The Jazz miss Rudy Gobert, and badly.
If any one thing has become clear in the last few games, it’s this simple fact that virtually everyone knew would be the case anyway. But at least for his first couple games out of the lineup there were gray areas — Orlando and especially Indiana were both hot offensive teams coming in, and it’s natural to expect a game or two of adjustment when a major defensive centerpiece goes down unexpectedly.
It’s starting to look like expecting a permanent adjustment before the Stifle Tower returns might be unrealistic. Stretches of energy have masked the overall effect at times, but it’s beginning to show through just how badly this ship misses its anchor out there on the floor. The Jazz have been a mess from the inside out on the defensive end — they surrendered an unreal 58 points in the paint compared to just 30 scored against the Kings Tuesday night, a huge number of the uncontested variety. They were lost on the perimeter as well, consistently losing track of potent three-point shooters with very little explanation and being run all over the court in rotations.
The absence of the fulcrum that allowed their entire defensive style to be possible might simply be too much to overcome, and while a change like this on the fly is a real imposition, coach Quin Snyder may have to consider some sort of semi-major alteration to help weather the storm. One option might be inserting Jeff Withey into the starting lineup — this would allow Derrick Favors to return to his stronger position at power forward, and while Withey hasn’t been more than a screen-setter offensively, his defensive skill set more closely approximates Gobert’s than anyone else on the floor. It’s not really a question of quality, as Withey certainly isn’t in Gobert’s league as an overall defender, but rather a question of allowing the other four players on the floor to play the style they’re accustomed to.
The other option if a change is deemed necessary would be a large departure from the usual team identity: start small. No two-big alignment the Jazz have experimented with has had any sort of success implementing the Jazz’s defensive culture. and if Withey-Favors isn’t something Snyder is comfortable with1, spacing things out to goose the offense might be the only shot they have at hanging in games with any competent team.
Personally, I favor door number one. Withey may not be a superstar, but he knows where to be and he can handle at least a sizable portion of Gobert’s load as an interior defender without getting totally burned to the ground. The Jazz have defended extremely well with him on the floor since Gobert has gone down, and the plus-16.5 per-100-possession net rating they’ve boasted while he plays is the best on the team in this span by a country mile. Comfort can’t be overrated for this team on either end, and Withey is simply the closest proxy to Gobert’s skill set — likely the reason the team’s core process seems to feel the most familiar while he’s been in the game. He does enough not to get in the way offensively.
One of these two options almost has to be on the horizon at this point, and Withey unquestionably has to play more than 11 minutes a night while Rudy sits. The Favors-Booker combo has been a train wreck defensively, and while Favors-Lyles looked like a workable group against the Pacers Saturday, Lyles was exploited to a fairly huge degree by the Kings Tuesday night. Booker-Lyles is already in the toilet from earlier in the season. They don’t to overreact to a small stretch, sure, but things aren’t getting any easier — the Jazz see the Thunder twice, the Spurs, the Clippers and the Warriors in Golden State before the month is out, and shouldn’t expect to have Gobert for any of those games. They need to find their footing defensively in a hurry or risk looking up at the playoff picture from a potentially deep hole by the time they’re fully healthy again.
120.6 — Points scored per-100-possessions for the Kings Tuesday night. You just don’t win games in the NBA allowing that sort of figure to anyone.
110.5 — Points per-100 allowed by the Jazz in the three games since Gobert went down. They’ve allowed these figures to teams who rank ninth, 12th and 20th in the league for season-long offense, or an average of 13.66 — that’s roughly league average cumulatively, and not a single truly elite offense. The Jazz will face at least five of these before Gobert returns, and maybe more pending his full recovery time. It’s time to be concerned.
Slow start sets the tone again: For what feels like the umpteenth time this season, the Jazz weren’t ready to play out of the gate. They were down 12-2 a few minutes into the game and trailed 30-14 at one point in the first quarter. Their offense was profoundly sloppy, with five turnovers before they managed four assists and nothing even resembling a coherent, planned attack. This trend isn’t new, and is equally on the coaching staff and the locker room leaders to change in a hurry. NBA teams simply can’t get away with that level of nonchalance for parts of games, particularly as they fight to tread water minus a major piece against a beatable opponent.
Hayward still working hard: Gordon is back to his usual stat-stuffing ways for the most part, though it wasn’t enough on this night. His 18-8-6 was easily the most complete game the Jazz got from anyone, though he might have been a bit more aggressive pursuing his shot, finishing with 12 field goal attempts despite making half of them. One good all-around game won’t make up for a team letdown on the other end, though.
Screen navigation and readiness are killers: In a strange sight that isn’t quite explained by Gobert’s absence, the Jazz had almost a shocking amount of trouble with even basic screening action against the Kings. Simple stuff that they could see in advance was giving them all sorts of issues. They’re caught totally off guard when Marco Belinelli, a guy who does this all the time, rockets around a clearly visible double screen, and no one even considers helping Joe Ingles as a 39 percent career 3-point shooter gets an uncontested look:
This kind of run-of-the-mill stuff felt like calculus to the Jazz Tuesday night. Is it really possible Gobert’s influence is felt to this degree? It feels unlikely, but other explanations are tough to come by for a team that it usually takes much more to fool regardless whether the Frenchman is on the court or off it.
Hood finding a bit of a rhythm: It was just one game, but it was nice to see Rodney Hood find his stroke from deep a bit, and the Jazz have to pray it’s a harbinger of things to come. Rodney nailed five of his eight three-point attempts on the night, finally looking in rhythm for the first time in a while from deep range. His entire game seems to have suffered to some degree as a result of lost confidence with his jumper — his defense in the last week or two hasn’t been where it needs to be, either — and it would be a big boon for both Hood and the team if a few swishing nets gets his mind back in the right place all over the floor.
Favors struggled at the rim: Something felt extremely off for Derrick near the hoop on this night — he was barely offering resistance on several occasions where a real effort might have altered a shot, and while bits of this were the presence of DeMarcus Cousins as his primary defensive assignment, that doesn’t cover it by a long shot. All 11 shots the Kings took at the rim while Favors was within five feet went through the net, a damning figure. Maybe Boogie took Favors out of his normal comfort zone to some degree, which would be understandable. In any case, the Jazz need more from Favors near the hoop if he’s going to remain at the center position, particularly if they’re not willing to go small more often around him and mitigate things on the other end a bit more.
Trey Lyles with a rough, rough game: Lyles was the toast of this space Saturday night after a fantastic defensive effort against a tough assignment in CJ Miles, but Tuesday night’s game looked like a polar opposite. The younger Trey appeared somewhere between confused and clueless for most of the night, getting lost in simple actions and causing breakdowns. The Jazz allowed a miserable 131.3 defensive rating while he played. Watch Lyles (top of the screen, 41) as he makes one correct play to show out on a down screen, but then falls asleep for about five solid seconds and leaves Omri Casspi (another 40-plus percent shooter from deep) the most open shot he’s probably had all year:
Rookie mistakes are expected to some degree, and Lyles lumped a couple weeks’ worth into one game against the Kings. He’ll have a lot of tape to break down in a hurry before a back-to-back at home Wednesday night.