It almost goes without saying, but things have certainly stabilized to a high degree in Jazzland after an extremely rocky beginning to the season. It kind of feels like ages ago that the doomsday drums were beating loudly as the Jazz stumbled their way to a 1-14 start, what with all the positive signs being displayed on a nightly basis. And though some might scoff at this “progress” and wonder whether the results (more wins, potential damage to draft position) are really beneficial, it’s fun to watch some better basketball.
Chief among the many silver linings I’ve found littered among Utah’s starting-to-seem-deceiving record is the progress of bench boss Ty Corbin. Ty has found his way into my writing a lot this year, but a huge portion of it has been to register my pleasant surprise at his improvements from the last two seasons. And while much of this, as I’ve written, has been on the offensive side of the ball, I’d be remiss to ignore the tweaks he’s implemented on defense as well.
In particular, Utah’s approach to defending the pick-and-roll has varied greatly from previous seasons, especially in recent weeks. With over half the plays run in the NBA currently including some type of pick-and-roll action, being prepared in this area is one of the most vital elements of playing above-average defense. And simply put, in previous seasons as well as at times early in this one, the Jazz were not prepared in this area. We’ll get into specifics in a moment, but this general idea is more important than one might think; just having a solid plan, and contingencies for various situations, is of paramount importance. It may seem incredibly basic, but plenty of NBA teams over the years have lacked a coherent strategy for how to defend actions like the pick-and-roll – and Utah, at many times, was one of them.
This has begun to change this season, although of course the on-court results are still catching up given the inexperience of so many defenders on the roster. The main theme: consistency in their approach. This isn’t to be confused with defending every pick-and-roll the same way, mind you – in fact, it’s the exact opposite that has helped the Jazz gain more competency against these sets.
For the most part, the Jazz have moved away from what has, at times, been their main strategy against basic pick-and-roll sets, the high hedge. This system, used for many years but popularized more recently by the Miami Heat, involves both the on-ball defender and the man defending the screener jumping out at the ball-handler as he rounds the pick being set for him. When done correctly, this traps the ball-handler far away from the basket, and ideally causes him to pick up his dribble and force a tough pass through two sets of arms in his face. A basic example from the Heat:
Of course, most offensive players don’t make it this easy on the defense. As you can imagine, any failure of the trapping defenders to prevent a clean pass results in an odd-man situation – the offense now has a four-on-three moving toward the basket. This isn’t necessarily a death sentence, and teams like the Heat are confident enough in their athletes and their ability to close to shooters that they’re willing to give up these odd-man breaks and risk the downside, because the upside (they force a ton of turnovers) benefits them so greatly. But not everyone has LeBron James, Shane Battier and Dwyane Wade as perimeter defenders; here’s what the Jazz see a fair amount of when they try this same scheme:
Ouch. Jeremy Evans runs out to hedge against a Thomas Robinson screen for Mo Williams, but he and Alec Burks are unable to prevent Williams making a clean pass down low to Joel Freeland. Meanwhile, Robinson knows to roll down to the hoop, and since Evans jumped out high, he’s two steps behind. This forces Diante Garrett to abandon Damian Lillard in the corner to prevent a wide open dunk for Robinson, so Freeland simply finds Lillard for an open trey.
Realizing some of his team’s limitations, Corbin has altered things so a majority of pick-and-rolls are instead seeing a simpler form of defense where the big man defending the screener hangs back down low, blocking off more passing lanes but allowing the ball-handler a higher degree of freedom. Here’s the Jazz employing this strategy with success against Darren Collison and Blake Griffin:
Corbin is trusting his bigs in these situations to read the situation and, when necessary, play competent defense on the ball-handler while not losing track of his own man for an easy lob. As one can imagine, doing both these things simultaneously can often be difficult – check this play out, for example:
In reality, this clip just showcases how tough NBA defense can be against such amazing talents. Favors plays this almost as well as he can, leaving no option for a Blake lob, but he’s simply not able to do so while also containing Chris Paul, possibly the league’s very best at the sort of running floater he makes here. Both this system and the high hedge have their merits and faults, but credit Corbin for realizing that, in most cases, he doesn’t really have the personnel to attack offenses that way and rely on his team’s athleticism to keep it viable.
But I noted earlier how the Jazz are not simply defending every pick-and-roll the same way, and this is where Ty really deserves the praise. Instead, Utah is mixing up their coverage much more, and doing so based on personnel – both their opponent’s and their own. Take a look at these two plays, also from last week’s matchup with the Clippers:
Same game, same big defender (Kanter)…different approach. In the first clip, Kanter leaps out at Collison and traps, but in the second, he hangs back. The reason why, of course, is the different personnel the Clips are employing. In the first pick-and-roll, Corbin is confident that Collison, not nearly the gifted court general Paul is, won’t be able to find a damaging pass right away and will leave Kanter enough time to scramble back in position – and he’s exactly right. In the second, this isn’t a risk he’s willing to take: Paul is simply too dangerous to allow him to create an odd-man situation, so the Jazz instead hedge against the jumper (which, of course, he makes because he’s Chris Paul). This is the raw definition of defensive fundamentals and scouting – weighing the costs and benefits of every strategy, then employing the right one for the right situation. And while Corbin has shifted to the big man falling back against the majority of opponents, his willingness to toss in tweaks when appropriate has been an improvement on the confused schemes many had become accustomed to seeing.
In situations without a major matchup concern, Ty has instead varied things up based on his own defenders. Kanter and Favors, for instance, have recently been almost exclusively hanging back down low against the pick-and-roll – Corbin seems to have realized that they lack the foot speed to consistently get back in position without doing damage. But when Evans encounters these sets, he almost always sprints out for the high hedge, likely a sign that his coach recognizes his speed at the four and trusts him to get back in position.
Quantifying the results is tough, especially with all the variation the Jazz are showing, because numerical breakdowns and classification of play types (particularly on the defensive side) are still in their infancy, at least in terms of what’s available to us currently. In general though, the Jazz are seeing opposing ball-handlers have slightly more success with the drop-back as their primary strategy, an obvious expectation given the extra room they’re being afforded. In turn, though, the Jazz are getting gored on rotations far less often – they’re rarely faced with odd-man deficits that lead to multiple rotations and wide open threes and layups.
A Four Factors breakdown from David Locke separating the season’s first 25 games from the previous 10, while certainly not all-encompassing, supports these eye-test trends; the Jazz are allowing opponents to shoot less efficiently and get to the foul line less, and also rebounding more stoutly on the defensive glass. They are forcing less turnovers, but contrary to Locke’s assertion I think this may remain the case, and this is okay – one of the high hedge’s key components is forcing turnovers with the high trap, so a move away from that should hurt the Jazz in this area, but the improvement in so many other facets would seem well worth a small dip.