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The Utah Jazz still have work to do on defense and it starts with the paint

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If it seems like opponent’s get into the paint often, it’s cause they are and it’s likely where the defensive issues start for the Jazz

NBA: Utah Jazz at Milwaukee Bucks Handout Photo-USA TODAY Sports

Following a weekend of wins in Milwaukee and Detroit, the Utah Jazz record stands at 6-4 with two final stops on their monstrous road trip. Despite a roller-coaster of a start, the Jazz sit at just 1.5 games behind the #1 record in the league (LA Lakers).

Per CleaningTheGlass, Utah boasts the 12th best point differential (+2.1), while ranking 15th in offense (111.1) and 11th in defense (109.0). While the Jazz’s record isn’t far off our expectations, their ratings are not exactly where the fanbase expected them to be.

After boasting the best offense in the league (116.9, tied with Dallas) after the Jordan Clarkson acquisition (and pre-bubble play), sitting at average in offense 10 games into the season sure is a let down.

On the other hand, the Jazz are 15th in eFG% as a team after ranking 2nd last season. Given the lack of roster turnover, it’s highly unlikely the Jazz offense remains average for the remainder of the season.

While ranking 11th in defense doesn’t seem too far off expectations, this end of the floor is the more concerning side of the coin as it relates to the Jazz’s success thus far.

Let’s remember some context.

Utah Jazz v Detroit Pistons Photo by Chris Schwegler/NBAE via Getty Images

Utah ended last season as the 11th ranked defense. With Rudy Gobert at center, the Jazz were excellent defensively at a rating of 107.4, good for 5th in the NBA. When Davis, Green, Morgan, or Bradley stepped in at center, Utah’s rating fell to 115.4, a mark that would have tied the Cleveland Cavaliers for 29th in the league.

Upon acquiring Derrick Favors, it seemed as though the defensive issues would materialize. After all, we’d only need to be average defensively to return to the upper echelon of defensive teams, right?

Unfortunately it hasn’t turned out that way.

In 626 possessions this season with Rudy Gobert on the court, the Jazz are posting a defensive rating of 105.6, good for 2nd in the NBA. When Derrick Favors replaces Rudy, the defense nose-dives to a 114.9 rating, 26th in the association. While still early, this doesn’t jive at all with our expectations.

Let’s dive into some numbers to understand what’s happening with the defense.

Points in the Paint

Prior to the Utah Jazz win over the Detroit Pistons, the Jazz ranked 30th in the league in % of opponent’s points scored in the paint. That ranking improved after Sunday’s win, but confirms what we’ve been seeing: Utah is allowing too much penetration.

Here are the team’s rankings over the previous 3 seasons (per NBA.com):
% of Opponent’s Points Scored in Paint

2019-20: 18th

2018-19: 24th

2017-18: 12th

Given the Jazz’s defensive strategy of funneling opponents to Gobert, it’s unsurprising Utah is never one of the top teams in this area. However, we don’t want to be dead last in the NBA.

The question now is if the problem is volume (are opponents taking more shots leading to more points) or if the problem is efficiency (are opponents making more shots leading to more points)?

Shots in the Paint

This season, the Utah Jazz are allowing the 23rd in frequency of FGA in the paint (rim + paint non-restricted area). This makes sense given Utah’s strategy.

The Jazz want to run opponents off the 3P line and prevent them from getting all the way to the rim. Ideally, the opponent takes a lot of mid-range shots that are low efficiency.

How does this frequency compare to seasons past (per NBA.com)?
Frequency of Opponent FGA in Paint:

2019-20: 13th

2018-19: 24th

2017-18: 12th

Volume is definitely a problem, though doesn’t explain all of the issue. Let’s take a look at opponent efficiency.

This season, the Jazz are 8th in opponent FG% in the paint. This is a little surprising given that the eye test would have guessed a better rate of efficiency for opponents than shown here.

Look at seasons past (per NBA.com):
Opponent FG% in Paint:

2019-20: 9th

2018-19: 2nd

2017-18: 5th

While the Jazz would love to return to the top 5 ranking in FG% allowed, ranking 8th doesn’t indicate much an issue with allowing shots in the paint to fall at too high a rate. Thus, the majority of the issue is volume.

Drives to the paint

This season has brought a lot of discussion to our perimeter defense. The topic has mainly surrounded the observation that our perimeter defenders are allowing too much penetration without remaining in the play.

Utah Jazz v Detroit Pistons Photo by Chris Schwegler/NBAE via Getty Images

Is this true?

We can’t quantify everything surrounding this topic, but NBA.com does track drives. After a little research, Utah was found to have defended the 9th most drives per 100 possessions this season (49.1 drives, per NBA.com).

Utah wants a short drive, meaning a drive that gets the opponent off the 3P line but not to the rim. This would leave opponents to taking midrange shots. An open midrange isn’t very efficient, but a contested one is the Jazz dream.

Ideally, every perimeter defender closes out on the opponent at the perimeter, shading them to a side based on the scouting report. After the opponent foregoes a 3P shot, the Jazz defender must be extremely quick and aggressive to stay even with the offensive player.

If the Jazz defender stays in the play, attached, and even with the offensive player, the rim protector has enough time to cut off a drive to the rim, forcing a hesitation (allowing the defender to regain position) or eliciting a difficult shot.

Either way, the Jazz will come out ahead most of the time.

Must adhere to the ideal strategy

We’ve seen too many times that the ideal defense doesn’t come to fruition. The perimeter defender closes out too hard, falls out of the play trailing the defender, which creates a power play the rim-defending center must navigate.

A power play is a mini-action in the half-court that forces a defense to guard more offensive players than defensive players are available. The pick and roll is a power play machine, regularly manufacturing 3 on 2 or 2 on 1 situations.

Rudy Gobert is the best defensive player in the league because of his ability to lower an opponent’s efficiency in a power play. By defending two offensive players at once with his length, positioning, and agility, we see that lineups with Rudy can recover from the poor defensive execution on the perimeter.

Utah Jazz v Milwaukee Bucks

Derrick Favors is an excellent defensive player but is much more susceptible to a power play than Gobert, thus allowing a higher success rate on drives in the paint.

The truth is Derrick has to be better. The reality is he has to do many things at once to keep the Jazz a winning defense. It’s also true that the perimeter defenders must be better. Just because the strategy is to get the opponent off the 3P line doesn’t mean they get to the paint and create a power play.

If Utah can stick to their ideal perimeter defense, they will reduce the number of shots in the paint. If Derrick can get back to playing the defense we need and expect, the efficiency of power plays will decrease.

With implementing both initiatives (and getting some opponent 3’s to normalize), Utah will be well on their way to a top 5 defense once again. The offense will normalize per usual, and we want the defense to come into its own at the same time.