Are the Jazz winning because they have the best power forward in the NBA?

The Utah Jazz played four games in December.  Of these, three were losses.  Furthermore, the Jazz were out-scored by 54 points in these four contests.  Given these results, the mood in Utah wasn’t too good as 2012 began.

Once the calender turned to 2012, though, something happened with the Jazz.  In January the Jazz are 9-2.  And Utah now has the third best winning percentage in the Western Conference.

Before we get to why the Jazz are suddenly so good, we should note that the Jazz are not quite as good as their record indicates.  To illustrate, here is a ranking of all teams in the Western Conference by efficiency differential (offensive efficiency minus defensive efficiency, as of Sunday morning):

  • Denver Nuggets: 5.4
  • Oklahoma City Thunder: 5.1
  • Memphis Grizzlies: 3.8
  • Dallas Mavericks: 3.7
  • San Antonio Spurs: 3.0
  • Portland Trail Blazers: 2.9
  • Utah Jazz: 2.5
  • Los Angeles Lakers: 2.2
  • Minnesota Timberwolves: 1.4
  • Los Angeles Clippers: 0.50
  • Houston Rockets: -0.1
  • Phoenix Suns: -2.0
  • Golden State Warriors: -4.0
  • New Orleans Hornets: -5.2
  • Sacramento Kings: -11.6

In terms of differential, the Jazz only rank 7th in the conference.  So Utah’s record is a bit deceptive.  Still, the Jazz appear to be have improved.  Last season the Jazz only won 39 games with a -1.9 differential.  Additionally that mark was when we consider the full season. The Jazz started out last season with Deron Williams playing well and traded him mid-season. So the Jazz actually ended last season as a worse team than they appeared.

In addition to the loss of Williams, the Jazz also said good-bye to Andrei Kirilenko (8.7 Wins Produced and 0.209 WP48 – or Wins Produced per 48 minutes).   To replenish the roster, the Jazz added Enes Kanter and Alec Burks in the draft and signed Josh Howard and Jamaal Tinsley.  Obviously Kanter and Burks had never played in the NBA.  And Howard and Tinsley hadn’t played more than 1,000 minutes in an NBA season since 2008-09 and 2007-08 respectively.  Such additions didn’t exactly inspire much hope that the Jazz were on the verge of a playoff berth in 2012.  Yet, that now seems a possibility.

So what happened? To answer this question, let’s look at the 2011-12 Wins Produced numbers for the Jazz from Patrick Minton the NBA Geek himself (@nbageek)

2011-2012 Utah Jazz through January 21st 2012
Player Position Games Minutes Points
per 48
minutes
WP48 Wins
Produced
WP for
66 games
Paul Millsap PF 15 451 26.5 0.309 2.90 12.8
Earl Watson PG 15 316 9.4 0.168 1.10 4.8
Enes Kanter C 15 209 16.3 0.210 0.91 4.0
Al Jefferson C 14 465 26.4 0.077 0.74 3.3
Gordon Hayward SF 15 395 15.3 0.076 0.63 2.8
Raja Bell SG 15 340 12.0 0.072 0.51 2.2
Derrick Favors PF 14 276 17.4 0.089 0.51 2.2
Jeremy Evans SF 8 53 19.0 0.404 0.45 2.0
Devin Harris PG 15 381 15.4 0.038 0.30 1.3
Josh Howard SF 11 253 22.4 0.048 0.25 1.1
Jamaal Tinsley PG 7 35 4.1 0.151 0.11 0.5
Alec Burks SG 14 178 24.0 0.025 0.09 0.4
C.J. Miles SF 15 274 24.7 0.014 0.08 0.4
Sum of WP 37.8

If the team’s Wins Produced after 15 games continues throughout the 66 game season, this team can expect to win about 38 games.  Of these 38 wins, about 21.6 can be linked to the play of Paul Millsap, Earl Watson, and Enes Kanter.

An average NBA player offers a 0.100 WP48 and so far Kanter is twice as good as an average player.  And last season, Millsap and Watson were about average, posting a 0.133 and 0.091 WP48 respectively.  If all these players were average in 2010-11, this trio would only be on pace to produce 8.9 wins this year.  That would mean the Jazz would only be on pace as a team to win about 25 games this year.  In other words, if this trio were average – which would have been a reasonable expectation – the Jazz would be about what we might have expected before the season started.

But these players are not average.  So what’s changed?

Let’s start with Kanter.  He is a rookie, and rookies are hard to forecast.   Kanter is especially hard to forecast, since he didn’t play college basketball.  Nevertheless, it is unusual for rookies to play quite this well.  When we look at the numbers – again from Patrick Minton and theNBAGeek – we see that Kanter is above average (relative to an average center) with respect to true shooting percentage (driven by an ability to get to the free throw line and hit those shots at the line) and rebounding.

Following the same process with respect to Watson, we see that Watson is – relative to his career average – doing better with respect to shooting efficiency, defensive rebounds, blocked shots (really), and assists.  These improvements have resulted in the highest WP48 marks of Watson’s career.

A similar story can be told for Millsap.  Thus far in 2011-12 his WP48 is a career high.  When we look at the individual stats we see that Millsap is posting career high numbers with respect to shooting efficiency from the field, field goal attempts, steals, turnovers (career low), and personal fouls (tied for career low).

If there is a trend in these numbers (and really – with a sample of three – we can’t call it a “trend”) we see that these players are hitting some shots.  And if that continues, the Jazz will continue to win a bit more often.

Again, the person leading the team to more wins is Millsap.  And Millsap isn’t just leading the Jazz in Wins Produced.  Millsap in 2011-12 is currently the most productive power forward in the game.

Again, we turn to Patrick’s numbers(sort by power forward if you wish to see the complete list).  Here are the top 10 power forwards this season (before Sunday’s games):

In looking at these names it is important to note who is not in the top 10.  Chris Bosh, Blake Griffin, Dirk Nowitzki, and Kevin Garnett are all currently offering less than these 10 players.

So does that mean these 10 are all “better” than this quartet of All-Stars? Baseball fans may be better equipped to answer this. The Phillies first baseman Ryan Howard posted a 0.835 OPS in 2011, a mark that ranked 36th in the league.  Such a ranking suggests the Phillies should be trying to trade Howard for any of the 35 players ranked ahead of Howard.  But is that the case?  Maybe not.  We are only looking at one season of performance, and we might want to consider more before suggesting trades.  Players can have up and down seasons.

So it might be a bit premature to argue that Millsap is the “best” power forward in the NBA. It does appear, though, that across the first 25% of 2011-12, Millsap has been the most productive power forward in the game.

As great as Millsap has played, though, he currently ranks second on the Jazz in WP48. The leader on this team is Jeremy Evans.  Across 53 minutes, Evans has posted a 0.404 WP48.  Last season – as a rookie — Evans posted a 0.311 WP48 in 463 minutes.   So Evans hasn’t played much in the NBA.  But he has played more than 500 career minutes against other NBA players (perhaps not the best NBA players, but these weren’t high school players he was facing) and he has been very productive.  Such numbers suggest that maybe the Jazz should find more minutes for Evans.

Surprisingly, this season the Jazz may find a way to still compete despite losing some of their good players (Deron Williams and Andrei Kirilenko). Of course, it helps if they consistently player their most productive players.   If the Jazz are willing to play Evans more, they may find winning even easier. And if they Jazz decide not to play Evans… well, maybe another team should give him a shot.  In limited minutes, Evans has really been quite amazing so far.

- DJ

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