The Triple Team: It’s now 8 straight below-average defensive performances for the Jazz. What’s been a consistent problem?

Chicago Bulls guard Zach LaVine (8) drives to the basket as Utah Jazz guard Collin Sexton (2) defends during the second half of an NBA basketball game Monday, Nov. 28, 2022, in Salt Lake City. (AP Photo/Rick Bowmer)

Three thoughts on the Utah Jazz’s 114-107 loss to the Chicago Bulls from Salt Lake Tribune Jazz beat writer Andy Larsen.

1. The biggest thing? The defensive effort isn’t there anymore

That’s eight straight below-average defensive performances from the Jazz.

The through link through all of these performances is that the Jazz got a below-average number of defensive rebounds in all eight games. I’ve written so much about that recently, but it’s just going to be a bad defensive-rebounding team.

Other than that, it’s been different problems in the eight games. In six games, they fouled an above-average number of times. In five games, they allowed a below-average FG%. In five games, they forced a below-average number of turnovers.

The turnovers thing is most strange to me. They have a bunch of guys who should be able to force turnovers in bunches. Collin Sexton is a bulldog defensively — he’s not solid defensively on the shot, but he’s good on-ball and a ball-swiper, for sure. Kelly Olynyk is an all-world defensive-foul drawer. Lauri Markkanen and Jarred Vanderbilt are both incredibly long, mobile guys who should be able to pick off passes with relative frequency. Talen Horton-Tucker and Nickeil Alexander-Walker (the hyphen guys) are very long guards who like to poke the ball away.

And the Jazz have forced 7, 6, and 7 turnovers in three of their last four games, all losses.

I think the only hypothesis that makes sense is that these Jazz are dog tired. They have had a very difficult schedule in terms of travel and number of games. At this point, the Jazz have played 23 games, most in the NBA. Only one other team has played even 22 games: the Detroit Pistons, at 5-17.

That naturally is going to sap your legs. The extra defensive plays that the Jazz were making earlier to cause chaos aren’t being made right now, because they’re tired. The rebounds will be harder to get to. And the Jazz will foul more often.

The good news is that they’re now home for a stretch of six games in a row. The bad news is that the first four of those games come in pretty quick succession, a Monday/Wednesday/Friday/Saturday spurt that keeps up the rapid-fire pace before finally there’s a three-day break next week.

2. Lauri vs. Chicago

Lauri Markkanen, though, had another terrific game: 12-18 FG for 32 points, plus nine rebounds. Very good!

This made me look up Markkanen’s 10 best games of his career. And what I found was pretty interesting:

Query Results Table
Rk Player GmSc Date Team Opp Result MP FG FGA 3P 3PA FT FTA TRB AST STL BLK TOV PF PTS
1Lauri Markkanen34.12022-11-18UTAPHOW 134-133351518236863101238
2Lauri Markkanen32.12019-02-23CHIBOSW 126-1163712203789152101135
3Lauri Markkanen31.82022-10-31UTAMEMW 121-1053211154656112142231
4Lauri Markkanen30.02019-03-20CHIWASW 126-120 (OT)3812215833135011232
5Lauri Markkanen30.02019-10-23CHI@CHOL 125-12634132517810172101135
6Lauri Markkanen28.92022-03-18CLEDENW 119-116 (OT)42111861234103401431
7Lauri Markkanen28.42019-03-01CHI@ATLW 168-161 (4OT)54918361012172111231
8Lauri Markkanen28.42022-10-23UTA@NOPW 122-121 (OT)39917261111122212331
9Lauri Markkanen27.02018-01-10CHI@NYKW 122-119 (2OT)46102281555101211133
10Lauri Markkanen26.92022-11-04UTA@LALW 130-116339173966134111127
Provided by Stathead.com: View Stathead Tool Used
Generated 11/28/2022.

