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The Utah Jazz have been struggling to defend in transition ... or have they?

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Is Utah’s transition defense the scapegoat for an entirely different problem altogether?

NBA: Utah Jazz at Indiana Pacers Trevor Ruszkowski-USA TODAY Sports

The Utah Jazz have lost three games in a row and fans are looking for why. Why can’t Utah be consistent? For a team that looked to have found their rhythm last season, Utah hasn’t looked like a playoff team so far this season. There’s plenty of time for Utah to figure it out, but what is it? Head Coach Quin Snyder uses the coaching buzzwords of effort and urgency. Others like Andy Larsen of the Salt Lake Tribune have pointed to Utah’s miserable transition defense. But could their problems be something completely different?

I wanted to separate some of the noise in Utah’s numbers. Games they played against New Orleans and Houston without their main stars hid a lot of Utah’s sins. While I would prefer to use the medians of each statistical category, that was too time intensive. It was easier to break down Utah’s team numbers week by week to show where Utah is making strides and where some scapegoats have been created.

The categories I decided to focus on were as follows:

  • Offensive Rating
  • Defensive Rating
  • Turnover %
  • eFG %
  • Assist %
  • Pace
  • Points off Turnovers
  • Fast Break Points
  • Opponent eFG%
  • Opponent FTA Rate
  • Opponent TOV%
  • Opponent Pts off TOV
  • Opponents Points FB
  • Record

Because Utah is known as a defensive team and a lot of the criticism about Utah was about their defense, I wanted to focus on their opponent’s numbers and the hallmarks of a good defensive team: limiting teams in transition, avoiding turnovers that turn into easy points, low fouling rates, and creating opportunities for their offense by causing turnovers. Those four have been the talk of a lot of postgame quotes.

Let’s go after Utah’s biggest Boogeyman ...

NBA: Utah Jazz at Los Angeles Lakers Gary A. Vasquez-USA TODAY Sports

“Utah is a bad transition defense team.”

This seems to be the buzzword at the moment. Honestly, I had the same opinion. It seems that almost every fast break opportunity, Utah is STRUGGLING to defend it. It matches the eye test. In my mind, I thought this number should be really high. Except ... it isn’t. Aside from one terrible week in the first week of the season, Utah actually holds their opponents to some of the lowest points in transition week by week.

Utah is really good at limiting points in transition. They’re slowing teams down, avoiding easy buckets in transition, and making sure these teams feel the clamps of their half-court defense. But we have all seen the videos of Utah struggling in transition, how are they one of the best teams guarding teams in transition?

Utah Jazz v Indiana Pacers Photo by Andy Lyons/Getty Images

The Real Mandarin

Remember in Iron Man 3 when everyone chased after the Red Herring of a Villain they thought was the Mandarin, but then they came to find out, it was a fake? That’s Utah’s transition defense. It’s visible, can easily be seen every game as a monster, but it hides the real problem in plain daylight. The more sinister villain that’s undermining Utah’s defense actually isn’t an inherent part of defense at all. It’s Utah’s turnovers on offense. Take a look.

Utah’s offense is consistently putting its defense in a terrible situation. To say it has been sub optimal is sugar coating it. The league worst average, the Atlanta Hawks, is sitting with a turnover percentage of 17%. Utah has an average of 15.4%. They’ve only had two weeks of the season where they’ve averaged below the league average. Opponents who play Utah are feasting off of Utah’s turnovers.

Utah has only had a positive point differential in two of the six weeks of the season, and that was when Utah’s turnover percentage was just at average. If they returned to being a top team in terms of turnover percentage, all of a sudden Utah’s point differential woes change completely. Can Utah defend better in transition off of turnovers? Yes—hell, yes. But harping on how they defend in transition after a turnover is putting the cart before the horse. The problem is not transition defense, it’s the damn turnover that started the whole transition.

