Will the Utah Jazz defense be as good as it has been the past two years?

SALT LAKE CITY, UT - MARCH 11: Rudy Gobert #27 of the Utah Jazz blocks the shot by Markieff Morris #5 of the Oklahoma City Thunder in the first half of a NBA game at Vivint Smart Home Arena on March 11, 2019 in Salt Lake City, Utah. NOTE TO USER: User expressly acknowledges and agrees that, by downloading and or using this photograph, User is consenting to the terms and conditions of the Getty Images License Agreement. (Photo by Gene Sweeney Jr./Getty Images)
SALT LAKE CITY, UT - MARCH 11: Rudy Gobert #27 of the Utah Jazz blocks the shot by Markieff Morris #5 of the Oklahoma City Thunder in the first half of a NBA game at Vivint Smart Home Arena on March 11, 2019 in Salt Lake City, Utah. NOTE TO USER: User expressly acknowledges and agrees that, by downloading and or using this photograph, User is consenting to the terms and conditions of the Getty Images License Agreement. (Photo by Gene Sweeney Jr./Getty Images) /

The Utah Jazz have established an identity of defense over the past two years. Can they maintain it after all the changes they went through this summer?

Change is often hard to cope with, even if it involves modifications for the better. Such can certainly be applied to the Utah Jazz. Although they added some exhilarating players this summer headlined by Mike Conley and Bojan Bogdanovic, the loss of the likes of Derrick Favors, Ricky Rubio, Jae Crowder and others isn’t an easy pill to swallow.

That’s especially true considering that the Jazz shared a unique bond and an intriguing dynamic with one another as teammates the past two years. Their tight-knit nature produced exceptional results which led directly to their successful seasons. Such a change in personnel led me two weeks ago to pose a question that I’m certain is lingering on the minds of many Jazz fans – will the team’s chemistry be as good in 2019-20 as it has been the past two years?

Well (spoiler alert if you haven’t yet read that particular article of mine), fortunately after digging into the evidence and dissecting the personalities and demeanors of the new guys joining the Jazz, I arrived at the conclusion that Utah’s chemistry should still remain sound. However, change can bring about impacts in multiple areas, and it’s undeniable that chemistry isn’t the only department in which this Jazz team will have to adjust.

As such, today I’m here to pose another question – Will the Utah Jazz defense be as good in 2019-20 as it has been the past two years?

To answer this, let’s first look at how good the Jazz defense has actually been. In 2017-18, Utah finished atop the NBA in defensive rating with an impressive mark of 103.0. This edged out the second-place Boston Celtics by a mere .2 points per 100 possessions. This was combined with the Jazz tying with the San Antonio Spurs for the fewest points allowed in the NBA at 99.8, while holding opposing teams to a field goal percentage of 44.9, the sixth-best mark in the league.

This past season, the defensive efficiency of every team across the league was effected by newly implemented ‘freedom of movement’ rules which made guarding all the more difficult. This was a tricky transition for several staunch defenses to start the year, and the Utah Jazz were no exception. Nevertheless, they adjusted and adapted masterfully, finishing the season at the second-best defensive rating mark in the NBA of 105.3.

No, that’s not nearly as solid as their 103.0 mark, or even the 104.7 they put up in 2016-17, but the fact that it was still near the top of the NBA, trailing only Milwaukee’s mark of 104.9, is exceptional. Considering that the Jazz returned nearly their entire rotation in 2018-19, surely the rule changes did more to impact their defensive efficiency than the performance of their players.

Plus besides, Utah still did quite well in other areas such as finishing fourth-best in opponent points per game (albeit, yet again, at a higher rate of 106.5) and eighth-best in the league in opposing field goal percentage at 45.2 percent.

It should go without saying that those were all highly impressive figures, particularly in 2017-18. During those seasons there was never any question about it – the Utah Jazz defense was rock solid, anchored by back-to-back Defensive Player of the Year Rudy Gobert and executed to perfection by a host of worthy wing defenders in a system brilliantly crafted by Quin Snyder.

But a lot of that success came as a result of crafty coverage from Ricky Rubio, particularly in the passing lanes as he averaged 1.6 steals per game in 2017-18 and 1.3 in 2018-19, Derrick Favors, who served as a constant rim protector and a second tower in the paint with or without Rudy Gobert in action, and Jae Crowder, who gave Utah defensive versatility against stretch-fours and the ability to switch onto multiple positions.

