How the Jazz will Improve Next Year Part 1: The Defense

Hello Everyone! This is part 1 of my two part series analyzing how the Jazz will improve next year, first by looking at their defense, and then their offense. I, like all other Jazz fans, want to know exactly how good the Jazz can be next year, so, for the past few days, I’ve gone deep into the stats to analyze and understand how the Jazz play and how they can get better. Here are my thoughts:

So, in order to understand how the Jazz can get better on defense next season, we first have to see exactly how good they were this season. This year, out of all 30 teams, during the regular season, the Jazz had the 8th-best defense, putting them in the 73% percentile of the league in terms of defense. Here are the full rankings, in order of least to most points surrendered per 100 possesions:

  1. Spurs (96.6)
  2. Hawks (98.8) (As you can see, there’s a pretty big gap between the Spurs and the Hawks, and then the Hawks and everybody else. After that it’s pretty close.)
  3. Pacers (100.2)
  4. Celtics (100.9)
  5. Warriors (100.9)
  6. Clippers (100.9)
  7. Heat (101.5)
  8. Jazz!!!!!! (101.6)
  9. Hornets (101.8)
  10. Cavaliers (102.3)
  11. Raptors (102.7)
  12. Thunder (103.0)
  13. Pistons (103.4)
  14. Wizards (103.6)
  15. Bulls (103.9)
  16. Mavericks (104.3)
  17. Magic (104.6)
  18. Knicks (104.8)
  19. Grizzlies (105.4)
  20. Rockets (105.6)
  21. Trail Blazers (105.6)
  22. Bucks (105.7)
  23. Kings (106.3)
  24. Nuggets (106.4)
  25. 76ers (106.7)
  26. Suns (107.0)
  27. Timberwolves (107.1)
  28. Pelicans (107.3)
  29. Nets (108.5)
  30. Lakers (109.3)

So the Jazz were good, but not quite elite. Now of course, the obvious next thing to look at is how injuries might have impacted our defense throughout the season. For convenience, I’ve divided the season into four parts:

  1. The Beginning: Oct. 28th-Nov. 30th. The first 16 games of the season, before Gobert sprained his MCL and the team went down with injuries. Closing games with the triple wing lineup.
  2. The Injured Phase: Dec. 3rd-Jan. 22nd. The next 28 games of the season, where either one of Gobert or Favors was out.
  3. Pre-All-Star Break Run: Jan. 25th-Feb. 19th. The next 11 games of the season, 9 before the All-star break and 2 after, the one with the Wizards that got rescheduled and one against the Celtics. Fully healthy, except for Alec Burks, and still Neto, not Mack.
  4. The Mack Phase: Feb. 21st-Apr. 13th. The final 27 games of the season. With Mack playing.

Let’s look at our defensive rating during each of those four phases.

  1. Phase 1 (not injured, Alec healthy): 99.8
  2. Phase 2 (Injuries): 105.5
  3. Phase 3 (Healthy, Neto, not Mack): 98.1
  4. Phase 4 (Mack): 100.2

So as you can see, having injuries clearly impacted our defense. Our defense is founded on our two great defensive big men, Gobert and Favors, and when both of them, or even one of them, go down, there’s not that many other good defensive players on our team. Just by the eye test, you could see how bad our defense was during that part of the season, but these numbers clearly validate that hypothesis. If we had kept our 105.5 defensive rating when we were injured for the entire year, we would have finished 19th in defensive rating, putting us nearby the Magic, Knicks, Rockets, Kings, Trail Blazers, Bucks, and Nuggets. Not where we want to be, obviously.

So how good was our defense when we weren’t injured? Well, looking at the defensive ratings for the portions of the season when we had both Gobert and Favors, it looks to be a bit less than 100 points surrendered per 100 possessions. I know, the pre-all star break phase was at 98.1, but that was a smaller sample size (11 games, to be exact), and the teams we were playing during that part of the season weren’t exactly very good. I say a bit better than 100 points surrendered per 100 possessions, because during the part of the season where Gobert and Favors were injured, our schedule was very soft, and if we had had Gobert and Favors for that part of the season, I think we could have held opponents to well below our normal defensive rating, enough to drag it a bit below 100. Lets say 95.5, which would put us……


So that’s the baseline ranking for our defense when we’re healthy. Still behind the Spurs (96.6) and Hawks (98.8), but enough to pass the Pacers (100.2), and Celtics, Warriors, and Clippers, who are all tied at 100.9 behind the Pacers.

Now let’s dig a little deeper into our defense to find out how it works and how exactly our new additions will change it.

