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Utah Jazz 2010-2011 Season Review: #2 Dribble Penetration vs. Domino Defense

In a binary world the game of basketball is simple; it involves scoring baskets and preventing your opponents from doing the same. In a way this binary view is a completely accurate view; however, it fails to take into account how dynamic this game is. Regardless of complexity, by pure definition at least half the game is played on defense – no matter how you slice it. Yes, the Jazz blocked 1.06 metric Eatons of shots this year (1 Eaton = 456 blocks, it’s in your science text books kids!), but the main problem was dribble penetration defense, and the domino dancing effect it had on us.

[I.O.U. One really cool picture of Dominoes falling down, and on the Domino pieces there are photo shopped images of our perimeter defenders . . . it would be really cool looking. But it's 11 pm. So yeah, don't hold your breath] Added one -- how 'bout some Rec's?

This season the Jazz were outscored

If you didn’t pour over the end of season stats, or failed to read the heading up there, you may have missed this . . . but this season the Jazz opponents outscored us. I’m not saying for one game, or for a week or anything. But over the entire season when the final horn sounded we were down 150 points. This season the Jazz opponents finished the year with more points than the Jazz. The last time this happened was back when Matt Harpring, Jarron Collins and Devin Brown all played nearly 2000 minutes in the same season. (Well, at least that team won 41 games…)

This wasn’t a product of the Jazz offense faltering. The Jazz have earned an Offensive Rating of 108.1, which was 13th best in the league. (Imagine if Memo was healthy?) Record wise, the Jazz were 21st in the league. The reason why a team with a nearly top 10 offense is in the bottom 10 over all is simple. Defense. Or a lack of it where we needed it most: at the point of attack.

Dribble Penetration

Dribbling the ball is a way of advancing the rock without passing. Tell me if I’m going too fast here. Penetrating can be seen as a way of advancing the ball from the perimeter into the paint – the desire is to get closer to the hoop. A number of our pet plays use passing as a way to accomplish this. Quite a bit of our playbook has our players passing the ball to a man freed by a screener and so forth. We use these offensive sets for a variety of reasons – one simple reason being that they do not require you to have a physically superior superstar on the team who can do it all on his own. You just need teamwork. Not all teams focus their offenses around this doctrine though. Some teams have fantastic players on them who can abuse defenses.

This season we were abused by dribble penetration by even the most average of players. All too often a guard was able to pierce our porous perimeter defense and get into the paint. Sometimes this was because of a series of screens. Other times it was due to poor one on one defense. When a guy leaves his man in the rear view mirror this means someone else has to pick him up. This help defense is necessary lest you let a guard go unmolested in the paint for an easy score. Of course, this means that you are setting your team up for a series of mismatches in reaction to poor perimeter defense against dribble penetration.

Domino Defense

A good team that is able to achieve dribble penetration on us (including shaking the guy designated to defend the ball handler) is awarded with a multiple number of ways to attempt to score: the ballhandler can go in for a layup; the ballhandler can pull up for a jumper; the ballhandler can pass to a cutter (including the screener if there was one to free him up); or the ballhandler can pass to an open man spotting up. Or, in our lumbering defensive ineptitude, we could just foul the other team. That is, after all, all our team does on defense, if you listen to certain NBA Head Coaches.

The reason why there are so many options here is because of domino defense. Helping the helper is a defensive doctrine that can be exploited when the offensive team has achieved court advantage through dribble penetration. A team with a smart PG who keeps his dribble alive and doesn’t panic (like the Phoenix SunsSteve Nash) can surgically kill us with precise passes to perfectly placed teammates for good scores. A team with a player (or two) who draws so much attention on defense (like Oklahoma City with Kevin Durant and Russell Westbrook) can trigger defense over-reactions with penetration that results in some of their teammates being left complete open. Serge Ibaka’s career game against us earlier this year is a good example of that. Alternatively, a team with a blur of a point guard (like San Antonio Spurs guard Tony Parker) can just penetrate our defense with such a quickness our defense cannot even react to him! It should be no surprise that the Jazz went 1-9 against the Suns, Spurs and Thunder this year; especially not when our dribble penetration defense was so poor against them. Historically I wouldn't have included any indication that New Orleans Hornet Chris Paul was a problem, but in this seasons' games against them bereft of Deron Williams' physical defense, he definately was.