With those three out of Salt Lake, the Jazz are bound to look different next year. But just how much will those differences extend to, and perhaps damage, their defense?

Well, starting with the negatives, losing Derrick Favors was a big blow. Yes, at times he was redundant with Rudy Gobert when the two took the court together, but Favs’ presence allowed the Jazz to have a staunch defensive anchor and reliable shot blocker on the floor at all times. Favors’ replacement in the backup center role, Ed Davis, is a serviceable defender and quite frankly a great piece to help fill the void of Favors’ departure. However, he’s simply nowhere near the defender Derrick is.

Comparing them in terms of mere per-game numbers isn’t really fair given that Favors played significantly more than Davis, so let’s look at per-36. Either way, when comparing their shot-blocking ability, Derrick trounces Ed. Last season, Favors averaged 2.2 whereas Davis only posted an average of 0.8. Favors bested Davis in terms of defensive rating last season (101.6 versus 102.2) and in Basketball Reference’s Defensive Box Plus/Minus and Defensive Win Shares.

Last season, Favors’ DBPM was 3.2 while Davis’ was 1.7 and his DWS was 3.5 versus Davis’ 2.5. In observing career DWS, Derrick is at 24.0 while Ed is at 16.9. Not to mention, Favors’ intimidating stature – he’s the same height but has 40 additional pounds on Davis – allowed him to be a strong and physical presence in the paint that Davis simply won’t be able to fully replicate.

Where Davis does edge out Favors is on rebounding, which also is an important aspect of defense in and of itself. One great way to prevent the opponent from getting more points and easy looks is to eliminate second-chance opportunities. Davis’ ability to gobble up defensive rebounds will certainly help in that regard.

While it’s not often viewed in the same light as recording a block or challenging a shot, collecting rebounds is an essential part of defense as it closes out the defensive stand and, if done consistently, will reduce the opposing team’s possessions. Fewer possessions obviously leads to fewer points which is the ultimate goal of a staunch defense. In that regard, Davis will provide a defensive lift.

But comparing Davis and Favs is only talking about replacing Favors’ former role as a backup center. What about replacing him as the starting power forward? Despite his size, Favors adapted quite nicely to the modern NBA in terms of priding himself in an ability to defend out to the perimeter while also being a force in the paint. No, he wasn’t the best against stretch-fours by any means, but his effort to improve there was admirable.

He’ll be replaced in the starting group by one of either (or perhaps you could say a combo of the two) Bojan Bogdanovic or Royce O’Neale. Bojan is more comfortable at the small forward spot, and the belief among most close to the Jazz is that Joe Ingles will slide into a bench role (though still likely logging starter minutes) with Royce O’Neale moving into the starting power forward position.

This presents an interesting situation. O’Neale is widely considered Utah’s best perimeter defender. In that aspect, you could argue that he’s a more effective defensive weapon than Favors. However, he doesn’t have the inside prowess that Derrick has, and their defensive skills are simply different.

Then there’s Bojan Bogdanovic. I’m not going to try to convince you in any way, shape or form that Bogey is a better defender than Derrick Favors or the guy he’s likely replacing in the starting lineup Joe Ingles because, well, he’s just not. However, Bogey is definitely more serviceable on defense than he’s given credit for.

In the 2017-18 season, he had the second-best defensive rating on his Indiana Pacers team of any player that logged significant playing time, trailing only Victor Oladipo who was an All-NBA Defensive Team selection that year. He also did a formidable job against LeBron James in that postseason, and was solid in Indiana’s team defensive scheme.

He should be able to do likewise in Utah. He’ll struggle against wing players with significantly greater quickness, but against bigger perimeter players, he’ll have the ability to slow them considerably. And in Quin’s system that features Rudy Gobert covering his back, Bojan should still be more than reliable. He’s also decent at getting out in passing lanes as he averaged nearly a steal per game last year.

Perhaps the biggest positive change will be the addition of Mike Conley as a replacement for Ricky Rubio. The aging Conley isn’t the defender he once was, but he’s still incredible on that end of the floor. As a former All-NBA Defensive Team member and a leader for the Grit ‘n’ Grind era Grizzlies, he knows all about locking up opposing defenses.

