Heading into the All-Star break, no one needs a rebound quite like the Utah Jazz. (I’m sure you groaned reading that awful pun. Just know that I groaned writing it as well). The Jazz have won just 4 of their last 17 games and are tied with Memphis for the 8th playoff spot in the West. I won’t speculate at the exact reasons, but the team’s struggles certainly played a role in the decision of head coach Jerry Sloan to resign in the middle of his 23rd season leading the Jazz. Things haven’t improved much since his resignation, with Utah losing their first three games under new head coach Tyrone Corbin.
The Jazz have made the playoffs in each of the last four seasons, winning 50 games in three of the four. Both of those streaks appear to be in jeopardy. I looked at their numbers for the Offensive and Defensive Four Factors over the past five seasons to see what, if anything, has changed about their statistical profile this year.
The Jazz have been remarkably consistent in most of these categories over the past five seasons. The only categoies in which they aren’t in the top half of the league this season are DRB% and Opponent’s FT/FGA ratio. They’ve been at the bottom of the league in Opponent’s FT/FGA ratio for the last half-decade and still been successful, so we’ll set that aside for now.
Other than the 2009 season when Carlos Boozer played in only 37 games, the Jazz have been a top 10 team in defensive rebounding over this entire stretch. This season they have fallen all the way to 27th. The other disturbing trend shows up in their offensive rebounding. Although it’s not as dramatic as the change at the other end of the floor, the Jazz have gone from a top 5 offensive rebounding team from 2007-2009, to the middle of the pack over the past two seasons.
So where are these rebounding problems coming from?
Roster changes and distribution of minutes are big components in the Jazz’s difficulties rebounding at this end of the floor. The table below shows the minutes played and DRB% for the players who have played frontcourt minutes for the Jazz this season and last season.
Looking at this table, two large problems appear. The first is replacing Carlos Boozer with Al Jefferson. The second is the injuries to Mehmet Okur.
Al Jefferson is on pace to basically replace Carlos Boozer’s minutes from last season and is nowhere near as effective on the defensive glass. Jefferson’s DRB% is his lowest of the past five seasons and is about two percentage points under his career average. I don’t have an explanation for this decline other than to point that he’s been largely healthy this season and so effort and a new defensive system would appear to be the most likely culprits. Often when a player changes teams and sees a decline in his rebounding production, diminishing returns is playing a role. I think we can rule that out since Jefferson played with Kevin Love, one of the best in the league on the defensive glass, last season.
The second problem is Okur. Okur has played just 168 minutes over 13 games this season. He played the third most minutes in the Jazz’s front-court last season and was their second best defensive rebounder. Okur’s minutes have been divided up between Kirilenko, Millsap, and Elson; none of whom have been able to match what Okur accomplished on the defensive glass.
Including all players who have played at least 200 minutes, Millsap has led the team in ORB% in each of the last four seasons. This season he will likely be 4th on the team behind Kyrylo Fesenko, Jeremy Evans and Al Jefferson. This is not just because of improvement or new opportunities on the part of those players. It’s because Millsap’s ORB% is a career low 7.3% this season, less than half of the 15.1% he posted his rookie year.
Millsap was 2nd in the nation in ORB% his senior year of college at 18.1%. In his junior season he ranked 7th in the nation in ORB% at 15.8%. He was drafted in the mid-second round by the Jazz and had to earn his roster spot and minutes with energy and tough work on the glass. With increased offensive resposibilities the Jazz no longer ask him to focus primarily on rebounding. An good way to illustrate this is by looking at the relationship between his shot attempts away from the rim and his ORB%.
Over the past five seasons Millsap’s offensive development has led to an increase in the amount of time he spends away from the basket. More time away from the basket means less high-quality opportunities for offensive rebounds. This is not the only reason his ORB% has declined but it appears to be a major factor.
This season the Jazz don’t have a single player with an ORB% over 10.0%. This is the first season over the past five that’s been the case. They have two other players with potential to surpass that mark, Jeremy Evans and Kyrylo Fesenko. Evans has an ORB% of 8.7% this season. Fesenko’s is 9.8%. However, they’ve combined to play just 577 minutes.
The Jazz don’t have much in the way of trade assets and it doesn’t appear that rebounding help is in the way in the form of new players. The Jazz could certainly make the playoffs without doing anything to address their rebounding woes. That plan would be just fine by the San Antonio Spurs. To fix the problem the Jazz may need to look at adjusting their rotations to find more minutes for productive rebounders like Fesenko and Evans. Those two players certainly have other limitations on the court. However, finding minutes for them to work the glass as well as improve on their other weaknesses over the last third of the season may be the only shot the Jazz have for advancing beyond the first round of the playoffs.