Raise your hand if you had the Utah Jazz leading the NBA with a 25-6 record in late-February. They're on pace for what would be 66 wins in an 82-game season. They're top-three in both offensive and defensive rating, and are destroying opponents left and right. They're 21-2 since January 7th, 19 of those wins coming by double-digits and 10 wins by seventeen or more.
Their dominance was relatively unpredictable heading into the season, and really isn't due to having one overwhelmingly impactful offensive player. Their top threat is Donovan Mitchell (24.5 points, 5.2 assists, 43% from the field) but he isn't doing anything mind-boggling on offense to carry the Jazz to such heights. Instead, the Jazz use a team-based approach, filled with ball movement and extra passing, belief in their identity and shooting at four perimeter positions to surround All-Star center Rudy Gobert.
For my money, the Jazz ascent to the top of the West is due to their embrace of a team-first approach on offense. Watching them is eerily reminiscent of one of the most beloved teams in NBA history with how they move the ball, play tough defense and unassumingly dismantle their foes: the 2014 NBA Champion San Antonio Spurs.
Those Spurs teams offensively were a joy, and that crescendoed in 2014 with their NBA Championship. They led the league in 3-point percentage (39.7%), assists per game (25.2) and 3-point attempt defense, limiting opponents to only 18.3 shots a night. The beauty came in the balance of how they reached those numbers. The 2014 Spurs didn't have a single player average more six assists; instead, six averaged two or more. They didn't have one player take more than five 3-pointers a game, instead taking a more balanced approach.
Through 31 games, the Jazz are on pace to match many of these numbers. They are shooting 39.7% from deep. They have three guys averaging between 4 and 6 dimes a game. They allow the second-fewest 3-point attempts per game. While the numbers show some similarities, it's the on-court aesthetics that are most comparable.
âBefore we get there, let's talk about why. Why do these teams have similarities? What common threads exist on the personnel-side that allow this to happen?
A few prongs stand out. First and foremost is Quin Snyder, the Jazz head coach who has seen his teams plateau in the first or second round of the playoffs the last several years. Snyder was the Spurs' G-League head coach in the late 2000s, and served under Mike Budenholzer in Atlanta before being hired in Utah. Budenholzer was the most notable assistant on the 2014 championship team. Jazz general manager Dennis Lindsey was a former Spurs executive.
Snyder has built a culture of continuity during his time in Utah, which is the clear second prong of comparison. We all know those Spurs teams were rock solid and thrived on the relationships and continuity they developed. Tim Duncan, Tony Parker and Manu Ginobili manifested that on-court, but the amount of longstanding coaches and staff members who never left the organization allowed it to thrive top to bottom. Snyder's coaching staff and the Jazz front office echo those moves.
Now, the on-court product is following suit. Rudy Gobert has been in Utah for years. Donovan Mitchell is transitioning to a veteran role. Guys like Joe Ingles have been around for a while. Derrick Favors returned to Utah after a brief departure. Additions like Mike Conley and Bojan Bogdanovic are veterans who acutely fit into the system in place and mesh well with ball movement-heavy schemes.
What I've learned most from this surge from the Jazz, and what is a great reminder for all of us, is that the solution to a two or three-year plateau isn't always a teardown. Teams don't need to be impatient and sell their best players, fire their coach and get a fresh voice or dramatically alter what they do. Sometimes little refinements and additions are all that is needed. What Lindsey and the Jazz front office nailed to make this possible: hiring someone like Snyder in the first place, who is always looking to innovate and won't stagnate with his approach.
That has manifested itself on the court into a combination of factors that is new in Salt Lake City. The Jazz have become the league's best extra pass team, the main takeaway of my study of their offense. They're the best extra pass team since the 2014 Spurs who won a championship and thrived on ball movement and hitting open shots. Some of its development comes from (finally) getting healthy, where Bogdanovic and Conley were unable to stay a season ago. Before that, an inexperienced Donovan Mitchell and a guy like Ricky Rubio who cannot shoot stunted defensive rotations that extra passes can thwart.
With Rubio gone, the Jazz have a great identity built around shooting -- everyone 1 thru 4 is an above-average shooter. Mitchell and Conley are tremendous catch-and-shoot threats in the backcourt, as is sixth man Jordan Clarkson. Ingles and Bogdanovic playing the 3 and 4 creates awesome spacing with their shooting proficiency. Even Royce O'Neale and Georges Niang have gotten really good at knocking down open looks.
The result is that opposing defenses constantly fly at shooters to contest shots and chase them off the line. Once the ball starts moving, penetration and re-penetration is super easy. When the ball starts moving, it doesn't stop:
Snyder's offense is set up to be concept-based as much as driven by play calls and memorization of patterns. The guys on the floor read and react to each other, knowing how to move off-ball to get into a position where the ball can find them. The teaching points are simple:
âFill Wing and Corner
The Jazz always are moving without the ball. Sometimes it is small relocations a foot or two on the perimeter just to put themselves in the passer's view. But extra passing is only able to occur if the stationary guy on the perimeter knows where the extra should go to. Sometimes it's corner to wing, on a baseline drift pass where they can capitalize on over-help at the rim.
More frequently for Utah, they go wing to corner since teams defend them aggressively on the perimeter. The roll gravity of Rudy Gobert and other bigs makes defenses collapse from the weak side, so ball handlers try to throw it to the wing and play 2-on-1 on the back-side:
One-off extras like this are pretty easy to contextualize. All that is required is selflessness, shooting from each spot and a scheme that places them consistently in both wing and corner. The Jazz have those factors, but it's not what makes them unique.
