How Utah’s Defense Has Changed (Yes, Through Only Two Games)

October 13th, 2014 | by Ben Dowsett
Photo by Melissa Majchrzak/NBAE via Getty Images

Photo by Melissa Majchrzak/NBAE via Getty Images

Any major change in the coaching staff of an NBA franchise is going to bring about periods of adjustment. This is just as true defensively as on the other end, if not perhaps more so – even slight variations on a mostly similar base system can be difficult to grasp for players accustomed to a particular way of doing things, particularly younger guys1 who have spent a majority of their pro careers in a single scheme.

It’d be entirely reasonable, then, to forecast at least a tough few weeks defensively for a young Jazz squad coming off a coaching overhaul. But while two preseason games are surely far too little to draw any concrete conclusions, Utah has come out of the gate in a strong way. They’ve allowed just 178 total points over their home-and-home set with Portland, or 89 a game, and have held the Blazers to just 40.5 percent shooting. And while all the necessary caveats about sample size and various lineup combinations on both sides certainly apply, there have been a number of noticeable, tangible positives that bode well for the upcoming season should they continue.

Coach Snyder has the group playing, for the most part, a more conservative scheme versus pick-and-rolls than last season, when Ty Corbin had them alternating between a similarly conservative system and a far more labor-intensive high hedge. The latter scheme just doesn’t appear to fit Utah’s personnel very well, especially with Rudy Gobert in the fold and sure to increase his court time – of the big rotation, only Trevor Booker and perhaps Derrick Favors (in the right matchup) fit for such a precise and ever-changing defense, while Gobert and especially Enes Kanter simply shouldn’t ever be running it.

The more conservative stay-at-home scheme, coupled with more emphasis on “icing” pick-and-rolls whenever possible2, has shown solid early returns, both on a team and individual level. It often invites opposing guards to launch away from the less efficient midrange areas; Gobert, in particular, showed improvement with his feel and footwork, a very precise element of defending such sets that’s vital for bigs looking to minimize errors that lead to easy buckets. Watch him do a great job interacting with all three other players involved in the set – Dante Exum, Exum’s man, and Gobert’s own man setting the screen – and never lose his leverage on the outcome of the play:

He probably should have rotated back to Kaman a beat quicker to contest the shot, but Rudy does everything else right here and continues to impress with his quickly increasing acumen for the NBA game. He’s also continued his summer block party in style:

Opposing defenses are going to start taking note of Rudy, and the entire defensive frontcourt simply by osmosis. This obviously isn’t all on him, but the Blazers shot a ghastly 36 of 71 on shots within the Restricted Area over the two-game set, per, for barely over 50 percent. Small sample of course, and there were a number of rust-related easy misses in there, but the Jazz have to be pleased here.

The other individual Jazzman impressing defensively has been Trey Burke. He’s far from perfect and still has lots of work to do, particularly away from the ball, but it’s clear he’s put in time over the offseason on his recognition of, and reaction to, P&R sets. Literally every element of his game here has improved – his anticipation, his footwork both leading up to and during the pick action, his routes around screens and his recovery speed when he does fall behind3 have all developed. Watch him navigate a few such sets like a seasoned vet:

Beyond his mental and scheme-related positives, Trey just looks faster. This sort of thing isn’t uncommon for second year guards, but it’s not a guarantee, either, and Jazz fans should perhaps be most encouraged simply by how Burke looks physically coming into his sophomore year.

Another big point of emphasis for Snyder upon his arrival has been the transition game on both ends of the court, where the Jazz are impressing thus far. They’ve yielded just 18 combined fast break points over both games to the Blazers while scoring 38 of their own4. As Snyder has said, the defensive side here starts at the opposing basket; the young bigs are fully expected to hustle back after misses, including (especially) when they pursue an offensive board, and that has happened thus far. It’ll go a long way to minimizing a talent gap that will certainly be present versus many of the league’s better teams if the Jazz can continue their strong work here on both sides and afford themselves more easy points while also giving up fewer.

It hasn’t all been gravy, of course. This is still a young team undergoing a defensive overhaul and dealing with roster turnover, so some less than stellar work was to be expected from time to time. Alec Burks continues to impress with his work on the ball, but also has still struggled with actions away from it, as well as with over-pursuing the action:

It’s still unquestionably better to see him trying too hard rather than not enough, but Alec’s weakness last year defensively was away from the ball and he’ll be expected to tighten things up this time around.

The Jazz also struggled mightily with LaMarcus Aldridge, though as one of the league’s premier offensive big men this shouldn’t exactly come as a shock. Aldridge went 14 for 22 over the course of the two games, or just over 63 percent, and Utah never really had an answer for his bread-and-butter pick-and-pop sets:

Some of this, along with his success in the post (at times against Trevor Booker, which really isn’t fair) simply is what it is; the best offensive players in the league receive that designation for a reason, and sometimes they’ll hurt a defense no matter what. But Snyder and his staff should, and will, investigate some alternative looks to throw at offenses with a big man like Aldridge capable of hurting them both down low and from midrange. Gobert and his length may see more time against such offenses if his game continues to develop, though he’d certainly have his work cut out for him in the post when teams started letting the Nowitzki’s and Aldridge’s of the world go to work on him in isolation.

But overall, there have been a number of positive signs through the young preseason. Utah’s young roster appears to have quickly bought in to what Snyder is selling, and continued time together will only improve general chemistry and the team’s ability to function as a single, coherent unit defensively. They’ll still make the occasional boneheaded play one expects from the youngest roster in the league, and they’ll still face difficult personnel matchups frequently, but the groundwork appears in place for a team that, at the very least, won’t shoot itself in the foot as often as was the case last year. There’s nowhere to go but up from here, as they say, and the Jazz are well on their way.

Ben Dowsett

Ben Dowsett

Ben Dowsett is a life-long Jazz fan and current in-depth analyst based in Salt Lake City. He also writes for Basketball Insiders and BBallBreakdown, and can be heard on SCH Radio on ESPN 700 weekly. He can be found on Twitter at @Ben_Dowsett.
Ben Dowsett
Ben Dowsett

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  1. Mewko says:

    Great post Ben.
    Our young guys showed flashes of defensive upside, but they never turned the corner from flashes to legit defense. I think that will change under Snyder.

    Hayward looked horrible his rookie year, but did well his sophomore year, and his defensive game has plateaued ever since. He is bulkier this year, so that can only help his offense and defense.

    Favors showed flashes, and was just above average last year, I know he can be elite, just waiting to unleash the beast.

    Kanter has the speed, length, wingspan, NO physical limitations. He’s been offensive minded his whole life and raw his whole career. It doesn’t look like he’ll ever be elite on defense, but if he’s below average than he won’t earn playing time from Snyder.

  2. Matt says:

    LaMarcus is ALWAYS going to get his vs the Jazz for the next few seasons. Fundamental to our defense is consistency (which lacked with Corbin). So as we get good in our base defense, we aren’t going to double, which will take away portland’s three point shooting and try to encourage the mid-range shot. LaMarcus, predictably, will nail each and every mid-range shot possible. Normally that’s a bad shot, but not to him. That’s what happened to Houston in the playoffs. We just don’t have an elite defensive power forward right now if Favors is playing the 5 and truthfully, i doubt Favs can defend LaMarcus one-on-one.

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