What Happened to The Jazz’s Defense?

After putting together a tantalizing 20-3 run from early December to January 27th, The Jazz have struggled to a 5-9 record since their incredible stretch. The past few years, Utah has had well documented offensive struggles in the playoffs. So the offense must be faltering again right?

Oddly enough, Utah’s offensive rating has been roughly the same during their slide as it was when they started 32-13.

The defense, however, has nosedived.

After boasting the 7th ranked defense in the league over the first 45 games, Utah has sunk down to 28th the past 14 (106.2 DRtg to 117 DRtg).

While many have attributed Utah’s earlier success to a weak strength of schedule (I don’t entirely disagree) and surmised that stronger opponents have been too much for the Jazz. Many have also been sure that this team doesn’t play with the same effort as year’s past, and recently, that has been part of the problem.

However, I think much of Utah’s defensive issues can be boiled down to lack of size. That sounds crazy right? They start Rudy Gobert, one of the true giants of the game. Utah’s off-season roster changes, namely trading for Mike Conley and trading away Derrick Favors, greatly impacted the length and strength on the floor for The Jazz.

Favors’ impact on Utah’s defense has been largely underwritten due to the inverse impact he had on a stagnant offense that suffered from a severe lack of spacing. As the starting center in New Orleans, he has had a massive impact on their team defense.

He missed a large chunk of the beginning of the season due to injury and the death of his mother. With Jaxson Hayes and Jahlil Okafor soaking up the majority of the Pels’ center minutes, New Orleans ranked 28th in Defensive Rating at 114.4. Since Favors returned on December 13th, The Pelicans have owned a 109.8 Defensive Rating, tied for 9th best in the league. He’s a plus defender on the interior with enough quickness to switch on the perimeter occasionally without being a liability.

Obviously Gobert is one of the league’s best interior defenders, but he greatly benefited from playing next to Favors. From the 2015/16 season through to the 2018/19 season, when both Favors and Gobert were starting together, Utah ranked no lower than 9th and was 3rd in rim protection efficiency twice over four seasons. They’ve dropped down to 18th this year.

I will also note that lineups featuring both Favors and Gobert dropped in rim protection percentage the past two years, but I attribute that mostly to the difference in the wings playing next to them. Lineups still playing more traditional-sized wings rather than multiple undersized wings still held elite rim protection numbers.

Example: Last season’s lineup of Donovan Mitchell/Royce O’Neale/Joe Ingles/Favors/Gobert had a 54.5% rim protection percentage which ranked in the top 15% of league lineups.

As the Jazz transitioned from longer wings like Gordon Hayward (who Favors and Gobert posted incredible defensive lineups with), Rodney Hood, Alec Burks, and Dante Exum their rim protection numbers have slipped which makes sense. While smaller and quicker guards/wings have allowed for better perimeter defense, they are also giving up many more drives to the rim.

When Favors was slotted next to Gobert, he routinely was able to stretch out to cover more perimeter oriented assignments allowing for Gobert to stick closer to the rim. Replacing Favors with Bojan Bodanovic, stretches Gobert out even further from the rim quite often. Bogdanovic is a decent perimeter defender, but lacks the strength and size to be a quality interior defender.

Joe Ingles is a good defender, but also lacks the size to play the four credibly. Ditto Royce O’Neale, probably the second best defender on this team, but he’s 6’4 so his defensive potential is automatically lower.

Gobert’s defensive load and responsibility is MASSIVE due to the roster construction. The Jazz rely on him to be the best rebounder and defender on the floor at all times and that’s a huge ask. Lacking the threat of another sizeable defender coming from the weakside makes it that much more strenuous on Gobert as a rim protector.

I think this team can and will sort out it’s defense, but I’m confident that this team no longer has the same defensive ceiling as they had in previous years.

I’d love any feedback or thoughts! I’ve been thinking about this a lot the past two weeks and it’s interesting to see how the numbers stack up with the eye test.

Credit to Cleaning The Glass and Basketball Reference.

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