It sounds like a math problem with no solution: How do you add a player with neutral plus-minus and take a team from good to great? However, that's exactly what the Utah Jazz has done in ripping off 12 straight wins to quietly emerge as the NBA's hottest team before the streak was snapped last night with a 100-93 loss to the Hawks in Atlanta.
During the midst of the streak, the Jazz got starting forward Carlos Boozer back in the lineup on February 23 after a 44-game absence due to a knee injury that ultimately required surgery. Boozer is not yet back to his All-Star form, although he has rebounded the ball well since returning, averaging 8.9 boards per game. However, Boozer is still finding his scoring touch, having shot 42.5 percent from the field over the last eight games and averaged 15.8 points per 40 minutes-down from 54.7 percent shooting and 24.2 points per 40 a year ago.
Even including the more productive 12-game stretch before he was sidelined, Boozer has not made a positive impact this season in terms of plus-minus. With Boozer on the court, Utah has outscored its opponents by just seven points, essentially playing even with them. Nonetheless, the Jazz is 15-5 this season when Boozer plays, as compared to 26-19 without him.
How can we make sense of this seeming paradox? Plus-minus offers an answer in terms of Boozer's backup and his replacement in the starting lineup, Paul Millsap. The budding third-year big man capably stepped in for Boozer, putting up All-Star-caliber numbers as a starter, averaging 16.0 points and 10.3 rebounds per game with 54.5 percent shooting. Even accounting for his increased playing time, Millsap has been more effective this season as a starter. His per-40 minute averages went up in every major category save blocks, including slight improvements from 17.9 points and 11.1 rebounds per 40 minutes as a reserve to 18.6 and 12.0, respectively, when he starts. Millsap's shooting percentage is also better as a starter.
In terms of team impact, however, Millsap has been much more valuable to the Jazz as a reserve. Pairing him with Andrei Kirilenko has given Utah head coach Jerry Sloan two overqualified players to bring in off the bench, and the result has been impressive plus-minus numbers for Millsap. In Boozer's first game back, the Jazz outscored Atlanta by 20 points with Millsap on the floor. The next outing, Utah was +19 in Millsap's 17 minutes of action despite being outscored by eight with Boozer in the lineup.
Add up Millsap's plus-minus figures from each game along with the season totals provided by 82games.com and the pattern becomes clear-a healthy Boozer's biggest contribution to the Jazz this season has been pushing Millsap to the bench role in which both he and the team thrive.
Role +/- Min +/- per 48
no Boozer +188 1407 + 6.4
w/Boozer +105 403 +12.5
Last 8 Gms + 63 192 +15.8
There's one more layer to Boozer's return. He has also allowed the team to go to a three-man rotation up front along with Millsap and starting center Mehmet Okur, moving Andrei Kirilenko primarily to small forward and pushing Jarron Collins and rookie Kosta Koufos to the end of the bench. The Jazz has been much more effective with Kirilenko at small forward this season, and has been outscored with both Collins and Koufos on the floor. So while the Jazz with Boozer have largely been playing even with opponents since his return, that still marks an improvement over the lesser players who were splitting time with Millsap during Boozer's absence.
Utah did benefit during the winning streak from a relatively easy schedule. Eight of the first 10 games were played at home, and Atlanta was the first playoff opponent the Jazz faced on the road since a loss at Portland on January 31. The schedule will test Utah the rest of the way; 10 of the Jazz's final 17 games will be played on the road, where Utah is 13-18 this season, and the team's last six road games of the season are against teams likely to join the Jazz in the Western Conference playoffs.
Even making an adjustment for schedule, the numbers show Utah to be a far better team with Boozer in the lineup. Accounting for the opposing team's point differential and home-court advantage, the Jazz has played 5.3 points better per game than an average team in Boozer's 20 games-a mark which would rank second in the West behind only the LA Lakers over the course of the season. By contrast, Utah was +2.3 compared to an average squad in Boozer's absence.
The frightening prospect for opponents is that, as Boozer rounds into shape, the Jazz will become more dangerous. Utah has outscored its opponents by 27 points with Boozer on the floor over his last four games (he missed Sunday's win over Toronto with a sprained ankle), along the lines of the team's success with Boozer during a 2007-08 season that culminated in a Northwest Division championship.
Should Boozer decide to opt out of the final year of his contract and become an unrestricted free agent this summer, one of the offseason's more intriguing questions will be which power forward the Jazz decides to keep with Millsap scheduled to become a restricted free agent, considering the club's limited room under the luxury-tax threshold. For now, Utah has the luxury of a pair of elite power forwards, and with both of them in the lineup and contributing, they're a legitimate contender in the West.
Kevin Pelton is an author of Basketball Prospectus.
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