5 Defensive Aspects Worth Discussing
Jazz defense has been underwhelming this preseason but a look at some defensive areas will either encourage or discourage our regular season defensive outlook
Since Quin Snyder’s tenure began as Utah’s head coach, defensive habits, philosophy, and culture were taught and instilled in the heart of each player.
Rudy Gobert, Derrick Favors, Thabo Sefolosha, and Royce O’Neale are examples of defensively talented players who connected with Snyder’s defensive strategies and have had tremendous success.
As a result of such a defensive focus and committed personnel, the Jazz have never had a defense ranked below league average under Quin. Furthermore, outside of his inaugural season, Jazz have ranked in the top 7 defenses.
In anticipation of the 2019-20 season, fans and media projected the Jazz to remain a
‘good’ defense despite the offensively focused additions made to the roster. All in all, a net positive would translate to a significantly better team.
So was the expectation.
Yet, after four preseason games, the Utah Jazz find themselves with the worst defensive rating of NBA teams, second only to the San Antonio Spurs. With just one more preseason matchup with Portland left on the docket, the regular season approaches fast.
At this point fans and media are balancing opposing narratives in their attempt to evaluate the defensive performance thus far:
“It’s just preseason” vs “You can’t just turn it on overnight”
“Their new players are still figuring it out” vs “Jazz aren’t the only team with new personnel”
“Jazz just aren’t trying very hard” vs “They want to win and don’t want to be embarrassed”
These subjective narratives have been whirling around Jazz Nation for days leaving Jazz fans’ heads spinning.
Today, we’re discussing 5 areas of the Jazz preseason defense to determine just how concerned we should be.
The first defensive element to look at is defensive rating. Jazz sport an abysmal defensive rating through four games but truly only two games matter for our purposes.
The matchups with the Adelaide 36ers and the Milwaukee Bucks were without Rudy Gobert and other key Jazzmen. Furthermore, the 36ers are arguably the least talented team in preseason while the Bucks are the most talented. Neither make good cases to evaluate defense.
In the first half against the Pelicans and the Kings (when the Jazz were playing a normal rotation), the Utah Jazz tallied a 134.3 DRTG. That is absolutely brutal. First quarters have been even worse while the second quarters have improved.
Alone, this data point is concerning. Jazz haven’t gotten to a good start and have virtually been run off the floor to open games.
But then we get to the third quarter, where, the Jazz and opponents have largely continued to play their key rotation. Through two games, Jazz have a 98.1 DRTG in third quarters.
This is encouraging.
Given the additions to the roster, the nature of summer league, and a whole host of other factors, the Jazz defense is likely getting accustomed to their opponent in the first half and therefore has greater success in the third quarter.
While a 98.1 DRTG is a tick better than the average defense in preseason (99.6 preseason average), we haven’t removed
the best defensive matchups from other teams’ schedule. Furthermore, Jazz have played some inherently tough teams.
The New Orleans Pelicans rank 2nd in offensive rating for the preseason while the Kings rank 11th. Given their style of play (see the section on Transition Defense below), the Jazz have had a tough time preparing and adjusting.
Jazz fans should be encouraged by the ever so small data indicating the Jazz have defensive chops.
Shot Distribution Defense
One of the Jazz’s major defensive weapons has been their ability to prevent teams from shoot the best (smart) shots. Last year the Jazz led the league in % of opponents’ shots taken from the smart areas of the floor (62.3%).
During the preseason, Jazz are allowing opponents to take 66.4% of their shots from the smart areas. While seemingly insignificant, it has a cascading effect.
Last season Jazz allowed 56.6% eFG on smart shots, good for 5th in the league. This preseason, Jazz are allowing 62.2% eFG. Only the Washington Wizards are worse.
Note only have the Jazz allowed better shots this preseason but teams are making these smarter shots more frequently. It’s a recipe for disaster.
At the rim (the best shot), Jazz are allowing the same amount of shots as last year, but teams are making a higher percentage. From the corner (the second best shot), Jazz are allowing more and teams are making more.
As previously mentioned, the Jazz have faced good offensive teams with unique skills. Both the Pelicans and Kings sport perimeter shooting big men. Such players typically give the Jazz fits on defense.
The diagnosis is likely that the Jazz philosophy has yet to be instilled in the new guys. Until it does, teams will get them and likely keep making them.
This is discouraging sign for Jazz fans; the analytics, which have so often been on the Jazz side, are suddenly working against them.
The Utah Jazz have always had a bit of a tough time with speed and defense in the open floor. They’ve been able to mitigate this weakness by limiting the frequency with which their opponent gets into transition offense.
This preseason has not been kind to the Jazz in transition defense.
Utah ranks 30th among NBA teams in transition points per possession (PPP). They are, however, 8th in lowest frequency of possessions in transition.
A big philosophy of the Jazz is to get back on defense in order to “build a wall” against opposing ball handlers in order to slow them enough to convert a transition possession into a half court one.
The new personnel is likely still learning about how to implement this strategy. As the season gets underway, watch the trends of the Jazz building that wall and preventing even more possessions from being in transition.
The biggest question is if the Jazz can limit the scoring efficiency in the possessions
where they can’t build the wall.
These data points are a mixed bag but generally should concern Jazz fans.
Defensive rebounding is an underrated and lesser discussed portion of defense. Closing out a possession without a score is just as important as preventing the score.
The narrative surrounding the Jazz has been that they got physically smaller and weaker, the insinuation being that they will struggle in the rebounding department.
Without considering the 36ers game (where Adelaide proved to be even smaller and weaker than the Jazz), Utah currently boasts a 78.6 DREB%, the 6th best rank in the preseason.
The Jazz struggled slightly against the Pelicans and Kings (72.8%), but have been a pleasant surprise overall.
Last year the Jazz had a 75.9 DREB% during the season and 75.6% in the preseason.
While truly a small sample size, the Jazz are showing an ability to rebound despite their size. This is an area where the Jazz might not need as much attention as they work on their defense.
Jazz fans should be encouraged by such results.
Preseason and Regular Season Defensive Correlation
An important note on preseason defense is how closely it relates to regular season defense. Over the past five seasons, there has been a positive correlation between the two (indicating the better preseason defense a team has the better regular season defense they will have).
However, though positive, the coefficient (relationship strength) is just 0.31. A coefficient with no relationship is 0.00 and a coefficient with the strongest relationship is 1.00. Given this context, though positive, the relationship between preseason and regular season defense is closer to being irrelevant than in tandem.
We should all be encouraged that there isn’t a stronger relationship between preseason and regular season defense.
This isn’t the first time Quin has coached a defense with poor defenders.
Throughout his tenure, Quin has managed an above average defense despite having Enes Kanter, Boris Diaw, Joe Johnson, Jonas Jerebko, and others playing significant minutes. If he can lead those teams to incredible defensive years, why couldn’t he for this one.
Defense is as much talent as game planning. Shot distribution, transition philosophy, and particular matchups can give a less talented team an edge on defense.
We know Quin will coach this team to find that edge...eventually. Is there enough talent in Rudy, Royce, Donovan, and Joe to get them by in the meantime?
Eventually the Jazz will have the edge and enough talent to be a ‘good’ defensive team. Jazz fans should be encouraged by that inevitability. But it’s on Quin’s shoulders
to get them there as fast as possible.
Given his track record, that shouldn’t be too long.