No Fouls! No 3s! What Went Wrong With the 2012-13 Jazz Defense

June 17th, 2013 | by Matt Pacenza

The failure of the Utah Jazz to make the 2012-13 playoffs can be summed up in three colloquial words: Their defense sucked.

They ranked 22nd in the NBA in defensive efficiency, the accepted measure. They allowed 104.3 pts per 100 possessions. No team worse than the Jazz at giving up points made the playoffs, while 12 of the 13 top teams in defensive efficiency did. (The outlier, oddly, were the Wizards, who finished 7th best on defense, behind Indiana, Memphis, San Antonio, Oklahoma City, Chicago, Boston and Miami — the league’s cream of the crop.)

As the Jazz approach the offseason, they must focus hard on a single objective: Improving their defense, Yes, some of their worst defenders (Howdy, Big Al) may leave, but at least half the roster and their head coach remains.

Thus, taking a close look at where the Jazz went wrong — how it is they gave up so many points — is critical for understanding what they need to do next, whether that’s bringing in the right players via the draft or free agency, the current coaching staff changing their focus, or bringing in a new coach or coaches.

However they get there, you can’t fix what went wrong until you know what broke.

Let’s start with some basic data, available on NBA.com. We can look at “zone” data: where the team gave up shots, and how well their opponents fared. It’s fruitful to both look at volume — whether the Jazz give up more shots from certain distances than other teams — and success.

Before we check out the numbers, let’s review what defensive-minded NBA analysts — and the league’s smarter teams — have concluded. Teams that play top defense need to either prevent teams from taking the most efficient shots — free throws, field goals within the restricted circle and corner 3s —  or to force them to shoot poorly from those distances.

Bad defensive teams tend to allow teams to take oodles of the best shots, and/or to hit a high percentage of them. The best defensive teams force teams to the least efficient shots, namely long 2s and midrange jumpers.

To the data:

Type of Shot

Number of Shots Allowed

Ranking (of 30 teams, from most shots to fewest)

Opponent FG%

Ranking (of 30 teams, lowest to highest)

Restricted Area

1,338

12th

59.6%

9th

Rest of Paint

410

6th

38.7%

20th

Mid-range Shots

1,733

26th

40.1%

18th

Corner 3s

422

21st

43.8%

30th

Other 3s

1,082

23rd

34.7%

19th

Other key defensive measures

Free Throws

1,953

24th

Defensive Rebounding Percentage

73.2%

21st

What can we learn from the data? Where are the Jazz poorest?

  • They foul way too much. Only six teams put their opponents on the appropriately-named charity stripe more than the Jazz. As longtime Jazz watchers know, this has been a problem for many years.
  • Jazz opponents hit corner 3s — one of the game’s most efficient shots — at a rate higher than any other team’s opponents.
  • The Jazz rarely force opponents to settle for long jumpers, the game’s least efficient shot.
  • The Jazz allow a fairly high number of shots within the restricted area: dunks, layups and other very short field goal attempts.
  • The Jazz gave up a higher than average proportion of offensive rebounds, opportunities which tend to lead to easier shots.

Where did the 2012-13 Jazz tend to do better than average on defense?

  • While their opponents took many efficient, close shots, they didn’t shoot all that well from point blank range.
  • While the Jazz allowed their opponents to shoot 3s at a very high rate, they didn’t allow them to take all that many such shots, limiting the damage from long-range.

It’s clear what the Jazz need to improve at: They need to foul less and to give up fewer shots from close range. They need to make it tougher for their opponents to hit corner 3s at a high rate. And they need to force opposing shooters into mid-range jumpers.

How? That’s a much trickier question. Clearly, a change in personnel would help: Most Jazz fans would guess that if Derrick Favors plays more minutes, opponents will be more likely to shy away from going to the rim. More minutes for the imposing Enes Kanter would likely also help in the paint, as would the departures of the under-sized and foul-prone Paul Millsap and the slow-footed Al Jefferson. A young point guard might fight off penetration more easily.

But several of those troubling indicators suggest the Jazz problem is also one of scheme — of coaching. Players can clearly be taught to foul less. They can be coached to not leave shooters open for easy corner 3s. They can be told to try and force the other team into 20-foot jumpers. Athleticism and makeup impact these traits, too, but coaching is a huge influence.

Perhaps the most critical national writing on the 2012-13 Jazz and their coaching staff came from Grantland’s Zach Lowe, who covered the team in March and had the following harsh words (even as he called the young, talented and cap-space-rich Jazz “the most interesting franchise in the league right now”):

There’s also the fact that Utah’s defense plays with a weird lack of discipline and unclear, unproductive rules. That’s partly on Corbin…There are no clear, consistent rules to Utah’s defense…The Jazz’s inability to contain pick-and-roll ball handlers opens up shots everywhere — in the lane, from the corners, and from elsewhere around the arc. Utah opponents get a lot of the highest-value shots in the game. The Jazz have a weird tendency to rotate off shooters in the corners nearest the ball handler — a huge no-no on smarter teams.