Again, based on the eye test, it seems we thrive off our interior, rather than our perimeter defense (the polar opposite of Boston). Yeah, we have Gobert and Favors on the inside, but who else is a good defensive player? Gordon Hayward is probably about average (gets blown by by really fast players every once in a while, but besides that, is pretty solid), as is Mack (has a nice frame and usually sticks with his man), but everyone else is below average on the perimeter. Let’s analyze:

-Neto: Neto is good at some aspects of defense, and bad at others. In the beginning of the year, everyone thought his defense was great. He has good effort, a solid frame, moves his feet decently, and has good instincts for collecting steals. But there were other things he struggled with. Throughout the year, the fact that he was a second round pick playing his first year in the league showed. He made bad rotations at times, sometimes helping unnecessarily, and often looked very fatigued. Although his lateral quickness is ok, it is not great. Remember there were some games where we absolutely could not contain the opposing point guard. It was clear there was no way he could stay in front of Westbrook or Tony Parker. I mean, not many people can anyway, but I’m just saying it was clearly too much for him. I think with a bench role he could be a plus defender, as long as he stays disciplined and doesn’t have to guard an elite, speedy, player on offense.

-Trey Burke: Man, Trey Burke was really bad at defense. His effort was also there (let me just say it’s a sign of good coaching that none of our players had effort-related Harden-like defensive problems), but he just had too many problems. He’s small and easy to push and dribble around, he doesn’t have very good lateral quickness, and he spent most of his time on defense trying to recover after his man beat him. I think he suffered a lot from our team’s lack of perimeter defense overall. Last year, the defensive lineups with him next to Exum weren’t bad. He’s probably best suited to go to a team with a perimeter defender next to him. He didn’t look quite as bad trying to guard shooting guards. In his exit interview, he said defense was something he was going to "attack pretty hard" this offseason, and lateral quickness is something that I think can be improved with training, so let’s hope he can get better.

-Alec Burks: Alec Burks is an okay defender. Coming out of the draft, lots of people said he had excellent defensive potential, due to his great lateral quickness and longish arms. He’s still a pretty good on-ball defender. For example, that one game where Quin chose to start him at point guard when we were playing the Thunder, knowing Neto probably couldn’t handle Westbrook, and Alec did a pretty nice job containing him. The problem is that sometimes, he’ll be caught ball-watching, or looking somewhere else, and his man will sprint somewhere else, and he won’t notice until two seconds later, when he’s on the other side of the court. If he can discipline himself to stay glued to his man off the ball, like Hayward does (Hayward and Burks are kind of opposites on defense, Hayward is better off-ball than on-ball, Burks is better on-ball than off-ball), he’ll be a plus defender.

-Rodney Hood: Rodney Hood isn’t a horrendous defender, but he isn’t that great. Just like on offense, how he’s not great at moving forward really fast in a straight line, but rather putting his defender on his back and using footwork to get off his shot, on defense, he slides his feet pretty well but can’t move extremely fast from one point to another. This hurts him mostly with screens. He doesn’t get around screens nearly fast enough, and almost always just goes under the screen. He doesn’t have the strength or explosiveness to quickly dodge and get around screens. His lack of strength also shows a bit when he’s defending bigger wings like Carmelo, and he can get posted up. If he adds a bit more strength and works on getting around screens a lot more quickly, I think he can be decent. He is 6’8.5 overall, which is pretty long for the shooting guard position, so there’s projectability for improvement.

-Joe Ingles: Meh, Joe’s an okay defender. I mean, he’s not athletic enough to be a lockdown defender, but from what I’ve seen, he usually does an okay job.

So that’s what our perimeter defense looked like last season. Two respectable guys, a couple of guys who would probably be rated about 4 out of 10 if we were doing it on a 1-10 scale, and one clearly below-average guy. There was no one that we could really call a "perimeter defender".

Just to back up my assertions that I just made about our perimeter defense being weaker than our interior defense, here are some interesting stats:

-Last year, the Jazz allowed the second lowest opponent points in the paint allowed per game (39.6), behind only Memphis (38.5), and the seventh lowest adjusting for pace (41.8 per 100 possessions).

-The Jazz were 17th in the league in opponent field goal percentage from 20-24 feet, and 22nd in opponent field goal percentage from 15-19 feet, where guards do most of their damage. Both clearly below our normal defensive ranking of 8th.

