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NBA Statistics: Looking at the Utah Jazz defense over the last four years in Synergy

Was this a fast break, or a defensive breakdown?
Was this a fast break, or a defensive breakdown?
Ronald Martinez

I'm not joking you right now. (I see ya, Jimbo) The Utah Jazz are not that great on defense. Particularly not since the NBA has changed the rules to give even more advantages to quick guys who can penetrate. (I see ya, Moni #UDQM) Back when we could play a soft-ish zone with a Mark Eaton or Greg Ostertag anchoring things in the middle while we could be a little 'grabbier' on the perimeter things were fine. Things are different now. And since we've had access to Synergy we've isolated some of our problems (in the stats world) to things that match up with the eye-ball test: isolation defense, pick and roll defense, and spot up defense.

When there is an isolation the defender is mostly on an island right now, and if you actually are a team with a team defensive concept (and not every team does) then your man who is used to playing team defense is all alone. The Pick and Roll is something we should know pretty well, either you get the screen setter a great shot, or the ball handler is free to go nuts on us. And in all cases, depending on the defensive over-reaction in rotating (or not rotating at all) -- there could be one or more opponents left wide open for spot up shots. To wit, this is what we were picked apart by in the playoffs against the San Antonio Spurs two seasons ago. We had trouble with dribble penetration (via isolations or pick and rolls), and our defensive system would not work in relation to this external threat (essentially a biological cell without a cell membrane), and we'd leave people wide open.

Effectively, it's these simple defensive fundamentals that unravels us completely. I think, to our defense, this is what happens to most teams as well. But on a young team with a coach who is inexperienced as well -- and bad defenders hogging up the majority of the minutes -- we had some poor results.

Let's look at the changes over time, from the last four seasons across the Synergy stats for our defense overall, in isolations, on pick and rolls, and against spot ups. And yes, it's the middle of July and SLC Dunk is going back to summer school already looking at our team. Our blog (and a big part are the participants in the comments section) kicks so much butt that you guys motivate me to write so much all year long. (No RV vacation for the AllThatFamily this year)




  • G = games, this includes lock out shortened seasons and playoff extended seasons. It's not 82 games for each set
  • # = number of defensive possessions
  • PPP = points per possession
  • NBA Rank = league-wide rank in terms of defensive ability in terms of PPP (lower is better here), there are 30 NBA teams
  • # / Game = number of defensive possessions per game
  • ePPG = estimated points per game, for a particular defensive play type
  • paPPG = pace adjusted points per game, adjusted to 100 possessions
  • Yes, the last three things are data points that doesn't even display, I calculated it myself because you SLC Dunk readers are smart enough and deserve the best information all year long.



Utah Jazz Defense Overall: 2009-10 to 2012-13

Season G W L % # PPP NBA Rank FGM FGA FG% 3PTM 3PTA 3PT% # / Game ePPG paPPG
2009 2010 92 57 35 62.0% 10,062 0.90 12 3,274 7,236 45.2% 607 1,732 35.0% 109.4 98.4 90.0
2010 2011 82 39 43 47.6% 8,894 0.92 21 2,949 6,404 46.0% 592 1,574 37.6% 108.5 99.8 92.0
2011 2012 70 36 34 51.4% 7,910 0.89 22 2,611 5,755 45.4% 473 1,370 34.5% 113.0 100.6 89.0
2012 2013 82 43 39 52.4% 8,945 0.89 17 2,991 6,541 45.7% 554 1,512 36.6% 109.1 97.1 89.0
2009 2013 326 175 151 53.7% 35,811 0.90 18.0 11,825 25,936 45.6% 2,226 6,188 36.0% 109.8 98.9 90.0

For the four years our overall defense, as a product of PPP, ranks at 18.0th best in the NBA. That's nice. It's also in the bottom half of the league. We kinda knew that already. The other team shot a cumulative 45.6 fg% against us, and made 2,226 threes against us at a 36.0 3pt% clip. There were significant areas where we could have improved -- but over all we're "middle-ish" of the pack defensively. The trend overall was a downward trend in defensive rank, while our PPP got lower (which is better for defense). Our W/L record started to look better as well, but we were far and away removed from the 09-10 season when we were a playoff contender (small "c", not big "C") and we played a different type of game and our offense worked.

We look at our defense overall as the baseline with which to judge how good or bad we are at the different parts / defending different plays. I will say that fixing the defense is a long term project, it's not something that changes over night. And while or defense was quite poor in 2010-11, I think we're in the middle of fixing things. With better talent on the floor, and a more unified defensive system I think that NEXT season (2013-14) we could have a Top 15 defense in the league. Baby steps.