Clearly, for our team this past season, whomever we put out there to attempt to slow down dribble penetration was merely the first domino to fall. The next would be the man who would have to leave his designated assignment to shift over and help out. This first helper is then defeated as soon as the ball handler passes. The remaining three Jazz defenders are then tasked to defend four players. The video evidence speaks for itself.


Let’s look at this simple example of how silly our dribble penetration defense was at times, and how hopeless we looked as a result of other teams spacing the floor well vs. our defense.

This is Steve Nash. He has great court vision and never loses his dribble. All he needs is to get into the paint to hurt teams. In order to do so the Suns free him up with screens.

A screen like this one set by Robin Lopez...

…which starts a chain reaction of Jazz doom, like this one where the most immediate defensive task is Al Jefferson being required to do something positive in pick and roll defense.

[Hmmmm, looks like I forgot to do a #4. Insert your own joke here]

Otherwise, this play would be over much sooner with a good pass from nash to a cutting Lopez.

…and by Help the Helper, it means you have to switch some (if not all) of your defensive focus upon the defensive assignment that guy was defending. In this case Lopez and Hedo. Lopez is taken care of by the 2nd helper (Andrei), so that just leaves one guy who needs to be accounted for.

To be fair, this is a pretty good close-out by Raja, who was in the paint when Nash started his pass.

poorly, at that…

Deron shows leadership by closing out with hands at his knees.

Naturally, the dribble penetration -- originally facilitated by the pick and roll -- led to a defensive collapse, and good floor spacing and ball movement (by Jason Richardson) found a guy (Hedo Turkoglu) who knocked down a super duper open spot up jumper. Not that he needed any help, but Hidayet wasn't even closed out upon with any sense of urgency.

It’s one thing to look at one single play on defense and say bad things about the defense as a whole, and this is not what I’m trying to do here. Phoenix always has good three point shooters, and for the most part the Jazz did a good job here. The only things that could have been improved would have been if Al Jefferson showed harder and faster and kept Nash out of the paint in the first place (where Nash would have just circled back outside or reversed the ball to Hedo that way); or if Deron figured out earlier that Hedo was open after Andrei had helped on Jefferson’s man. It truly would be one thing to look at a single play, but this type of defensive breakdown happened all season long. (Also feel free to make that sequence a .gif file)

"Surely, now Amar, this is just a good offense doing something smart. This isn’t indicative of some major defensive failing by the Jazz, right?" Well, I would easily agree with that except this simple trick doesn’t work against all teams. For example LAST season the Jazz were vastly better at dribble penetration defense (according to the numbers).

…and don’t call me Shirley.

A tale of two teams

Or alternatively, what adding 6 new guys (later 10 after trade and signings of Kyle Weaver and Marcus Cousin) does to your defensive chemistry . . .

Too small? Click here for the full-sized version. (Opens in a new window!)

This is what the Jazz did on defense this past season. The stuff in red there, those are very low league ranks in defending certain types of plays. The Jazz were particularly below league average in defending isolation plays; defending the ball handlers off of pick and rolls; defending spot up jumpers; and defending guys who come off of screens. Outside of post ups and transition buckets, those are the four most used shots from any teams’ offensive playbook. Furthermore, those four things comprised 45.1% of what we had to defend against over the course of the season. Again, those four things were done at such proficiency by our guys that our team ranked 25th to 29th on them, in a 30 team league.

The Jazz were good against the man setting the screen in a pick and roll; against post ups (thanks to our shot blocking); against the hand off; and against teams getting an offensive rebound. But if you look under the hood you see that the Jazz were beasted by teams making good cuts. The Jazz had a good defense (12th) compared to other teams; but 1.22 points per possession (ppp) multiplied by 713 (the number of possessions that were cuts) and then divided by 82 games (the season) means that our Jazz were still giving the other team 10.6 points per game off of cuts alone. Cuts are usually scores when an opposing player finds a good gap in the defense. With our domino defense acting like monkeys on roller skates because of dribble penetration it must have been very easy to find gaps in our floor spacing on defense. Yeah, 10.6 ppg off of cuts really hurts when we were outscored by 1.9 ppg this year.

