While Jazz have history of elite defense, Rudy Gobert says ‘We’re going to be better this year’

(Francisco Kjolseth | The Salt Lake Tribune) Houston Rockets guard James Harden (13) is smacked away by Utah Jazz center Rudy Gobert (27) in Game 3 of a first-round NBA basketball playoff series in Salt Lake City, Saturday, April 20, 2019.

Three consecutive top-three finishes.

That’s what the Jazz have earned in the NBA’s defensive ratings over the last three seasons; they’re fairly regarded as the NBA’s current most consistent defensive team since the San Antonio Spurs took a downturn on that side of the ball.

The biggest factor behind the success has been Rudy Gobert, the two-time reigning Defensive Player of the Year. But Gobert’s load might get larger thanks to the departure of Derrick Favors, who played next to Gobert at times and backed him up at others. Favors was a very effective defender after recovering from injury, and the lineups with the two big men playing together put up eye-popping defensive ratings.

“I just think it’s going to be even more weight on my shoulders,” Gobert said. “Obviously Derrick was a great defender, was a guy that people were probably overlooking a little bit. But he was doing his job, and especially also when I was on the bench.”

But the Jazz’s relative continuity has also helped: Keeping players who know and understand Quin Snyder’s defensive scheme means that they just work together more effectively as a five-man unit than other teams.

On this year’s 20-man roster, though, only seven played for the Jazz last season. That means more of a focus on the team’s trademark habits during training camp, maybe more than implementing new twists.

“I would say that this training camp is even more important than it was in the past. The new guys are going to have to take a lot in in the next few weeks, but the coaching staff is doing a great job,” Gobert said. “And me, Donovan [Mitchell], Joe [Ingles], Dante [Exum], the guys who have been here are talking to them and telling them how we want to defend. They’ve done a good job [Tuesday], and they’ll be better every day.”

Ed Davis’ plight is a good, if simple, example. While he’s known in the NBA as a vocal defensive leader in pick and roll, in early work, sometimes he’s been yelling out terminology from his time with the Nets — the right thing but in the wrong language. When communicating with Mitchell, Ingles, or other Jazz stalwarts, they might not know what to do.

That’s an easy fix, a like-for-like swap, but muscle memory takes longer to train. That’s actually where Davis might be at an advantage compared with some of his other newcomer teammates, as he’s used to the drop-big defensive pick-and-roll scheme that the Jazz usually run. Like Gobert, he’s a formidable rim protector.

For a perimeter teammate like Bojan Bogdanovic or Mike Conley, things may come a little later in terms of positioning and rotations. But even those veterans have the advantage of having played for multiple coaches: Conley played for six different coaches in his time with the Grizzlies, and Bogdanovic, in only five years in the NBA, played for four. They’ve seen a lot of different schemes, and should be able to adapt quickly.

“The important thing that I wanted to communicate when we talk about our team is that we want to defend,” Snyder said. “In some respects, we talk about our team jelling, and that may take some time, and there may be some growing pains in that respect, but I think our defense is where we have that mindset as we figure each other out.”

That knowledge also might mean that the Jazz can be defensively flexible, depending on different lineups. Snyder used the example of Emmanuel Mudiay’s size: since he stands at 6-foot-5, he can be an “excellent” post defender. That might mean that the Jazz switch more than we saw last year with smaller second units, especially those with the relatively diminutive Raul Neto at the helm.

The Jazz also think they can stay more consistent defensively during the course of the season. In 2018-19, the Jazz got out to an ugly defensive start — over the first month of the season, they were ranked 18th defensively. Gobert said that was due to a somewhat entitled mentality to start last year.

“We thought that maybe we were going to be a good team because we were the year before, but we forgot why,” Gobert said. “This year, people from the outside told us we might not be as good defensively. So I think it’s going to put a chip on our shoulder, and we’re going to have a better mentality.”

So even though the Jazz have finished in the top three consistently, and even finished No. 1 or 2 in the past couple of years, Gobert thinks the Jazz’s ceiling is even higher.

“I think we’re going to be better this year,” Gobert said.