SALT LAKE CITY — The good news is that during the 2015-16 season, the Utah Jazz's overall defensive efficiency improved from 12th to seventh best in the NBA from the year before.
That's certainly an impressive accomplishment and one that this young team and its coaching staff should take a lot of pride in.
The bad news, though, is that repeatedly during crunch time of games, Utah's defense really wasn't very good at all. Yep, that's right — one area where the Jazz generally shined brightly often turned into a pretty darned dull light bulb down the stretch in the fourth quarter.
And that, more than anything else, may have been the most vital, overriding reason why the Jazz struggled so much in close contests and wound up 40-42 overall, failing to make the playoffs after flirting so seriously with a postseason spot down the stretch.
"The one area where I feel like there can be a marked improvement is on the defensive end," Utah head coach Quin Snyder said. "If you look at where we were defensively during the course of a game, and what happened to us defensively late in the game, we weren't very good is what it comes down to.
"So how do you adjust that? How do you correct that? I think the way the game is played at the end of the game is different; it's a lot more physical. We're a team that has to learn how to adjust to that. There's screens that sometimes aren't legal the first quarter that become more legal in the fourth quarter.
"Things that hopefully can help our players understand that the game has shifted, that there's a point in the game where it is unique and for us to raise our concentration, our physicality and our competitiveness to respond to that," Snyder said. "And I don't think that we were able to do that, certainly on the level that we liked, and as a result the results reflect that."
In a more recent interview on 1280 AM radio, Snyder specifically cited defensive rebounding as the biggest culprit in his team's late-game defensive struggles.
"Really what hurt us at the end of the game, and it'll surprise you guys, is our defense," he told sports talk show co-hosts Spencer Checketts and Gordon Monson. "During the course of the year, we were the seventh-best defensive team in the league. In the last five minutes of the game, we were in the high 20s, which is really, that's a tough one.
"So you look at it and you say, 'Well, what happened?' We go back to some of the metrics, what were we good at during that time, what were we not good at, and what we see is we didn't defensive rebound. That was the primary thing. … So here we have a team that, at the end of the game, based on all the analytical data, we're actually more efficient offensively at the end of the game and we're not doing something that, as a team, we're really good at.
"We're a good defensive rebounding team and, for whatever reason that last five minutes, maybe that's me. I have to have different combinations in the game, I need to emphasize it more, we need to look at it. But that's an area (of emphasis) and we'll dig in to it even more," he said. "But it's surprising, isn't it, that an area like that where you feel like your team is good, and we are good, that we don't close possessions at the end of the game."
Indeed, Utah's inability to clean the defensive glass late in games, which gave opposing teams second-chance opportunities to score, was a shortcoming that cost the Jazz dearly in at least two late-season losses against Golden State and the Los Angeles Clippers, when one more defensive rebound in the closing seconds could have clinched a Utah victory.
Instead, those two would-be wins turned into disappointing defeats — a critical two-game swing that could've improved their record to 42-40 and pushed them into the playoffs ahead of the Houston Rockets, who finished 41-41.
"The biggest thing, if you look … we didn't defensive rebound down the stretch," Snyder said. "And any time you give a team multiple opportunities, it's gonna getcha. … Obviously, it's something I can assure you that we're really working on and trying to work on."
The Jazz ranked second in the league in fewest points allowed (95.9 per game), ranked 13th in opponents' overall field goal percentage, were tied for 13th in blocked shots and were tied for 16th in steals.
Those rankings could've likely been even better if starting point guard Dante Exum hadn't been lost for the entire season due to a torn ACL, and if their two best interior defenders — "The Stifle Tower," shot-blocking 7-foot-1 center Rudy Gobert, and 6-10 power forward Derrick Favors — hadn't both missed sizable chunks of the season with injuries of their own.
The loss of Exum was felt all season long, especially after the 6-foot-6 guard had played such a key role in helping the Jazz go 19-10 over the last 29 games of the 2014-15 season. In Exum's absence, opposing teams were able to take advantage of Utah's smallish point guards Shelvin Mack, Raul Neto and Trey Burke on the defensive end of the floor this past season.
"We moved from 12th in defensive efficiency to seventh, which for a young group that has tools, is quite notable," Jazz general manager Dennis Lindsey said at the end of this season, noting that the team's rash of key injuries made the 2015-16 campaign somewhat "disjointed."
"Clearly last year our program suffered because of Dante's injury," Lindsey said. "… When he's on the court, his size at 6-6 with a 6-10 wingspan and very good lateral movement, it's hard to measure. You can't really know how big and long he is as a defender at the point of entry, the first point of contact when the offense is moving. And that's hard for opponents to measure."
Lindsey also attributed a portion of the team's defensive woes to its frustrating propensity to commit turnovers, which often forced them to try to play transition defense in scramble mode. He can't help but think that, with the anticipated return of a healthy Exum this coming season, Utah's defense could very well take another giant step forward.
"We go from 12th defensively to seventh, right? So above average to good, and yet we missed a big component (in Exum)," he said. "So there's an open question, I believe. … Can we move from good, being the seventh-best defensive team in the league, to unique and special? Where San Antonio was this year in their size, but not only their size but their discipline and then relating to the overall metrics — they weren't just first in the league defensively, they were a lot better (than everybody else).
"It goes without saying that we very much look forward to Dante's return to health."
And, undoubtedly, so does the rest of Jazz Nation.