Initially in the Quin Snyder era the Utah Jazz were built to be a defensive powerhouse. That may no longer be true this season, but the Jazz are winning more games with a new identity.
When Quin Snyder initially took over as Utah Jazz head coach back in 2014, I thought his main calling card would be to juice up the Jazz offense.
Trey Burke couldn’t clear 40 percent from the field, Gordon Hayward struggled as a number one option, and the Jazz offense sputtered to finish 25th in the league. It was obvious the Jazz a new system to maximize the talent and potential of its young players.
I expected the Jazz to push the pace and jack up more three pointers the next season. Alec Burks and Dante Exum at the time had tantalizing potential as slashing guards, and there were talks of Enes Kanter transforming his game to become a stretch big.
“Coach Q came to visit me and we went to a gym. He said, ‘You know you’re going to shoot some threes this year, right?’ ” Kanter said, smiling. “I was just like shocked that the first time he met me he gave me that confidence. It means a lot to me.”
Kanter had only taken three shots in 3-point territory (and made one) in his first three seasons while he mostly played center. But the 6-foot-11 fourth-year player, who’s now starting in the power forward position, unleashed two treys in the Jazz’s preseason-opener and drained one.
“I’ve been working really hard on the three,” Kanter said. “My teammates and my coaches give me that confidence. I really appreciate it.”
What instead happened was the Jazz defense became one of the elites in the league and much more reliable than the offense.
The Utah Jazz finished 2013-14 with the sixth slowest pace in the league, which is understandable given they had one of the youngest rosters. A faster pace doesn’t necessarily equate to a better offense, and for young and developing players they can limit their mistakes when playing slower.
In Quin Snyder’s first year as head coach, they moved from 25th in pace to dead last by a big margin. They would finish the next two years dead last playing at a snail’s pace.
The whole idea behind that was to wear out their opponents by making them work hard for a basket. Getting back on transition defense would stop fast breaks and force teams to eat up their shot clock on every play.
Thanks to the emergence of Rudy Gobert as a premier defensive center, the Utah Jazz became a defensive power house. Dennis Lindsey said in an interview that the team’s identity and focus was to make the other team feel like they were visiting “the world’s worst dentist” when they came to Salt Lake.
Slow, painful, and agonizing, and nothing the patient can do to control the pace.
The Utah Jazz jumped from the 29th best defense in Ty Corbin‘s final year as head coach to 14th under Quin Snyder. In fact they held the league’s best by a large margin after the All-Star break that season.
In 2015-16, the Jazz had the league’s seventh best defense. The next season they were third, and the last two seasons they finished second respectively.
Previous to this season the Jazz had an average of the fifth best defense in the Quin Snyder era. But where do they sit now?
As of today (Monday) the Jazz have the ninth best defense and ninth best offense. In the past 15 games (of which they’ve won 14) they hold the league’s best offense by a good margin, but the defense is only ninth.
If I were to forecast how these advanced stats will look in April, I’d say the Jazz have a good probability of finishing with a better offense than defense for the first time in Quin Snyder’s tenure as head coach.
Even the Chicago Bulls and Orlando Magic – two teams below .500 – are ahead of the Jazz in defensive rating.
In contrast the Jazz had several high scoring games recently that were once unheard of from the world’s worst dentist. Take a look at the amount of times the Jazz scored 120 points or more per season:
- 2014-15: ZERO
- 2015-16: Three
- 2016-17: Four
- 2017-18: 11
- 2018-19: 20
- 2019-20: 11 (through 42 games)
So it’s obvious the Jazz offense has evolved the longer Quin Snyder has been here, and part of that has to do with Donovan Mitchell‘s immediate emergence in Utah. But the big question is why are the Jazz going downhill defensively?
Sure, the Jazz got rid of Derrick Favors, Jae Crowder, and Ricky Rubio last summer. But they still have two All-Defense caliber players on the roster, including a future Hall of Famer that completely alters the way teams try to score against the Jazz.
Does it take away from Rudy Gobert’s resume that he no longer plays for a top defensive team? Absolutely not, and I’ll explain why.
The Jazz may no longer identify as the world’s worst dentist, but when they need a stop they can rely on their defensive superstar to get one.
According to NBA.com, the Utah Jazz have the fifth best clutch defense in the league. When the clock is winding down and the score is close, the Jazz will revert back to their defensive identity of yesteryear in a pinch.
Rudy Gobert alone has his claim as the best clutch player in the league this season. His stifling presence at the rim was challenged by Damian Lillard, Zach LaVine, and Brandon Ingram in the clutch during the 10 game winning streak.
How did it end for those three players? It ended with a denial at the rim and a big fat L in the loss column.
When asked about the effect Rudy Gobert has, Quin Snyder said this: “[in] the last five minutes of the game… I don’t care if Rudy gets a basket. If the other team doesn’t get a basket, that’s pretty good, and he’s usually at the center of that.”
That constant presence allows the Utah Jazz to go for a high-octane offensive identity the other three and a half quarters of the game.
They are the best three point shooting team in the league, sinking 39 percent of their triples as a team. Donovan Mitchell can explode for 40+ points on any given night like he did last Thursday, and Bojan Bogdanovic is a nightly threat to clear 30+ points.
Having a great offense is a great luxury to have, but so is having a great defense. But the most important stat that usually translates to wins and championships is net rating. Their net rating of late is in the same territory of the Milwaukee Bucks and Los Angeles Lakers, two heavy favorites to win the championship this season.
The Utah Jazz will put this well-oiled machine to the test over the next 14 games against a set of tougher opponents, but my guess is they will prevail in the win column thanks to their newfound identity. .