What adds more to the hypothesis that Utah’s turnovers are ruining their defense is their eFG%. Their eFG% in the past two weeks has been 45% and 48.8%. That should translate into A LOT of transition points for the opposing defense ... except ... it hasn’t. Teams have only averaged 10.5 ppg and 13 ppg in transition against Utah the last two weeks.

Adding to Utah’s self-inflicted wound is how many Jazz players are averaging career highs in turnovers starting with Utah’s floundering floor general himself, Ricky Rubio.

Utah’s main playmakers have all had an increase in turnovers PER36 minutes. None is more apparent that Rubio’s. While many point to him being a good defender, he’s putting Utah’s defense at an inherent disadvantage 3.1 times a game. Joe Ingles, another one of Utah’s best defenders, is putting Utah’s defense at a disadvantage 2.6 times. Donovan Mitchell’s turnovers actually have decreased slightly per game, but that means nothing when Utah’s other sophomore, Royce O’Neal’s turnovers per game have seen a dramatic increase similar to Rubio’s.

This area hurts Utah more than most teams because they want to create chaos by causing turnovers—which they still continue to do at an above average/almost elite rate. But they are shooting themselves in the foot by coughing up the ball night in and night out. There’s another terrible trend that hopefully has met its end ...

NBA: Utah Jazz at Dallas Mavericks Kevin Jairaj-USA TODAY Sports

Opponent’s Free Throw Attempted Rate

Having a great defense is nice, but there is one type of shot not even Rudy Gobert can defend: free throws. Utah puts opponents to the line at one of the highest rates in the league. This is where an average can get lost in the noise. If you split out Utah’s week by week numbers, you can see Utah has been sending their opponents to the line ... a lot.

Aside from this current week and the first week of the season, Utah sends their opponent to the line more than most NBA teams. That’s four out of six weeks of the NBA season. That is another confidence deflater of any game. It causes havoc to Quin Snyder’s rotations. He’s forced to go stretches without his best defender, Rudy Gobert, or vital playmakers on the perimeter. It allows opposing offenses to be more aggressive and challenge Utah’s defense more as they know the Jazz have their kid’s gloves on as they avoid additional foul trouble.

Utah Jazz v Indiana Pacers Photo by Andy Lyons/Getty Images

Is there a silver lining?

YES! There quite possibly is a road to improvement now with this current roster that doesn’t include a trade. But it does require a lineup change and you will be surprised that it doesn’t require taking Rubio out of the mix. Rubio’s turnovers actually don’t rear their ugly head in the Jazz’s lineup of Rubio, Mitchell, Ingles, Crowder, and Gobert. What’s even more interesting is Ingles’ turnovers are not exacerbated as well. Turns out, spacing isn’t just for good rim runners like Gobert, it’s good for limiting turnovers, more room to pass and operate. Who knew?

It shouldn’t come as a surprise to anyone that Utah’s worst lineups when it comes to terrible turnover percentage have Gobert and Favors on the floor at the same time. Utah’s starting lineup of Rubio, Mitchell, Ingles, Favors, and Gobert? They average a turnover % that is 15.9%, above the league’s average turnover percentage of 14.3%.

For Utah right now, the best defense is a responsible offense. One that limits their turnovers. While Utah’s offense has sputtered, one has to wonder if we’d be worrying as much about it if Utah was able to maintain their turnover differential and still clamp down on defense. But instead, Utah is in an unsustainable and self-inflicted war when it comes to their own turnovers.

Utah is approaching the toughest stretch of their schedule in December and needs to find a way to go .500 during it to avoid putting themselves in a similar pit as last year in a much more difficult West. While there are other issues with Utah that I don’t have time to delve into in this post (they desperately need shooters, Rubio having a career worst year at the worst time, and Rudy Gobert not being as elite on defense as normal), they can find a life raft to hold onto during December until help comes their way—either through a trade or the schedule finally easing up in January—by just not turning the ball over so. damn. much.