How Utah’s Length Has Become a Defensive Weapon

March 31st, 2015 | by Ben Dowsett
AP Photo/Rick Bowmer

AP Photo/Rick Bowmer

During Utah’s emotionally-charged victory over Oklahoma City Saturday night, one particular play stood out as the Jazz began to mount their comeback in the second quarter:

No, it wasn’t for the long shot of The Former Player sitting on the bench that I elected not to edit out. Watch it again, and this time control your cuss words (or laughter, depending on your point of view on The Former Player’s comments) at that bench segment long enough to catch the important on-court minutiae.

What makes this play for the Jazz, an eventual travel on Perry Jones, is length. Look first at the situation Utah finds themselves in following a switch between Rodney Hood and Trey Burke1 that leaves Hood on DJ Augustin, followed by a pick-and-roll between Augustin and Steven Adams:

This is very often the kiss of death for many defenses around the league – the dreaded four-on-three attack with the ball in a guard’s hands, a big rolling to the hoop, and guys spotting up in both corners. They often have to choose between several net negative options: the big defender (Gobert here) can stay home on his own man and allow an open floater to the ball-handler, or he can commit to the guard and leave the opponent one well-placed lob away from a dunk. From the perimeter, Utah’s helpers (Ingles and Evans in this case) can crash down, but they leave open the possibility of a skip pass for an open 3.2

But for the Jazz and others like them, things are different. It starts, of course, with Gobert in the middle, one of the longest players in league history and with lateral mobility to boot. His reach is so wide that on this play, he can grab the best of both worlds – he’s close enough to Augustin to challenge a floater, but can also remain near enough to Adams to prevent a lob or a creative bounce pass.

Meanwhile, though Hood was hit with an effective pick by Adams initially, he’s scrambling back into position. Augustin actually pulls quite the successful move on Gobert, going up for what looks like a floater and getting Rudy to commit in his direction before threading a pass under his arm. But length is paramount here again; Hood is just long enough to fly back into the picture and disrupt the pass, saving the Jazz a layup against:

That Hood is capable of switching onto any guard or wing position in certain situations is huge for the Jazz going forward. He spent time on Russell Westbrook during this game and held his own, aided by the rest of Utah’s length, and a backcourt featuring Rodney and Dante Exum going forward will be a nightmare for opposing passing lanes.

Fast-forward now past the shots of The Former Player and to OKC’s inbounding play. To start, Morrow sets a strong, solid pick for Jones just inside the key, one that makes good contact with Evans as he chases Jones:

But here are Gobert and Hood again – Hood is correctly positioned to stop any easy pass to the paint, and Gobert, recognizing that the effective pick has sprung Jones a little bit of space near the basket, shades himself over just in case inbounder Dion Waiters can sneak one past Hood:

Instead, the Thunder are forced to inbound to Morrow in the corner, where Ingles correctly forces him to stay on the baseline:

Screenshot (132)

Ingles is a bit slow when Morrow makes his move, and in reality, Gobert himself is caught a bit flat-footed as well. But it doesn’t matter – by snuffing out OKC’s first option, the Jazz have given themselves breathing room. Even with Morrow basically leaving Jingles completely behind him, the Thunder are in a spot they can’t wiggle out of with the shot clock approaching zero:

The Jazz have been the league’s best defense for quite a period of time now, and these types of plays are becoming more and more frequent. As guys like Hood, Gobert, Exum, Millsap, Ingles and even Gordon Hayward and Derrick Favors have coalesced under coach Quin Snyder, Utah’s length has become a legitimate problem. Insert replacements for any of the pieces in the clip above, and it’s a good bet the set would have played out in a very similar manner.

“I think it’s important,” Quin told Salt City Hoops. “I’m a big believer in us shifting, and showing crowds and trying to let people see bodies. You can move bodies further over, or in some cases if you hold your arms up, you accomplish the same thing. I think it’s important on close-outs and contesting shots. It just can be a deterrent when you have length, especially in pick-and-roll when you’re trying to chase guys down from behind with those late rear contests…where they can feel you back there a little bit more.”

