Heading into the 2012-13 season, the Jazz have a problem that’s been a problem for too long, a habit that’s been a bad habit for years now. It might be mistaken as a token of toughness or an indicator of playing good, hard defense. It might show that opponents have to earn their points when they roll into EnergySolutions Arena, or when the Jazz come to their buildings. Perhaps some think it a kind of badge of honor, that the Jazz will concede nothing casually, that opponents had best put on the body armor before jumping it up with the Jazz.
But it’s really no sign of machismo. It’s not a positive. It’s a weakness. It’s something to work on and correct and ditch for better results. It might leave other teams sore. It might make them angry. Bottom line, though, it doesn’t help the Jazz win.
They foul too much.
Over the past 12 seasons, the Jazz have committed more fouls than any other NBA team seven times. They finished in the top five three additional times. And they never finished below eighth.
Those are remarkable stats.
Last year, the Jazz were second in number of fouls committed, averaging nearly 22 per game.
It’s not an advantage. They aren’t — and never have been — the Bad Boy Pistons. They are a team that too often finds itself out of position at the defensive end and reaches and hacks and bumps to make up for late preparation, diminished anticipation and a lack of athleticism.
It not only besmirches the beauty of a fluid basketball game, it gives away easy points to opposing players, most of whom can regularly drain shots of charity, wholly uncontested, from 15 feet.
In 2011-12, only the Toronto Raptors fouled more than the Jazz. Other teams among the league leaders included Golden State and Washington. Does that sound like company the Jazz want to keep?
No. It does not.
They finished 23rd among 30 teams in points allowed per game, giving up an average of 99. They yielded 26.2 free-throw attempts, again second only to the Raptors, and opponents made an average of 19.7, also second in the league.
Compare that with teams like Chicago, which allowed its opponents just 19.4 free throws and 14.3 makes, and the Lakers, who gave up 18.4 and 13.7.
In a league where the margin of victory is often slim, that’s a lot of unnecessary points for the Jazz to surrender every night. After all, Utah averaged 99.7 points and gave up the aforementioned 99.
Imagine what less fouling and just a bit of more authentic defense would do for the win-loss column. It seems an achievable benefit, a habit that can be broken.
“A lot of times, when you get in foul trouble, it’s because you’re late in getting there, and you either reach in or you don’t have good position,” said Jazz vice president Kevin O’Connor. You have to “try to play defense early, try to get your body on somebody so they have to shoot over you, not around you. And the other thing you have to do, you have to trust the other four players on the floor. If you do that, the rotations are better and maybe you get there sooner and maybe you don’t get a foul, maybe you get a charge.”
Foremost among Jazz players who foul a lot is Paul Millsap, who finished second in the league in total personal fouls during last year’s shortened season with 222. Only the Kings’ DeMarcus Cousins fouled more. The season before, Millsap finished tied for third with 272. Al Jefferson was 17th that year with 238. And the previous season, Millsap took second with 285. Still with the Jazz that year, Carlos Boozer finished in the eighth spot with 270. And in 2008-09, Millsap again finished second with 288.
Some of that is born out of hustle, and no one can question Millsap’s heart. But, if the Jazz as a team are to fulfill their potential, they’ll have to do as O’Connor suggested: put up better team defense and work hard individually to prepare before a play or a move or a shot occurs. The Jazz’s increased youth and athleticism should help them in that regard.
It has to in order for them to close the gap on margin of defeat or increase the gap on margin of victory.
GORDON MONSON hosts “The Big Show” weekdays from 3-7 p.m. on 1280 and 960 AM and 97.5 FM The Zone. Twitter: @Gordon Monson.