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Jazz defensive improvements are more than just a result of Rudy Gobert

Last season one of the "Three Ds" was defense. A year, and a head coach, later . . . we're finally seeing it.

Russ Isabella-USA TODAY Sports

Remember the "Three Ds"? Utah Jazz General Manager Dennis Lindsey used to talk about that all last season. He said it so frequently it's a mystery that some fans believe Tyrone Corbin was relieved of his duties / not asked back / fired because he couldn't win. It's also a mystery why some people think that the risk of having a cognitive / social disease (be tee dubs, there is no link in accredited, peer reviewed science) is more frightening than having a dead child. But hey, it's sadly a free country and dumb people are allowed to express how dumb they are. Well, for those who do not remember, the "Three Ds" were (in no order): Development, Discipline, and Defense.

Lindsey talked about all of this 133 regular season games ago, and now today -- way past the entire season he started talking about them -- we're finally seeing quantifiable results. Instead of ignoring what a direct superior told him he would be evaluated upon, Quin Snyder has gone about teaching these players. Instead of random benchings that appear to be related more to chronology than andragogy, Snyder has pulled players close to him, talked to them, and then let them get back out on the court and continue playing. It's almost as if we don't even NEED to write that post about Lev Vygotsky anymore! (But Yuccaman, I still want to read it.)

The practices are more mentally stimulating and challenging (see Favors quote), and the players are listening, learning, and getting better and/or being better. Bigmen like Enes Kanter and Rudy Gobert are not only actually playing in NBA games regularly for what seems like the first time in their young, hot, lives -- but in practice are being challenged to shoot three pointers. Wing players are working with the bigmen on defense as a unit, and the team is getting lit up by hot scorers less frequently than last year. And our point guards are being taught by a former NCAA point guard who was brought up in a team system that actually won things before. Furthermore, all the players are actually being coached by someone who has also been a head coach before. (As opposed to the "musical chairs" version of securing a coaching job -- be the last guy with a chair when the music stops.)

This team is developing. Part of that is the natural 12 month cycle the Jazz brass have the players on. Part of that is the player's own desire to get better. Of course part of that is also because of the previous coaches these guys have had -- from high school, to college, to the NBA. But a lot of the development "D" of the three "D" I think comes from this new coaching staff and their actual plan and focus on development.

Discipline? This is harder to explain. Part of it is keeping composure during stressful in-game situations. Another is to follow the game plan / not break plays. Another biggie is to stay focused and play the game without Chris Paul -ing it and talking to the refs. We've seen Gordon Hayward turn the ball over in clutch situations late in games this year. We've seen Trey Burke both take shots he shouldn't, and be forced to take shots because no one else will (even if they are open).

One thing this team hasn't done much is talk to the refs or get called for technical fouls. In fact the main player who has been T'd up this year on our squad is Trevor Booker (3 techs), and most of those are from hard fouls and babies reacting to them. Enes Kanter has two, and Rudy Gobert, Alec Burks, Rodney Hood, and Elijah Millsap all have one. I don't believe the technical fouls the team has gotten are a product of insubordination or talking to the refs excessively. I also don't think that technical fouls, and showing passion for the game and events of it, is a bad thing either. But being disciplined is a good thing, and the Jazz players are even keeled for the most part.

The larger issue for me is that when you combine development and discipline then the players should not be recreating the same problems / mistakes over and over again. For some players this is the case. For others, not so much. But even guys like Kanter are getting better on defense, and Burke is making some smarter decisions on offense. Again, both of those cats are still 22 years old.

So what about defense? Defense is the big thing for me -- because the teams that are the hardest outs in the playoffs are the ones that play defense. Of the three Ds, last year I think Defense was the one that presented the least. That's not the case this season.

This team is flat-out defending now. Check out the month-by-month PPG change:

2014 2015 Jazz Defense Month by Month

While the Jazz offense has not changed a lot over the months, the defense is much better. If you look at the +/- margins you see that it is trending in the right direction:

  • OCT: -14.5 PPG
  • NOV: -4.7 PPG
  • DEC: -1.4 PPG
  • JAN: -0.1 PPG (remember how bad that month was when we looked at the schedule?)
  • FEB (4 games): -1.5 PPG

1. Gobzilla is unleashed

From being down by 5 on average in November, the games of late are way closer now. Why is this happening? The easiest thing to notice is that Rudy Gobert is playing more. When he is playing more than twice what he did under the former coach (9.6 mpg under Corbin for the year, so DEC '14, JAN '15, and FEB '15) the team has been much more competent on defense. This is of course correlation, and not causation. Still though, more Rudy = more defense. If you were a head coach interested at all in the "Three Ds" at all, then this one should not have been too difficult to figure out.

