Despite losses in their last two games to tough Western contenders over the weekend, the last several weeks have been an enormously positive stretch for this Jazz team. They’ve gone 7-6 starting with a victory over the Heat December 17th, but their raw win-loss record undersells their development – Utah sits just outside the league’s top 10 in this period for both offensive and net per-possession efficiency, but even more encouragingly is ninth in defensive efficiency as well, a massive departure from a miserable defensive start to the season.
Most observers would count Rudy Gobert chief among the reasons for the team’s strongest run of play in two seasons, and with good cause. The big Frenchman has exploded over this period, playing over 26 minutes a night in the 13-game stretch after averaging under 18 up until that point1. He’s anchored Utah’s defensive renovation as a vocal, freakishly active presence in the frontcourt, staking an early claim as one of the league’s premier rim defenders. Opponents shoot over six percent worse within five feet when he plays compared with when he sits, per NBA.com, and the rate at which he contests shots at the rim (67 percent as of roughly a week ago) is nearly unfathomable. Much like a great shooter offensively, he affects the game even when he isn’t close to the ball, forcing teams to adjust their entire offensive ethos at times to contort their way around his presence.
But Utah’s defensive improvement has been far more than just Rudy, even if he’s likely both the catalyst and the largest (literally) reason for their recent success. It’s not at all unrealistic, in fact, to surmise that his very public ascension has actually somewhat obscured what’s been much more of a team-wide effort than many might assume.
Consider Utah’s defensive efficiency during this same three-plus-week period with him on the floor, which sits at an impressive 99.9 points allowed per-100-possessions, a figure that would rank sixth over this specific stretch and fifth over the course of the entire season. This is great, without question. But on the flip side, consider that, in 280 minutes without Gobert during their recent run, the Jazz have only been marginally worse, allowing 101.4 points per-100 – still a borderline top-10 figure both over those 13 games and for the year. Even without Rudy, the Jazz are a well above average NBA defense over nearly the past month.
Reasonable voices preached calm and commitment to process early in the year when the team looked to be replicating last year’s unacceptable defensive showing, and such voices have been vindicated to this point. Coach Quin Snyder’s tutelage has begun to show through, and his sometimes maniacal stressing of positive habit forming is paying dividends.
It starts away from the ball, where Utah has undergone a dramatic reversal from a myriad of issues plaguing them earlier in the year. Things are by no means perfect, but a group that had very serious problems with simple first-level help rotations stretching back into last season has found much of the cohesive identity the league’s stingiest units all have in common. Watch a simple example here, where two perfectly-timed shows from Trey Burke limit Blake Griffin’s options out of the pick-and-roll and force a tough shot for the Clippers:
Trey’s man, Chris Paul, never touches the ball once in this sequence, but Burke makes an impact on the play all the same, and this sort of thing is far more common across the roster recently. Utah’s guards and wings have been infinitely more cognizant of impending threats beyond their own man, and have begun to cut such dangers off at the knees. It might be something as simple as a step or two in a certain direction, but a keen observer can see the process of filling lanes defensively becoming an instinctual habit rather than a thought process.
Great defenses can dictate the enemy offense’s flow and even their decision-making, and with great credit to Snyder, the Jazz have started leaning more heavily on opponents’ weak links in just this sort of manner. They’re overloading to the strong side versus opposing stars more frequently and daring teams to hurt them with secondary options, and have gone to extremes in ignoring certain personnel with distinct purpose. Look how far Joe Ingles has crashed into the paint to help on a Russell Westbrook post-up, leaving his mark Andre Roberson (a total non-threat shooting the ball) completely alone:
Roberson got the ball here and barely touched the rim on a ridiculously wide open three, instantly confirming the purpose of Jingles’ help. And to prove it wasn’t a mistake or an anomaly, here he is straying far away from Roberson once again to help contain the lethal two-man combo of Westbrook and Durant as they operate up high:
The Jazz effectively played Roberson off the court Friday, limiting him to 14 minutes (his season average is over 22) as the Thunder couldn’t afford to continue playing four-on-five offense. Teams are beginning to feel the vice tighten when they try to sneak an offensive liability past Utah, particularly a wing like this who can’t threaten them with shooting.
