By Adam Spinella
Jazz Defense is Championship Caliber – That’s right folks, championship caliber. No minced words here, no two ways about it. The backbone to every team that becomes a contender from the ashes of mediocrity is a strong defensive presence, and for that reason, Utah is the Western Conference sleeper of the year.
The roster construction was the first piece to this Jazz group becoming purely elite on that end of the court, as they’ve found a reliable rim protector in Rudy Gobert. Not only is Gobert perhaps the best shot blocker in the league, his improvement as a communicator from the base of the defense allows him to be an anchor consistently. From there, wings like Gordon Hayward, Dante Exum, Rodney Hood, Joe Ingles and Joe Johnson provide the necessary length and size to be able to switch like actions. Utah can stifle mismatches or protect against driving lanes when switching — especially when they know a massive shot blocker lurks behind.
One ingredient missing before this season: a point guard that pressures and defends without being a net-negative due to offensive contributions. Enter George Hill, one of the better point guard defenders in the league. Hill has length and athleticism, but his smarts and drive to play defense makes him an ideal fit on this Jazz group. The return of physical guard Alec Burks has helped as well, and the more fresh legs Snyder can throw at his opponents, the more they can mix into their defensive gameplan.
The Jazz are starting to change defenses on the fly to catch opponents off guard and take momentum on their side. Last week against the Thunder, Snyder called for his group to blitz Russell Westbrook in a ball screen. Alec Burks and Trey Lyles both swarmed Westbrook near the sidelines and forced a turnover. Great change-of-pace utility for Snyder to keep in his back pocket.
The role players are all doing their job too, quietly making winning plays. Joe Ingles has some of the quickest hands in the league and swipes the ball away from players he has no business out-quicking. Shelvin Mack has been tough on opposing ball handlers for stretches. Boris Diaw is rarely out of position, while Trey Lyles is a surprisingly spry and long power forward. His recognition of when to switch off the ball to prevent an even graver mismatch is savvy beyond his years.
The Jazz are forced to switch Shelvin Mack onto Kristaps Porzingis here, and Porzingis looks to take his 14-inch height advantage down to the block. Lyles, guarding a non-skilled Lance Thomas opposite, sees the mismatch and drops into the way of the Porzingis roll. He communicates the switch and allows Mack to recover out to Lance Thomas.
While it’s not ideal to get into a situation where Mack is ever switched onto a center, the Jazz have personnel elsewhere not only able to switch, but willing and engaged mentally to recognize when they must. The result of this possession, as the Knicks hunt for a 2-for-1 opportunity at the end of the quarter, is a contested turnaround by Porzingis with Lyles’ hand in his face. Great strides made by the young Lyles.
Quin Snyder deserves credit not just for bringing this unit along, but for changing the ways he utilizes rotations. The much maligned Gobert-Derrick Favors two-man duo has been the 30th most used pairing this season with 339 minutes together. By contrast, Gobert and Lyles are 12th, Gobert and Diaw are 10th and Gobert and Joe Johnson (the de facto small-ball 4) are seventh. Playing Favors as the team’s backup center allows the Jazz to have continuity defensively on both their first and second units. While Snyder is a strong offensive coach, the improvements his teams have made on defense are paramount to the Jazz parlaying up the standings. They’re probably destined to run into the Warriors in the second round, and that series could be a lot closer than you might think…
The Andre Roberson Zero-Sum Game – I like Andre Roberson. Actually, I love Andre Roberson. He was my top draft steal four years ago when the Thunder took him, and it’s hard to dislike his defensive energy and intensity. This season in particular the Thunder have relied on his defensive prowess to take the opponent’s top matchup, saving Westbrook for a larger offensive role.
Roberson gives the Thunder next to nothing on the other end of the court. With good defenders like Victor Oladipo and Jerami Grant also present on the roster, it feels like Roberson’s lack of offensive ability hurts this team more than his defense helps it. That’s particularly prudent over the next few months — Roberson is a free agent this summer, and will be seeking a big time contract on the market as a defensive specialist.
Through the first three-plus years of his career, Oklahoma City got away hiding him in the corner while Westbrook and Durant command double teams or carve up defenses lying in wait. In any Horns action or high ball screen set, Roberson became adept at cutting along the baseline while his defender stared at the ball, charging towards the rim for an alley oop. It’s one way to take advantage of being ignored in the corner.
The lob isn’t going to be there more than once or twice a game, and even then it’s a low percentage play. Now that Westbrook is on his own, any weak point stands out in greater detail. Defenses can leave Roberson alone in the corner — especially when there’s help near the rim if he cuts along that baseline — and focus on stopping Westbrook or doubling the post. Check out how the Jazz ignore Roberson here, and essentially concede an open corner three.
