Saturday, April 11, 2009

2008-2009 Regular Season: What the heck happened?

March 30 2009 -- Kyle Shoots Technical [Melissa Majchrzak NBAE Getty Images]
The Jazz may finish 3rd in their division and 8th in the conference
for the first time in a very, very long time.

Do you remember those halcyon days back when the Jazz were rolling teams in the pre-season and gearing up for another 50+ win regular season? In the off-season the Jazz locked up Deron Williams to a big contract, drafted a big white guy, turned Jason Hart into Brevin Knight, and everyone else would be a year better. I remember those days. Then Deron Williams got the “Bruce Bowen treatment” from Derek Rose and the Jazz had to scramble a bit. I looked at the schedule and it did not look bad – clearly the Jazz would be able to handle this singular injury and weather the storm. The Jazz started this season 5-0 with Deron in street clothes, winning because the bench unit (Kirilenko, Millsap, Korver and Knight) was already in midseason form. Utah came back down to earth with losses to the New York Knicks and (then winless) Washington Wizards. Then people started dropping like flies: Korver went out, Boozer went out for over 40 games, AK got banged up a few times, Harpring had yet to even have a practice with the team all season, Millsap put in three seasons worth of work on both of his knees in half a season’s time and Deron was pressed into returning too soon. Still, I felt like the Jazz would be able to handle these injuries, and weather the storm. Even when the Jazz looked and played like crap, and were out of the playoffs, I felt like they could still come back and impose their will on playoff teams. Injuries played a significant part this year, but I’m not able to blame all of our problems on that.

Utah was dominant at home (as per their usual), but seemed to get even worse on the road this season. Last season was a poor road year, and I felt like the 2007-2008 regular season was supposed to remove all the silly problems from the 2006-2007 regular season. That didn’t happen, and those same problems have continued on to this season. I can’t remember the last time that the Jazz beat the Knicks, or Bobcats or any other crappy team on their court – or even the last time the Jazz beat the Heat, in Utah. The Home/Road discrepancy almost became comical where legitimate press and bloggers alike made light of Utah’s road woes (while calling into question the validity of the home wins).

Utah is better, and yet, worse than previous incarnations of the Jazz this time around. It’s absurd, yet the only real explanation for how this season has gone into the trash bin after such a promising start. Where do I begin?

NBA Playoffs Round 2 - Deron jams The starters have come a long way from those Jarron Collins/Carlos Arroyo line ups . . . even a long way from starting Derek Fisher as a two guard. Deron Williams is the 2nd best point guard in franchise history, and can take over games. Ronnie Brewer is putting it all together, making open jumpers, scoring inside, and occasionally playing lock down defense. (Essentially everything Giricek did for half a season in a contract year – check out the per game and per 36 mins averages!) The bigmen (Boozer and Okur) are one of the few tandems in the league that can hurt you so many ways on offense, while hitting the glass so hard (averaging well over 35 ppg, 18 rpg and over 4 offensive rpg for the last three seasons). Lastly, the emergence of C.J. Miles and his deep jumper necessitated moving Andrei to the bench – making the bench deeper while giving the starters another deep threat to watch out for.

It’s not just the starters/bench that look more balanced, but some of our individual players have put in a lot of work and effort on their games as well. Paul Millsap is a revelation with his strong play – previously just a hustle player, he has developed a series of face-up moves where he can score on a combination of up fakes, step-back jumpers, or whirling sorties in the paint while maintaining only one pivot foot. Kyle Korver was just a rich man’s Jud Buechler back in Philly, but over the last half of the season has been playing inspired defense, collecting boards and blocks in addition to taking all kinds of charges. Brewer, as previously mentioned, became everything we didn’t think he could become when the Jazz matched C.J. Miles’ RFA offer from the Thunder and drafted Morris Almond.