-Look at our defensive ratings vs. teams with strong guard play

Vs. Toronto: 106.0 (Normal Toronto Offensive rating: 107.0)

Vs. Portland: 112.12 (Normal Portland Offensive rating: 105.6)

Vs. Golden State: 110.3 (Normal Golden State Offensive rating: 112.5)

Vs. OKC: 112.3 (Normal OKC Offensive rating: 109.9)

So we did an alright job with Golden State and Toronto, but struggled vs. OKC and really struggled vs Portland (once again, stats validating what already seemed true just from the eye test). It might seem like holding Toronto or Golden State one or two points below their usual offensive rating is good, but keep in mind that an 8th ranked defense should be able to do better. Theoretically a 15th ranked, exactly average defense should hold Toronto to exactly their normal offensive rating, while above average defenses should hold them substantially below. Against all of these teams, we surrendered far above our normal defensive rating of 101.6 points per 100 possessions. And both times when we played Toronto, we were fully healthy. It’s clear we struggle against teams with talented guards.

Let’s look now at another issue: Bench defense.

The defense of our starting lineups last year was pretty good:

The lineup of Neto, Hood, Hayward, Favors, and Gobert had a defensive rating of 98.4 in 305 total minutes last year. Not bad at all.

The lineup of Mack, Hood, Hayward, Favors, and Gobert had a defensive rating of 100.4 in 256 total minutes. I know I said Mack is a better defender than Neto, but remember with Mack we were playing harder teams. Also worth pointing out that the offensive rating for the lineup with Mack was 4.1 points per 100 possessions better offensively.

After that, what other lineups were good defensively?

I looked at our top lineups in defensive rating, with a minimum of 40 minutes played last season. Listed below are all of the lineups that had a defensive rating below 104.0, while still meeting that minimum of 40 minutes played:

Booker-Burke-Burks-Hayward-Favors: 102.8, 58 minutes played.

Gobert-Hayward-Hood-Lyles-Neto: 102.5, 109 minutes played.

Favors-Gobert-Hayward-Hood-Mack: 100.4, 256 minutes played.

Favors-Gobert-Hayward-Hood-Neto: 98.4, 305 minutes played.

Favors-Hayward-Hood-Lyles-Neto: 97.9, 113 minutes played.

Gobert-Hayward-Johnson-Lyles-Neto: 92.1, 40 minutes played.

Gobert-Hayward-Hood-Lyles-Mack: 86.5, 78 minutes played.

Favors-Gobert-Hood-Ingles-Mack: 78.1, 42 minutes played.

Every other lineup was either not played enough and therefore had way too small of a sample size, or did not have a defensive rating below 104, meaning it simply did not work. All of these lineups have at least one of Favors or Gobert in them, illustrating their importance to our defense. Another good sign in that there are lineups with Lyles that work defensively. I was a bit worried, that putting in Lyles might hurt our defense, but it seems here that there are lineups with Lyles that work, which is good.

I also looked at 3 man lineups with a minimum of 100 minutes played, and almost every one of our worst defensive 3-man combinations had either Trey Burke or Trevor Booker in it. Although Booker was also in a few of the best 3-man defensive lineups. Wierd.

The point with the lineup combinations above are that outside of Gobert, Hayward, Hood, Neto, Mack, Favors, and Lyles, there aren’t any players that were frequently in lineups that worked defensively, and were still played frequently enough. There were no good bench defense lineups. So that’s another thing that will have to improve.

So far, we’ve identified two issues with our defense: Perimeter defense and Bench Defense. Let’s look at a third: late game defense.

Much has been said about the Jazz’ struggles to win close games. This question was asked in the end-of-season interview, and Quin and Dennis said that it was actually our defense, rather than our offense that was the problem late in games. (Although, in my opinion, late game offense should be addressed too, there were some uggggggggly late game offensive possessions last year). But our late game defense really did suck. Here are the numbers:

-In 4th Quarters throughout the entire year last year, our defensive rating was 104.5 points allowed per 100 possessions, 2.9 points per 100 possessions higher than our average for the whole year.

-In the last five minutes of games when the score was within 5 points, the Jazz’ defensive rating was 125.3 (95 minute sample size). For reference, the Lakers had the worst defense in the NBA this past year, with a rating of 109.3. So late in games, when the score was close, our defense was much much worse than the Lakers. How’s that make you feel?

-In the last 3 minutes of games when the score was within 5 points, the Jazz’ defensive rating was 131.8.

-In the last minute of games when the score was within 5 points, the Jazz’ defensive rating was 145.6

Those are all very bad numbers. What Quin said in the interview is that he’s aware of this, and he’s doing whatever he can to fix it next season. He said the players need to understand that the game becomes more physical in clutch splits, "that there’s some screens that aren’t legal that become a lot more legal near the end of games", and that his players need to match that physicality and get accustomed to it. He said he thinks the best way to do that is through the use of what he called "two-minute drills", where players play a game for only two minutes, meant to simulate the end of close games. At least he’s aware of the problem and is actively trying to fix it.

