29 January 2011
Much has been made of Al Jefferson's defense lately, from David Locke's Q and A on Jan. 28 to John Hollinger's scathing review a day after a game versus San Antonio in which both he and I were in attendance and saw totally different outcomes of Big Al's effort.
To be fair, Hollinger was likely distracted by another game going on at the same time, one he'd expressed interest in the day before; SDSU vs The Jimmer. There was a mention or two of "several media members" watching the BYU game over the Jazz game, so...
That leaves us wondering, how far does a rep take a player in an analytical situation?
Raja Bell has been riding a clothesline for years. Next to Carlos Boozer's propensity for matadorism, Paul Millsap appeared to be Dikembe Mutombo. Despite unimpressive numbers, most fans consider Wesley Matthews a defensive force based mostly on blue-collar hustle that pleases the eye and fools the mind.
It doesn't help that such stigmas get reinforced time and again by national analysts that really only see a relatively small percentage of the games and possessions for a given team in a small market like Utah, or by biased fans and bloggers that are extraordinarily vocal about their opinion, often causing it to stick, sometimes for years, despite the best efforts and intentions to get them to see the error of their ways.
And in the same vein, no matter how many shots he changes, kick-outs he forces, defensive rebounds he gathers, or blocks he makes, Big Al will for years labor under the stigma that he can't play defense.
It would be disingenuous of me to try and claim that his defense doesn't need work, --lots and lots of work, in fact-- however, pinning the whole rotten-Jazz-defense-of-late thing on him is just as dishonest. Expecting him to be the last line of defense, as he was in the first half of the recent of of the Spurs game, is unfair and will inevitably lead to more such unfavorable reviews of his obviously under-developed ball-stopping ability.
Yes, he needs to show more on pick-and-roll defense, not falling into deeply ingrained bad habits, collapsing into anchor mode so early. And yes, he needs to get up on his man a lot sooner so they aren't so deep on the entry pass and in position to be dropping "chippies" over his frustrated head. But that's where it all ends, on the defensive end.
Where it starts is another matter entirely.
Jefferson should never repeatedly be in the position to act as the last line of defense, yet he is. Constantly. As such, he automatically falls back and tries to make a play on the ball, sometimes successfully, like when he logs a new career high in blocks versus his former team, the Minnesota Timberwolves, and at other times not so much, like when he fouls out, also incidentally, something that happened against his former team in the last outing.
Some of the stats collected, like those presented by Locke, indicate that Al is the biggest hole in the proverbial defensive bucket, while others, such as those that I've recently presented, indicate that the 2 and 4-spots are worse before it ever gets to Jefferson (the most recent data there shows this to still be the case).
The truth of the matter is probably somewhere in between, but there's also this study on recent wins produced per-position on the Jazz over the last 12 games (before the Minnesota game, but the defense by Utah in that one far from acceptable, so the issue still remains) that would seem to back up the data I collected in trying to determine where the defensive woes stem from.
By Mr. Berri's reckoning the biggest problems among the starters of late have been Raja Bell and Paul Millsap, who were a combined -0.7 in wins produced over the last 12 games sampled. Deron Williams was +1.6, although that's -0.8 difference from where he should be in his contributions based on past preformance. Interestingly enough, the only two starters above projected wins produced were Andrei Kirilenko and Al Jefferson, at +0.6 and +0.2 over their projections, respectively.
Mr. Berri, of Stanford University book fame, The Wages of Wins, wisely cautions against using small sample sizes to make grand determinations, but the overall evidence is growing that certain positions on the Jazz are defensive sieves, not just Jefferson's.
A short aside:
There are worries that swapping out Miles for Bell in the starting lineup leaves the second unit hung out to dry. But can it really get any worse? Would you rather play from ahead and have to try and hold the lead because you started CJ? Or play from behind Every. Single. Game. because you started Raja? Plus, we've seen that Miles can hold his own against starting opposition. What we haven't seen is how much better Raja might play if he got to chew on some second unit a little bit. Just a thought, now back to your regularly scheduled programming...
It's time to face the fact that Paul Millsap shined most brightly in the role of help defender, and now that he has to man-up on lengthier starting power forwards on a regular basis he's being exposed as an average defender at best.
This has the unfortunate effect of making Al look worse, with him being the biggest big on the court for the Jazz in the bulk of the playing time, often left challenging the shooter alone after the ball reaches the paint.
It's not like Al isn't tryng on defense. He's fouled out three times, and logged five personal fouls five other times, indicating that he's at least being aggressive defensively.
Millsap hasn't fouled out once. Not once. And this from the league's fifth-leading personal-foul getter last season. As a back up.
Now that he's gotten his long-awaited, and well-deserved shot at starting, Millsap has no interest in spending any more time on the bench than he has to. And it shows in his defensive effort. He's logging career high minutes, while logging career low personal fouls. And letting himself get beat so he can stay on the floor. He has to be more aggressive defensively, put himself aside at times for the good of the team.
Then there's the guard positions.
In the last game against the San Antonio Spurs, Tony Parker and Manu Ginobili were waltzing into the paint at will. This isn't on Al. In fact, Al made some incredible defensive plays that game just to keep the Jazz in it. Just how bad was it? Parker and Ginobili had 49 points between them. Only eight --EIGHT!-- came outside the paint. It was a miracle the Jazz had a shot at all in that one.
For his part, Deron did a lot better job in the second half of fighting through and over screens, finally slowing down the red hot Parker and keeping him from getting to the Jazz's last line of defense like he did in the first half. (For the record, about two hours before the game someone asked me what to watch for that night vs San Antonio. I said "dribble penetration.")
Unfortunately, Raja did no better at containing Manu in the second than he did the first half, and Ginobili picked up where Parker had left off in the first. When you have opposing guards playing "mouse in the house" at will of course your center is gonna look bad. Especially if he already has a rep and a bad rap.
I always say "defense starts with your feet, not your hands." But I'd like to amend that.
Defense starts with your head. It's a mindset. You have to want to demoralize the opposition by forcing them to take a long, poor shot, raising your probability of getting a defensive rebound while lowering their chances of pouring it on offensively.
Next, it moves to your mouth. You have to communicate to teammates about impending screens and switches. Kevin Garnett is one of the best in the league at this, directing the defensive traffic from his vantage point down low, allowing the Celtics to make quick rotations, cover holes and gaps quickly, and close out on shooters who are winding up for daggers.
The Jazz lack a communicator, a director of defensive traffic. They may have to do it as a team, calling out screens so Deron doesn't run blind into them, or waste valuable time trying to get into position while at the same time always looking over his shoulder so he doesn't run head-long into the trunk of a proverbial tree. All it takes in this league is a split second for any number of great guards to burn you with a fast first step.
Al has said the Jazz aren't communicating on defense. Maybe if he stepped into the role of "Defensive Director" they would get burned a little less. At the very least he is in the best position to see screens coming. You get me? Holler! Communication is key to successful defense in today's uber-quick NBA.
In any case, the Jazz had better figure it out fast with four of the league's top scoring offenses on tap on the other side of the ball in the next five games (Golden State 8th, Houston 4th, Denver 1st, Oklahoma City 6th).
Al has a chance to crawl out from under that glass slide in the coming week. Provided he has some help.
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