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The Triple Team: Jazz’s Achilles’ heel strikes again, as they can’t defend scoring guards. What can they do about it?

(Rick Egan | The Salt Lake Tribune) Utah Jazz guard Donovan Mitchell (45) celebrates after putting the Jazz up by 2 points with 2:50 remaining the the game, in NBA action between the Utah Jazz and the Washington Wizards, at Vivint Arena on Saturday, Dec. 18, 2021.

Three thoughts on the Utah Jazz’s 109-103 loss to the Washington Wizards from Salt Lake Tribune Jazz beat writer Andy Larsen.

1. I’m sorry, Royce O’Neale can’t guard small scoring guards

Royce O’Neale is a very valuable addition to his team: he rebounds as well as any wing in the league, moves the ball, has attacked the rim better than ever before this season, and legitimately makes an effort on the defensive end. He really does play bigger than his height, at a relatively short 6-4.

But, well, playing bigger than his height isn’t all positives. And in particular, O’Neale has trouble guarding the league’s quick scoring guards, a trend that we’ve seen over and over and over again, including in critical playoff games. It’s simply not good enough for the Jazz to have a realistic chance of winning a title against the other contending teams in the league that famously do have scoring guards.

This is a Straight. Line. Drive. There’s simply no excuse for this.

But usually, it’s not quite that simple: sometimes, he’s just unable to navigate screens and stay attached at an acceptable level. Here, he tries to cheat the screen — and gets beat with a wide-open corner three.

Here’s the same play, but in the second half. This time, O’Neale doesn’t cheat it, but Beal still has the option for a three. He doesn’t choose to take it, and O’Neale sort of recovers, but ultimately, a miscommunication between he and Gobert leaves a wide-open Beal for another time.

Finally, here, he just gets beat on the backdoor play.

Look, Beal is tough — albeit much less tough than last year, this has been a bad season for him. But I just don’t think O’Neale has the quick-twitch agility to stay with these guards. In his defense, it’s difficult to find players who do. Conley’s guard defense is good (remember how he defended Darius Garland in the last possession against Cleveland?), but with him out, the job fell to O’Neale, and he just wasn’t strong enough.

The Jazz desperately need another option here. More on that later.

2. Quick-score play execution not good enough

This has been a trend this season: when the Jazz need a bucket quick, they’re going to Donovan Mitchell — who barely gets off a prayer of a shot. Here’s last night’s ugly play.

And here’s tonight’s.

So what do we notice? First of all, they’re very different plays. The first has Rudy Gobert setting screens out there, while the second, the Jazz just put Gobert on the bench, in favor of Rudy Gay. That probably makes sense — realistically, the Jazz needed a three tonight, whereas against the Spurs, a 2-point putback from Gobert would have done nicely.

But having Gobert in the game does mean that his man can help out on Mitchell on the screen, making his life even more difficult. I wonder if Mitchell had the opportunity to make that pass to Ingles in the corner for the open three, but it would have had to bee a quick catch-and-shoot on Ingles’ part.

Tonight’s was much simpler: Mitchell getting open by himself. On paper, I like the Mitchell vs. Deni Avdija matchup, but the latter did an awesome job of contesting that shot, and he is very tall and long. But a Mitchell stepback probably would have provided a better look.

Overall, it’s an issue that Snyder probably needs to address. The team has the second-best sideline out of bounds efficiency in the entire NBA, so his play calls are working at other points in the game. I think it’s a combination of execution and creativity here, as Snyder acknowledged.

“The way to maximize what might be a low percentage (chance) is to be really precise in your execution,” Snyder said. “There just has to be more precision and more attention to detail in those situations. You still may notget a great shot, but you want to get a shot that is better than the ones we’ve got.”

In particular, Mitchell doesn’t need to be the guy every time. I actually thought Clarkson’s look when the Jazz were down six moments later was alright, but by then, it was too little, too late anyway.

3. So... what to do about the defensive guard issue?

It’s been reported by nearly everyone by now: the Jazz are looking for a defensive wing type in the trade market this year. I think they need a defensive guard more than a defensive wing, but if you could get a defensive wing that could guard guards, that’d work too.

I once again ask the Jazz to just try the cheap option: Kris Dunn. The dude is 15 months removed from having nearly garnered an All-Defense slot while playing for the awful Chicago Bulls. He led the league in steals per minute, and this wasn’t just a case of a steal hunter, either: he played very, very good man-on-man defense.

He is now a free agent — and would be drastically more useful to this team than either Miye Oni or Elijah Hughes is. I understand that he is a poor offensive player, but I don’t think he’s catastrophically bad; I’d probably take him over Trent Forrest on that end. Even if he is, it’s worth having him as an option. Again, the alternative is Oni or Hughes. Just go get him, yesterday.

If that turns out to not work (and it very well might not!), then you need a defensive player in the trade market. Who might make some sense?

Dan Clayton wrote this great article for this very website this week as a primer on the trade rules — though I generally like smaller players than the bigger options Dan mentions. Would a Joe Ingles for Danny Green trade make sense? At this point, Ingles is a 3-and-D player that favors the 3, Green is a 3-and-D player that favors the D. I like OKC’s Kenrich Williams, actually.

Boston’s Marcus Smart fits the defensive bill, but he’s been catastrophic offensively this year — can he rebound? Would Danny Ainge trade for his old guy? If the Wizards collapse, could you get Kentavious Caldwell-Pope from them by including a pick? Probably. (Heck, I still want Raul Neto back — he’s awesome at that screen navigation thing.) If the Wolves collapse, could you get Patrick Beverley from them by including a pick? Probably. I wonder if you could get Josh Hart from the Pelicans.

Some of the trade fits are awkward from a monetary point of view. And there’s just the fact that most of the league’s good defenders are on good teams, who are unlikely to want to trade their good player to another good team they’re competing with. If so, you’re going to really have to sell them on Joe Ingles or Jordan Clarkson.

So the Andy Plan would be: sign Dunn yesterday, see if that works for a month, and if it doesn’t, then attack the trade market with verve come February. Luckily, “Trader Danny” Ainge is known for doing exactly that — well, the last part of it, anyway.

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