In defense of Ty: What if it's all Al's fault?

Russ Isabella-US PRESSWIRE

While Zach Lowe's recent Grantland article blames both Ty's scheming and Jefferson's lack of ability for the Jazz' defensive woes, what if it's just Al Jefferson at fault?

In the article that's already become the defining piece of writing for the 2012-2013 season, Zach Lowe took a deep look at the present and future issues regarding the Jazz in a way that only the NBA's best writer could. In particular, the Jazz' defensive issues are discussed: why is it the Jazz are such a bad defensive team? In the end, Lowe blames both Al Jefferson and Ty Corbin. About Jefferson, he writes:

We have almost a decade of evidence now that Jefferson's failings on defense outweigh his very real value on offense. His teams have generally been worse with him on the floor than with him on the bench, and that's been true on the defensive end in almost every season in which he's played meaningful minutes, per NBA.com and 82games.com.

And about Corbin, he writes:

There's also the fact that Utah's defense plays with a weird lack of discipline and unclear, unproductive rules. That's partly on Corbin. ....the Jazz's general lack of coherence is alarming and raises questions about Corbin's future after next season, when his contract is up.

But there's another view, one that David Locke interestingly brought up in his Tip Off podcast on Wednesday. Locke asserted that it's unfair to blame the Jazz defensive system (designed by Corbin), but show nearly exclusively examples of Jefferson's failings. That's probably true.

Let's figure it out. If we were to run a scientific experiment in a lab in order to tease out what was causing the Jazz' defensive struggles this season between Al Jefferson and Ty Corbin's system, we'd want to set up 3 different test groups:

  • the Jazz with Corbin and Jefferson,
  • the Jazz with Jefferson and no Corbin,
  • and the Jazz with Corbin and no Jefferson.
Then, we'd see which of the latter two groups displayed the most improvement from the first. Amazingly, we've actually had a chance to test out all three groups with the Utah Jazz! Let's actually do this study, then, and take a look at our results.

The Jazz with Corbin and Jefferson

This setup has gotten the majority of the minutes of the last 2 years, and there's a lot of evidence saying the Jazz are a bad defensive team. In 2011-12, the Jazz ranked 19th in the league by defensive rating, and this season, they've gotten even worse, to be ranked 22nd. In 2011-12, the Jazz gave up a 104.4 defensive rating when Al Jefferson was in the game, and again, this season is worse: the Jazz give up a 108.3 defensive rating with Jefferson on the floor.

That's really bad. A 108.3 defensive rating would put the Jazz as the 3rd worst defensive team in the NBA this year, only ahead of the Bobcats and Kings. So, how do we improve? Let's look at the other groups.

The Jazz with Jefferson and no Corbin

The Al Jefferson and Ty Corbin era didn't start simultaneously. There were a few months in which Jerry Sloan coached a team with Al Jefferson, though he wasn't the first option like he is on the current Jazz. Still, on defense, Jefferson played about the same number of minutes as he does now.

Using NBA.com's stat tool, I can actually apply the splits to look at only the portion of the 2010-2011 season Jerry Sloan coached. In those 54 games before the fateful day of Sloan's resignation, when Al Jefferson was on the floor, the defensive rating for the Jazz was 107.9. Again, that's a really high number, and even in Jerry Sloan's defensive system, the Jazz really struggled with Al: that 107.9 defensive rating would be the 5th worst of any team in that 2010-11 season. In short, it doesn't look like there's a significant difference in results defensively between the two coaches when Al Jefferson is on the floor.

The Jazz with Corbin and no Jefferson

This test group, however, shows a different story. The Jazz actually have quite a good defense in the last two seasons when Al Jefferson sits. In the 2011-12 season with Jefferson on the bench, the Jazz have a 102.2 defensive rating. In this 2012-13 season, the Jazz have become even better without Jefferson on the floor, giving up just 98.0 points per 100 possessions. In a imaginary team without Al, the Jazz would actually rank as the 3rd best defensive team in the league, behind only Memphis and Indiana!

That's actually incredibly impressive, especially given Zach Lowe's point that "young players are notoriously slow to grasp the rules of complex NBA defense". Maybe there's nothing wrong with Ty's mix-and-match defensive system at all, it's just the influence of Big Al completely destroying any defensive scheme he happens to be in.

