The Splash Brothers, International Edition

Utah has gone all in on shooting with their frontcourt. Will it pay off?

During the 2018-19 season, 9 players met the following criteria:

  • At least 350 total 3-point attempts

  • At least 2,300 total minutes played

  • At least 4.5 3-point attempts per game

  • 39% (or higher) 3-point field goal percentage

In a 450 player league — 510 if you include two-way contracts — that’s a minuscule number. In fact, if you do the actual math, just 2% of the NBA last year qualified to be that list.

In news that surprises no one, two players among that group compromise the Golden State Warriors backcourt. The more head turning development is that another two players — Joe Ingles and Bojan Bogdanovic — are now the foundation of the Utah Jazz frontcourt. Given the insane amount of free agency news, Bogdanovic’s move to Salt Lake City didn’t generate many headlines outside of Utah. But with him in the fold, the Jazz have assembled a team unlike any other the NBA has seen.

Over the past decade, which is really the only relevant one considering the recency of the 3-point explosion, only two teams have featured a duo coming off a season with impressive marks when it comes to durability combined with 3-point accuracy and volume. One of them is Golden State, who have terrorized opponents with Thompson and Curry for over a half decade. The other was a 2014-15 Portland Trail Blazers team that ran out a backcourt featuring Wes Matthews and Damian Lillard.

No team, however, has ever come into a season planning to devote such a large amount of frontcourt minutes to two elite shooters. What the Jazz are set to do — good health willing — is going to be historically unprecedented. The success Utah has rolling out Bogdanovic and Ingles will have a lot to say about team building going forward.

Tall Shooters: Could Be a Thing?

With the analytics era in full swing, the rise of marketplace, we’ll call it awareness, has taken a turn for the better. Though the NBA will probably never match the MLB when it comes to the relentless hunt for market inefficiencies, the general idea that they exist is a good start. And tall shooters might be something that could qualify.

Since today’s newsletter started off with a list, here’s another one for you. In combing through the awesome Basketball-Reference.com database, I came across something interesting. If you go year by year, the number of players that…..

  • Are 6-7 or taller

  • Played 1,500 minutes

  • Attempted 250 3-pointers

  • Shot over 39% from 3

….can be counted on two hands, mostly even just one. Some of the players that populate that list — Dirk Nowitzki, Klay Thompson, Paul George, etc — are All-Stars. Pretty clear to understand those guys have value. A lot of players on it, however, are not.

If every year, only a handful of tall players qualify for the (somewhat arbitrary but still meaningful) criteria above, that makes them fairly rare commodities. Stars will obviously be the most sought after asset for any team. Yet there’s arguably more of stars than there are tall players capable of seasons where they shoot the hell out of a basketball. I’m not sure what exactly to take way from that, but it’s certainly interesting.

Go even deeper down this rabbit hole and you’ll see that in the past 20 years, only two teams actually paired two players 6-7 or taller with pinpoint accuracy from deep: the 2007-08 versions of the Indiana Pacers and Orlando Magic. I can’t tell what’s more wild about that revelation: that just two of 600 versions of NBA teams featured two players fitting that criteria or that they both happened in the same season.

The tall duo on that Pacers team were a young Mike Dunleavy Jr and a still healthy Danny Granger. Both players shot over 40 percent from 3 on a middling team that finished 36-46. It’s clearly not the greatest indicator for Utah but that Indiana squad was undone by brutal point guard play and an injury to Jermaine O’Neal — one of three effective players in a razor thin frontcourt — that caused him to miss 40 games.

Move on to the ‘08 Orlando team, part of the Stan Van Gundy era Magic that this newlook Jazz outfit have gotten compared too, and things get a lot rosier. With Rashard Lewis and Hedo Turkoglu canning over 40% of of their nearly 12 combined 3-point attempts per game, Orlando finished 52-30 that season. Of course the next year, with that same frontcourt (but, ironically, Turkoglu dipping to 35.6 percent from 3), Orlando made the Finals.

With the NBA’s (mostly rightful) obsession with star-chasing, what this Orlando team did has somewhat slipped through the cracks. They took a small forward in Lewis, brought him in (with an exorbitant deal), made him a nominal power forward, slotted him next to another slick shooting forward and ultimately earned a Finals berth. It certainly helped that the Magic had an established star to build around, but it wasn’t like Orlando was following along with the standard NBA approach at that time. The prioritized frontcourt shooting and it paid off in a big way.

What might be even more fascinating in the scope of valuing oversized humans that are elite at shooting a basketball, would be a theoretical do-over with that Pacers team. With the influence of today’s tactics (goodbye ineffective Jermaine O’Neal post ups!) and some league average point guard play, it’d be interesting to see what that Indiana wing pairing could have facilitated. When you also factor in that team had another big man — Troy Murphy — who shot 39.8% from 3 there’s an argument to be made they were taking a smart approach in the wrong era.

In general, it seems within the scope of these two teams, the presence of some tall shooters both raised a ceiling (Orlando) and a floor (Indiana). The Magic weren’t getting to a Finals with a non-threatening shooter next to Howard. That Indiana team would have been an absolute dumpster fire minus if you swapped in two wings for Granger and Dunleavy that were just as talented, but not nearly on the same level as shooters.