Every single one of his top-10 games happened either in 2022 or in 2018-19. I would have expected him to have some standout performances in either 2020 or 2021, even though he had relative down years, just because variance is a thing. But no, Lauri was pretty consistently amazing in his first couple of seasons, then got held back until the last 9 months or so.

Honestly? I think former Bulls and Utes coach Jim Boylen broke him. Here’s some reporting from the Chicago Sun-Times:

“The Sun-Times reported several times that Markkanen grew unhappy with the Bulls under former coach Jim Boylen. He didn’t like what his role in the offense became and privately let the media know that, especially during the 2019-20 season.

Markkanen once joked about being a 7-foot decoy under Boylen and complained the front office and analytics department stripped him of his mid-range game.”

Or this, from The Athletic:

“Behind closed doors, Markkanen’s displeasure was never difficult to detect. Without ever admitting it on the record, Markkanen would share occasional off-the-cuff comments that left no doubt where he stood. Following the Bulls’ final game before the All-Star break, an injured Markkanen openly mocked Boylen’s penchant for calling meaningless timeouts late. Markkanen had been named one of five international players selected to help coach the top international prospects in the sixth annual Basketball Without Borders global camp. With several reporters within an earshot, Markkanen turned comedian, casually joking that he would be sure to call late timeouts in any game that has been long decided.”

This kind of upset Markkanen could not be more different than the one we see today. First of all, Markkanen’s extremely humble about his good play so far. He’s the kind of guy who wants to take his hat off before going to the media podium out of respect. He truly doesn’t like talking about himself this season, you can tell.

But Markkanen was right: he’s thriving in this Jazz offense. He’s getting touches in a variety of ways, and making the most out of them, usually with quick actions. He’s also contributing all over the court defensively. Will Hardy asks him to be a linchpin of the team, not a creator so much as a scoring connector. It’s been terrific.

I think he was motivated to show what he could do against the Bulls today — even if Boylen wasn’t there.

3. Playing ‘Dok?

The most surprising move of the season came when Udoka Azubuike played nine minutes today. Why? Will Hardy explains:

“I like ‘Dok’s physicality. Walker has done a lot of things very well. And I thought in that first his first run, I thought that (Andre) Drummond’s physicality bothered him a little bit. I thought it would give us a good presence. I was actually really happy with how he played. He rebounded well, so good screens. I was really happy for ‘Dok. It’s not easy, having not played much at all this season to be thrown in the middle of that game against a team like that. So I’m really happy for ‘Dok that he stayed ready and perform the way he did.”

Makes some sense, but I’m going to be honest: I think giving Walker Kessler, the rookie that currently leads the NBA in Win Shares, the chance to develop through that physicality would have been better for the Jazz, both in the short and long-term.

I do agree, though, that ‘Dok played well — at least until it comes to the free-throw line, where he struggled with a tough foul biting on a pump fake, then missed all four of his free throws.

It was interesting, though. I expected a buoyant Azubuike in the locker room, even with the loss. After all, he got a real chance to show what he could do in the NBA, played decently enough. Instead, he was pretty low energy.

It wasn’t that the loss upset him, but he expressed that he hasn’t felt really connected with the team. For example, Azubuike was asked “What has Will told you throughout the season to focus on in terms of developing your game?”

“I mean, he really doesn’t talk to me about nothing. Like, we don’t talk. But for me, it’s come in every day, do my workout, practice and all that stuff, and whatever happens, happens.”

That kind of disconnect is referred to a lot when you talk to players and coaches about ‘Dok — it often feels like he’s not part of the group. Maybe you rectify that by playing him... I have to be honest, I think it’s probably too late in this situation.

But I feel bad for the kid. It’s not his fault he was overdrafted, and it’s not his fault he’s had 2-3 awful injuries. He’s probably not in the future plans of the Jazz, whereas Kessler really might be. Pulling Kessler for ‘Dok for a short talk makes sense to me. Pulling Kessler for ‘Dok to protect the former and promote the latter? Less so.

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