After three preseason games for the Utah Jazz, we’ve seen a lot of different aspects of this young new team. One aspect that was suspected to improve going into this season was the defense. The past few seasons have seen the Jazz struggle with stopping their opponents, most notably in the pick and roll, but with the length of Derrick Favors and Enes Kanter in the starting front court, a noticeable change in defensive efficiency was expected. Now, with some kind of a sample size to examine, have the Jazz improved at all defensively?
Utah ended last season with a 104.3 defensive efficiency rating, the 21st best in the NBA. That means for every 100 possessions, the Jazz gave up 104.3 points. Last season, NBA teams averaged 94.4 possessions a game, which means Utah gave up 98.1 points per game – not exactly championship caliber defense. So far through three games this preseason, the Jazz have given up 93.3 points per game. Utah held the Golden State Warriors to 78 points, the Portland Trailblazers to 96, and the Los Angeles Clippers to 106. The important thing to remember, however, is that this is only preseason – few, if any, preseason stats have any merit on a team’s final spot in the playoff race come April.
Point in case – look at Utah’s 2012-13 preseason. The Jazz went 5-3, a .625 record. If Utah would have gone .625 in the regular season, they would have finished as the sixth best team in the Western Conference, ahead of Golden State. Also, Utah only gave up 91 points per game in the 2012-13 preseason. In short, the Jazz’s defensive numbers and win total changed significantly once the games being played had meaning. The same can be said for nearly every NBA team.
But if we were to take the defensive numbers from a preseason ago, and apply the same differential to this year’s preseason numbers, what we would get is the following; the Jazz currently hold a .333 winning percentage. The closest they can come to that average in terms of numbers is a 3-5 record, which translates into a .375 percentage. Taking the same differential from last year’s preseason versus the regular season stats (the Jazz had a .625 preseason percentage, compared to a .524 regular season, a differential of .101) Utah would end up with a .274 win percentage. Based on last season’s standings, with the Jazz at .274, Utah would have been dead last in the Western Conference. Also, that percentage would have put Utah as the third worst team in the entire league. If Utah were to finish the coming 2013-14 season with a .274 percentage, that would mean they’d only win about 22 games, about where most national media has the Jazz landing. Also, if the same trend applied to their defense this season as it did last year, the Jazz would end up letting opponents score 100.4 points per game.
So, through three preseason games, is it possible to point out any change in defense at all? Bear in mind, these numbers are ran off of only three games’ worth of data . After a full eight game preseason, a better picture will be available. But based on these projections alone, it’s safe to say that the Jazz are going to have a worse year both in defensive efficiency and win totals. This isn’t exactly new to Jazz fans, and with such a young team, these kinds of struggles are expected.
One of the biggest learning curves when making the jump from NCAA or international action to the NBA is learning how to play defense. Listen to any rookie interview when the player is asked what the biggest change in the game is from college to the pros – it’s the speed of the players, the quickness at coming off screens and shooting, at threading the needle, and at fast breaks. The NBA has a 24 second shot clock, designed to make the game faster and more up-tempo. So it stands to reason that with such a young team, the Jazz will have a lot of struggles defensively this coming season, as the newcomers adjust to the speed of the NBA.
Also, NBA offenses are an entirely different animal than what’s ran in college. New players not only have to become quicker and learn defensive schemes, they also have to learn to recognize the different threats an opposing offense presents. In college, it’s rare to see players who dominate the ball in the same fashion as LeBron James or Kobe Bryant – that’s because in college, superstars are few and far between. Teams are forced to play within a structured offense, moving the ball with precision, waiting for an open shot or lane to the basket. Comparatively, in the NBA (which only has 30 teams to the 351 competing in division I NCAA men’s basketball), every successful team has a ball-dominant player, around whom the offense is structured. The point is, when offenses are designed around the specific talents of a certain stellar player (Stephen Curry’s three-point shot, Bryant’s deadly mid-range jumper, or Derrick Rose’s speed and ability to finish around the rim) those offenses tend to become more difficult to defend.
Take the Miami Heat, for example. When James is the main option on Miami’s halfcourt set, this forces the defense to commit more energy to James, due to his prolific ability to score. If the defense succeeds in pressuring James enough to force him to give up the ball, this usually leaves Mike Miller, Shane Battier, or Dwayne Wade open for a mid-range jump shot or three pointer.
With Utah being such a young team, it’s going to take time for them to figure out exactly how to defend teams with players such as James and Wade. After all, if the Jazz want to compete at that level in the near future, defending players of that caliber is essential.
This season should provide a whole host of learning opportunities for Utah, and hopefully they can capitalize off of the upcoming experiences, turning themselves into a better defensive team.