2014 2015 Jazz Defense Rudy Gobert MPG Month by Month

I guess if your concept of 'what a center is' happens to be fixated upon offensive black holes like All-Star DeMarcus Cousins and the "contract year Al Jefferson" then you have problems. But problems enough to play him only 3.78 MPG over a while month when dude wasn't even injured? Really? Really though? We can keep making hypotheses here and suppose that Quin Snyder is better at identifying both what his job is (development, defense, etc), and identifying which players best help him accomplish the instructed tasks.

More Rudy has given this Jazz team a backbone. Hungry, young players like Elijah Millsap aren't the next coming of vintage Raja Bell, but within a system that leads dribble penetration towards Gobert you will find success. This helps out the team quite a bit, especially when some of our guards and wing players cannot stay in front of their man. (And let's be real here, the NBA game is adjudicated for slashers and scorers, not for defenders . . . it's HARD to defend in this league now.)

2. Delta D help from guys outside of the paint

But the improved defense is MORE than just more Gobert, and more of Gobert doing Gobert things. (Though blocking 3+ shots a game is always appreciated.) One of the major factors in securing the end of a defensive possessions is getting the defensive rebound. (Remember that Delta D thing no one liked?) While Trey Burke, Dante Exum, and Joe Ingles play the most minutes at the guard spots -- at this stage none of them are lockdown defenders. What they have been doing over the last few games, mind you, is specialize. Specifically, they are help rebounding / team rebounding better; and that is that Delta D thing Utah needed to get from these players. At least contribute SOMEWHERE on defense. They are now, with rebounds.

2014 2015 Jazz Defense Guard Rebounds

Joe has really stepped up his game, and he needed to because he had some really Swaggy Shoes to fill in for. Yes, he is playing more minutes now, and rebounding more per game -- but his rebounding rate is up, and so too is the percentage of his rebounds that are defensive rebounds. This team needs stops to make their defense better. Joe is definitely doing that by helping out with the boards that are "open court rebounds". (E.g. not paint rebounds / box out rebounds)

The same cannot be said for Dante, who is taxed with having to be the alpha defender more. This means his job is to be on the guy taking the shot. So, his rebounding numbers are down, but his length and closing ability are better suited to being the alpha defender anyway. Better than having Trey do that job.

And because they guys do form a unit, we see an uptick in Trey's rebounding abilities too. Waaaaay more of Trey's boards are now on the defensive end, and this is a product of getting many more rebounds that are open court / lose ball rebounds.

All together, Joe has more than doubled his rebounding output, Dante got a little worse but he's in the right place on defense on most plays, and Trey is 33% better.

So what do we have so far? More Rudy Gobert, and a defensive backbone and scheme that funnels guys into him. We have more loose ball rebounds that end a defensive possession, allowing for the team to actually finish the job on D. There's also anecdotal evidence of Enes Kanter getting better. But it seems like there's something missing . . .

. . . and there is. It's Gordon Hayward.

3. Gordon Hayward is more than just a highlight play defender

G-Time is more than just an offensive player, as his hustle and competitiveness fuel his performances on the other end of the floor. We've seen the highlight blocks all his career, but now he's getting into a good groove defending the other players. He's not the longest guy out there, and while he is athletic, he doesn't get an advantage over the best wing scorer on the other team most nights from this. What he is doing is actually defending players by out thinking them. This is something I've only previously seen from two other Utah Jazz players, John Stockton, and Andrei Kirilenko. To be fair to Karl Malone, he defended people using his advantages, mainly the physical ones. Guys couldn't back him down, and weren't strong enough to hold onto the ball near him when he was go for that bear claw swipe of the ball.

Andrei had length and athletic advantages too, but he used his brain the most, and you have to as a wing defender. You need to know your opponent, their tendencies, and put yourself into position to make life hard for them. It's obvious that Gordon does the most homework on the team, because he's now using RTS-like strategy to counter attack and 'lead' his opponent into his trap. It's not showing up in the box score, but the best defense rarely is. It's showing up in the games though as more guys are frustrated by Gordon, surprised and upset that they can't score at will against the Jazz any more.

It is clear that Hayward's dedication to defense has made the entire unit stronger. The overt thing to do is pat Rudy Gobert on his very large back. But Hayward's strides, and the smaller improvements by players like Kanter, Burke, and Ingles makes a huge difference. The ultimate understanding here is that, well, Derrick Favors finally has some help around here.

And if you give these guys another 2 years together, a core of Dante Exum, Gordon Hayward, Derrick Favors, Rudy Gobert, Trey Burke, and Enes Kanter can be a very solid group of defenders no team wants to play against. Sure, not everyone is individually defensively blessed, but with a good team game plan, they can be. And I think that's why Dennis Lindsey is so keen on defense, development, and discipline.

He brought together great, young, talent. They just need to be raised up upon the three D's, and they will in turn raise up a few more Division banners (at the very least). But as always, the main focus is on defense. If you can't defend you can't play. And this Jazz team intends to be playing right through the heart of the summer as soon as possible.