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A look into the Utah Jazz’s perimeter defense issues

A film review of the growing issue the Utah Jazz are facing.

Clevaland Cavaliers v Utah Jazz

Since Rudy Gobert’s absence (health and safety protocols), the Utah Jazz have faced a recent skid, winning only one of their last five games. This comes as a shock to nobody since Gobert is arguably Utah’s best player and one of the greatest defenders in NBA history. If nothing else, this recent stretch of games should act as a reminder to the NBA that Rudy Gobert’s impact is critically undervalued by fans, talking heads, and even players. I mean, just look at Utah’s defense without him:

Gobert’s biggest value on defense doesn’t come from his ability to block shots or defend vertically. While he’s incredible in those departments, where Gobert truly separates himself is in his ability to cover up his teammates’ mistakes. Gobert doesn’t just rotate, switch, and recover on actions he’s involved in, he does it for the four Jazz players on the court with him.

That’s why, at least to some extent, Utah’s defense without him has been so horrid. To be clear, Utah has been struck with a myriad of Covid-19 and injury issues recently. Their struggles aren’t solely because of Gobert’s absence, instead due to a variety of weird and uncontrollable circumstances. That’s why, at least for the most part, their losses as of late should be taken with a heavy dose of salt.

Still, that doesn’t mean these games aren’t opportunities to learn; every NBA game, regardless of the circumstances, can have something tangible taken away from it. For Utah, the lack of Rudy Gobert has shown a spotlight on their perimeter defense deficiencies. For instance, take a look at this play, where Cade Cunningham gets a pretty good look at a layup off of a screen:

Even though Cunningham misses the layup, I don’t understand what Royce O’Neale is doing on this play. Up to that point in the game, Cunningham (a 32% three point shooter) had gone 1-4 from three. There is no need for O’Neale to (1) go over a screen nearly 26 feet out from the basket and (2) then effectively die on the play. Again, with Gobert in the game, miscues like this are less noticeable. There would be better communication and a better contest on the layup. Either way, in the playoffs, players better than Cunningham will surly convert on mistakes like this.

And while I hate to pick on O’Neale, this play here is simply too easy for Cunningham:

After getting initially beat, O’Neale makes a decent recovery on the play, but he’s already playing so far behind that Cunningham gets an easy layup anyway. Throughout the second half, there are another 2-3 similar plays where Cunningham blows by him.

Generally speaking, I believe O’Neale does a good job! When facing larger, slower players, O’Neale holds his own on defense. However, he struggles when he faces guards with quick first steps. Again, while the issues in this play are likely exacerbated by the lack of Gobert, straight line drives to the basket cannot happen, regardless of whose under the basket to clean up the mistake.

But what makes me more upset than the clips above are plays like this:

For Quin Snyder, watching this must be infuriating. Jordan Clarkson stands with his feet stuck in the mud the entire play. Off the initial drive, he’s in the right position, one pass away from the ball. However, as Darius Garland reaches the free-throw line extended, Clarkson has to either decide to stunt at the ball handler, or return to the shooter. With Eric Paschall actually doing a good job of staying in front, Clarkson should have taken a step closer to Lauri Markkanen to prevent an open corner three. Instead, he fails to move until Markkanen has already caught the ball and doesn’t even get a hand up to contest.

These are the types of plays that concern me the most. They have nothing to do with Gobert’s absence and are a poor execution of elementary-level defensive concepts. Mistakes like this have nothing to do with Quin Snyder or his system. I find it hard to believe that a coach of his caliber hasn’t reviewed how to defend this exact play before. It simply comes down to focus and execution, something that the Jazz have repeatedly shown lapses in.

And finally, what's going on between Clarkson and Bojan Bogdanović here:

I understand that Clarkson is guarding Lamar Stevens, a career 4.3 PPG scorer. And I understand as a 33% three point shooter, Stevens isn’t exactly the biggest threat from the outside. But either way, Clarkson makes multiple fundamental mistakes in this play. The play starts with a miscommunication where Clarkson seems to expect that Bogdanović will switch onto Stevens. Then, after realizing that Bogdanovic is staying home, Clarkson makes a poor close out on Stevens, leaves his feet on a fake, and allows a drive to the basket. Paschall does a great job of contesting (and against Gobert, this shot probably doesn’t fall), but the mistakes Clarkson made allowed Stevens to get going down hill. If this same defense was played against a playoff level player, it ends in a basket nine times out of ten.

I reviewed hours worth of film on Utah’s defense and the clips above are only a fraction of the miscues I noticed. Like I’ve said multiple times, with Gobert and a fully healthy roster, a decent portion of these defensive lapses are covered up. However, throughout the span of a seven game series, I find it difficult to believe that opposing offenses don’t take advantage of the multitude of silly mistakes Utah makes on defense. Gobert can cover a lot, but he can’t cover every bad rotation, poor closeout, and blown switch. While I don’t think the Jazz are doomed, I do think that, as constructed, their perimeter defense will hurt them in the playoffs. With the trade deadline coming soon, we’ll see if the front office feels that way too.