Quin has other tricks up his sleeve as well. The ability to switch matchups across as many on-court defenders as possible is in vogue among the league’s smarter folks, and can be an effective way to limit the damage caused by pick-and-rolls. This is particularly relevant for the Jazz, who seemed to yield a numbers advantage out of such sets nearly every single time for a portion of the year and simply don’t have the collective acumen to recover once any competent offense has them scrambling in rotation. So whenever possible, Snyder has them switching any similar matchup and even sometimes getting a little adventurous. Watch a switch Burke and Elijah Millsap pulled off versus Russ and KD Friday:
Now obviously, Trey one-on-one versus the reigning MVP isn’t ideal in a vacuum. But he and Millsap chose that route over what was almost certainly going to be penetration from Russ and that dreaded numbers advantage had they not done so, also factoring in context like the lowering shot clock. But this is an extreme case, and is about the furthest the Jazz will go; they’re more and more frequently choosing to let teams pursue what’s typically a much smaller individual mismatch rather than allowing them easy access to the paint, and this smart numbers game is playing dividends.
Gordon Hayward, he of much versatility, is the roster member most frequently utilized in this manner. His ability to play at least moderately effective man defense against a majority of opponents regardless of position is highly valuable, and Snyder is leveraging this along with Utah’s other adaptable personnel. Trevor Booker is another such flexible piece, and the two were happy to trade off when Indiana put them in a high pick-and-roll:
With the shot clock already approaching single digits as the play is initiated, the Jazz are betting that a potential Luis Scola-on-Hayward or Donald Sloan-on-Booker matchup will be less harmful than allowing the Pacers a potential odd-man situation – and more often than not, this will be a winning wager. They pulled this specific switch multiple times against Indiana last week with good results, and Hayward is becoming increasingly valuable as this sort of defensive weapon.
The Jazz have improved on the ball, too, particularly on the perimeter. Snyder has told Salt City Hoops on multiple occasions of his desire for his point guards to “spearhead” the defensive possession, and both have responded recently. Burke remains a tad slow off the mark and still struggles with well-set picks, but he’s picking up both his man and the impending offensive action more quickly and has begun to mitigate his struggles with earlier responses before problems turn into panicked crises. And while Dante Exum has been timid and uneven offensively, he’s been a revelation on the other end for such a young age, harassing opponents at multiple positions with speed that can match theirs and a reach that dwarfs them all. He can easily contest shots even after falling for an initial move, but good luck with your step-back if you can’t shake him initially:
Exum’s physical tools are downright scary on this end, and once he gains a more reflexive feel for the game and has further opportunities to scout opponents, his defensive ceiling now seems at least as high as his offensive one.
All of the above is excellent progress, but it means nothing if the Jazz can’t integrate it all simultaneously into their five-man unit – and they’re beginning to succeed here as well in periodic doses. They’re still prone to lapses and brain farts, but more often are putting forth complete defensive possessions. See if you can count how many of the above-noted principles are utilized in some form on this set versus Atlanta:
It starts with man defense in the form of ball denial, as Hayward shields off Kent Bazemore and forces the Hawks to go to their secondary initiation. More of the same from Ian Clark to keep Kyle Korver away from the middle, before Clark and Trey Burke initiate a smart switch on Korver’s dribble-handoff and, again, keep Jeff Teague from getting to the paint. Throw in a well-timed crash down low from Enes Kanter to cover off Elton Brand’s roll2 and a strong double contest from Clark and Derrick Favors, and we’ve just watched the Jazz stymie multiple different actions from one of the league’s most creative and efficient offenses.
There’s still plenty of room for improvement, to be sure; these concepts are nothing but the framework for truly elite defenses. The group still makes plenty of common young mistakes, and counters are surely coming from better teams now that Gobert is a huge part of every scouting report.
But there’s an absolute ton to be encouraged by – the Jazz are embracing the challenge of defending at a high level for what feels like the first time in ages, and they’ve also been the league’s best rebounding team over this recent stretch. And the best part? It’s still maddeningly early in this team’s trajectory, and the length and athleticism of their projected future core indicates a defensive ceiling that seems nearly limitless. Stay tuned, my friends, it only gets better from here.