Anyway, so now that we’ve looked at where our defense is, and three clear weaknesses with our defense, let’s look at how those might change next year.

Weakness #1: Perimeter Defense-

This is something that is almost certain to improve next season. At the end of the 2014-2015 season, our defense seemed well balanced, with Gobert and Favors manning the middle and Exum harassing the other team’s point guard on the perimeter. Last year, with Exum out, it was clear that our defense was a bit unbalanced. This year, not only do we have Exum returning, but we have also added George Hill, who supposedly, is another great defender. I haven’t watched too much film on his defense (it’s hard to find defensive footage of players), but from what little I’ve seen, he looks just as advertised. He’s not quite as big or aggressive as Exum, but he still has great lateral quickness and long arms (6’9 wingspan). He might not be able to collect steals and pressure opposing point guards into turnovers as well as Exum did, but he keeps his man in front of him. He contains from the perimeter. And I don’t think he’ll let Lillard, Westbrook, or Parker run all over him like our team did this season.

Weakness #2: Bench Defense-

Our lack of depth hurt us not only on offense last season, but also on defense. Reviewing the changes our roster has undertaken, Burke, Booker, and likely CJ are out, and are replaced by Hill, Diaw, and Joe Johnson. I’d say Diaw and Johnson are about average defenders, and Hill is definitely above average. Now in the Jazz’ top 10 players (Hill, Exum, Hood, Burks, Hayward, Johnson, Favors, Lyles, Gobert, Diaw), only one (Lyles) could be considered a poor defender. I think all of this depth gives Quin a lot more options to work with. It is up to him this year to find bench lineups that work defensively, but I think with the vast number of options he has to choose from, it will be a lot easier than last year. Burke and Booker (Booker is actually a really good defender, but the fit was just weird last year) being gone should help lift up the bench defense more. I think it’s a fairly safe bet to say our bench defense will improve.

Weakness #3: Late-Game Defense-

Unlike the other two weaknesses, this is not one that can be addressed easily. Improvement in this area must come from within the team. If it’s any consolation, pretty much every team’s defensive rating dropped in the fourth quarter, although ours dropped considerably more than normal. And the triple wing lineup we were using to close games at the beginning of the year (with Burks, Hood, Hayward, Favors, and Gobert), had a defensive rating of 109.2 (and an offensive rating of 124.0 in 55 minutes played), still bad, but much better than our usual defensive rating at the end of games. There’s a chance that our offseason additions will help improve this. Perhaps closing with Hill and Johnson will help improve defensive communication and experience in late-game situations. There’s no way to see. But the team can really only go up in this regard, there’s not much more room to get worse. I would bet on this improving at least modestly.

Finally, before I sum up everything and make a guess at how good the Jazz defense will be next season, It’s worth pointing out that the strength of a team’s defense is usually about the sum of it’s parts. For example, this year, Indiana had the 3rd ranked defense because it had 5 good-to-elite defenders on its team (Paul George, George Hill, Myles Turner, Ian Mahinmi, and Solomon Hill). The Bulls’ defense was 25th because they had one good defender (Jimmy Butler), and a bunch of lousy defenders surrounding him. Teams that put up a defense greater than the sum of their parts (San Antonio’s ridiculously good defense, and Charlotte are two examples), did so through excellent scheming and communication. And teams that had the personnel for a good defense but couldn’t do it (Sacramento and Houston), failed because of a lack of communication on the court. The Jazz, on their team, have four elite level defenders (Gobert, Favors, Hill, Exum) a bunch of around-average defenders (Hood, Burks, Hayward, Johnson, Diaw), and one poor defender (Lyles) in their rotation. Gobert is the best rim protector in the NBA by far, and Exum looks like a future regular on the All-defensive first team. The sum of our parts certainly adds up to something good.

So exactly how good do I think the Jazz’ defense will be?

Well, going off the baseline I established earlier of 99.5 points allowed per 100 possessions, and adding in Exum and our offseason additions to help with some of our weaknesses, I think the Jazz can manage a defensive rating of 98.5 points allowed per 100 possessions next year. There you go, that’s my final number (I’d rather do that than predict a ranking based against all the other teams, because it’s impossible to see how other teams’ defenses will be next season, but for reference, that would have put us second in the NBA last season, behind only the Spurs).

Hope you all found this post informative. I think in the next week or so, I’ll put up my post on the Jazz’ offense, analyzing it and seeing how it can improve next year, predicting a value for the Jazz’ offensive rating, and then calculating the net rating and predicting how many wins the Jazz can reach next year. In the meantime, please leave your thoughts in the comment section.

All comments are the opinion of the commenter and not necessarily that of SLC Dunk or SB Nation.