Okay, so the Jazz aren’t a lock down defensive team, big deal. We weren’t one for a very long time – even in the days of Eaton we weren’t lockdown, we were just relying upon him to block every shot, or Stockton to prevent any dribble penetration. (Gross over-simplification alert) As a result our defensive playbook kind of rode those players for a long time. During the Finals years we were a lock down defensive team. Stockton was Stockton. Malone shut down other team’s best bigs. Russell usually didn’t go for the steal, nor did he get abused on defense with the regularity of our current wings. Ostertag stood his ground and challenged shots. The Jazz coaches did not make any dynamic defensive changes in philosophy. However, after those years the rules changed and the Jazz did not yet evolve on defense like they did on offense.

The team still funnels guys into the paint despite not having an Eaton or Ostertag on the team anymore. Letting guards get into the heart of the defense is counterproductive because that’s precisely where they want to go in the first place. That’s exactly what Steve Nash did up above. Despite this, the Jazz still were better on defense last year than they were this year – 12th best in opponents points per possession vs. 26th this year.

Because I’m focusing on dribble penetration here I’m going to show you only some of the stats. But if you want to see the whole big thingy, knock yourself out. (Opens in a new window) The defensive stats that I think are important here are how we do on Isolations; defending the ball handler in pick and rolls; how we handle handoffs; spot-ups; and cuts.

Too small? Click here for the full-sized version. (Opens in a new window!)

The first thing to notice is that there were a lot less defensive possessions this year. That’s because we didn’t make the playoffs. Sadly, the first thing you probably did notice were all the little green ‘error’ notifications on a lot of the cells. I could have gotten rid of them, but, well, how many more hours in a day do I need to spend on chugging something like this out. You guys probably didn’t even read the first one I wrote – there were only 6 comments and most of them were mine. I bet I could write anything I want here. Blah blah blah! The quick brown fox jumps over the lazy dog – because our defensive rotations were messed up by dribble penetration. See, I bet very few people caught that. Anyway, moving on . . .

Here we can see that out of these five categories the Jazz regressed in three of them in terms of defensive points per possession (ppp). The opposition scored more efficiently on isolations, pick and rolls (as the ball handler), and off of spot ups. In isolations last season the Jazz were ranked 11th best in the league, which dropped to 25th "best". In Pick and Rolls (against the ball handler) last season we were 2nd best in the league – and this year we were 29th, or second worst. In Spot ups we only went down one spot, from 24th to 25th. The increases in defensive acumen against Hand Offs and Cuts were small as we faced 20 less hand offs this year, and 4 less cuts. Probably the largest single difference has to be in the change in opponents fg% from the pick and roll category. Last season the Jazz held the guards in check off of pick and rolls, allowing them to shoot only 36.2 fg%. This season they were shooting 43.5 fg% against us in the same situations. They also got fouled more. And they had a higher scoring % per possession as well. It all added up to scoring 0.12 more points per possession. In English that means that if the Jazz faced off against an average opponent in 10 pick and rolls, the bad guys would have only scored 7.7 points last year but this year scored 8.9. That alone is a difference of 1.2 points more than we gave up last year.

Did you forget that we were outscored on the season by 1.9 points per game? Shoring up our defense on cutters and holding our average for last season on the pick and roll ballhandler would have put us in the playoffs methinks. We lost a lot of close games this year. Even at home.

Let’s try to play the blame game

Okay, so we saw how our defense collapses against dribble penetration. And we saw numerical evidence about how our defense is worse against dribble penetration this year than last. Let’s try to dig deeper and figure this stuff out. Our best perimeter defenders this season were (in alphabetical order): Andrei Kirilenko, C.J. Miles, Deron Williams, Devin Harris, Earl Watson, Gordon Hayward, Kyle Weaver, Raja Bell, and Ronnie Price. Of course, best is a relative term. I’d say that Devin Harris is implicitly better than Kyrylo Fesenko at defending guys in an iso situation. Except . . . the stats show that Harris let his man score 1.24 points per possession when out on an island on defense, and Fes only gave up 0.82 points per possession in the same situations. So, yeah. If we apply Locke-logic (where Fesenko = the worst human being ever, and especially the worst basketball player ever), then Harris is about 33% worse than Fes is at this – again, according to the stats. We know that Harris is better, as I said, implicitly when it comes to isolation defense.

