A Substitute for War

Basketball philosophy

Jerry Sloan and His Point Guards

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Jerry and Phil

Image by kris247 via Flickr

The news of Jerry Sloan resigning mid-season, essentially immediately after a game, is something so surprising I can’t even think of the last time something in sports surprised me more. Almost a quarter century of tenure and a relationship with ownership perceived to be the most stable in the league – gone over night. And of course, as an analyst, I feel mostly just excitement about seeing something new.

Of course part of that is because of how I view Sloan. I respect the hell out of the man’s ability to consistently achieve success, but the man is also clearly stubborn as hell. John Amaechi said Sloan was “a cruel man” and made clear he thought the man was a homophobe – and it just rings too true for me to dismiss as being entirely without merit. When someone like that quits all of a sudden, he’s doing it because he’s tired of compromise, not because he’s a victim of some great unjustice.

Although with that said, remember that the Jazz drafted Deron over Chris Paul, when pretty much everyone considered Paul the clearly superior prospect, and that undoubtedly had everything to do with Sloan believing in Deron. Rough to put yourself on the line for someone, and then for that person to drive you out.

Jerry Sloan and Deron Williams

The generally accepted narrative here is that there was a power struggle between Sloan and star point guard Deron Williams based around Deron wanting more freedom on the court and Sloan wanting to continue his same offensive system he always had. Deron insists he didn’t force Sloan out, and I think that’s a partial truth. There’s no way that the Jazz fire Sloan right after a game mid-season because a star told them he wanted to play basketball differently. On the other hand, I think it’s clear that Sloan doesn’t leave his team so abruptly unless he becomes convinced he’s in a power struggle he can’t win. I would imagine the picture Sloan had was that he simply had to give Deron more say in how the team played, and after one last argument, he decided he couldn’t accept that.

There’s definitely an underlying current that it seems like every young star is making noises about leaving to join hypothetical superteams, and Deron has been among those in the rumors. I would imagine that that contributed to Sloan feeling from management that keeping Deron happy was the top priority.

So now, as fans and analysts, we get the opportunity to see what Deron Williams can do in the style he wants to play instead of Sloan’s flex offense. This will shed light on Deron’s true abilities of course, but it will also give us food for thought about the prototypical Sloan point guard, the all-time great John Stockton.

Jerry Sloan and John Stockton

Get me into a debate about Stockton relative greatness, and you’ll typically see my on the anti-Stockton side. People bring up Stockton’s massive assist numbers, but the truth of the matter is that the Jazz teams of the 80s had tremendously inflated assist totals. Consider the ’86-87 Jazz, the last year before Stockton became a big minute starter. The team was 6th in the league in assists, but only 21st of 23 teams in offensive efficiency. That’s basically telling us all that that the assist-to-score ratio in the Jazz system was so far out whack with the rest of the league, that they look like a great passing team even when their offense is completely and utterly incompetent.

Then there’s Stockton’s shooting efficiency. Efficiency is a great thing, but whenever you see someone with skyhigh efficiency and middling scoring volume, you have to ask whether the team would be better off if the player in question took a bit more risk. Now, if a player has middling scoring volume on average, but has a fair amount of big scoring games, I think it’s reasonable to conclude that the player is taking that risk when his team needs it and when the opportunity for doing so effectively arises.  Stockton did this very rarely. Only 11 times did he score about 30 points in regular season games. By contrast, the two guys often compared with Stockton in recent history, Jason Kidd and Steve Nash have both pulled this off 38 times. So being impressed with Stockton’s efficiency needs to come with recognition that he wasn’t one to put up the shot unless he was in his comfort zone – although brining up the presence of Karl Malone as a factor is a reasonable thing to do.

My point here is not to say that Stockton was definitively worse than people think, but just that the basis people typically use to justify his prominence are not quite reasonable. Stockton achieved huge assist numbers in a system that created huge assist numbers – but that doesn’t necessarily mean he wasn’t the best passer in history, there’s just a lot of room for statistical doubt here because of how and where Stockton played.

And of course, that how and where had everything to do with Jerry Sloan. We never got the opportunity to see more of Stockton – and now we will get to see more of Deron. With the obvious caveat that it will be wrong to alter ideas of Stockton too much based on Deron’s success or failure, it clearly bears watching with Stockton in mind.

Now Deron has been given significantly more leeway as a scorer than Stockton. So in that part of their games, I don’t think we are going to learn much new – but then I also doubt that Deron’s issue with Sloan had to do with his individual scoring anyway. However, Deron is not allowed to have the playmaking freedom that someone like Steve Nash or Chris Paul is. Is this a good thing or a bad thing. We’ll find out. I want to point you to a few things though.