Utah Jazz Defense vs. Isolation: 2009-10 to 2012-13

Season G W L % # PPP NBA Rank FGM FGA FG% 3PTM 3PTA 3PT% # / Game ePPG paPPG
2009 2010 92 57 35 62.0% 1,117 0.85 11 325 825 39.4% 28 118 23.7% 12.1 10.3 85.0
2010 2011 82 39 43 47.6% 879 0.88 24 258 642 40.2% 31 83 37.3% 10.7 9.4 88.0
2011 2012 70 36 34 51.4% 715 0.83 26 211 536 39.4% 24 81 29.6% 10.2 8.5 83.0
2012 2013 82 43 39 52.4% 737 0.83 17 218 574 38.0% 25 86 29.1% 9.0 7.5 83.0
2009 2013 326 175 151 53.7% 3,448 0.85 19.5 1,012 2,577 39.3% 108 368 29.3% 10.6 9.0 84.8

Okay, well, we're not that bad here. Over the four year period guys only shot 39.3 fg% against us in isolation, and shot under 30 3pt%. That's not bad. This data doesn't show how frequently a guy got to the line against us (an oversight in displaying this information here -- but still calculated in the PPP values), but it does show us that we faced isolations about 11 times a game, and each year the value went down. This could be a product of our pace going down as well. But when we faced them, we did not suck.

We were really bad at this for two seasons, but last year we made a come back. I think part of this has to deal with guys thinking they can score one on one against Gordon Hayward. They under-estimate him, and learn the hard way. More seriously, in isolations the Jazz don't usually send a help defender over. Which is fine now. But for the middle two seasons this meant "we did not send a help defender over, because the primary defender wasn't playing defense either." Yeah, I'm a mean guy. Get over it. But as bad or improved our defense is here, this isn't the main reason for panic.



Utah Jazz Defense vs. Pick and Roll (Ball handlers): 2009-10 to 2012-13

Season G W L % # PPP NBA Rank FGM FGA FG% 3PTM 3PTA 3PT% # / Game ePPG paPPG
2009 2010 92 57 35 62.0% 1,270 0.77 2 345 954 36.2% 50 167 29.9% 13.8 10.6 77.0
2010 2011 82 39 43 47.6% 1,032 0.89 29 336 779 43.1% 46 144 31.9% 12.6 11.2 89.0
2011 2012 70 36 34 51.4% 1,062 0.87 29 337 748 45.1% 48 125 38.4% 15.2 13.2 87.0
2012 2013 82 43 39 52.4% 737 0.86 26 405 918 44.1% 55 165 33.3% 9.0 7.7 86.0
2009 2013 326 175 151 53.7% 4,101 0.84 21.5 1,423 3,399 41.9% 199 601 33.1% 12.6 10.6 84.8

Yes, yes. I see. I think I'm beginning to understand the problem here.

Back on a team where our primary players (in terms of season mins or MPG) were Deron Williams, Carlos Boozer, Andrei Kirilenko, Ronnie Brewer, Mehmet Okur, and Wesley Matthews we were the #2 team in the league at defending the ball handler on pick and rolls. IN THE ENTIRE NBA. I don't think we ever gave Deron the credit he deserved for being a stronger, taller, longer, more athletic guard than a lot of the shorter, quicker guys he faced. We were really good at this, and part of it was Jerry Sloan, part of it was the team defense, and part of it was Deron. But since his departure we've been flat out awful at it. Combining either Mo Williams and Devin Harris with a lead-footed dinosaur like Al Jefferson is a force multiplier in defensive failure. The team went from giving up 77 points in 100 pick and roll defensive possessions to giving up almost 90 in the span of one season where we lost Deron Williams.

I guess this is why so many Jazz fans were eager to add a long armed, big point guard to play defense -- like a Dennis Schroeder or Myck Kabongo (one of the two is even on an NBA team right now, just a hint). If we drill down we see that some guys on our team were better defenders than others at this thing (Alec Burks >>> Mo Williams). We're probably going to see a lot more of Alec at the PG spot for defense this year too because Trey Burke is going to be blind-sided this year with NBA men crushing him in the pick and roll from Day 1.

I cannot stress enough how bad we are at defending this. So I will just let the next part drive the point home . . .



Utah Jazz Defense vs. Pick and Roll (Screeners): 2009-10 to 2012-13

Season G W L % # PPP NBA Rank FGM FGA FG% 3PTM 3PTA 3PT% # / Game ePPG paPPG
2009 2010 92 57 35 62.0% 432 1.00 6 166 347 47.8% 15 48 31.3% 4.7 4.7 100.0
2010 2011 82 39 43 47.6% 469 0.99 8 179 379 47.2% 15 44 34.1% 5.7 5.7 99.0
2011 2012 70 36 34 51.4% 460 0.96 14 183 380 48.2% 11 34 32.4% 6.6 6.3 96.0
2012 2013 82 43 39 52.4% 628 0.93 5 243 520 46.7% 12 45 26.7% 7.7 7.1 93.0
2009 2013 326 175 151 53.7% 1,989 0.97 8.3 771 1,626 47.4% 53 171 31.0% 6.1 5.9 97.0

Look at how good we are at defending the roll man here? We're a Top 10 team in the league at this. On a shot to shot basis the FG% looks really high here, but that's in comparison to (for example) a spot up shooter. The roll man is supposed to shoot very well here. But compared to the rest of the NBA this is where our defense shines.

