The Utah Jazz suffered another disappointing playoff loss in the Donovan Mitchell/Rudy Gobert era after losing 4-2 to the Dallas Mavericks. The Mitchell/Gobert pairing has been together for five seasons now, and they have never reached the Conference Finals. During their five regular seasons, Utah ranked 1st, 2nd, 13th, 3rd, and 10th in Defensive Rating. However, their rating plummets in the playoffs because opponents play them differently than in the regular season. While the offense has flaws, it is the defense that needs to see a change of personnel. At least one of Gobert or Mitchell will likely be traded this summer, and it’s a sad necessity.
Regular Season Defense vs. Playoff Defense
Rudy Gobert is the defensive anchor for the Jazz because of his elite rim protection and 7’1” frame. Royce O’Neale (6’6”) is a decent on-ball defender, but he is by no means elite. Bogdanovic is 33-years-old and un-athletic relative to the rest of the NBA. At this stage of his career, he is a mediocre defender who cannot stay in front of opponents. Utah relies on Mike Conley (6’1”), Donovan Mitchell (6’1”), and Jordan Clarkson (6’4”) to play a large amount of minutes. Those players are their core six, and five of them are undersized. Their guard rotation is abysmal defensively because opponents can easily drive past them off the dribble.
During the regular season, the Jazz perimeter defenders funnel opponents into Rudy Gobert, who is an elite shot blocker. Funneling is the best they can do because they don’t have the frame or skill to stay in front of opponents. Gobert cleans up their mistakes and patrols the paint looking to stifle drivers. It works in the regular season because teams are not scheming to counter this. Most teams are on auto-pilot and run their offense basically the same against every team. However, things intensify during the playoffs since there is a huge incentive to advance. A playoff game means infinitely more than a regular season game, so teams attack the Jazz relentlessly.
Opponents Limiting Rudy Gobert’s Impact
How do they make the Jazz defense look terrible? They pull Gobert away from the paint, remove his help defense, and force the perimeter defenders to stop ball handlers, not funnel them. Gobert is special around the rim, but he cannot guard on the perimeter. The chart below shows the difference in spot up possessions when Gobert is the primary defender in the playoffs versus regular season. A positive number means Gobert had more possessions defending spot up offense in the playoffs than regular season. It also shows the difference in points per possession (PPP) allowed on spot up possessions. A positive number means Gobert allowed more PPP in the playoffs.
During the 2018 and 2019 playoffs, Gobert was actually defending spot up shooters for fewer possessions per game than the regular season and giving up roughly the same PPP. However, there is a clear shift during the 2020 playoffs that has continued to the present. Gobert started seeing more possessions as the primary defender against a spot up shooter, and he was performing terribly. The increase doesn’t seem drastic, but a 1.5 possessions per game difference is very large. That gap for spot up defensive possessions per game is equal to the difference between the 10th most and 85th most (minimum 100 possessions). Opponents are forcing Gobert to constantly defend on the perimeter, and the results are ugly.
The jump in PPP was between 0.3 and 0.5. For perspective, a 0.4 PPP gap is the difference between the best spot up defender and the 208th spot up defender (minimum 100 possessions). Gobert wasn’t being forced to guard spot up shooters in 2018 and 2019, so what happened? The Jazz brought Conley and Clarkson in for the 2020 playoffs, and they have remained on the team since. Mitchell’s defensive effort has also decreased since 2019, which also accounts for this. It’s near-impossible to rely on three undersized guards and succeed defensively. Opponents are using their center to bring Gobert out to the perimeter so that they can attack the Jazz guards without Gobert waiting to stop the drive. It’s worked for opponents because of how awful the perimeter defense is.
Jazz Perimeter Defense & Opponent Shot Quality
By taking Gobert out to the perimeter and challenging the weak guards, it has led to an increase in high quality offense for opponents. The chart below shows the amount of drives the opponent averaged in the regular season compared to the amount of drives they averaged against the Jazz during their playoff series. For example, the last section is the comparison of Mavericks drives per game in the regular season vs playoffs against the Jazz.
It’s clear that teams generally are able to drive more frequently against Utah. This trend is because the perimeter defense can be easily penetrated by capable ball handlers. The Mavericks were killing the Jazz this year because they had Luka, Brunson, and Dinwiddie breaking down the defense off the dribble. It wasn’t much of a problem in the regular season because Gobert was waiting in the paint. During the playoffs, Gobert is taken out to the perimeter. Now he has to slide back inside to stop the drive, instead of already being in the paint to limit its damage. This necessary sliding leaves a man open, and the Mavericks can swing the ball for an open three-pointer. The chart below shows the amount of corner threes per game the Jazz allowed in the regular season vs playoffs. It also shows the amount of open threes (4+ feet from nearest defender) allowed in the regular season vs playoffs.
As you can see, the Jazz allow far more corner threes and open threes in the playoffs than in the regular season. Corner threes are the best type since it’s the shortest distance, and open threes are obviously great because opponents have time to set up their shot. With opponents taking high quality shots, the math in terms of expected PPP is heavily against the Jazz. This problem was haunting them before the Conley and Clarkson acquisitions too.
Utah needs to tear down their roster and completely rebuild from scratch. Gobert’s individual defense is not necessarily the problem, but his contract and weak offense will make it absurdly difficult to find the optimal pieces to complement him. In a perimeter-oriented game, the Jazz need to acquire athletic defensive stoppers on the wing who can stop opponents from driving with ease. It’s clear that their current roster cannot compete defensively since teams have attacked them the same way for three years now with the same result every time. Until Utah improves their perimeter defense and stops relying on undersized guards, they will continue to be bounced early in the playoffs.