Food for Thought

First, this fantastic piece by NBA Playbook. It talks about what some believe is the key issue: Taking advantage of the transition game. This is always a debate: If you can attack in transition, you’re facing the defense when it is least ready, and thus if you do it well, you can get easy buckets. However, transition is also when the *offense* is least ready and in general the court is at its most chaotic. If your point guard doesn’t have enough skill reading the court on the fly, it’s best to be conservative in what you try to achieve with fast breaks. So it appears Deron wants to do more pushing on the transition, while Sloan wanted less. Who is right? Well NBA Playbook points to some silly choices on Deron’s part in these situations that go along with a high turnover rate for the Jazz in transition. This would appear to be a point in Sloan’s favor.

A second thing in Sloan’s favor, the Jazz offense has been quite good most of Sloan’s career. In fact 3 years, the Jazz had the best offense in the entire league, something they also achieve at the tail end of Malone & Stockton’s prime. Is it reasonable to say that there are really flaws worth complaining about in the Sloan system if it does that well? Well, the offense isn’t always elite, and the very best offenses in history tend to be predicated on an on-court mind’s decision making, so I’d say that really depends on the players in question. And given Sloan’s stubbornness, I could see him refusing to recognize such talent if he had it.

I also want to point people in the direction of 82games’s clutch performance pages, and in particular the “Asst’d” column. That’s the percent of baskets the player in question scored that were assisted by a teammate. Typically, point guards have very low numbers there, while off ball players have very high numbers – implying that point guards are far less dependent on passes from teammates than the their teammates are from them. (Note: The clutch part is somewhat irrelevant here, I’m just pointing to the page in question because it gives a good snapshot of what you’ll find if you look at overall numbers.) Notice Steve Nash’s Ass’d is 0%, Chris Paul’s is 13%. Deron Williams’ number is 53%. Huge difference. You better believe Deron feels that dependence, and I would imagine he feels like it’s holding him back.

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Written by Matt Johnson

February 11, 2011 at 2:49 pm

2 Responses

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  1. This is an insightful and well written column that I was glad to see. Of course, I completely disagree and would love to argue the merits of Stocktons greatness any time. To say his assist totals were “inflated” takes out a whole lot of praise due Stockton. If the numbers were inflated due to him being passive as a scoring option thats okay, especially because if you watched the actual games Stockton would turn it on in the 4th quarter or when his team needed him to score. He was more than capable, and with Sloans blessing carried his team through the playoffs knocking down clutch shot time and again. And as far as inflated totals I dont think you get to that many assists just because of a system. He clearly was, and will always be the best pure point guard and the best passer the game has seen. His records for assists will never be broken and you can credit the system but be fair and recognize that Stockton was the general making the right play. Every Time. Then you could also point to the overall team success, the W-L column, and realize that it may seems simple and easy to read the Pick n Roll coming…but it couldnt be stopped. The Jazz had one sub 500 season with Stock running the show. And if you really want to take it further the toughness, defense(ALL TIME STEALS LEADER), and all other “little” things Stockton did are what made him truly GREAT, and the Jazz a feared opponent. Shoot, they had the bulls on the ropes until MJ got away with pushing off Byron Russell.

    Drew

    February 13, 2011 at 11:56 am

  2. What a great way to start a response saying how very wrong somebody is. Thanks Drew, and welcome!

    First let me just emphasize: My minor damning of Stockton’s statistical accomplishments is not about saying “See, proof he wasn’t that good.” They are about pointing out that there’s significant uncertainty surrounding how close the relationship is between the stats and the true value, let alone between the stats and true ability. Like with a lot of things, my approach tends to be what I’d to be a conservative one.

    Re: too many assists just to be a system. Absolutely. Saying something is inflated by a system doesn’t mean that “something” doesn’t exist. You don’t get 14 APG without being really, really good – but that doesn’t mean you are definitively superior to someone racking big, but not as big, numbers.

    Re: best passer in history. Well, I’ll take Magic, but Stockton’s in the conversation.

    Re: Bulls on the ropes. Something that’s just a reality is that by the time that the Jazz truly became a championship caliber team, the team was far more Malone-centric than it was at Stockton’s peak. He was a key part those teams, but I think it’s wrong to talk about that team accomplishment without acknowledging that this wasn’t super-assist Stockton leading the Jazz to the promised land.

    Cheers

    Matt Johnson

    February 13, 2011 at 1:13 pm


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