Rubio was a crafty and pesky defender, but on several occasions he had a difficult time staying in front of his man. Conley isn’t the pickpocket that Rubio was, but even though the Jazz could afford to force more turnovers (they ranked just 15th in the NBA in that category last season), stealing the ball isn’t as important as simply holding the ball-handler in check. Conley will be much more suited for preventing opposing guards from having their way and blasting past him to attack the paint.

That will make a huge difference for Rudy Gobert and the Jazz defense as a whole. If each of Conley, O’Neale and Donovan Mitchell is able to stay firmly in front of his man on the perimeter, Rudy won’t have to gamble or bail out as much (as he often tended to a season ago especially when Ricky’s defensive assignment broke free) and it will keep the screws battened down all that much tighter on D.

Looking at one of Utah’s other main additions in Jeff Green throws a further wrench in defensive comparisons. Green has the potential to be more versatile than Crowder was, with the ability to switch onto both perimeter players and bigs. However, he lacks some of the strength and toughness that Crowder utilized to give the opposition trouble. What Crowder lacked in length, he made up for in physicality. Green, meanwhile, has the length, but not so much the strength.

But, perhaps that comparison is a microcosm of what we’ll see in Utah’s defense next year. Maybe it’s not so much a question of will it be better or worse, but rather the simple truth is that Utah’s defense will merely be different next year.

What I mean is, they’re definitely sacrificing some size, strength and physicality in the loss of Favors and Crowder. But they’re gaining switch-ability and versatility – two things which have become critical in today’s NBA – by adding Jeff Green, Bojan Bogdanovic and inserting Royce O’Neale into the four-spot.

They also up their defensive rebounding with Ed Davis and patch up a critical weakness with Conley’s improved ability to stay in front of his man. However, they may also be giving up the frequency of forced turnovers which Rubio brought solidly to the table.

Therefore, I revert back to my previous point. As of right now, all we know for certain is that Utah’s defense will be different stylistically. It’ll be able to do some things that it couldn’t do before, but also will be forfeiting some things that it thrived on previously.

I know what you’re probably thinking – so, will this make Utah’s defense better or worse? Well, honestly, I think in certain matchups it could be a better fit, especially against smaller lineups that don’t pack as much muscle or punch. However, overall, I wouldn’t be surprised if Utah’s defense takes a bit of a slip during the regular season.

That said, I don’t expect it to be much of a decline at all. And because of the variety of positives I’ve mentioned here, there’s even a chance it could be better, especially if Donovan Mitchell is serious about his commitment to defense that he’s declared this summer and if Conley can be an impact defender like he was in his glory days in Memphis. At a minimum, the Jazz will now possess a more modern defense that matches a lot of today’s lineup trends.

Not only that, but as long as Rudy Gobert is anchoring the defense as the rim protector and last line of defense, it won’t matter who’s on the floor – this team is still going to be stingy defensively. As the back-to-back DPOY, he’s one of the hardest guys to score on in the league and grants his teammates with a lot of wiggle room that most squads can’t afford.

Furthermore, even if Utah’s defense does suffer a bit of a decline, the good news is that it was likely premeditated that such could be the case. And if it does dip slightly, the goal and likely outcome is that they’ll be so improved offensively that it will more than make up the difference.

As good as Utah’s defense has been the past few years, their offense just hasn’t been able to follow suit. Though they were second in the league in defensive rating last year and first the year before that, they finished just 14th and 16th in offensive efficiency, respectively.

Many teams have pointed to Utah potentially being a top-five offensive and defensive team next season, which would thrust them right into the middle of the championship conversation. To do so, they’d have to see their offense improve dramatically, which it’s clearly primed to do, while their defense could slip slightly – which it may very well do – to fifth in the NBA, and still be sufficient to earn that mark.

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Next year’s Utah Jazz team is going to be a lot of fun. And the different looks they’ll be able to throw out on defense will be a large part of that, regardless of if it actually improves the D or makes it slightly worse.

Either way, expect defense to still be the main aspect of Utah’s identity next season and for it to remain among the most daunting in the NBA. And once the playoffs roll around, their newfound versatility as well as the other positives they’ve constructed could very well be difference makers as they compete at the highest level for the 2020 NBA Championship.