Utah is SO GOOD at letting the ball keep momentum once it gets going. They move it side-to-side really well and capitalize on one instance of penetration to never let a defense settle the ball.
Watch for a few things in the clips below. One is when they overload three to a side, how well they space between those three players. Another is how they shift and slide along the 3-point line when the ball moves or relocates. They all move off each other really well.
Most strikingly, watch how few dribbles are used and how every one that happens is purposeful:
That's ball movement porn if there ever has been such a thing. Ingles, Bogdanovic and Conley are keys to this, as they all have a tremendous feel for when to drive, shoot or swing it.
To go back to the wing-corner spacing, the Jazz are unbelievable at replicating this on the fly, not just out of the formations their sets end in. That's the IQ of this group on display, and the impressive part of Snyder's coaching. They find these formations even after broken plays or multiple strands of re-penetration.
Perhaps my favorite example of ball movement of theirs came from this possession, when Conley started the ball movement on a corner pick-and-roll, the ball swung to the other corner, got penetrated then finished with a Conley shot off a wing extra:
It's the most Spursian possession we've seen since Boris Diaw and Tim Duncan were slinging hi-lo touch passes to each other on a weekly basis. It's difficult to explain just how hard creating a possession like this is -- it looks easy, but isn't.
If you noticed on the clip above, the Jazz started that rotation by thwarting an aggressive defense from the Charlotte Hornets. Cody Zeller came off Gobert to trap the corner ball screen. Believe it or not, that's been a fairly common tactic against the Jazz this year. Part of that comes from the proficiency Gobert has as a roller. His gravity as a screen-and-roll big is enormous. His long reach and ability to catch lobs is mighty and puts a ton of pressure on help defenders.
As such, opponents don't like to sit back and play Drop coverage against Utah, where they concede a paint touch and dare them to throw a lob or take a floater. Mitchell is too good of a finisher, Conley too unique with his ambidextrous floater game and Ingles the master of the pass fake layup.
Increasingly, teams are trapping the Jazz on high pick-and-rolls. They want to get the ball out of Mitchell's hands, and will do the same to Clarkson on the second unit. His emergence as a scorer off the bench for Utah has led to consistency in their looks from starters to bench; Clarkson really is a Mitchell-lite.
The development of Mitchell as a playmaker is huge for Utah. He's incredibly poised whenever he gets trapped. He invites the pressure, knowing he can handle it. Once the trap is out, the Jazz keep the floor spread really well around Mitchell, where one pass out of the trap starts a domino effect that the defense cannot stop. Ball movement is faster than player movement every time.
Utah also loves the corner-to-corner skip out of these situations. Mitchell hits the first guy out of the trap, then they look to either skip it, or make an extra and let the next guy skip it.
In the past, there's been one vulnerability for the Jazz on offense: Gobert's lack of perimeter skill. Teams would trap or hard hedge screens to encourage pocket passes to Gobert. If he caught them more than five feet away from the rim, he'd have to put it on the floor (a weak spot in his game) or be forced to read the defense 4-on-3 and make the right reads.
Most noticeable this year for Gobert's offensive development has been how comfortable he looks in short roll situations. He's a genuinely good passer and makes quick, accurate decisions. It's unlocked the ball movement no matter what the defense encourages.
The Jazz will put other guys into the screener's spot as well, but it's been Gobert's development that jumps off the screen:
If the concepts are the "hands off" work of Snyder to encourage ball movement, he needs to be lauded for his "hands on" work as well. His playcalling is unique, his sets tremendous, and the amount of false movement that leads to great action is inspiring. But he designs ATOs and other plays that encourage this type of ball movement. He's found the perfect harmony between letting scorers be scorers and letting the ball dictate who takes the shot.
Take this for example, an after timeout special against Milwaukee. The Jazz run a beautiful play to get Clarkson a three on the wing off a handoff -- it's a version of a play run frequently by the Miami Heat for Duncan Robinson. Clarkson isn't open and doesn't have a clean look once he gets the handoff.
Instead of dribbling it and trying to drive towards the rim to make something out of nothing, he hits the short roll to Favors, who gave him the handoff. Now the Jazz start the same domino effect as before, where they fill wing-corner opposite and Favors finds the open man:
Players within this system instinctively know where to look (down and opposite) and where to go when a play breaks down (wing and corner opposite) to make great plays when things break down. It's the advantage of playing four playmakers who can shoot and of playing smart bigs.
The Jazz are atop the NBA standings because they have a clear identity. They play really hard defense, limiting 3-pointers and funneling everything to Gobert. They play the math game: if we take away your threes and we take more of them, we can outscore you.
Now, they've found the offensive system that goes hand-in-hand with that strategy. They can take and generate a ton of open 3-pointers through extra passing. They've signed the right players, drafted well, and excelled in player development. Gobert's leap as a short roll playmaker is enormous from where he was just two seasons ago. Mitchell becoming a willing and capable passer off the pick-and-roll has quelled early-career doubts about whether he'd be more than a scorer.
It's a well-oiled machine. All pieces fit well together and have been firing at the same time. They lead the league in 3-point makes (16.8 per game) and in 3-point makes against (11 per game). When they get almost eighteen more points per game than their opponents from deep, the margin of error shrinks for any foe that faces them.
Snyder's schemes impose their will on opponents. He has the elite rim protector to do it on defense, and now the healthy ponies on offense to do it on that end, too. With the way they move the ball, play spirited D and have proven shooters who aren't playing above their head right now, the Jazz have all the makings of a team that will not just be a half-season flash in the pan.
Head Boys Basketball Coach, Boys' Latin School (MD).