Jerry Sloan’s teams were known for tough, physical defense.
Unfortunately, that often meant just fouling the hell out of people. From 2000-01 to 2011-12, the teams run by Sloan and protege Ty Corbin finished either dead-last or second-to-last in free throws allowed in 10 of 12 seasons; in those other seasons, they finished 24th and 25th. That meant a parade of opposing trips to the free-throw line, and a ton of efficient points scored as a result. It really limited how good the Jazz could be defensively, and they never ranked higher than 10th in the new millennium.
By the time Quin Snyder took over, the Jazz were last in the league defensively. Snyder wanted to change the Jazz’s defensive culture, and the first matter of business was teaching his players that being tough and physical wasn’t enough: they also had to play smartly as well.
So he set about creating new habits. Players were instructed repeatedly to keep their hands wide in order to show them to the officials, to demonstrate they weren’t fouling. It’s hard to defend without using your hands, but it was something players like Derrick Favors had to learn.
“It’s about showing my hands and getting good body position,” Favors said. “I’m not going to be able to stop every guard from attacking me or going downhill, but just trying to show my hands on every drive, and try to get a good contest, not necessarily try to block it every time. Then they have to make a tough shot over me.”
That new approach has also gotten Favors in significantly less foul trouble than he used to. As a rookie, Favors averaged 8.5 fouls per 100 possessions, but even as late as his fourth season (Corbin’s final year), he committed 5.6 per 100 possessions. It’s hard to stay in a game that way. But last year, Favors fouled just 3.8 times per 100 possessions, a much better and more sustainable rate.
That being said, the Jazz still aren’t exactly where they want to be with their foul situation. They were exactly league-average last season, allowing opponents to have a free-throw rate of 24.7 percent. But how often they fouled changed drastically depending on who was in the game. If Favors was in the game, opponents had a free-throw rate of 21.7 percent, which would have placed second-best of all NBA teams last year. (Gobert was similar, 21.8 percent.) But when Favors and Gobert were off the court, the free-throw rate spiked to 27.8 percent, which would have ranked 26th overall. That’s a difference of a few free-throw attempts over the course of a game.
The good news: if the Jazz’s big man combo stays healthy this season, nearly all Jazz minutes should feature at least one of Favors and Gobert on the court at all times. And that should make things easier on the perimeter players who can be foul-prone without the safety valve of Favors or Gobert behind them. In particular, Ricky Rubio, Royce O’Neale, Dante Exum, and Jae Crowder have been guilty of this in the past.
The Jazz’s foul rate can be somewhat inflated, too, by their tendency to take “Euro-fouls,” the intentional fouls in transition that stop fast break opportunities for the other team. While ideally those fouls don’t immediately send the opposition to the line, it may mean that the Jazz reach the penalty earlier than they otherwise would.
But Snyder doesn’t want to lose what makes his defense special by avoiding fouls, either. Sometimes, as in the case of Eurofouling, fouls can mean dictating the terms of a possession.
“There’s always give and take. You want to be aggressive defensively and try to dictate, that’s what good defenses do. We try to pick our spots with that. We want to maintain fundamental position, and at the same time we want to be disruptive,” Snyder said. “We talk about disciplined disruption.”
It’s not only discussed, but drilled heavily in Jazz practices. Knowing the right times to set the terms of a possession versus when not to can be the difference between a successful and unsuccessful defense.
“It’s something we believe in, and we continue to try to find those areas where you can be aggressive. But there are high-risk foul situations, where contesting vertically, and showing your hands on the drives, [that’s] the emphasis. All the while, we’re still not trying to take away guys’ freedom to make plays on defense.”