The Utah Jazz built a dominant defense over the course of the 2014-15 season via several avenues, but perhaps none more tangibly useful than the way they kept unassuming opponents on the back foot. In a league where being a step ahead of the opposition tactically has become almost as important as raw talent on the floor1, the Jazz — who morphed into a defensive powerhouse midway through the year, flipping their perception coming into the season completely on its head — had one inherent advantage essentially built into their late-season strangulation of all challengers. Teams just often didn’t realize what they were getting into, weren’t fully prepared for the force and intensity with which the Jazz began defending as the year worse on.
That advantage will cease almost entirely this season, when the Jazz may find themselves on the other end of things more often than many would expect. It’s common to hear about defending champions and star-studded franchises with “targets on their backs”; it won’t be to the same degree of course, but don’t doubt that 29 other teams are fully aware of the new kids on the block and angling to take them down a peg or two.
So what will the league’s best offenses have in store for the Jazz?
It doesn’t take a master tactician to identify a few of the more obvious areas teams will look to exploit. The Jazz were a menacing defensive group, but have a long way to go to become as adaptable as many of the teams that stay dominant for years in a row.
Dante Exum’s injury makes one approach even clearer than it may already have been: Attack Utah’s guards. Trey Burke and Bryce Cotton are both undersized at the point, and Raul Neto remains a major unknown at the NBA level even in an area assumed to be a strength. Utah’s wings aren’t as physically disadvantaged, but each of Gordon Hayward, Rodney Hood and (especially) Alec Burks have had some degree of issues at one time or another.
More than anything, though, it’s simple game theory — why challenge the league’s best defensive frontcourt if easier options are frequently available? Look for smart opponents to put Utah’s guards, particularly Burke and Cotton, through a spin cycle both on and off the ball. Both have had issues navigating multiple screens at once, particularly Burke, and someone like Burks hasn’t been much better away from the ball. Even Rudy Gobert and Derrick Favors can’t be everywhere at once, and teams could avoid testing those behemoths if they’re able to lean heavily enough on the guards.
Transition play should be a point of emphasis for smart teams as well. Utah’s primary identity is big with Favors and Gobert, and while both are positives running the floor as far as big men go, teams could avoid allowing the Jazz’s defense to set and prepare itself if they pushed the pace whenever possible.
Utah’s defense against teams on the break was a curious study last season, one that mirrored their own transition attack. The Jazz allowed the fifth-fewest total transition attempts in the league, per Synergy Sports, a big positive on the surface given the size they typically play with. They also allowed the seventh-highest per-possession scoring figure on these chances, though, and the sixth-highest percentage of free-throws drawn on the break — like the Jazz on the other end, teams should try and push numbers advantages whenever possible, as they’ve been quite successful when doing so. Quin Snyder’s emphasis on getting back defensively surely plays a role, but even pseudo-transition chances will often be more efficient than giving the big guys ample time to set themselves and prepare.
Expect teams to go to detailed lengths to accomplish these sorts of general themes, attacking guards in particular. The Jazz frequently succeeded last season in funneling their errors on the perimeter to the right places; Exum’s absence will strain their ability to keep doing so, especially as teams scout their weaker points.
Coaches can do their best to scheme around the big guys, but winning basketball games is impossible without at least some offensive presence near the hoop. Finding that means going through Gobert and Favors, plain and simple, and teams will be hard at work figuring out how to do so without ending up on a Vine for all the wrong reasons.
Many of the individual skills needed to go toe to toe with the Stifle Tower have been outlined already on Salt City Hoops, both by yours truly last year or Dan Clayton with his Monday breakdown of Gobert’s EuroBasket semifinal and what it means for his development. Misdirection is huge — Rudy has a plain physical advantage while defending in nearly any realistic center-on-center matchup, and taking him out of his comfort zone is key. The few bigs with legitimate ball skills have a leg up here, like they do in most situations offensively.
Guys truly capable of bothering Rudy one-on-one enough to noticeably hurt his impact are few and far between, though, and teams might go to some pretty insane lengths to take him out of the picture with more of a team effort. One template here was designed beautifully by Spain in their matchup last week and catalogued in Dan’s piece linked above — I’d find a different example, but I’ve literally never seen this exact action run in a competitive basketball game. We’ll slow it down here a little, but be sure to keep a careful eye on Gobert at the top of the screen to see what Spain does to take him out of the play:
For those who still missed it, that’s two Spanish guards running a variation of the common “Elevator Doors” set teams around the world enjoy, where two offensive players converge at the perfect time to form a set of closing doors for their teammate to slither through before his defender is blocked as they shut.
But “Elevator Doors” is almost exclusively run for guards, often at the top of the key with the intent of springing a shooter open for a clean look. It’s a great set and teams have become more adventurous with it… but this is an incredibly unique variation, and it showcases just how focused teams are on Gobert. The play isn’t even designed for Rudy’s actual man, Pau Gasol — rather, as Spain runs a two-man on-ball set on the opposite side of the floor, this entire complex action is drawn up with the sole purpose of keeping Gobert from even having the option to help at the rim. Spain was legitimately so afraid of Gobert sliding over and killing their play that they diagrammed this uber-complex set just to keep him away.
Not every NBA team is capable of this, of course. Spain’s key pieces have been playing together since they were teenagers in many cases, and there are precious few bigs in the world who, like Gasol, are dangerous enough shooters to even force Rudy to be that far away from the hoop at all. The message is clear, though: Gobert is on the offense’s minds at all times, and nearly any option that can keep him away from the play is preferable to having him lurking anywhere close.
Going small against the Jazz will surely be another avenue teams explore while the Jazz have length on the floor, and both starting bigs will play a role here. Gobert’s will most frequently actually be on the other end; he’ll be the one teams put a smaller guy on while the Jazz have the ball, and the viability of opposing floor-stretching units will be determined to some degree by Rudy’s ability to punish them down low.
Defensively, though, the onus will be on Favors to hold his own against the more varied matchups, including quicker perimeter threats2. This could be a sneaky tipping point for the Jazz, the element that determines how strictly they can stick to their big identity.
Favors has seen limited time to this point in these kinds of matchups, and the results have been mixed. He has most of the physical profile needed to downsize effectively, with good mobility, long arms and decent instincts — and still seems just a bit behind a little too often. It’s fair to wonder if he’s quite ready for this sort of role for longer stretches at a time. He’s been vulnerable to lurching a bit here and there, sometimes a beat slow with his first defensive step and susceptible to being blown by or pushed out of position:
This feels like one of the largest specific questions facing the Jazz this season. Smaller, spaced-out units aren’t going anywhere; teams are putting increased emphasis on having at least one such lineup combination in the bag, and another handful incorporate them as part of their primary identity every year.
If Utah’s frontcourt tandem can’t effectively combat these units — Favors defensively, Gobert offensively — bits of trouble could be on the horizon. Three points remains more than two no matter how dominant a duo is on the interior. The negative trickle-down to other parts of the team’s defensive identity could start flowing somewhat quickly if their largest strength is neutralized, most notably in the postseason environment the Jazz covet.
Let’s be frank: none of these adjustments will be easy for Utah’s opponents to make, and many teams simply won’t be capable at all. The Jazz’s defense succeeded to such a huge degree precisely because it was so effective at eliminating the easier ways NBA teams put the ball in the basket. Talent on the roster is still king, and the Jazz have it by the boatload on the defensive end.
That won’t stop teams from trying, and bits of regression have to be expected. The big test for this group, and Snyder in year two at the helm, is whether they can throw a few counterpunches of their own.