Rudy Gobert’s eyes danced toward the top of his head and back, he shook his head slightly, and a slight shrug completed the exhibition of frustration before the question was even finished. The Utah Jazz center was being asked about defense after Friday’s loss to the Lakers—then the Jazz’s fifth loss in six games—and about the difficulty of playing defense in today’s NBA, which has been defined this season by freedom-of-movement rules and a deluge of high-scoring games.
“It’s hard, it’s harder,” he said. “The game is evolving. We have a lot of fans, even more fans watching highlights on social media, so the NBA likes that. It sells more tickets. … It’s on us to be smart and try to adapt.”
The Jazz, who boasted the league’s best defense last season, have not adapted particularly well so far. This season, they are allowing 107.7 points per 100 possessions, which is nearly five points more than last season and tied for 12th in the NBA. The result has been a disappointing 9-11 start and a hard look in the mirror. On Sunday in Sacramento, with Donovan Mitchell sitting out because of a rib contusion, the Jazz relegated Derrick Favors to the bench for the first time in the regular season since the end of the 2016-17 season. Instead of trotting out twin towers to start the game, Utah let Ricky Rubio run alongside three wings and Gobert like he was De’Aaron Fox. The result was a much-needed positive—the Jazz won 133-112. But even with the victory, the Jazz remain second to last in the Western Conference.
In a league drunk on pace, the Jazz have been pigeonholed as anachronists. They aren’t the slowest team anymore—that’d be the Memphis Grizzlies, who are back to gritting and grinding like it’s 2012—but they were one of the few holdouts committed to two brutes patrolling the frontcourt and an offensive system built around machinelike execution. They may not have the firepower or the athletes to win a track meet every night, but as long as the defense was stout and the offense was crisp, the Jazz had a chance to not only survive in a deep West, but thrive. Some projection systems even forecasted them to finish as high as second in the conference, just behind the reigning champs.
But the execution has lagged a bit this season, and the machine has broken down because of it. In addition to their defensive woes, the Jazz are turning the ball over on 15.5 percent of their possessions, which is 27th in the NBA. Their assist-to-turnover ratio (1.5) is the 11th-worst rate in the league, and teams are scoring 18.9 points off of those turnovers—the fifth-worst mark in the league and about two more points than last season. Rubio, for example, is turning it over more on a per-36-minute basis this season (3.7) than he has since his sophomore season. And while three or four turnovers would be an OK night for a run-and-gun point guard like Fox or Trae Young, that’s an untenable number for a team like the Jazz, one that’s built to squeeze the most out of fewer possessions. On Sunday, Rubio had three turnovers, but it’s hard to see it alongside all of the other gaudy numbers on his stat line (27 points on 11-for-16 shooting, seven rebounds, five assists) because they were utilizing nearly eight more possessions.
On the season, the Jazz aren’t just coughing up the ball at an abysmal rate, they are also forcing fewer turnovers than they did last season. And after limiting opponents to a 50.6 effective field goal percentage last season (sixth in the league), they have tumbled all the way down to the bottom five in the league in the category, allowing opponents to shoot a 53.5 effective field goal percentage (eFG%). Their own eFG% is at 51.6 percent, one percentage point lower than it was last season.
In some ways, the Jazz’s problem is the one we all assumed it’d be when Gordon Hayward left for Boston two summers ago: They haven’t had a reliable go-to scoring option on most nights. Mitchell has struggled this season, shooting just 41.8 percent from the floor and 29.2 percent from 3. In a recent loss to the Sixers, he shot the ball 35 times but somehow didn’t record a single assist. “That can’t happen,” he conceded afterward.
This is where the domino effect starts. Utah’s offense is sputtering without a reliable go-to scoring option. Which means more missed shots and more turnovers. Which means more transition opportunities for their opponents. Which means defending more on the fly. Which means their defense, which relies entirely on a 7-foot-1, 245-pound Frenchman, isn’t properly set.
Gobert is the poster boy for rim protection and the Jazz’s defensive anchor, but he has also been part of the Jazz’s regression: Opponents are shooting 7 percent better this season at the rim when Gobert is defending. The center put the blame on himself on Saturday after a Jazz practice on the UCLA campus in Los Angeles. But he’s also said the league office’s reemphasis on limiting off-ball holding hasn’t helped.
“As a big, you have to be almost perfect defending the rim without them calling fouls now. It’s a challenge,” Gobert explained. “We’re getting a lot of cheap fouls, and sometimes that’s going to throw us off, and then we start thinking and we lose our intensity.
“I think it’s harder for my guards to be a little physical, especially fighting through screens. The more my guard puts pressure on the ball, the easier it is for me to come and block a shot or make the play and get back to my man.”
The Jazz’s defense on Sunday wasn’t exactly a return to stout defense—Sacramento finished with a 52.4 eFG%, about a point shy of their mark on the season—yet Utah did play with a spark that hasn’t been there the past few weeks. But it’s telling that a game against a Kings team coming off a down-to-the-wire game in Oakland the night before felt like a must-win. As is the fact the Jazz finally pivoted away from Favors.
Utah has been toeing the line of change for some time. They traded for Jae Crowder at the last trade deadline and often deployed him as a stretch-4 next to Gobert to add more versatility. Utah re-signed Favors this past offseason, but even then it hedged its bet—the two-year, $37.6 million deal is nonguaranteed, allowing it to walk away after this season. And the returns this season haven’t been great: Favors has a minus-6.3 net rating on the season—worst on the team among players logging more than 20 minutes per game—and the two-man combination of Gobert and Favors has a minus-5.8 net rating in 191 minutes. Favors has tried his best to fit in—he’s even flinging 1.1 3s a game, by far the most in his career. But he’s clearly a center in 2018.
Utah is no longer the darling underdog. Expectations for this season were inevitable after the Jazz made it back to the second round of the playoffs last season without Hayward. As Crowder said this past weekend, no team is surprised by Utah anymore. The Jazz are now expected to be a top-tier playoff team, and they’ve felt the attention and pressure that comes with that.
“A lot of people expect more from us, they expect that we finish third or fourth in the West, and well, it’s not that easy,” Raul Neto said this past weekend
Things aren’t getting easier any time soon, either. Mitchell has now missed three games, and Utah’s schedule to round out the calendar year features 14 should-be playoff teams in their next 17 games. Last season, the Jazz were nine games under .500 before they won 31 of their last 40 games and ended up as the fifth seed in a tight West. That kind of improvement is what they’re now hanging on to as hope while they trudge through a rough start to their season, “I don’t think we’re in panic mode,” Mitchell said this past weekend, “we just have a lot of stuff to fix.”
But their lineup shift on Sunday signals a much deeper question. Before they can answer whether or not they can reclaim the heights of last season, they first need to figure out who they are.