By now, any observant Jazz fan knows the numbers. Utah’s defensive ascension has been rapid and incredible, and they remain the league’s best per-possession unit since the All-Star break and, indeed, since the start of February.
What fewer might have realized, though this nugget has begun to seep into the collective Jazz consciousness as well of late, is that this climb to the league’s elite defensively has been about far more than Rudy Gobert. The Stifle Tower has been the lynchpin: without question, the foundation upon which the rest of the group has built their confidence and cohesion, but per-possession figures actually indicate that Utah has been better defensively since February 1st while Gobert sits, by a reasonable margin. There’s always noise in these numbers, but it’s abundantly clear the Jazz have become far more than a one-trick pony defensively.
A big part of what’s kept the team elite even when Rudy hits the bench1 has been improved play on the perimeter. A team that spent all of last year and much of early this season struggling immensely with simple first-level defensive rotations had begun to figure a few things out by the turn of the new year, but what we’ve seen in recent weeks illustrates a guard and wing group that has coalesced more quickly than many might have thought possible.
The simplest measure here might also be one of the most telling and remarkable: Utah was allowing opponents to shoot 37.1 percent from 3 through the end of January, the third-highest mark in the league, but has clamped down since, allowing 34.2 percent (18th-highest) since the start of February. Since the All-Star break and the simultaneous Kanter trade, they’re allowing a silly 28.8 percent, the second-lowest figure in the league during that period.
Much of this is raw variance, of course. Distance-wise, the Jazz are contesting 3’s with basically the same level of effectiveness they’ve had all year; per NBASavant data manipulated by our fearless leader Andy Larsen, the average distance of a Jazz defender on opposing long bombs has actually gone up a decimal or two since the trade deadline. The percentage of opponent 3’s on which there’s a Jazz defender within four feet2 has risen a very small amount, but not enough to hang any realistic conclusions on.3
To this eye, however, this is one of the rare cases where the raw figures are obscuring the picture just a tad. Utah’s perimeter defense has been markedly improved as far as closeouts and pressuring of shooters, and is more often forcing opponents to their second and third choices. Offenses absolutely notice increased activity levels as they execute their systems, and the right bit of intensity on a given action can alter the course of an entire possession.
This gets to likely the largest team factor in Utah’s recent defensive success, particularly among the wing rotation: their screen navigation. Per metrics from Vantage Sports, Jazz perimeter defenders (classified as point guards, shooting guards or small forwards) were quite poor against plays involving picks for the majority of the year, allowing the seventh-highest opponent point total per screen through January. But since February 1st, this trend has flipped on its head – they’re allowing the second-fewest points per screen in this time, coming remarkably close to actually cutting their figure here right in half.4
A big nod here to Elijah Millsap, who came aboard in early January and has really hit his stride as Utah’s best wing defender in the last month or so. Of 198 non-bigs league-wide who have faced at least 500 screens involving their man, Vantage tells us Millsap has allowed the very lowest point total per screen – no other Jazz player is within the top 30 here5. His ability to find the best route around a given pick is elite, and he stays attached to the every movement of guys at multiple positions. Watch how much pressure he takes off his teammates on a couple plays by refusing to be left behind even by multiple decently-set screens:
A tip of the cap as well in this area to Trey Burke, who has thrived in his sixth-man role on both ends of the floor relative to his previous performance. Some of it is surely playing against second units more frequently, but Burke has cut his points allowed per screen by over a quarter since the change, and seems to be picking up more and more on this end every game as he’s forced to spend less time against elite points. It’s a big part of the intense turnaround the Jazz have undergone defensively while he plays – Utah was defending at a rate worse than Minnesota’s league-worst figure on the year with Trey on the floor when he was starting, but are somehow a hair better than Golden State’s league-best mark while Burke plays since he began coming off the bench.
As far as players’ role in the defensive renaissance, though, Jazz fans should save their largest levels of excitement for none other than Dante Exum. The rookie has been more than expected defensively from the get-go this year, but still had his share of issues relative to his peers, particularly as far as screen navigation – he was just a hair below Burke for points allowed per screen through January, nowhere close to the figures that Millsap, Hayward and even fellow Aussie Joe Ingles were posting by Vantage metrics.
But he’s done a complete 180 since, embracing his starting role and surely bolstered by playing in front of two behemoth interior defenders in Gobert and Derrick Favors. Like the Jazz as a whole, he’s nearly chopped in half his rate of points allowed per screen, actually approaching Millsap’s season-long league-best number since the start of February. And what’s more remarkable is who he’s doing it against; as the starter, he’s faced such elite points as Damian Lillard, Mike Conley and Tony Parker, and hasn’t given an inch to any of them.
For the Jazz to improve as much as they have defensively while he plays despite his insertion into the starting lineup as a 19-year-old6 is truly remarkable, and shows that for all his issues with confidence on the other end of the floor, everything he does defensively is simply found money at this point. His closing speed is unbelievable, and as he’s improved his routes through picks he’s become a destructive force given his length:
A number of individual players have made real strides, but in the end, the bulk of the credit for the team’s amazing ascension defensively has to go the man behind the bench. Quin Snyder said all along that his schemes on both ends of the floor would take time, particularly for a young team, and their recent performance is proof that we all should have simply shut up and listened.
Much of this gets into non-quantifiable areas, but one hardly needs to see numbers to note the myriad developments Quin’s group has made on the defensive side of the ball. His work with his perimeter guys is most impressive, if only for how much several of them (Burke and Exum in particular) have succeeded recently relative to expectations this year even while the team’s wing rotation has been decimated by injuries.
The cohesion and synergy Snyder has brought to a team that spent much of the previous couple years flailing about without a clue on the defensive end is easily the most encouraging aspect of this year’s Jazz team. He’s walking proof that a strong-willed coach who earns the trust of his players can induce real change, even among guys who some had considered lost causes on this end of the floor. The Jazz and their fans are lucky to have a guy like him on board for the long haul, and if he keeps developing talent like he’s done with his defense, particularly on the wings, he’ll be coaching in more meaningful games in short order.