As great as this sounds on paper, this line-up isn’t that great in reality. This season Boozer and Okur (the starters who theoretically defend the basket) are averaging 0.8 bpg combined and 6.6 fouls per game – that’s a pretty bad ratio. For example, Andrei in the season that he broke down and cried still managed to average 2.1 bpg to fouling 2.5 times a game by himself – and he had to defend the Kobe’s, Wade’s and LeBron’s that season, not the paint and collect easy blocks against driving point guards. Defending the paint is really big in Jerry’s book. When you don’t have good one on one defenders (like Karl Malone or Antoine Carr), or a large defensive stopgap in the middle (like Mark Eaton or Greg Ostertag), teams know that they can go inside with impunity and score – or get to the foul line. I don’t see why Portland just doesn’t post up LaMarcus Aldridge every single play of the game because his success rate against our starting bigmen has to be in the high 80% from inside, and in the mid 40% from outside. The inability to defend the paint effectively has a trickle down effect (of doom) for our defensive schemes.

Guys like Deron or Brewer have to double down and try to discourage inside play. That leaves C.J. Miles in the situation where he has to defend two guys outside. That’s exactly the situation that some teams go for . . . you know the type, the type that really hurt the Jazz . . . teams that understand that there’s more ways to score than just going for layups, essentially, teams that have good jump shooters (the Lakers, Celtics, Magic, Heat, Trailblazers, Spurs, Cavs, Rockets, Nuggets, Phoenix, Dallas, you know stop me anytime . . .).

So, for years the Jazz have been leaving guys open from deep – this isn’t by design, this is a defensive adjustment that’s actually based on sound defensive principles – you try to defend the team from the easiest scores possible – so defending the big man 4 feet from the basket is a higher priority than the shot happy streak shooter from deep. Again, this makes sense to do – except the Jazz occasionally play teams with Jamaal Crawford’s and J.R. Smith’s occasionally . . . and that’s when things start to breakdown. It seems like each progressing year the Jazz get worse at defending the paint – which leads to even worse three point defense. Utah isn’t going to get better at defense over-all until they get better defenders inside – and this doesn’t look like it’s going to happen soon as our team has invested so much time, money and necessity on Boozer and Okur’s offense. What makes all of this worse is the fact that Boozer averaged close to 1 block per game over two seasons in Cleveland, and Memo did the same over his last season in Detroit and his first two in Utah. Since then both of them have been little help to the Jazz when it comes to defending the paint. (and yes, defensive rebounds don’t make you a good defender . . . the guy who made the guy miss the shot is a good defender, you’re just the guy who collects the ball after someone else defended well – kind of my problem with how Fesenko was thrown under the bus during the RMR, while Kosta was universally praised for collecting a lot of defensive rebounds)

Eaton blocks Otis [Bill Baptist NBAE Getty Images]Why have I devoted so much time on a “how did we get here” type of article on just interior defense? I have done so because it’s so important – our inferior interior defense is exactly why the Jazz have the record they do – more than any other effects of injuries. The Jazz had the same problems in seasons when we were healthy – this is one thing which has not improved – and perhaps gotten worse with the movement of Andrei to the bench and a severe reduction in his playing time. It’s really no surprise to me that the Jazz tend to get back in games (hence: were down in games because of an inability to stop the other team from scoring) when Kirilenko and Millsap are defending the other team’s bigmen – not when Memo or Booz are.

Good, strong interior defense isn’t just helpful in stopping bigmen from getting easy baskets, nor does its’ benefit extend only to allowing perimeter defenders to stay home on outside shooters – but it also mitigates some of the problems that good one-on-one ball handlers pose when they drive to the basket. Guards did not like having to beat John Stockton off the dribble only to be rewarded with Mark Eaton swatting their shit into the stands. Guards felt the same way about having to beat Raja Bell off the dribble only to have Greg Ostertag be there to make sure things much less sure. Guards *do* have no qualms about getting by our guards and knowing that the hard part is behind them. This is perhaps why actually developing potential road blocks Koufos and Fesenko would actually help us in the long term. (Hmmm, less Boozer/Memo lineups, more Memo/Fes and Boozer/Kosta lineups?)

The Utah Jazz offense is superb – it’s the defense that is ultimately responsible for the inability to win on the road, or beat good teams on the 2nd night of back to backs, or fully explain why the Jazz routinely lose to teams they should beat. It’s easy to look at all of the ‘other’ stuff and point blame for how this season has been a significant and measureable step back . . . injuries, off-court stuff, death of the owner, schedule, refs, and so on. This 2008-2009 season can be summed up as the season where many events occurred, but ultimately the regular season record (and eventual release of the stranglehold that we once held over the entire division – including the division title) was a product where the lack of interior defense really caught up with the Jazz.