(4) Much improved backup point guard play

A second player who has benefited from a position switch is SG Ronnie Price.  Last season he and the departed Eric Maynor served as the Jazz main backups to PG Deron Williams, and the two produced a combined Win Contribution of -0.046.  This season, not only has Price improved his MWS and Win Contributions substantially, but the team has replaced him at the backup point with Earl Watson, who is playing very well and has improved the team’s WC from the backup point position by +0.128.

If you start with the -0.666 Win Contribution deficit noted above, and then add up all the Win Contribution improvements in points (1)-(4), you get a net Win Contribution improvement of +0.028, which should result in virtually the same record as the team… and indeed has.

A Player Away from the 2004 Piston Model

For fans of the Bucks, I would like to point out the ways the Jazz exemplify the proper structure of a small market contending team that lacks a megastar.

(Point 1) You will notice the Jazz have no players of megawatt win power (+0.600 Win Contribution) but do have at least three players who are making a +0.200 or better Win Contribution.  In that sense, the Jazz have assembled a team that is nearly identical in Win Contribution makeup to the 2004 Pistons, save for the lack of a Ben Wallace type to put them over the top.  I have an off-the-wall suggestion.  The Jazz should make a hard play for Greg Oden.  Roll the dice that he can return in nearly the same form after microfracture surgery.  If he does, his small body of work suggests he could be a taller, more offensive Ben Wallace.  If he is, the Jazz are World Championship level.  But you have to build a base of at least 3 +0.200 players.

The Bucks by contrast have one player of that caliber (Bogut), one player who could potentially get there if he ever plays again, but is really better suited to a supporting role (Delfino).  That’s it.  Besides those two the Bucks have no one that looks as though they can even reach +0.200 Win Contribution, let alone stay there for an entire season.  Without multiple, consistent, medium-high level win producers, the Bucks will continue to be a low seed playoff participant at best.

(Point Two) the Jazz are buttressed by bench players who are surprisingly productive.  The Bucks had that last season (Ridnour) and summarily dismissed him for one backup point the coach doesn’t like (Boykins) and one who is substantially worse than Ridnour (Dooling).

(Point Three) the Jazz get modest but positive Win Contributions from their bit contributors.  I think the Bucks can achieve that (Ilyasova and Moute and Delfino have all shown they can consistently be above +0.000), and if they sign better free agents they can achieve Point Two, but they MUST draft better to achieve Point One.  They just have not done well enough in the draft.  Joe Alexander was a complete waste, Jennings looks more like a bit contributor than a Deron Williams level Win Contributor, and the jury is still deliberating over Larry Sanders.

But even if the team hits on Sanders, they have to find a Landry Fields or Tayshaun Prince, or one more “lucky pick” who is a +0.200 contributor before they will seriously contend.  Or, Jennings could get there, but with point guards, they tend to go down with time (because of the emphasis on quickness), they do not blossom with time.   Two seasons and you generally know what you’ve got.  This is season two for Jennings and he is producing the same exact MWS he did last season.

We are beginning to see what we have.


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