In short, it’s hard to imagine a scenario in which an excess of frontcourt shooting doesn’t lend a team to maximize their talent. It means it’s almost not possible to overpay for the skill (provided it comes along with a baseline of other abilities). In that light, the 73 million dollar deal Utah gave Bogdanvoic seems like a bargain. And if things really take off, it could mean even more.

All Things Equal

Golden State still has Steph Curry, Draymond Green and (eventually) Klay Thompson. The Clippers have Paul George and Kawhi Leonard. The Lakers, LeBron and Anthony Davis. You probably get the point — the West is loaded with stars.

The Jazz are banking on a championship run with a group of players a notch below that. Mike Conley, Rudy Gobert and Donovan Mitchell aren’t franchise centerpieces on their own. But what Ingles and Bogdanovic will do with their shooting is accentuate Conley and Mitchell’s offensive strengths while Gobert minimizes, well, everybody’s defensive weaknesses.

Conley in particular will be able to operate in more space this season than he has in his entire career. And that development brings up a fairly interesting question. If you put a pretty good player in a situation where his skills are sharpened by the support around him, does that make him as capable, if not more so, then a bonafide star in a worse situation?

Russell Westbrook is generally considered to be in the talent tier above Conley. Yet it’s not a stretch to imagine Conley being more impactful with this Utah roster than Westbrook will be if he sticks in OKC or winds up on team like Miami. Conley may not have star qualities in a vacuum, but he could still have the impact of one with the Jazz due to boost of elite shooting around him.

The same goes for Gobert. As Zach Lowe pointed out in a recent column, he is not the most graceful roll man in the sport. There are no illusions he is going to morph into the Phoenix version of Amar’e Stoudamire just because Ingles starts next to Bogdanovic now. But when defenders are sucked toward those two as Gobert rolls, the French big man has some margin of error when it comes to bobbled catches or contested finishes.

What’s really fascinating when it comes to Gobert, however, is that the Jazz are fully leveraging his defensive impact with this move. Gobert’s overall game isn’t on par with, say, Anthony Davis. Davis does a myriad of things at an extremely high level. So while Gobert may not have an all-around star-level impact, he does have an elite skill — he makes opponents miss a lot more of their shots than expected when he’s around. Whereas L.A. might not be able to leverage Davis’ unique abilities fully because of LeBron James, Utah is maximizing Gobert’s one, otherworldly ability to the hilt.

In the Premier League, Everton FC did something similar with their version of Gobert, a Senegalese midfielder named Idrissa Gueye, and found some fairly interesting results. As a mid-table club, Everton do not have the same attacking talent as the top teams in England. A remedy for this can be found in one of two ways, either throw more attackers forward — increasing defensive risk — in order to score goals by overwhelming opponents with quantity instead of quality or simply play more defensively.

With Gueye in the fold, Everton chose to do the former. As Mike Goodman of Statsbomb explained in a piece from this past fall:

This is the Everton gamble. They’re a high wire act. They get tons of bodies forward, and position themselves high up the field, but rather than work collectively to pressure the ball, they rely on an elite midfielder to win the ball back for them. Without Gueye the entire system would collapse. The fullbacks would get caught high up the field, Andre Gomes would constantly be stranded in space. The center backs would be left out on an island. That still happens sometimes, Everton’s shots conceded map shows that the opposition has some success taking the ball to the rim, but not nearly as often as it might, and that’s all thanks to Gueye.

Ingles and Bogdanovic aren’t terrible defenders. They’re also not the type of players you can really expect to go toe-to-toe with the best wings in the NBA. Utah knows this. Their bet is that a defensive system built around Gobert will help them survive enough defensively that the outstanding shooting the pair brings to the offense won’t come at a price. It’s certainly a gamble, but it’s the one a team that isn’t luring a truly elite star has to make.

What’s It All Mean?

In 2011, I thought the Mavericks winning an NBA championship would fundamentally alter the way teams approached roster building. I was wrong. Not much has changed. The NBA might be shifting away ever so slightly from their “three star” model, but it’s still a league in the midst of an arms race for elite talent.

If Utah would go on to win the title this season thanks, in part, to a forward duo of Bogdanovic and Ingles shooting the lights out every night, I’m not sure what would happen. I’d like to think the NBA would notice a team without a truly definable star win — or even come close to winning — and have an epiphany. However, given the recent past, I would bet against it.

If the Jazz don’t come close to such a feat, it likely won’t be the death of anything either. Shooting still will matter a lot. More of it will always be better than less and the Bogdanovic acquisition will still have been a sound decision. An NBA team, or basketball team for that matter, can never have too much shooting.

The Jazz bowing out in the first round of the 2020 playoffs won’t change any of that. With the outstanding job they’ve done managing their resources within the context of their market, Utah will also still be a smartly run organization. But unless this bold bet on Bogdanovic helps the Jazz capture a title, it’s unlikely they’ll be a revolutionary one.