Why are the Utah Jazz so complacent in their defense? According to Synergy Sports’ play tracking data, Utah allows the 8th most P&R ball handler, 4th most post-up, and 12th most isolation attempts - and opponents score at efficiencies that rank 5th, 6th, and 3rd highest in said play types when playing against the Jazz. I understand that it’s more efficient to play the passing lanes and force more difficult unassisted shots, but when playing against the better self-creating players in the league, you’ve repeatedly been burned. Embiid scored 59. Booker scored 49. Morant 37, George 34, Curry 33, Bane 32. Players like Dillon Brooks, Norman Powell, Kevin Porter Jr., and Reggie Jackson went over 25; Marvin Bagley was 9/10 from the field. Just last night, Anfernee Simons picked up 43 points in three quarters. Every single one of these players went well over league average PPS, and their respective offenses were strong enough from the unassisted option*, that the other options could retreat early and nullify Utah’s transition**.
I apologize for being direct and abrasive; I felt I’d have to snatch your attention with the first line. My name is Riley Gisseman, and I have a number of different thoughts I would like to share with any of the Jazz’ coaching staff, video coordination team, or basketball operations. You may have seen my writing on local blogs and occasionally in the Trib. Clearly, my passion is in basketball and I hope you can sympathize with a student looking to share his opinions directly with an NBA coaching staff on how we can better optimize each player’s skill set.
I appreciate you giving my letter a kind eye to this point. I know the issues I mentioned are more a side effect than the intention within the pass-oriented defense. I’m one of the biggest fans in how yourself and coaches Mazzulla and Udoka utilized the athleticism and quickness of Robert Williams with the high basketball IQ of Al Horford to make a threatening two-option backline for Boston - and I remain shocked each game at the amount of creativity in Utah’s playstyle. With this group however, I strongly believe that choosing to blitz/pick-up a ballhandler’s immediate driving lane as soon as they’ve broken the first line of defense and shift the other defenders into passing lanes would force a more difficult decision from the ball-handler and would cause you to find more success defensively. If I were to decide, I’d have the blitz come from the strong side wing when possible, the weak side when necessary, and peel-switch the ball-handler’s defender to assist on the now-open man. Here are a couple examples:
On the left, Booker has Alexander-Walker beat. It’s understandable, Biyombo is a very good screener. In the reaction though, Kessler shows, then drops with Biyombo. Horton-Tucker plants inside the paint to block the deeper driving lane, and NAW attempts to recover. It allows a wide-open Booker mid-range shot with a rolling Biyombo and cutting Craig to crash the offensive glass. This is exactly what Phoenix wants - Shamet, Johnson, and Booker are able to stop transition while the others chase a second chance on a reasonably good shot attempt.
I would advise, instead, to blitz/pick-up Booker from the nail with Talen Horton-Tucker. To manage the now-opened Johnson, I’d pull Markkanen slightly closer to the paint to play both Craig’s passing lane and Johnson’s cutting lane, I’d have Kessler play tighter to the roll, and I’d have Alexander-Walker peel-switch to attempt to pick off a potential pass to Cam Johnson. This leaves Booker to decide between a more difficult shot and a still-difficult read. You are sacrificing the nearest off-ball defender to prevent the first option, trusting the weak side corner to cut off the left-open assignment’s potential cutting lane - and the recovering defender to cut off the same left-open assignment’s potential spot-up three-point shot.
Here’s another example:
In this play, Olynyk drops, Sexton fights to recover, and Clarkson shows to block a potential passing/cutting lane. Again, I’d have Clarkson blitz/pick-up Jackson, Olynyk stay with Zubac, and have Sexton peel switch to the now-open spot-up shooter. Again, the current result is exactly what Jackson and the Clippers want. Zubac has a solid opportunity for an offensive rebound, they prevent transition, and Jackson gets an open mid-range jumper he’s hit at 40% in his Clippers tenure - which adjusting for the fact that 27% of his mid-range attempts are offensive rebounded and 5% of his attempts are fouled is worth roughly 1.13 PPP.
This new rotation pattern creates confusion as to which pass will be open while simultaneously disrupting the shot the ball handler would like to get. He may want to make the pass to the wing when he sees Clarkson leaving his man, but if Sexton is clear in the understanding that the wing is now his assignment, this would not be an open shot and the passing lane could be disrupted by both Clarkson stepping up and Sexton sprinting to cover.
There will be breakdowns, there always are when first implementing any defensive changes, but I firmly believe that forcing immediate difficult decisions is the most direct route to capitalizing on our team’s defensive length - make the first option of self-creation more difficult, and adjust to try to take away the other options. By currently attempting to suffocate passing/cutting lanes and force self-created shots, you’re giving the most talented players in the league exactly what they want.
I’ve totally changed how I’ve watched basketball since I began watching the Jazz’ offensive and defensive systems you’ve implemented - and now I believe that complacency is where the majority of NBA teams fall short of their potential. I’d ask all coaches, why comply with an early three if you can have two more opportunities at attacking the basket with multiple cutters? Why disregard the majority of a player’s NBA-level skillset*** by making him plant in the corner and ball-watch, waiting for “The Guy” to find him for an open shot? Don’t get me wrong, I’m a believer in the NBA’s analytical revolution - Quin Snyder changed my mind there. But I believe an open three point shot should not be an offense’s ceiling, it should be its floor. The goal should be to get shots with rebounding opportunities that provide 1.6, 1.7, 1.8 PPP every possession - turnovers are a death token, and three pointers are the baseline. While I believe this is also the thought process driving the Jazz’ personnel and in-game offensive and defensive decisions, I think there is plenty of room for growth and optimization on both ends of the floor.
Thank you for reading, I appreciate your humility.
* Utah had a 116.0 DRtg in these 11 games, via cleaningtheglass.com
** Utah added just 2.2 PPP in transition in these 11 games; They are +5.6 in the other 15 games. Via cleaningtheglass.com
*** “Three-point shooting is something I don’t want to excel at because it takes away from all phases of my game; When you have that mentality of making threes, you don’t go to the hole as much.” - Michael Jordan