A little over a year ago, I wrote Defensive Coaches: The Two-Year Theory discussing how, oftentimes, a coach who eventually becomes known as a defensive-minded coach, makes his mark on his team’s defensive identity usually during his second year as head coach. There have been some exceptions to this theory,1 but defensive coaches seemed to make their mark in their second year pretty consistently.
At least, that was the case last summer.
I looked at the defensive rankings for the last two years to see which teams rose and which teams fell. As Jazz fans, we’re all too familiar with the Suns and their new coach last year in Jeff Hornacek. They drastically improved both their offense and defense, which was surprising considering they were a team most experts predicted to be absolutely awful. Instead of being absolutely awful, they went from being a 24th-ranked team defensively (using Hollinger’s Defensive Efficiency stats) to being ranked 13th and winning a very respectable 48 games in a stacked Western Conference. For a new coach in his first year, implementing a new system with a supposedly weak roster, that was an impressive jump.
A more dramatic jump was the Charlotte Bobnets 2, also under the direction of a new head coach in Steve Clifford. Even with a defensive sieve of a big man in Al Jefferson—we remember his Boozer-like defense all too well—Clifford orchestrated a defensive scheme that launched the Bobnets from 30th to 6th. 30th to 6th! Let that sink in for a second. That is a phenomenal turnaround for a new coach. He was able to take Jefferson and turn him into a willing defender, while creating a system around him that could hide his defensive deficiencies. It was remarkable.
Another team making a significant jump was the Portland Trailblazers. Coach Terry Stotts, in his second year (hey, the theory still holds somewhat!) helped guide his team to a defensive ranking of 16, after being ranked 26th the previous year, his first as a head coach.
The only other team to make a jump of ten spots or more on the defensive rankings list was that of Toronto, up 13 spots to number 9. Dwane Casey throws my theory off by working his defensive magic with his team in his third year. 3
What does this mean for the Jazz and for Jazz fans? Ultimately, for me, it means we have good reason to hope that we’ll see improvements defensively this season; teams with new coaches and new schemes were able to pull off pretty remarkable defensive feats last year. Admittedly, I think it’s going to take a few months before we start to see noticeable results from the new schemes and other changes Snyder implements. He’s been preaching defense during training camp—including playfully joining an interview with Rudy Gobert to help Gobert offer the “correct” answers about his play on defense. In fact, offensive sets didn’t even see the light of day during that first practice; it was all about defense. Snyder has also been preaching to the players about transition defense and making sure three of the players are back as quickly as possible to prevent the other team from an easy score or getting into an early offense.
Luckily, we can only move up defensively: as Jazz fans are all too aware, we ranked dead last in defensive efficiency last season. It often takes a new coach to make that jump. Can Quin Snyder orchestrate something akin to what Steve Clifford was able to do in Charlotte last year? Only time will tell.