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Is it possible the Utah Jazz defense is better than we realize?

The Utah Jazz defense is currently ranked 3rd in the NBA and there is a good chance they are even better than that.  Through 8 games, the Jazz defensive rating is an incredible 96.3 pts allowed per 100 possession.   Only the Boston Celtics and the Oklahoma City Thunder defensive rating is better than Utah’s.

Digging into the numbers and the Jazz defense looks more suffocating.   Four of the Jazz eight opponents are currently ranked in the top 10 offensively.    The Jazz have held three of the four substantially below their season average.  The Denver Nuggets offensive rating against the Jazz was 98.7, in all their other games their offense has been a 107.3.  The Minnesota Timberwolves were 5.2 pts per 100 worse against the Jazz than in all their other games.   Oklahoma City whose offense is rolling at 108.1 in all games other than the Jazz was a 91.2 against the Jazz.

Thus far this season the Jazz have held opponents on average 8.5 pts per 100 possessions below their season average in their other games.

OPPONENT Off RTG

(not including Jazz)

Off RTG v. Jazz Difference
Denver 107.3 98.7 8.6
Minnesota 106.8 101.6 5.2
Oklahoma City 108.3 91.2 17.1
LA Clippers 109.0 108.2 .8
Phoenix 101.5 97.0 4.5
L.A. Lakers 98.3 88.2 10.1
Dallas 100.7 92.9 7.8
Portland 107.0 92.9 14.1

 

An eight game sample size does not make a complete season of work.  However, to get a perspective on this level of defense let’s compare it to some of the best defenses over the past few season

SEASON Best Defense Compared to Average
2016-17 San Antonio (100.9) 5.4 better than average
2015-16 San Antonio (96.6) 7.3 better than average
2014-15 Golden State (98.2) 7.8 better than average
2013-14 Indiana (96.7) 7.4 better than average
2012-13 Indiana (96.6) 6.4 better than average
2011-12 Chicago (95.3) 6.8 better than average

 

Defense are ahead of offenses early in the season so a defensive minded team such as the Jazz have an early season advantage.  Moreover, there is a regression to the mean that happens with all teams as sample sizes grow.  Yet, at 8.5 pts per 100 possessions better than league average the Jazz are functioning at very elite level.

Over the next stretch of games it doesn’t get an easier for the Jazz defense.   They play the 6th ranked offense in Toronto, the #12 ranked Rockets, the #11 ranked Brooklyn Nets and the #8th ranked Timberwolves in their next five games.    If their defense continues to protect the fort with the same veracity sample size will no longer be an issue.

Before embracing an offense or defense as “real” this early in the season it is astute to look to see if there are any shooting abnormalities.   Unlike Boston whose opponents are shooting an unsustainable 31% from three or Oklahoma City whose opponents are shooting 30.8% on above the break three point shots nothing jumps out when looking at the Jazz.

Opponents are well below average on the corner three against the Jazz just 10 of 38 and that will certainly increase.   The damage may not be extreme as the Jazz only allow opponents to shoot 5.2% of their shots as corner 3s the 2nd lowest rate in the league, something they did last year as well.    If the Jazz were to allow the league average 36% it would have a 1.5 pts per game impact.   For Oklahoma City and Boston the impact is in the range of 4 to 5 points per game.

The sample sizes are still very small with huge variance possible, but if the opening stretch of stifling Jazz defense is an indicator the Jazz defense maybe even better than realized.

 

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David Locke enters his ninth year as the radio play-by-play voice of the Utah Jazz, having spent the majority of his career in radio in Salt Lake City and Seattle. In the summer of 2016, Locke created the Locked on Podcast Network which has podcast daily bite sized podcasts for every NBA and NFL team. A native of Palo Alto, Calif., Locke graduated from Occidental College in Los Angeles with a degree in Political Science and Sociology. Locke and his wife have a son and a daughter.

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