Too small? Click here for the full-sized version. (Opens in a new window!)

In the case where a screen isn’t what initiates another team attacking us off the dribble and penetrating it is usually in some part due to individual play. These one on one moves comprise this section on Isolation Defense. We have only one player on the team out of this group that was in the Top 100 ranked isolation defenders in the league last year – Earl Watson. In an iso situation his man only scored 34.0% of the time, and nearly one fifth of his entire playing time on defense was in isolation situations. I know sometimes people can get confused over "60% of the time, it works every time" type of math, so I’ll try to simplify it. He was by far the best on the team at this. He was followed, mind you, by Raja Bell and Ronnie Price who tied for 123rd best in the league at this. Andrei wasn’t shabby here, his length keeping guys under 40 fg% -- but he hangs back from his man in Isos relying upon his superior length and recovery ability to stop guys. This means that a guy may have enough daylight to just shoot it while he plays for the drive. This hurt him as his opponents went 6/7 from deep on him. Deron was up there too (much better than Devin at least), but this fails to show how man assists your man gets in an iso situation. Many times a penetrating PG will drive and dish – and as a result the results here are skewed by the absence of listing assists (or hockey assists) off of isolations.

Too small? Click here for the full-sized version. (Opens in a new window!)

If you said that Ronnie Price and Andrei Kirilenko were our best pick and roll defenders (focused vs. the Ball Handler) then you'd either be a great observer of the game, crazy, or just plain lucky. What you wouldn’t be would be one of our Jazz coaches. Earl suffers here because cagey as he is, sometimes getting around that pick can be difficult. He’s a measured veteran, and not a lanky Russian or wild dog like Price is. In between Ronnie and Earl, though, are a number of players in between the 101 and 200 range according to league rankings. Raja shows up here again, 3rd best on the team. Deron, C.J., and Devin are here too. Deron and Raja’s high number of possessions defended only makes their defensive ppp that much more impressive. They are among the best guys on the team at defending this type of thing. That’s not the problem though. When the guys who are on the floor the most defending pick and rolls were the #139th and #167th best your team isn’t really doing great on defense. That is the problem. These guys didn’t do a good job on defense, compared to other back courts. This is, after all, the defensive statistics of the 29th best team at defending the pick and roll. (See previous section if you forgot) Deron, CJ, Ronnie, and Andrei were all here last year when this team was the 2nd best defensive team when it came to pick and rolls though. So what gives?

I think part of it is that there were so many new players that defensive cohesion, or even knowing the defensive schemes, were unattainable goals from the onset. Last season we had a core group of guys who had played in three or four playoffs together. The only main new addition to crack the rotation was Wes Matthews – who was on the floor mostly with four other guys who had played a lot of minutes with one another on defense. This season our guys did not have that benefit. Deron had never played with Raja before. Andrei was in and out of the lineup all season long. Lastly, and probably most importantly, our two bigs with the most minutes (Al Jefferson and Paul Millsap) were brand new in their roles. Al didn’t know the defensive schemes. And Paul didn’t know how to rotate properly around Al for the majority of the season. These are the two guys who are supposed to either a) show on defense to prevent the ball handler from getting in to the paint off of screens, or b) to pick up that guy in the paint and shut down his passing lanes. The guards and forwards on the perimeter are at a loss at preventing guys from penetrating – but the bigs need to have their backs, especially on pick and rolls.

Too small? Click here for the full-sized version. (Opens in a new window!)

One of the main consequences of allowing dribble penetration is that the guard can make a cheap little dump off pass to a big man stationed in the lane, or a cutting wing player. Thankfully SynergySports did not list individual defensive scores for defending cutters. They did include hand off plays, which usually involve a defender having to check a man who is on the move around the perimeter. This is clearly an aspect of dribble penetration defense as well. And, surprisingly, this is one of the few places on defense that we excelled at this year. For the team, we were the 7th best at defending this type of play. And on our team we had the 2nd best (Deron), 15th best (Raja), 31st best (Andrei), and 34th best (CJ) guys at this defensive task. Earl was also 85th best in the league at this. The good news is that we were good at this for the most part. The bad news is that this accounted for only 187 total possessions over the entire season for this group of Jazz defenders. There is worse news, of course. We traded Deron (2nd best), for Devin – who allows 1.78 ppp at this. Deron only allowed 0.50 ppp. That’s a huge drop off.