Roberson might be best served being an undersized-4 in a switching scheme and a guy that cuts a lot or engages in dribble handoffs on offense. He’s a true defensive weapon that guards multiple positions, a solid rebounder and works hard on every play. His offensive skill is just so far behind his defensive acumen that, for this Oklahoma City team with other defenders and few shooters, they might need to find another type of player to flank Westbrook.
Talking Process – It’s time to open the can of worms I’ll certainly regret opening: the Philadelphia 76ers’ surge. Two pieces have been key for the Sixers: defense and Brown settling into rotations. Brown has been vigilant, since day one on the job, of trying to get the Sixers to play respectable NBA defense. Keyword: trying. The first few years, with personnel so low on the talent scale and a middling rim protector, the Sixers’ defense was truly abysmal.
The return of Joel Embiid has changed all that, giving Philadelphia a true terror of a rim protector and an engaged defender on each possession. Over the Sixers last 10games with Embiid in the lineup, the Sixers are 8-2. Embiid is averaging 21.8 points, 9.8 rebounds, 2.5 assists, 2.8 blocks and 1.0 steals in those 10contests.
Defensive statistics reinforce how much of an improvement Embiid is, even over rim protection specialist Nerlens Noel. Consider this: according to NBA.com, of all players who have defended at least two attempts per game within six feet of the basket, Joel Embiid yields the lowest field goal percentage, as opponents only shoot 42.8 percent against him. Second in the league? Nerlens Noel at 46.8 percent.
That’s a significant drop off, and Embiid’s elite-caliber defense is nearly five percentage points above that of Rudy Gobert. Only six players in the league allow under 50 percent shooting in such situations! Embiid is over SEVEN PERCENTAGE POINTS below that elite mark.
Since finding their rim protectors that are reliable and fit in the rotation, Brett Brown has built a reliable scheme around them. Jahlil Okafor has only played in four games in the new year, and only played in one game where both Noel and Embiid suited up. His demotion has opened more minutes for Dario Saric and Ersan Ilyasova to be split, playing full-time at the 4 instead of trying to guard some wings. The eastern European duo were a step too slow on both ends as tandem forwards.
Those rotations will have to be tinkered with again once Ben Simmons returns (if he does at all) this season. The shooting and perimeter playmaking that Saric and Ilyasova both exude get the best out of Noah and Embiid, and that outside stroke has been the Achilles heel to Simmons’ game thus far in his development. We’ll see where Simmons gets plugged in, but how they manage his minutes and his versatility around the newfound defensive protection is key to their long-term development.
A Tale of Two Bostons – If you blinked over the last month or so, you probably missed the development in the Eastern Conference: the Celtics are knocking on the Raptors’ door for the two-seed. It’s a long season with ebbs and flows (and injuries), but through the first half, Boston has been the third-best team in the East. After a slow start, the Celtics found their defensive mojo. Then Avery Bradley got hurt.
Bradley’s only played in three games in 2017, missing time due to a nagging Achilles injury. His absence has shown for the Celtics. Since Christmas, the Celtics are dead last in defensive efficiency per 100 possessions, ceding 112.1 points per 100 possessions. Inversely, they have the second most efficient offense in that time, with a robust 114.5 points per 100 possessions.
Without Bradley, the team’s identity is much more difficult to pin down. With Bradley returning into the lineup soon, both those numbers will regress closer towards league averages. The defense improves with an elite perimeter defender on the floor, and the offense will drop off due to Bradley’s constantly inefficient long-twos. For the Celtics, that’s a gamble they’ll likely take.
The Celtics are 4-3 without Bradley this year. He’s had a negative plus/ minus in only three of the team’s 26 wins this season, whereas in their 14 losses while Bradley plays this year, he’s never been higher than a +2. Simply, when Bradley plays well, the Celtics are a good team. Without him in the lineup, their defense is far too inconsistent to eventually creep up on those top teams in the East.
The Kid Rockets Step Up – D’Antoni’s Rockets are more than fun, they’re spectacular. The offense is humming, the defense is outperforming expectations and Houston is a top-four team in the league. James Harden gets MVP praise. Eric Gordon and Ryan Anderson have made the difference as shot-makers. Even Clint Capela has been praised as an active defensive anchor and has improved as a passer out of the pick-and-roll.
Not to be overlooked are the “Kid Rockets” as I call them — the team’s recent draft picks Sam Dekker and Montrezl Harrell. Both have turned into incredibly solid role players, tightening up the rotation for this Rockets group with title aspirations. Old as rookies a year ago, neither made much of an impact on the court. Harrell struggled to find rhythm as a power forward next to a non-shooting big man. Dekker played six minutes as a rook.
