The Triple Team: Jazz have allowed the most threes in the NBA. Why?

Three thoughts on the Utah Jazz’s 127-106 loss to the Sacramento Kings from Salt Lake Tribune Jazz beat writer Andy Larsen.

1. The Jazz’s 3-point defense

The Jazz have slipped to 30th defensively. They were 29th last week, but the Jazz have officially allowed more points than the Washington Wizards now. If it finishes this way, it would be the first time since the Jazz moved to Utah in the 1979-80 season that they’ve had the worst defense in the league.

Sometimes, turnovers have been part of the culprit, leading to runout baskets on the other end. But the Kings had just eight fast break points tonight.

No, the biggest problem — tonight and season-long — is that the Jazz just don’t guard the 3-point line. They’ve allowed the most threes in the NBA. Tonight, the Kings went 20-40 from deep, for 50%. The 3-point barrage in the third quarter decided the game.

NBA teams generally have to decide what shots they want to take away on defense and what they want to live with. The math tells you that you want to prevent layups, dunks, and corner threes, so most teams focus on those areas.

But where teams can differ is what kind of shots they want to allow. Remember, the Jazz’s strategy during the Quin Snyder days was to force as many midrange shots as possible. Rudy Gobert would drop in pick and roll, trying to incentivize guards to take midrange shots worth two points, while Jazz trailing defenders tried to prevent threes on that play. Other teams try to prevent those shots by forcing turnovers, or by allowing threes from bad shooters.

The Jazz’s current strategy instead allows above-the-break threes. To be honest, it’s a strategy that makes me a little uncomfortable — I think the Jazz’s help points are too aggressive.

Take the first Sacramento three of the game. Look at just how sunk in all of the Jazz defenders are as De’Aaron Fox gets this ball on the wing after the screen from Keegan Murray. Even Keyonte George, standing on the perimeter, has most of his attention on Fox, anticipating the drive.


And here’s how it plays out. Domantas Sabonis screens Keyonte George, and Murray has a wide open three.

To me? I would rather live with Fox trying to isolate on Taylor Hendricks here than be this paint-centric. Hendricks is a good albeit developing isolation defender, one who stands a good chance against even the quick Fox. The three the Jazz give up here is a simple one — heck, it’s the kind of action they run for Lauri Markkanen all the time. You do need to be a good 3-point shooter to exploit it, but every team has at least one of these guys now on the floor at essentially all times.

This defense also requires excellent communication. You can even hear someone yell out “screen” in the above video, but it comes just a bit too late for George to know it’s coming. I think expecting rookies to identify what’s going on in the court, be ultra communicative, and react, is just going to necessarily lead to bad results.

The counter argument to all of this is that the Jazz’s drop defense didn’t work in the playoffs, and that’s what Hardy is training the rookies to eventually excel in. I think that’s a good point. But in the mean time, the results are going to be catastrophically bad, worst-in-the-league bad, and that’s a really difficult hole to crawl yourself out of in order to get into playoff position in the years to come.

2. Walker Kessler’s passing

As you all know, Walker Kessler’s a very good rim protector, but his offensive game is relatively limited at this point in his career. After a good rookie season finishing around the rim, his numbers have decreased significantly there in year two.

Part of it, I think, is that he’s probably trying to finish plays too quickly with contested shots. Here he is trying to finish over Fox, for example.

Should he shoot this? On one hand, Fox is short, and it seems like a simple finish. But he is a little bit away from the basket, outside of the restricted area, and there are two open Jazz 3-point shooters. I suspect Sabonis would pass in the same situation.

Later, Kessler catches the ball in pick and roll a little higher up the court, and makes a good read to find Hendricks for an open three.

On the other hand, he is a bit slow to make the pass, taking a dribble first. Again, Sabonis probably turns and passes more quickly.

I just think there’s room for growth here. While I’m not expecting Kessler to get to Sabonis’ feel level, I do think there is an opportunity to become a better distributor of the ball in these situations. One comparison I think could work: Steven Adams was a low assist percentage guy too in his first few years, but starting in his last season in OKC in 2019-20, his passing numbers took a massive leap as he worked to find open teammates. It was a key factor in OKC’s surprising season.

Finishing better would be great, but setting up teammates could help bridge the gap for Kessler to become a more complete offensive player.

3. Brice Sensabaugh, adjusting to NBA 3-point distance

Brice Sensabaugh had his NBA career-best scoring night on Sunday: 22 points, largely thanks to 5-10 shooting from three.

It came after a disappointing 0-7 3-point night for the rookie on Friday. To be sure, 3-point shooting is going to vary from night to night, and it’s comforting to see him continue to shoot the ball even after a rough game. He came into Sunday with a 21% 3-point percentage, but this one game pushed it up to 25%.

Clearly, it’s going to need to continue to improve — pretty much any successful outcome for Sensabaugh as a player starts with a core skillset of being a good shooter. It’s the biggest reason he was a first-round draft pick.

But Sensabaugh said that the adjustment to the NBA 3-point line has been a little difficult for him sometimes. “It’s not crazy, but during the flow of the game, it’s not even the distance, but the line can mess with your head sometimes. It’s just like kind of a mental thing a little bit,” he said.

Still, Sensabaugh is repping out those shots in practice as a top priority.

“I rep threes every day, multiple times per day. Hundreds, thousands of threes,” Sensabaugh said. “It’s just something I have to trust in and keep building on it.”

Successful nights like tonight will give him that confidence needed to continue improving his game.

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