Too small? Click here for the full-sized version. (Opens in a new window!)

The Jazz were okay against the drive and dump (off pass); but the other main domino of poor dribble penetration defense is the drive and kick (out pass). This is exactly what happened in that play against Phoenix where we clogged the paint overreacting to Nash and left TWO good three point shooters open. By far our worst defensive situation out of these four was the spot up shooter defense. Here the other team averaged 1.07 ppp (the other three were 0.90, 0.90, and 0.89). The Jazz were 25th ‘best’ at defending this during the course of the season, and on the individual level only one of our players was any good at it – again, Earl Watson (74th best in the league). On these plays these guys closed out so well that the other team shot 39.8 3pt%. This is where chronically poor defense (most likely triggered by a pick and roll on one side of the court) meets good offensive execution (moving the ball around to the open guy). This is exactly what happened in that Phoenix game, the 2nd game of the season. And this is something that’s happened all year long for the Jazz. Or more precisely, for the opponents the Jazz have tried to defend.

Really Amar? There’s more? You’ve already gone past 4000 words….

Bad defense is more than just defensive break downs. And playing bad defense is more than just having new guys on the team, or being exploited off of dribble penetration. We had good defense this year against post ups, and as I mentioned, the jazz were one of the better teams in the league at blocking shots. However, I don’t think we can overlook the domino effect that poor dribble penetration defense has on the rest of what we’re doing on the court.

Stopping this type of penetration requires playing guards who don’t give up, and whomever is checking the ball handler has to make sure to stay infront of them. If they are screened out of the play the team needs to react as a unit to help the screened defender by having one guy pick up the ball handler while the other three guys make smart defensive adjustments. In the Phoenix situation above Big Al did not move quick enough to pick up Nash, so much so that D-Will had to try to stick on him and recover on him. Andrei moved over to pick up Big Al’s man (good help defense), but no one was able to pick up the guy he left (Hedo). It was a no win situation. The solution isn’t blaming the guards. The solution isn’t blaming the guys for not knowing each other well enough to react as a unit. The solution is watching game film and educating the team on what they are doing.

Yeah, I guess I am blaming the coaches for this one here. We had dribble penetration issues from game 1 of the season. We had dribble penetration issues all the way till game 82 of the season. Only certain types of teams are consistent enough to have the same problems in April that first arose in October. Those teams are usually poorly prepared. The Jazz' defneisve struggle against dribble penetration is two fold: first, this system is a fundamentally broken system for defending dribble penetration. Sheparding guards into the paint fails to work if you need to drop four guys into the paint to chase after him. Having one big pick him up and be able to check him (like Eaton was capable of doing -- or even Greg Ostertag) makes this type of defense make sense. Mind you, this type of defense worked the year before – yeah, but that’s because those guys had played with each other for three or four years. The second point is simply this: with the turn over between these two seasons expecting the players to function in complete defensive harmony with one another without the proper film time was too high of an expectation. And as a result, we got abused over and over again with dribble penetration.

Other solutions exist besides having more film time and establishing a unified concept of defense (Big Al was playing defense like he was on Minny, Raja was forcing guys to the baseline when that’s not what we do on this team, etc). One of them could basically be "play the guys who defend dribble penetration better." (Really? You'd be giving up an awful lot on offense if you play just your best defenders) But few appreciable changes will take place when the capstone of our perimeter defense remains to be Devin Harris. Hopefully being healthy next year with training camp under his belt will help us and our dribble penetration defense. If not, then we’re going to see a lot more of guys like Hedo saying "Ball" on us next season.

Never in my life as a Jazz fan have I ever remembered us getting killed on dribble penetration defense as much as we did this year. That’s why this is one of the 10 or 11 things I’ll remember about the 2010-2011 season.