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The Utah Jazz hang their hat on defense but aren’t defending anymore

Utah still bases its identity on something it’s no longer elite at, and they aren’t doing anything else to compensate

NBA: Utah Jazz at Brooklyn Nets Andy Marlin-USA TODAY Sports

The Utah Jazz may be on the brink of an identity crisis. For half a decade the team’s identity revolved around defense and a slow but efficient offense. And the peak, those Jazz teams were defensive juggernauts.

From 2016 to the end of the 2018-19 season the Jazz had the best multi-season defensive rating in the league by a considerable margin according to Basketball Reference. The gap in points allowed per 100 possessions between first-place Utah and second-place San Antonio is greater than the difference between the Spurs and the 11th-place Milwaukee Bucks.

Quin Snyder’s philosophy was a counter to the fast-paced offensive explosion that had recently been made fashionable by the Golden State Warriors dynasty. The very essence of Jazz culture on the court was manifest in its pride and effectiveness in defense, led by Rudy Gobert who earned his two Defensive Player of the Year awards in that time span (and probably should have received the award in 2016-17 as well).

Those teams were regular season stalwarts with two 50-win seasons and the sixth-most wins among all NBA teams in those three years. Utah even won two playoff series, punching above their playoff seed to advance.

Fast forward to now. Same coach, a lot of the same faces (Gobert, Donovan Mitchell, Joe Ingles, Derrick Favors, Royce O’Neale) from those previous teams and a similar culture emphasizing the importance of defense.

Only, there’s not much defending going on. At least not the elite defense we’ve come to expect from Snyder and company.

Last year, the Jazz made the precarious jump from being well above average in defensive rating to simply above average. And this year, they’re sitting just below average.

Utah Jazz Relative Defensive Rating and Points Per Possession

Season Relative DRtg Def Pts/Poss (via Synergy) Def PPP Rank
Season Relative DRtg Def Pts/Poss (via Synergy) Def PPP Rank
2016-17 -3.5 0.945 4
2017-18 -4.7 0.940 3
2018-19 -4.7 0.956 3
2019-20 -0.7 0.988 13
2020-21 +0.8 0.999 18

*Relative Defensive Rating is via Basketball Reference and PPP data is from Synergy

The below-average defensive numbers for 2020-21 probably won’t hold for the entire season, but dropping four points per 100 possessions is something that needs to be compensated for. More offense is really the only way to do that so how is Utah doing there? No better than the last few years. For several seasons, expectations from fans and media were that at some point the Jazz would move to a faster-paced offense and, far more important than pushing the pace, a scoring attack that could keep up with the best.

Despite Utah’s front office making several moves that had the express intent of shifting the offense into a higher gear — trading for Mike Conley and Jordan Clarkson while signing Bojan Bogdanovic — the offense has simply refused to make that shift so far.

Jazz Relative Pace/Offensive Rating

Year Relative Pace Relative ORtg
Year Relative Pace Relative ORtg
2016-17 -4.8 +0.8
2017-18 -1.6 -0.2
2018-19 +0.3 +0.5
2019-20 -1.7 +1.7
2020-21 -1.4 +0.5

Right now, the Jazz are a team that can no longer claim the elite defense it used to hang its hat on and nothing new has materialized. Offensively, this team isn’t there yet. But there is hope. That +1.7 relative offensive rating from 2019-20 is a solid jump from the merely average offenses of 2016-19. Utah had that relative rating despite an overall disappointing season from Conley, some struggles by Ingles for parts of the season, and only benefitting from Clarkson’s services off the bench for roughly half the season. And given Utah has retained the entire core from last year’s team plus Favors, the hope is to reverse the poor offensive trend in the opening games by the time the playoffs roll around.

For now, the “it’s still early in the season” argument holds some water. But these games count, and the longer Utah waits to either re-establish its elite defensive mentality, or find a new one on offense, the more they’ll pay in playoff seeding come summer.