The Utah Jazz have been one of the best defensive teams in the NBA during recent regular seasons. They’ve nearly perfected Quin Snyder’s system, which revolves around Rudy Gobert’s elite interior defense. Snyder has emphasized forcing teams out of efficient shots and into less efficient shots. That method has seen laudable success with Gobert in the paint and the rest of the team defending the three-point line.
Until the playoffs start, that is.
Every type of defense has a flaw, a weakness to be exploited. That’s what the playoffs are all about. The disadvantage of this Jazz defense is its complete reliance upon Gobert to protect the paint. If he is pulled out to defend the perimeter, his teammates are not equipped to cover for him. The Jazz defense becomes a layup line. Utah has fallen victim to this too many times. Quin Snyder needs to prepare this team to defend differently when a playoff opponent takes advantage of their system.
So far this season, Snyder has shown that he is doing just that. The Jazz are adjusting. They’re trying new things. Of course, they still lean on their drop-big defense that they’re exceptionally good at, but they are also experimenting with zone defenses, switching schemes, and more.
The first adjustment I’ve seen from the Jazz this season is an effort to force turnovers. The Jazz stellar defense of past years has been built solely on forcing inefficient shots, not forcing turnovers. That results in a super-efficient defense, but one that has to work on many possessions. This year, however, early returns are showing a shift in this dynamic. Jazz players are jumping into passing lanes far more often than before. Of course, it’s only been two games, so take these stats with the necessary grain of salt, but look at this difference:
Again, this is a tiny sample size. It’s not only the numbers, though, but it’s also a visible change. The Jazz players have always been very disciplined in getting back on defense or fouling to stop transition. However, this year, players are gambling for steals in circumstances that they likely wouldn’t have last year. Take, for example, this Bojan Bogdanovic steal.
Donovan Mitchell has been especially active in the passing lanes and attacking ball handlers with far more aggressiveness. I wonder if this is a conscious change pushed by Quin Snyder.
Last season, Mitchell would have been farther back, ready to foul to stop this fastbreak. This season, he’s a free safety, watching for long passes.
Something we saw a lot in the preseason was the Jazz deploying a switching scheme. Switching defenses have become something of a hallmark of the modern NBA, but Utah has been hesitant to adopt it. Switching on everything would mean that Rudy Gobert would have to leave the paint regularly. Now, this isn’t an issue because of Rudy himself. Gobert was in the 83rd percentile of iso defenders last season. Despite what NBA Twitter would like you to think, Gobert is an excellent defender on the perimeter.
The reason the Jazz haven’t used a switch-everything defense is that that would require the rest of Utah’s defenders to be more independent and less reliant on Gobert’s interior presence. However, if Utah had been practiced at such a defense, they could have used that to counter the Clipper’s 5-out scheme that was so effective in last year’s playoffs. The Jazz need to have options. They need versatility. It seems that Quin Snyder has realized this, as he has begun implementing switching into Jazz games.
Experimenting with Zone
The last change from Quin Snyder is that he’s sprinkled in the occasional possession of zone defense. Last season this was tried very occasionally, and I wouldn’t expect it to be very common this season either, but the fact that they’re working on it from day one is a good sign. Again, zone probably won’t be the most used, or the most effective defense the Jazz play, but if they can play it reasonably well, that gives Utah a way to counter the way teams play against them in the playoffs. Being able to switch things up based on matchup could be massively important.
Jazz back within 8.... 3-point shooting keeping the Jazz within this game where they've played pretty poorly.— Andy Larsen (@andyblarsen) June 13, 2021
The zone defense hasn't worked amazingly, but it's been semi-passable, unlike their earlier man defense.
This tweet from Andy Larsen was sent during Game 3 of the Jazz vs Clippers series. Clearly, the zone defense had merit, but Utah wasn’t great at it. If they can figure it out, and there’s no reason to believe they can’t, the zone can be a weapon to deploy against 5-out offenses. It can allow Gobert to stay where he is most effective without giving up wide-open threes.
It’s very early, and we don’t know exactly how things are going to go, but it is very encouraging to see the Jazz trying new things on the defensive end.