The Utah Jazz are finally off to a fast start in 2019-20, and it’s all due to their elite defense, rebounding and ability to force turnovers.
For the first time in seemingly forever, the Utah Jazz are off to a great start to the season. Things looked a little iffy when they struggled to win their opener against the Oklahoma City Thunder while Mike Conley clanged jumpers off the backboard, and then followed that narrow victory with a defeat at the hands of the Los Angeles Lakers; but double-digit wins over the Sacramento Kings and LA Clippers sandwiching a nail-biter over the Phoenix Suns look pretty good right about now.
Utah’s schedule has a few tough games coming up, but most of them are at home. They have to travel to play the Clippers and Minnesota Timberwolves within the next three weeks, but their road date against the Golden State Warriors suddenly doesn’t look so imposing and they get to host games against the Philadelphia 76ers, Milwaukee Bucks and Brooklyn Nets. If all goes well, the Jazz won’t have to come from behind, like they have over the past few years. Utah started 4-6 last season, 5-7 the year before and 7-8 the year before that.
What’s especially encouraging about Utah’s start is that the expected offensive boost from adding Conley and Bojan Bogdanovic hasn’t even materialized yet, and they don’t appear to have lost much defensively by shedding Ricky Rubio, Jae Crowder and Derrick Favors. Utah is allowing a league-best 93.0 points per 100 possessions, per NBA.com. At this point, that’s just what Jazz teams featuring Rudy Gobert do; we should not expect anything but Elite Defense from these guys unless and until we see them playing Not Elite Defense.
What really stands out about this season’s version of the Jazz defense is that they have so far taken things to another level when it comes to ending opponent possessions. Generally speaking, there are four potential outcomes for a given possession: a made shot, free throws, a missed shot or a turnover. That’s why when Dean Oliver identified the four factors of basketball success, he settled on effective field goal percentage (how good you are at making shots), free-throw rate (how often you get to the line), rebound rate (how often you control the ball after a miss) and turnover rate.
On the defensive end of the floor, only two of those four potential outcomes are positives: missed shots that lead to defensive rebounds and turnovers. This season’s Jazz, like last year’s, lead the NBA in defensive rebound rate. That’s good. But this year’s Jazz also rank very highly in turnover rate, which is a change from last year when they were closer to league average. It also puts them in rare company.
The chart above plots defensive rebound rate and turnover rate for defenses, with teams that are above-average in both areas residing in the upper-right quadrant. The Jazz appear to be in a cluster with the Sixers and Miami Heat in terms of being elite at both securing defensive rebounds and forcing turnovers. Those things are valuable not just because they help prevent points, but also because they lead to the most efficient shots on the other end of the floor. Possessions that come after a rebound or turnover are far more efficient than ones that begin after a made basket or free throw.
Now that Conley appears to have finally gotten back on track, it seems likely that a bump is coming for the Utah offense, which ranks 25th in the NBA as of this writing. Given that Utah added both shooting and playmaking by bringing in Conley and Bogdanovic, it seems incredibly unlikely that their offense will somehow be worse than it was last year and the year before. If they’re able to maintain the things they do well defensively and capitalize on the things their defense does well by selectively pushing off of misses and turnovers, they can nudge themselves closer and closer to being a top-10 offense.
If they reach that point, they suddenly enter a whole different tier of contention. The Jazz teams of the past few seasons were quite good, but clearly missing something on the offensive end. Donovan Mitchell needed help in the form of more perimeter creativity and shooting to loosen up driving lanes. The Jazz also needed to get more flexible in front of Gobert on the perimeter, as opposing offenses tested their drop coverages in different ways in the postseason. It looks like Utah has done both of those things. One of them is working, and the other should come along soon.