The unique way the Utah Jazz are capitalizing on the NBA’s 3-Point Revolution

Editor’s note: Riley Gisseman is a writer for Salt City tires. This story is part of a collaboration between SCH and The Tribune aimed at creating more dialogue and community for Utah Jazz fans.

The NBA’s 3-Point Revolution is old news.

Between 2010 and 2019, the world watched as Stephen Curry broke virtually every shooting record in existence — and we’ve seen teams scramble to find answers ever since.

A lot of them looked the same: Sure, a team can get 50 threes per game by planting two spot-up shooters in the corners and having a cornerstone player created for everyone, but that results in 60% of their players go completely unused apart from the fact that they have “spaced” the ground during a significant percentage of our games and it depends heavily on a play. Some try to improve by adding more shooters or a different primary creator. Some are looking for other ways to attack the space created by the NBA’s revolution.

The Utah Jazz are surprising the NBA so far — 12-7 ahead of Wednesday’s game — precisely because they’ve taken a U-turn from the usual direction of relying on a tablesetter or two to start possession. Instead, they bought into having capable passers-by, shooters, and decision-makers everywhere. Every player has different strengths and weaknesses, but new coach Will Hardy has put together sets that focus on maximizing each player’s strengths.

Let’s break down a game that highlights what they do so well.

1. Mitigate weaknesses

The ball starts in Mike Conley’s hands. At 35, he no longer has the pace to dribble down defenders and sometimes even struggles to get a step on his man in pick-and-roll situations. When he comes downhill, it’s often with a defender at his hip, who nags at his ability to find passing lanes to shooters and praises his roll man. Last year he was still quite good at it, but that has more to do with his ability to pass and decide than with the right situation. Resolving this lack of separation was part of Hardy’s challenge.

2. Use strengths

Jarred Vanderbilt waits for a pass on the wing. Vanderbilt was not known as a shooter in his fledgling NBA career, with just three triples this season. As a result, defenders tend to depend on him at the 3-point line and disregard his shooting ability. “Vando” is also undersized, so his finishing ability is often nullified in the shadow of a larger defender – often the opposing center.

So why has Vando had enough success in the NBA to start in playoff games just weeks after his 23rd birthday? Vanderbilt thrives in the open – barring putback attempts (a weakness inherent to size), Vando scored almost 65% of his attempts last season. Finding scenarios where he can use his explosiveness and finish in a downhill capacity – while still limiting his size and shooting weakness – makes him a very capable offensive player.

3. Solve for both

So how does the Jazz put Vanderbilt in a position where he can thrive while also alleviating some of the issues with an older Conley?

Enter Jordan Clarkson. In this game, the Jazz uses Clarkson as an on-ball screener in a way that draws attention and gives other players an advantage.

Clarkson has immense gravity around the 3-point line from constantly threatening to pull the trigger. The Jazz can use this to their advantage in a number of ways, but this is where Clarkson’s defender needs to hedge and keep dragging him to the ground. Neither Clarkson nor Conley are an immediate downhill threat, so the standard strategy for an opponent is to attack the pull-up three-point strength between the two players.

With both defenders above the 3-point line and worried about pull-up attempts, the Jazz turns the screen downhill to gain the advantage. Conley finds Vanderbilt waiting and they attack with a give-and-go, punishing the one defender of this 3-man action who’s back in the suit. It’s a two-on-one that emphasizes the team’s strengths and mitigates weaknesses. Adams steps forward to stop Conley’s signature swimmer, but once Adams is able to make the impossible choice of which guy to stop on the lane, the game is already won.

4. Read and respond

The other two jazzmen on the pitch for this piece are Lauri Markkanen and Kelly Olynyk, but they are much more than just passive observers. Olynyk shields Markkanen’s man to keep the defenders busy. Both players stretch the ground (both are 7ft too!) and you see Markkanen begin to toy with deciding whether or not to cut from the weak side by reading his defender’s response. Because his defender didn’t commit to digging in the end to help Conley-Vanderbilt action, Markkanen didn’t clog the lane and instead stayed in the corner ready to shoot.

Markkanen’s strengths don’t come into play as a direct participant, but in reading and reacting to how the defense is playing once the advantage is established. In the scenario where his defense attorney would sign on to assist with the drive, Markkanen would be found as a second option role for either Conley or Vanderbilt.

Of course, you could run the same set with Markkanen instead of Vanderbilt, but that would negate the advantage Utah has on the weak side; Vanderbilt has the same roller/cutter abilities as Markkanen, but Markkanen has added value to accomplish his job as both a gunner and a release valve cutter.

As Hardy said, “Cutting is a big part of how we play. To get 3-point shots up, you need to break down the defense a bit and put some pressure on the rim. Some teams can do this through one-on-one dribble driving, other teams do it with pick-and-roll, with a threat rolling down the middle of the lane. For our team with our staff, the way we play with our distance is cutting edge – that ultimately helps us put some pressure on the rim. We’ve seen Lauri in this spot a lot this year.”

The future of the revolution

When Utah visited Denver, Nuggets forward Michael Porter Jr. spoke about how much fun his former teammate Jarred Vanderbilt seems to be having. “He really loves their coach over there, how he lets them play loose,” Porter said.

To empower a team made up of so many unique talents, Hardy challenges everyone to simply play to their strengths, negate their weaknesses, and make the right decision.

In the front office, the background to decisions seems to be more and more delicate. Olynyk was introduced to ease the pressure on the rim for offense and create shut down actions. When teams choose to defend it with their center, Utah attacks with pick and pop or handoffs. Where Bojan Bogdanovic offered the team skills already available, but to a greater degree than others, Olynyk removes a layer of redundancy and introduces a layer of optionality. Everything is built around the lanes created by the modern NBA space – and each piece answers a different “what if” question related to the actions the team will take. It literally assembles a team from an island of misfit toys.

Teams don’t trade All-Stars and then win games, and the Jazz not only traded two stars, but also overhauled 80% of its starting lineup. It would be counterintuitive for Utah to try to win, the thought goes. If you can’t win a championship and generations of players need to be picked at the top of the draft, why even try to win?

But the reality is that the organization of the pieces involved has been extraordinarily bespoke. Jazz signaled that winning was always the intent, and it did so in a pioneering way. The decisions made to avoid a return to ball dominance and instead attack space in new ways were not only right, they are the future of distance in the NBA.

The days of idle spot-up shooters may not be over yet; but the days of the spatial revolution are upon us, and Hardy and jazz may lead the way.


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