Is this by design? Rotate to lock down the screen setter while letting either the guard or the spot up guy go nuts? If so, I disagree with it. Let's make the Tim Duncan beat us with 20 footers, instead of letting a Tony Parker get to the rim, or leave a guy like Danny Green open for three. I said this two seasons ago in a podcast w Gothic Ginobili's Doc Rostov. And I'm saying it again now. Our defensive plan, which nice that we can 'stop something' is stopping the wrong thing. It is nice that this "thing" (being able to shut down the roll man) has remained mostly stable and almost uniformly effective through the last four seasons. But I'd rather be uniformly good at stopping spot up shooters or the ball handler. The reason why we are better here than the other two points of attack is because this is where our defenders end up being. Instead of defending the rim from guards, or defending the perimeter from spot up guys (the two more "moneyball" shots in today's game) we're defending the shot you kind of want the other team to take -- the no-man's land shot from a screen setter.

Yes, LeBron James won a title making this shot. But let's make Serge Ibaka do it, instead of letting Russell Westbrook single-highhandedly dominate us with penetration and kicking it out to open spot up dudes.

But again, see how poorly we are at defending the ball handler in the pick and roll vs the screen setter. We need to reverse that, as locking down the ball handler would also help us with . . .



Utah Jazz Defense vs. Spot Up Shooters: 2009-10 to 2012-13

Season G W L % # PPP NBA Rank FGM FGA FG% 3PTM 3PTA 3PT% # / Game ePPG paPPG
2009 2010 92 57 35 62.0% 1,831 1.02 24 685 1,691 40.5% 373 997 37.4% 19.9 20.3 102.0
2010 2011 82 39 43 47.6% 1,701 1.04 25 634 1,546 41.0% 362 908 39.9% 20.7 21.6 104.0
2011 2012 70 36 34 51.4% 1,409 0.95 13 487 1,288 37.8% 257 713 36.0% 20.1 19.1 95.0
2012 2013 82 43 39 52.4% 1,483 1.03 28 553 1,351 40.9% 307 761 40.3% 18.1 18.6 103.0
2009 2013 326 175 151 53.7% 6,424 1.01 22.5 2,359 5,876 40.1% 1,299 3,379 38.4% 19.7 19.9 101.0

The whole point of dibble penetration is to move the defense around to create open looks. The failure to stop dribble penetration allows for these open looks to occur all too frequently because, as Raja Bell said it best, "we're consistently doing dumb sh*t." Very specifically, it's because we leave dudes open and they bury us from the outside.

Yes, our opponents only shoot 36 3pt% against us over the last four seasons. It's not 46%, so there's that! But in situations where we're defending spot up shooters it is basically 40%. That's way too high. It would be lower if our help defenders rotated as a team (which, by the way, means the first guy who gets beat HAS to be the man who makes the last rotation -- and if it's either our PG or C being beat, it means the open look a guy gets is because Big Al or Mo consistently did dumb sh*t), or our help defenders stayed home on the shooters -- and dared their PF to shoot a 20 footer.

Last season we ranked 28th out of 30 on spot up shooters. And we surrendered 103.0 points per 100 defensive possessions. That's awful. Over all, over the 326 games we've placed since 2009 and now the team gives up 19.7 points a GAME to spot up jump shooters. Do you remember what our margin of victory was over this same span? One or two better close outs a game and we're in the playoffs every year, instead of once in the last three.



So what has happened?

We used to be one of the best at defending the pick and roll, and are really bad at it now. We were always below average at defending spot up guys (except for two seasons ago when the other team just missed open shots -- we didn't close out better or play better team defense -- we said that during that season as well in game threads). And now we are one of the worst teams at both of those things.

And as a result, our defense at two of the most fundamentally critical forms of offensive attack are greatly exposed here.

The good news is that we're okay against isolating teams. That has gotten better -- but it's all bad compared to when we had Deron Williams here. Maybe Deron isn't the capstone on a good defense, and it really depends on your bigmen. If that's the case, Derrick Favors could be our MVP next year if he has a good season as our defensive anchor.

But according to Synergy, it's pretty clear where we need to improve on defensively as a team. It's been the same things we've had trouble with for nearly half a decade. As a fan, the main hope isn't for a defensive expert to join the team as an assistant coach -- the main hope is addition by subtraction now that we no longer have Al Jefferson, Mo Williams, Devin Harris, Randy Foye, and others on the team.

Time will tell if the results on the floor will be any different in 2013-14. For our collective sakes, I sincerely hope there are.