The Utah Jazz was the trendy pick to be the second-best team in the loaded Western Conference this year, between Donovan Mitchell, who exploded in his first year in the NBA, Rudy Gobert, the reigning defensive player of the year, and very little roster turnover.
The biggest question mark for the team heading into this season was whether it had enough offensive firepower behind Mitchell. To everyone’s surprise, defense is holding this group back.
The Jazz had the best defensive rating (102.9) last season, and teams knew when they entered the paint they had to reckon with the 7-foot-1 Gobert, who held opponents to a 52 percent field goal rate on shots six feet or less from the rim, which aided in the Jazz limiting teams to the second-fewest points per game (41.8). Even if players managed to get by Gobert, the Jazz rotations were crisp and on the spot.
This year, Utah is giving up 49.4 points per game in the paint and opponents are shooting 57.3 percent against Gobert near the rim, mostly due to late or no rotations on defense.
Utah’s defensive decline doesn’t just fall at Gobert’s feet; as a team, the Jazz players have to get back to rotating to help positions and trusting teammates will cover for them. The Boston Celtics have consistently had one of the best defenses in the NBA because they scramble to cover for each other knowing that another teammate will help on their man. NBA offenses are so good at exploiting mismatches, and that’s why teams have to be ready and willing to rotate. Good defenses don’t depend on just one or two players; they depend on everyone on the court to work together and move as one. Communication, trust and rotating are the hallmarks of good defenses. Right now, those elements are missing in Utah.
For example, against the Sacramento Kings this month, Dante Exum was in the weakside corner. He needed to come over early but he had his back to the ball. Gobert also had to drop the moment Ricky Rubio changed his feet to force the ballhandler baseline. Rubio appeared to be thinking he had help behind him in Gobert and Exum, yet neither were in position, and the Kings got an easy layup.
The other issue is communication; the Jazz don’t seem to be on the same page. In a loss to the Indiana Pacers, when the ball was kicked out to Cory Joseph, Jazz forward Jae Crowder thought teammate Joe Ingles was guarding Joseph, so Crowder closed out to Bojan Bogdanovic. But Ingles was stunting (taking a jab step toward the offensive player to force them to hesitate for a second) at Joseph and going to Bogdanovic. With no one recovering to Joseph, he drilled an open three.
The good news for Jazz fans is that there are still 60 games left and the Western Conference is so bunched up at the moment, Utah can quickly climb the standings. Last season, the Jazz was in an even worse position, nine games below .500 with 37 games to go. Gobert was injured for 26 of the first 45 games and the defense missed his presence. Upon his return, the team flipped the switch, going 30-7 with a league high 99.0 defensive rating and charged into the playoffs. The Jazz has the same core that was in this hole last year and knows what it will take to climb out.
Utah made a move on Wednesday, trading Alec Burks and two future second-round picks to the Cleveland Cavaliers for veteran sniper Kyle Korver. He will address their poor three-point shooting, although this will be another player for which the Jazz defense will have to cover. It will make getting the defense on the same page an even bigger priority.