Yes, it’s just preseason, but that’s relatively unprecedented: In the five-year regular season tenure of Quin Snyder, the Jazz have allowed 125 points or more only twice in over 400 games. That they’ve allowed it twice in three games this season indicates that there’s work to do.
To be clear, the Jazz aren’t overly concerned about this, and indeed, they anticipated a learning curve. Naturally, they are addressing it in team practices, including a lengthy one on Sunday in their first full day back since the two-game road trip.
“What you see on the court, that can help us direct our practices,” Snyder said. Those practices have involved individual and team-level teaching.
For example, in Memphis, Mike Conley was taught to be a physical on-ball defender, one that made every effort to impact the play on a position-by-position basis. If the Grizzlies were to be a solid defensive team, it was through all five of them gritting out their individual matchups, making things hard on the opponent.
The Jazz don’t really defend like that, Snyder explained. “We can have a different type of physicality. We can do it with quickness, we can use Rudy [Gobert]’s length at the rim."
Instead, they try to put their opponents in “situations that are low percentage,” like shots with Gobert around, or contested mid-range efforts with Gobert down low set to rebound. Sometimes, the Jazz will allow a player to go into the paint in order to prevent him from taking a pull-up 3-pointer, something that wouldn’t have been encouraged in Memphis.
“I have to get used to just funneling guys in the paint,” Conley said after the game. "If you get beat, just stay on their hip and funnel them to the big fella [Gobert] and let him do what he does,” Conley said. “I’m so used to trying to stop everybody.”
Or as Snyder put it, “You’re playing percentages. This is my job, and if I do my job, and Joe [Ingles] does his job, then you allow Rudy to do his job.”
Gobert’s played only one game with the Jazz in this preseason, and so it makes sense that defenders like Conley, Bojan Bogdanovic, and Jeff Green don’t yet know how to play with the big man. In general, Gobert’s presence back there means perimeter defenders can stand to be more aggressive on the ball than they’re used to in their past stops, because a blow-by isn’t the end of the world.
For what it’s worth, the French big man thinks the team is making improvements. “I like what we saw [Friday night against New Orleans], we just have to do a little more and we’ll be there,” Gobert said. “I think more communication and maybe a little more physicality on the ball, a little bit more on the boards [also].”
The Jazz are largely playing the same defensive system as last year, although certain units allow them to switch more. Without a traditional backup point guard, for example, the Jazz have been switching all but center screens in the second unit, unafraid of Ingles defending a power forward or Green guarding a point guard.
Of course, there’s also the fact that the old guard have to get used to their new teammates. Bogdanovic defends very differently than Jae Crowder used to, and ditto with Conley and Ricky Rubio. Royce O’Neale — one of the Jazz’s best perimeter defenders over the past two seasons — said he’s still noticing his teammates’ defensive tendencies, things that might help him know exactly when to switch or help.
But O’Neale does confirm one thing: Snyder’s system isn’t always simple. “I think terminology, different concepts, where to be ... it’s a lot.” He remembered his first training camp and feeling the pressure of learning what was a new system to him, and while he’s obviously grown to excel in his role, he says he’s still learning nuances of how he can become a better defender.
It’s also just a cumulative process this early in the season.
“Building habits, that takes time,” Snyder said. “You can’t move on to the next thing until you get it right.”