The Trifecta For Utah: Defense, More Defense, Great Defense

Ever since Quin Snyder took over as head coach of the Utah Jazz in 2014-15, the team has experienced continual improvement, both offensively and defensively. Unsurprisingly, this has also resulted in continual improvement in the area that matters most: wins and losses.

Utah Jazz Improvement Under Quin Snyder
Season Head Coach Off Rtg Rank Def Rtg Rank Record
2013-14 Ty  Corbin 25th 29th 25-57
2014-15 Quin Snyder 17th 14th 38-44
2015-16 Quin Snyder 16th 7th 40-42
2016-17 Quin Snyder 12th 3rd 51-31

The Jazz, even with Gordon Hayward, were never going to be an offensive juggernaut, but the key is the organization understood this. They avoided the unforgivable mistake of force feeding a pre-prescribed identity to an incongruous roster.

Instead, Snyder, and GM, Dennis Lindsey, focused on areas that transcend any individual player or one particular group; namely, stifling defense, pass-first offense, and character. This is a trifecta that will make any NBA team competitive night in, night out. And the beauty is Snyder and Lindsey have already solved the hard part: player buy-in.

Defensively, the Jazz are an NBA exception when it comes to the number of players on one roster that take a significant amount of pride in stopping the opposition.

Case in point, Jazz rookie, Donovan Mitchell: “Offense is second to me,” he said. “I just focus on the defensive end. It’s not fake. It’s the real deal. It’s what I focus on.”

Jazz small forward, Joe Ingles, believes the team’s calling card is defense: “It’s the one thing that stands out,” Ingles said. “We have so many guys who defensively are ready to play, so many guys. Jazz fans will love the way we play.”

Ekpe Udoh is so brazen, he’s declared himself “one of the best defensive players in the world.” Quin Snyder could only smile at Udoh’s declaration, stating, “The fact that he takes so much pride in his defense is a great thing.” And while Udoh may think he’s one of the best defenders in the world, teammate Rudy Gobert was the best in the world in 2016-17 according to ESPN’s Defensive Real Plus-Minus (DRPM) metric. And it was only two seasons ago that new comer, Ricky Rubio, laid claim to the top spot among all point guards.

In fact, dating back to 2013-14, only three teams have had at least two DRPM leaders at different positions on the same roster: Golden State, San Antonio, and Memphis. The results? No missed playoff appearances, a combined regular-season winning percentage of 70.4% and no regular-season win total lower than 42 games (Memphis went 42-40 in 2015-16). Utah now joins the list in 2017-18 with Rubio and Gobert in the fold

With the likes of Thabo Sefolosha (perennial top-10 DRPM among small forwards) and Derrick Favors (perennial top-20 DRPM among power forwards) this Utah team certainly has the makeup of a league-leading defense.

So, what’s a team to do when they’ve clearly placed a premium on defending?

Exactly what the Jazz have done for three consecutive seasons under Snyder. Slow the game to an uncomfortable crawl. Grind away possessions. Break your will. Ranking dead last in pace accomplishes all of the above and then some.

The most difficult part for opponents is not only do they have to earn everything on offense, but then they have to defend a Utah team with no reservations about sharing the basketball.

Utah Jazz Love Sharing The Ball
Season Passes Per Game Rank
2014-15 364.9 1st
2015-16 354.8 1st
2016-17 319.1 4th

It’s an unselfishness that’s been a point of emphasis since day one. As Snyder loves to point out time and again, “We’re a team that’s unselfish and passes the ball. Our identity as an unselfish team that plays with the pass hasn’t changed.”

Off-season addition, Jonas Jerebko, was a quick study on the team’s identity during training camp.

“The unselfishness I’ve seen the last two weeks from everybody just sharing the ball, like I’ve been saying, I think this team can surprise a lot of people with the way we play,” Jerebko said. “Our defensive first mentality is gonna be big.”

Fitting buzz words. Unselfishness. Defense first. It’s almost too good to be true, but is it?

The Jazz have proven they walk the talk. They preach defense and then find guys that can/want to defend. They place a premium on passing and then make a point of bringing in, arguably, one of the best passing point guards in the NBA in Ricky Rubio, who’s also an excellent defender to boot. They value character and Snyder and Lindsey are convinced the team has it in spades.

Following Gordon Hayward’s recent departure character was actually the first thing Lindsey touched on.

“I think they have character. Look, there’s one thing that Quin and I both wanted out of the group. We wanted a little more proactivity out of our players. But the one thing that our character always showed is they responded to challenges during the season, whether that be injuries or getting down in a game and coming back or a loss in the next game. That’s usually a sign of great character, that you have a response. Do we need to be more proactive and more physical and tough on the front end? Absolutely. We’ll try to procure to that and emphasize that. But I would imagine they’ll have a great response with their work.”

Lindsey has also made a point of bringing in coaches and players alike, who have something to prove. He felt that way about hiring Snyder and he mentioned similar sentiments regarding the Ricky Rubio trade. No doubt, this team is right where they feel most comfortable. Entering the 2017-18 season with a lot to prove.

According to Vegas, the Jazz have a current win projection of 38.5. Quite the tumble only one season removed from a 51-31 record. At first glance, the projection might seem reasonable. No Gordon Hayward. No George Hill. Dante Exum now potentially out for the season. Except, inaccurate projections happen all the time. Just ask Rudy Gobert. “If I was listening to projections, I’d probably be playing in France right now,” Gobert said. “I’m just worried about the team. We’ll see. Most people don’t even know. They talk, but they don’t even know.”

What people should know, is that the Jazz have an identity. An identity that they’re committed to, and any failures won’t be due to walking among the NBA’s aimless.

The reality is it will be a challenging season in an incredibly talented Western Conference. The Jazz, though, are equipped for success, so don’t be surprised when they exceed expectations. For Utah, no challenge is too great, especially with Snyder constantly reminding his players, “Adversity is opportunity in disguise.”

82 opportunities await. The Jazz are ready.


photo via llananba