Now, before we irresponsibly use this as our conclusion, there are some important objections to this that will undoubtedly be brought up. Let's talk about these briefly:

1. The Jazz tend to have other bad defensive players on the floor at the same time as Al.

This is probably true, in particular, Devin Harris and Mo Williams have shown themselves to be pretty bad defensively, and Randy Foye and CJ Miles aren't good either. Paul Millsap, Jefferson's most consistent frontcourt partner, also isn't a good defender, though I tend to rate him as about average overall.

However, going back through the rest of his career, we see a similar trend: as Lowe explained above, Jefferson has made his teams worse defensively while he was on the floor nearly every season. Indeed, that first year of Jefferson's tenure with the Jazz should have actually been a pretty good defensive lineup: Williams/Bell/Kirilenko/Millsap/Jefferson featured two players known for their defensive stopper abilities, and Williams and Millsap were probably about average. Nevertheless, lineups with Jefferson still failed.

2. What's up with the defensive system, then? Why did Lowe describe it as incoherent?

It may just be that Corbin's struggling to find any defensive system in which we can hide Al Jefferson, unfortunately, one may not exist. It may also be an attempted adjustment against different teams: for example, the Jazz hedged the Rockets' pick and roll much harder in their first matchup of the season than they normally would, that would make sense given the Rocket's PnR threats. Unfortunately, the same did not apply in the 45 point blowout later in the season. I'm not sure here.

But given that the system apparently works really well (remember, 3rd best in the NBA) when Al is out, the evidence seems to point to a functioning defense with broken pieces. I'm willing to give the system the benefit of the doubt.

3. Well, Corbin controls the minutes, so why is he playing Jefferson so much? Isn't this Corbin's fault, ultimately?

Jefferson legitimately helps the team score. When Al is on the floor, the Jazz get about 1.5 more points per 100 possessions this season, and last year, the difference was gigantic: the Jazz were 10.7 points better per 100 possessions. You understand why Corbin played Al so much, especially when he was more heavily weighing the 2011-12 data.

I do think this is overstated. Indeed, without Al Jefferson, the Jazz have managed a 102.2 offensive rating this season, which would land them in the 16th slot in the NBA. That would be an impressive performance for a team with no offensive stars, outranking teams with bigger player names like Memphis, Chicago, Atlanta, Boston, and Minnesota. It might also be legitimate evidence that the Jazz' system is still able to make decent performers out of average-to-poor offensive talent. The famous 2003-04 Carlos Arroyo year with Jerry Sloan at the helm ended up ranked 19th in the league in offensive rating, this team would likely be better. A team with a 16th ranked offense and a 3rd ranked defense would probably perform fairly well overall, to be maybe about the 10th best team in the NBA.

My hypothesis on this is twofold. First of all, the numbers last season would have recommended to play Al large numbers because his offense was so excellently efficient, Corbin surely took his experience last season into account when deciding to play Al big minutes at the beginning of the season. He hasn't really adjusted, though, to be fair to the critics, as Al's numbers have slid.

Secondly, though, is that Corbin may have a standard offense-over-defense bias. Basketball watchers of all professions have been doing this for years: they take into account a player's offensive contribution significantly more than their defensive impact. You would hope coaches, of all people, wouldn't be susceptible to this, but they clearly are: explain Kobe Bryant's continued appearances in the All-NBA defensive team. It's probably not a conscious bias, but it wouldn't be terribly surprising given the minute distribution of the Jazz.

To rectify this, there are probably a couple of options: one would be lineup and minute advice sent from the front office, likely informed by statistics. While playing time should be a coach's ultimate decision, presenting Corbin with the evidence like the above may lead to better decision making, when presented in the right way (I would not, for example, print out this post and show it to Ty). The second conceivable option would be better communication within the coaching staff itself: Sidney Lowe, for example, seems to be pretty lineup savvy during his last-minute lineup substitutions. Perhaps more input from Lowe and others could provide a minute distribution that works more effectively.

Still, though, I think the evidence is pretty clear here: the defense is not Ty's fault, it's actually mostly Al Jefferson's. Given this, it probably makes sense to give Corbin at least a season without Big Al to discover his defensive system without being hamstrung by such a poor defensive player. Firing him until them would simply be rash, and possibly wasteful of Corbin's potential to be a good defensive coach, a big asset in today's NBA.

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