The Triple Team: Jazz lose to Spurs; discussing a three-team trade report involving Utah

Analysis: Defensive issues against one of the NBA’s worst offenses cost the Jazz a road win.

Utah Jazz's Lauri Markkanen, front right, shoots against San Antonio Spurs' Jeremy Sochan during the first half of an NBA basketball game, Monday, Dec. 26, 2022, in San Antonio. (AP Photo/Darren Abate)

Three thoughts on the Utah Jazz’s 126-122 loss to the San Antonio Spurs from Salt Lake Tribune beat writer Andy Larsen.

1. Paint defense disappointing

The Spurs have the second-worst offense in the NBA, but still scored 126 points, including 74 points in the paint. How did it happen?

Frankly, the Jazz looked extremely beatable on the defensive end. Whether it was the Christmas break, or the delay in the game’s start, or just the fact that they don’t have many good defenders, the Jazz probably would have lost this game to any team in the NBA with this defensive performance tonight.

I watched every basket — you can too at NBA.com, by the way — and I was most disappointed in the defense of two players: Malik Beasley and Jarred Vanderbilt. The Jazz allowed a 150 defensive rating when those two players were out there on the floor; compare that to the Jazz’s 96 defensive rating when Walker Kessler was in the game.

These two plays in the first quarter show some of the danger in being this unaware of where Doug McDermott is — Beasley’s matchup. Sometimes, he can just come off a screen, and if you’re not ready to react to his movement, that’s a wide-open look for an excellent shooter. Likewise, he can also back-cut you if you’re not watching.

Now, maybe you can criticize the game plan above, because presumably Beasley would be more attached if the Jazz were face-guarding McDermott, like some teams do. But regardless of the game plan, Beasley can do better here.

Keldon Johnson is the Spurs’ highest-scoring offensive threat, which meant that Vanderbilt got the assignment, and the former Minnesota player is almost too active. This play is a good example: he comes up too high on Johnson, which means Johnson can just blow by him — Vanderbilt compounds his mistake by fouling him on the layup, too.

Again, you see why Vanderbilt wants to help here, but meanwhile, Johnson can just sneak in.

There’s no doubt about it: NBA players are talented. But I think you just have to be able to stick a little bit closer to matchups than the Jazz did tonight, and it cost them a winnable game.

2. Playing transition defense as a guard

We all love Jordan Clarkson. But as a transition defender — well, he’s not too much of a difference maker back there.

That makes sense: skinny guards can have trouble just dealing with the physics of transition defense. There’s a mass coming at full speed at you: it’s just going to result in you getting knocked back, which likely means an and-one. Clarkson tends to guess a lot, which can result in silly looking plays like this one:

But Nickeil Alexander-Walker is also a skinny 6-4 guard, like Clarkson, and he tends to play pretty good transition defense. Watch this play for example: absolutely brilliant!

So what’s the difference? (First of all, Clarkson has a temporary 2-on-1 to defend, so I don’t think they’re totally analogous plays, but we’ll go with it.)

First, look how engaged Alexander-Walker is throughout the play: he’s up closer to the driving Johnson, which slows him down a little bit. He’s fully faced up to Johnson, forcing him to make a move. And then the sheer quickness with which Alexander-Walker backpedals and moves his body to mirror Johnson’s and eventually get the strip.

Now, I’m not sure you can just show Clarkson tape of NAW and have him learn that skill. But if you’re coaching young guards, I thought Alexander-Walker’s steal here was a great example of what to do.

3. Discussing a trade report

The Athletic’s Shams Charania had a report today on a potential discussed by the Jazz, Hawks, and Suns. Here’s the screenshot:

Shams Charania's report of a discussed 3-team deal (https://twitter.com/TheRally/status/1607511261473816578).

But, as Charania later noted, “I’m told the deal failed to gain traction when Utah asked for multiple first-round picks.”

First of all, I want to note that it’s amazing that Jazz CEO Danny Ainge reportedly would be getting the best player in this deal — or at least the player with the highest reputation — and then also asked for multiple first-round picks. Asking for first-round picks has worked out for Ainge, though, and given his track record, it’s hard to blame him.

That being said, John Collins is struggling this season. He’s just fallen out of the Hawks’ offense a little bit, where he’s generating fewer twos than before, plus only shooting 21% from three. The Hawks have disappointed this season to only be at about .500. For $26 million over the next three seasons, if he continues to play this way, he’ll be overpaid.

On the other hand, if he plays the way he’s capable of, there’s buy-low potential here — in much the same way there was with Lauri Markkanen. And if you consider a future cap spike, that $26 million could be less onerous at the end of the deal.

The Jazz would be sending out Beasley and Vanderbilt, two players with contracts that expire after next season. Both have been keys to the Jazz’s overall mindset this season, but both have been defensive question marks. Vanderbilt, in particular, has a defensive reputation far above his actual on-court output at this point, in my opinion. He’s a plus at $4 million per season, but once that contract runs out — I’m not sure I want to be paying his next one.

You can kind of see Ainge’s math here. Vanderbilt does have value around the league around a first-round pick. Beasley’s the kind of shooter that has traditionally been sold at trade deadlines for a first-round pick. Collins probably has a neutral-ish value at this point. So, yeah, maybe the Jazz should get multiple firsts in such a deal. On the other hand, that math probably doesn’t fly to the Hawks and Suns, both of whom consider Collins and Crowder positive assets.

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