Less than one year later, both are important members of Houston’s bench attack, and have changed positions to key their turnaround. Harrell is now the center of the spread pick-and-roll offense that D’Antoni employs, giving Harrell simple reads to bust down the lane and either dunk or kick to a shooter in the corner. While Harrell spent only 19 percent of his minutes at center last year (per his bball-reference page), he’s spent almost 43 percent of his time as the true five.
It’s incredible just how much the extra space around Harrell brings out the best in him. Harden is great at reading simple screening situations and zipping the ball to the open man. Harrell rolls with such ferocity towards the rim that help defenders almost always sense urgency and rush to protect the rim. Help defenders are placed in a tough situation where they must choose between leaving a 40 percent three point shooter alone in the corner or letting Harrell get a big momentum dunk.
Dekker has undergone the same transformation. He’s spent 88 percent of his minutes as the stretch-4 for the Rockets, spacing to the corner while the talented guards and finishing big men eat near the rim. Dekker isn’t ever going to be a dangerous pick-and-pop threat since he’s got such a thin screening frame. But what Dekker adds in attacking a poor closeout from the corners and with his sheer athleticism is exactly the versatile piece D’Antoni needed.
There will come a time when Dekker, who is shooting 42.6 percent on threes from the corner, will be called upon in a big spot instead of Ryan Anderson. Dekker’s defensive potential as an athlete that can switch assignments with Trevor Ariza covers up some of the mistakes Ryan Anderson might otherwise leave open. At least D’Antoni has to feel comfortable knowing he’s got the option of going with Dekker in big spots. These guys are solid.
LeBron Wants A Playmaker – The Cavs have slowed as of late, stalling while missing J.R. Smith from the rotation and struggling to beat the elite teams of the Western Conference. One area where team savior and resident superhero LeBron James wants to see the team improve? Roster design — he thinks another facilitator is necessary. A frustrated James clamored for help earlier this week, saying “We need a f—king playmaker.”
LeBron might not be wrong here. The Cavs have missed the presence of Mo Williams this season, and other than LeBron and Kyrie Irving, there is a definite shortage of players who can create off the dribble. Playing around a talent like LeBron has led GM David Griffin to prioritize placing shooters around the court to optimize the spacing of a James-centered attack. Griffin has also been diligent about adding toys every winter to increase the team’s chances at a championship — Kyle Korver being the newest and flashiest addition.
In the same interview LeBron vented his frustrations, he also recognized the challenges that the Cavs face in acquiring a big-name point guard. They lack meaningful trade assets, and their top trade exception is listed at $4.8 million (from the Mike Dunleavy trade). In this climate, that trade exception won’t grab the Cavaliers a needle-mover.
Some of the onus should be placed on LeBron as well for the stagnation the Cavaliers have in play creation — he’s been much worse off the ball lately. Since the calendar turned to 2017, he’s shooting just 29.5 percent from three and has 5.3 turnovers per game. Cleveland is 5-7 in that period with a disgraceful home loss to the Sacramento Kings. So yes, the Cavaliers probably do need another playmaker. As far as James is concerned, his play off the ball would definitely benefit from having another driver and threat to get to the rim.
Darrell Arthur, Professional Shooter – Darrell Arthur was 2-for-17 on three-pointers in his time at the University of Kansas nearly a decade ago. He made his first career NBA three pointer in his fourth NBA season. This year, Arthur is shooting above 50 percent from three on nearly three attempts per game!
Arthur has been in and out of the Nuggets’ rotation this season, battling injuries and a depth chart stockpiled with talented big men. Arthur is a really really good shooter now, killing teams from the corners and in pick-and-pop situations. The strides he’s made are truly outrageous.
Now the guy is just showboating. In the fourth quarter on Tuesday against the Utah Jazz, he went full Nowitzki with the one-legged step back fade-away. Who does this guy think he is?
DA is having himself a night!
— Denver Nuggets (@nuggets) January 25, 2017
Spursian Player Development – Honestly, it’s the biggest difference between a championship organization having long-term sustainability beyond any one or two players on the roster. What Popovich and R.C. Buford do with turning their young prospects into serviceable professionals is truly remarkable. There’s continuity within the entire organization: from the voices and messages emitted to the plays run on the court, the business-like approach on a daily basis to the constant emphasis on rest, overall wellness and earning your lumps. That consistency for young men starting their professional careers is the stability they can rely on and allows them to progress in a natural way.