The ability to switch more frequently is a byproduct here, and a fantastically beneficial one at times. Every one of Utah’s rotation guards or wings is capable of defending 1-3, and even certain floor-stretching bigs in a pinch. It’s no secret that teams like Golden State and Milwaukee are among the league’s top defensive units on the season in large part due to their ability to switch all over the floor and neutralize pick-and-roll action, the most common and typically effective play type in the league, as a result. Setting a pick on your defender becomes less tactically advantageous when another guy of roughly the same athletic profile is simply waiting on the other side.

The Jazz aren’t at the Warriors’ or Bucks’ level of obsessiveness here, something Snyder is quick to point out. Lacking a rare breed like Draymond Green or Khris Middleton who can spend legitimate periods locking down anything from point guards to power forwards3, they can only go so far.

 


 

This brings us to what may be Utah’s largest concern going forward with these long-armed behemoth units, one we saw in a close loss to Portland last week: what happens when teams go small?

Favors is at the crux of this conversation. With the Blazers down in the fourth quarter, coach Terry Stotts inserted Dorell Wright at the nominal power forward spot, placing LaMarcus Aldridge at center. Wright guarded Gobert when Utah had the ball, and because Rudy’s only offensive skills at this point don’t lend themselves at all to exploiting a big size advantage like this, the move worked. Utah couldn’t take advantage of their size mismatch and Portland was energized by all the space it afforded them offensively, outscoring the Jazz 37-24 to win the game by three.

As SCH’s own Andy Larsen pointed out after the game, however, it wasn’t actually the traditional idea of “spacing,” the one where teams launch away from 3 with impunity and score in chunks as a result, that doomed the Jazz. Portland was actually just 3-10 from 3 in the quarter, and from the moment Favors re-entered the game and picked up Wright, the latter went just 1-3 and 0-2 from distance. The damage was in fact done down low where, as Andy noted, Portland went 10-10 in the quarter (6-6 while Favors was on the floor). Check out their shot chart:

From NBA.com/stats

From NBA.com/stats

The issue here wasn’t Favors’ inability to guard Wright – he did just fine. The issue was how far these duties pulled him away from the hoop, and this is the concern going forward. Gobert is imposing, but with a superstar on the court in Aldridge who he can’t stray away from too frequently, things become a lot more difficult when his frontcourt partner in Favors is stuck out near the perimeter. Even a few steps can make a huge difference here for Derrick, and they did in this one, costing Utah a win.

This isn’t some impossible riddle for Quin to solve. Some of the damage in this particular quarter came from Blazers wings (Damian Lillard in particular) making some really tough shots at the hoop over solid Jazz contests, and Utah also made a couple uncharacteristic rotational errors that led to open looks. Favors has shown he’s capable of defending the perimeter in most cases, and it’ll be a huge mismatch for him on the other end if teams ever err in their defensive matchups and allow him a smaller guy to post up.

Not every team has the personnel to chase these mismatches, and even for those that do, the scales won’t always be tilted so heavily skill-wise. Gobert will never be an offensive star, but he can dribble the ball well enough and can certainly dunk – some hard work in the offseason on sealing smaller guys in the paint will do wonders for Utah’s ability to exploit teams trying to stick a wing on the big Frenchman, as will some time in the video room with the entire team where Snyder can school them on other ways to properly isolate these matchups.4

“He’s not at a point where we’re gonna just go to him as a centerpiece in the offense and post a mismatch. Really, we rarely do that anyway. We’ll do it, but it’s just more subtle,” Quin told us. “If we just play in flow, there’s ways that our guys know that they can get the ball in the post just on a quick swing and a duck-in. Even better, you get it before the defense is set, before they can double-team.”

The addition of more shooting on the wings, something likely high on Utah’s wish list over the summer, will also be a boon to Utah’s ability to win these trade-offs. And most of all, the maturation and expected development of nearly every current rotation player only figures to make things easier as time goes by.

And if they can minimize the damage from these situations while continuing at their current rate of development elsewhere, the league had better watch out. The Jazz have tons of length and defensive upside at every position, and they’ll only get deeper here next year when Alec Burks returns5 and the Jazz potentially add a free agent or a draft pick. They’re the future of the league defensively, and we’re all lucky to be along for the ride as they grow into their vast potential.

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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