A season is on the verge of collapse, a coach is at his wits’ end, and the primary reason for it all mocks the Jazz with every hard screen, every blown rotation and every narrow loss.
Unlike Al Jefferson on the pick-and-roll, there’s no getting around this issue.
“The biggest area of concern is our defensive habits,” Jazz general manager Dennis Lindsey said Friday on the team-owned radio station. “That’s been chronicled all year long.”
A notably porous defense has gotten even worse in the last two weeks, a period in which the Jazz (33-32) have won just twice in 10 games. The Jazz, who allow 98.9 points per game on the season, have seen that number balloon to 105.5 points in their last eight losses.
The Jazz rank 21st in the defensive rankings, allowing opponents to score 104.1 points for every 100 possessions.
“Ty [Corbin] and everybody else knows that needs to improve,” Lindsey said.
But with 17 games remaining, including Saturday against Memphis, there may not be time for significant improvement.
The pick-and-roll, a play that made the Jazz relevant for decades with John Stockton and Karl Malone, is now their undoing.
Jefferson is famously slow at defending the bread-and-butter play, and teams often make that their primary offensive game plan when the center is in the game.
One rival scout this week described Jefferson as not having “that urgency he needs to have on defense.”
With Jefferson on the floor, the Jazz allow 108.3 points for every 100 possessions, while they give up only 98 when he is on the bench. A defensive rating of 98 would rank third in the NBA, although the number doesn’t take into consideration who is on the floor. When Jefferson is out of the game, the opponents’ top players probably are, as well.
While Jefferson’s defensive play can be cringe-worthy, Corbin said Friday that the Jazz have bigger problems, consistent with the scout’s description of the Jazz playing “passive defense, particularly on the perimeter.”
Asked about Jefferson’s defense, Corbin said, “The team defense is struggling. I don’t want to talk about Al’s defense. The whole team has struggled of late.”
For Corbin, the greater issue is guards penetrating the perimeter for easy shots at the basket.
“I’m more concerned with guys getting blow-bys,” he said. “It starts on the ball.”
Corbin said poor defense from the guards “puts a lot more pressure on all of the other defense.” Players getting cleanly screened off puts “the big guys ... at a disadvantage because that’s a small guy going at a big.”
Complicating matters has been the return of Mo Williams after missing 32 games due to right thumb surgery. The point guard, who is noticeably heavier since his return, has not hidden the fact that he is not in peak condition, making him less able to play at the speed, particularly on defense, the Jazz need.
“I think it’s defense all around,” Jefferson said. “Everybody. Not just outside. I think it’s inside, too. It’s a team effort, the way we set up our defense, that way when a guy do get beat there’s supposed to be help.”
“Help” is a good word for what the Jazz defense needs.
Although numbers can lie, the results don’t. Seven of the eight teams to beat the Jazz since the All-Star break have scored above their season average.
Before defense can win championships, it has to win a game every now and again.
“I think we’ve struggled,” Randy Foye said, “but every team in the league struggles. You watched Golden State go through it before All-Star break, you watched Houston go through it a little bit before that. We’re going through it now.”
While it’s true that Houston and Golden State have endured brutal losing streaks this season and that they rank lower than the Jazz in team defense, both rank in the top 10 in offensive efficiency and possessions per game.
“The West is tough,” Williams said, “no secret about it. ... When we lose, it’s easy to point out the glaring things that go wrong.”
With the Jazz defense, pick one and roll with it.
A scout’s take on the Jazz
An NBA scout recently spoke to The Salt Lake Tribune about the Jazz’s defensive struggles on the condition of anonymity. His edited assessments:
I think it’s bigger than Al. When I look at Mo Williams, I don’t see a great defender there. What I see in him and Randy Foye is guys who are kind of soft defensively. I don’t see real toughness or intensity. I don’t think Mo or Randy Foye are great defenders.
I think Millsap, he tries. I like Millsap, I really do, I just think he’d be best suited to be a bench player. A guy who could come off the bench, give you some points, give you some versatility. I think eventually they’re going to be better defensively when Favors is out there, playing more minutes with his strength, length. It seems like he has some competitive desire out there and an ability to block shots.
When some of your best players don’t play good defense, the other people see that and I think that drags them down. The other guys that go and play good defense do sometimes get dragged down by your marquee players.
Their bigs can be physical, they’ll bounce you around, they’ll commit some fouls around the basket, they’ll make you pay the price a little bit.
There’s not a strength of the Utah defense that really worries an opponent because I don’t think they force a lot of turnovers, I don’t think they generate a lot of steals.
I don’t know the coaching or what they’re trying to do, I just think [Tyrone Corbin] has some guys with some limitations on the defensive end. I’m sure he and the staff are trying everything they can to cover up their glaring weaknesses.