Lowe makes clear that those flaws are only partly the coach’s fault. Some of the blame, perhaps even most, lies with their inexperienced youngsters making mistakes and their unathletic vets being simply too slow.

Big problems. Both with the players — and how they’re coached. Problems that must be addressed.

In my next look at defense, I’ll drill down into the data for specific players: Is it only those Jazzmen who are likely on their way out the door who fouled too much and allowed too many layups and open 3s? Which players show the most promise on defense?

To be continued…..

 

Matt Pacenza

Matt Pacenza

When he isn't writing about the Jazz, Matt Pacenza is an environmental activist, Arsenal fan and world-class blowhard about many matters. A native of upstate New York, with a background in journalism and nonprofits, Matt lives near Liberty Park with his wife and two sons.
Matt Pacenza

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7 Comments

  1. Joe says:

    This Grantland article explained to me why the Jazz are so bad at defense. Essentially, the new trend in NBA defense is to utilize help-D a lot, and pack the paint as much as the rules allow. The new tag line being: 2.9. As in, stay in the lane as long as possible without getting a 3 second call.

    Highlighted in this article was Boozer, who was a very sub-par defender when he was in Utah. I remember at the time blaming his poor defense for our inability to get by the Lakers in the playoffs. Now in Chicago, his defensive issues are not as apparent. The difference, according to Boozer, was that in Utah he felt he was on an island: “In Utah, you were kind of on your own on defense. It was almost just one-on-one. There was no help concept. Here, there’s a help concept, and it works.”

    This league trend, and Utah’s reluctance to follow suit makes these numbers make sense. If the Jazz embraced the 2.9 defensive strategy, I would suspect that they would foul less, give up fewer layups, and give up fewer offensive rebounds. They would also be less susceptible to the pick-and-roll, which just killed them. I suppose the trick in this scheme is to limit the weak-side threes.

    link

    • Clint Johnson says:

      Boozer is wrong that there is no help concept, because there is. It’s “when anyone gets beaten, anyone who is near help.” The Jazz have always had a philosophy of every player bearing near equal responsibility for helping on defense. It’s the specificity of the Chicago concept that is key, just as with every successful defensive team. Help defense is as much about when not to help, who not to help on, and who shouldn’t give help as how help defense is given.

      The Jazz should NOT help: off three point shooters who sit in the corners; on most players going against solid one on one defenders; by closing out wildly on jump shooters inside the three; or late into a play where the only option is to reach for the ball.

      • Joe says:

        I have been noticing for the last couple years that when the help does come from the weak side, it is usually very slow. Almost as if players are slow to realize that they are supposed to rotate. Of course I am not a defensive expert; I just thought the Grantland article was interesting. Especially since they specifically named Utah as having an inferior defensive scheme.

  2. Brian says:

    While a Player Change will help, Favors playing more assuming Millsap/Jefferson Leave will help but corbin needs to pull his head out. “We just gotta keep getting better” wont cut it anymore, if he can’t put together a defense, or an offense that can only function when Big Al has to get touches every possession he needs to be let go, shoulda happened already IMO

    • Matt P says:

      Hey, Brian, I’ve tended to agree with you, to want to blame the coach. But there must be some scheme behind the scenes, right? Seems to me the problem could be a) mostly personnel b) the lack of a sophisticated scheme or c) such a scheme exists, but the coaches don’t make it a priority to drill it into the players. Or all of the above? It seems to me this year, when the team will (hopefully!) play guys who have more defensive ability, we’ll get a better answer.

  3. Obert says:

    Not really that odd that the Wizards were 7th in defensive efficiency.

    After Wall came back, they were actually 2nd or 3rd over the last 50 games.

    Their top 6 guys, Wall, Beal, Ariza, Néne, Okafor and Martell Webster are all solid to excellent defenders.

    The Wizards problem is they were a team of wholly complimentary players and when Wałl was out they were essentially rudderless. After he came back they were 2nd in D, 8th in boards, 5th in 3pt% and 10th in point differential.

    They’re the only team I’d love to see trade their 2014 pick. If they hit the market just right they might get an insane return on it, adding a major talent to a team who was probably going to finish over .500 without thia years 3rd pick and whatever they’d get in a tradefor the 2014 pick.

    • Matt P says:

      I love Wizards optimism! I’m with you, though. Wall seemed to suddenly figure it out. And the general formula of young wings and experienced bigs is intriguing.

      Amazing how quickly a team’s fortunes — or at least the perception of them — changes, eh? You wouldn’t have found too many optimistic Wizards fans 12 months ago. But now? Most must be now, right?

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