The Utah Jazz’s defense is poised to be even better

Photo by Melissa Majchrzak/NBAE via Getty Images
Photo by Melissa Majchrzak/NBAE via Getty Images /

After finishing the 2016-17 season as one of the NBA’s best point-preventing units, the Utah Jazz have set themselves up to be even better in that area next year.

Thanks to the talents of individual players like Rudy Gobert and the schemes of coach Quin Snyder, the Utah Jazz built their brand on a sort of counter-culture, eschewing fast-paced pinball for a grindy, defense-first style that runs askew of the style adopted by most other teams in the league today.

This certainly worked well for them last season, as they finished fifth in the Western Conference, mostly on the back of their defense, which placed 1st in terms of opponent’s points per game and 3rd in defensive rating.

In terms of pure talent level, Utah will have a weaker team next season without Gordon Hayward, but they will actually be more versatile and specialized in certain areas thanks to some incoming assets.

With the cap space created from voiding the money set aside for Hayward, the Jazz were able to fill a number of roles with upgrades or otherwise valuable players that should all serve to boost their defense.

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First though, consider the draft-day addition of Donovan Mitchell. The combo guard led the Las Vegas summer league in scoring at 28 points per game, but it was arguably on the defensive end where he made his biggest impact.

Putting up 21 steals over his five summer games, Mitchell was a terror for ballhandlers and in the passing lanes, converting poor decisions by his opponents into  easy fast break points. Although a bit unrefined, his pure athleticism will aid him early on in his career.

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Also joining the team is Ricky Rubio, who will be replacing George Hill at the point guard spot. Hill was already a gifted defender, but Rubio may be even better considering their respective situations.

According to ESPN’s RPM metric, Hill finished last season as the sixth best defensive point guard in the league, while Rubio came in five spots later at 11. However, the context of the players around them makes a huge difference.

With Gobert, Hayward, Joe Ingles, and other talented players around him, Hill didn’t have to overextend himself at all, whereas Rubio didn’t have much support from a defense that ranked 27th in terms of defensive rating.

The transition from Karl-Anthony Towns, who was one of the worst defensive centers in the league, to Rudy Gobert will make a sizable positive change in the point guard’s playstyle and aggression.

Rubio is one of the best on-ball swipers in the league at the 1, and the threat of Gobert protecting the paint should he be beaten will allow him to adopt a more attacking mindset.

Ingles is already one of the league’s most versatile players, capable of slotting in at the 2 through the 4, and the Jazz added another such stopper in Thabo Sefolosha, a longitme veteran and known stopper.

He’ll be taking on a lot of Hayward’s matchups on the defensive end, something he’ll certainly be capable of doing considering he places ahead of Hayward in the Synergy categories of spot-up, off screen, and iso.

The last defensive-focused move the Jazz made was their out-of-nowhere signing of Epke Udoh. The former lottery pick reinvented himself in Europe as a rim-protecting, mobile center that will do extremely well as an upgrade to Jeff Withey, as Trevor Magnotti of The Step Back explains.

"Udoh has great shot-blocking timing, and his instincts for when to help and when to crash to the hoop against a drive are great. He can get beat off the dribble by quicker guards, but his recovery speed when defending the perimeter is at an NBA level."

Gobert is extremely quick for a man of his size, but there’s always going to be some inherent limitations with his frame. Udoh is just quick enough to be weaponized on switches if that’s the way the Jazz choose to play at times.

Rodney Hood, Alec Burks, and Derrick Favors, all talented defenders in their own right, should be ready to serve in a larger capacity next season as well, given that all of them missed significant time due to injury in 2016-17.

The Jazz can put out an all-defense, modern lineup of Rubio, Mitchell, Sefolosha, Ingles, and Gobert that will rival any configuration in the Association, all the while maintaining capable reinforcements at all positions.

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There comes a tendency to get lost coming out of a summer in which a given team has lost such a large percentage of their production. The Jazz have a clearly defined, albeit unique identity that should help them continue their winning ways.