A few weeks ago I wrote about Dewayne Dedmon’s emergence this year as a defensive big man for the Spurs after being cast off by the Magic after last season. This week, the play of Dejounte Murray is raising eyebrows. Murray, the Spurs 2016 first-round pick, is a fiercely long athlete who causes havoc in transition and has made unbelievable strides in playing in the half-court. Acknowledging how polished this kid looks so quickly in his career is the biggest compliment to this Spurs organization one could give.
In a start against the defending champion Cavaliers last weekend, Murray put up 14 points and six rebounds on 7-of-10 shooting and finished a plus-one on the evening. Murray plays well within himself and has exuded patience on the offensive end. He’s got an incredible first step when attacking poor closeouts, getting to the rim from the three-point line in the blink of an eye. The jump shot, thought to be his weakness coming out of college, has been just good enough for teams to get penalized if they sag off him. This kid is going to be really good some day.
Tip In Twins – Marcus Morris got bragging rights over his brother in the most epic way possible. I really wish I could go to their next family gathering just so I can hear the level of trash talk. I mean, if you’re Markieff Morris, how do you come back from this?
Required reading – Is the Bucks defense more concerned with timing of shots than location? Jake Fischer of SI details the chaos in the lives of those who are signed to 10-Day Contracts, a rare deep dive from ESPN into the Pelicans working out the kinks of small ball lineups, expansion is coming… to the D-League, why the Wizards’ surge might not be sustainable for the whole season, a great profile on Jabari Parker for where he’s been and where he’s going, and Keith Smart of 16 Wins A Ring talks about the Warriors and our love/ hate relationship with greatness.
Sets of the Week
Jazz 5 Free Stagger (End Game SLOB)
I feel like I’ve beat this Jazz-Thunder game like a dead horse, but it was one of the best, most informative games of the season. A great play call from Quin Snyder to get the Jazz an open three late in the game. The key is using Rudy Gobert as a screener, and placing him on the ball-side elbow. The first back screen he sets gets his defender, Steven Adams, to back off just a step.
This set is called “free” because it involves freeing up the screener (Gobert) to have his man unable to hedge. That’s George Hill’s job here, as he seeks out Steven Adams and lays a nice screen on him. Gobert quickly curls over Hill and finds Gordon Hayward’s man to screen. As you can see, Russell Westbrook has to stay lane-protected against George Hill, so he’s nowhere to be found as a helper on Hayward. Gobert sets a solid screen on Roberson, and Hayward gets a great look from deep to tie the game.
Remember, sometimes freeing the screener is just as important as freeing up the shooter.
Rockets Thru Down Minnesota
In sticking with the theme of plays run by teams mentioned in this post, here’s a really common action run by the Houston Rockets to get an open three. It’s hard to qualify this as a “post touch” all the time, but the Rockets will have their 4 man catch the ball in the mid-post with his back to the basket. The entry passer (always a great shooter) appears to cut thru, touching the ball-side elbow. He reverses course at the last second by design, curling around a screen just inside the key from the 5-man.
After watching this action probably 15-20 times, I still don’t know how to exactly guard it. If Eric Gordon is coming off the screen for the shot, his defender has to stay lane protected as to not give up a give-and-go layup. If he goes under the screen (on the ball-side of the screen), he will still get sealed and there will be a three pointer waiting on the back side. If he trails it, Gordon will curl back around to the wing for an uncontested three. If the defense switches, now there’s a guard defending the Rockets best interior presence.
D’Antoni does a nice job in the last clip against the Knicks of running some false action beforehand. The Knicks are totally flustered on the screen and the pop-cut from Gordon, and it’s run so far away from the ball that Rose and Melo end up half-switching the action without communicating.
Spurs Floppy 5 Out
Shooting big men are all the rage in the NBA right now. No coach keeps up with the times and innovates the classics that fit for his team like Gregg Popovich. Here’s a simple Floppy action (a baseline single or double screen option for a shooter) that the Spurs run frequently. Danny Green, in all his days, has probably come off a couple hundred of these screens as the primary threat. LaMarcus Aldridge sets the single screen here, and Green (as directed by Popovich out of a timeout) comes off Aldridge’s side. It’s a decoy, and Aldridge’s defender Karl Anthony-Towns falls asleep once Green gets through the screen.
The sweet-shooting Aldridge, shooting 48 percent from three on more than 30 attempts, is who this set is designed for. He turns after setting the screen on Green and comes off a staggered screen on the opposite side. Towns is forced to chase, Bjelicia is useless and lays on his screener like a mattress, and Aldridge gets an uncontested look from the perimeter. Aldridge doesn’t quite get out to the perimeter, but ask any coach — they’ll take the wide open two for an elite mid-range shooter in this situation.