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Utah Jazz are one of the NBA’s worst defensive teams, and there are two key reasons why

Jazz coach Will Hardy talks about his team’s defensive struggles, and what is needed to improve.

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Chicago Bulls’ Nikola Vucevic eyes the basket as Utah Jazz’s Walker Kessler (24) and John Collins defend during an NBA basketball game Monday, Nov. 6, 2023, in Chicago. (AP Photo/Charles Rex Arbogast)

Chicago Bulls’ Nikola Vucevic eyes the basket as Utah Jazz’s Walker Kessler (24) and John Collins defend Monday, Nov. 6, 2023, in Chicago.

Charles Rex Arbogast, Associated Press

INDIANAPOLIS — The Utah Jazz are one of the worst defensive teams in the NBA through the early days of this 2023-24 season.

There is hope that with time, some of the issues on the court will be resolved with more familiarity and a better understanding of the team’s defensive philosophies and schemes.

There are also some changing roles and positioning differences that are going to take some getting used to, from John Collins and Kelly Olynyk to Talen Horton-Tucker and Keyonte George and really everyone in between.

But if we’re being really honest, the two things that the Jazz are missing on the defensive end can’t be coached in the same Xs and Os way that angles and position can. Right now, the Jazz are lacking communication and effort.

A lingering issue

When I asked Jazz coach Will Hardy what he can do to get the guys trying more and talking more, other than just saying exactly those words to his players, he joked about there not being a good answer.

“Sarah, if you can find the answer, you’re hired on our staff immediately,” Hardy said. “It’s hard. There’s part of it that’s like, who’s gonna talk? With a new group, who is the leader? Who are we looking at? And sometimes everybody’s just kind of looking at each other like, ‘Are you gonna say it or am I gonna say it?’ There’s a flow to all that in a game and we’re obviously still working through it.”

This isn’t necessarily a new problem for the Jazz, but instead is one that is lingering a bit from last season.

Hardy freely admits that he relied on Mike Conley a lot while Conley was in Utah through the first half of last season. It was easy to rely on a veteran player who was clearly going to be the communicating leader of the team and it made things easy on the players.

They knew who to look to during stoppages or timeouts. They knew who would be the one to calm and organize and bring the messages from Hardy to everyone on the court.

But now things aren’t as clearly defined.

Last season, Jordan Clarkson said that there was a moment following the trade that sent Conley to Minnesota that he looked around during a timeout, wondering who was going to be the one to talk.

“Then I was like, wait, is it me?” Clarkson said.

It’s a conundrum that is tied into a lot of different issues the Jazz are working through this year. Before the season even began, it was common knowledge that the Jazz’s backcourt rotations were a work in progress and that the starting point guard role was up for grabs.

Through the first few games of the season it’s been Horton-Tucker who has had lead guard duties assigned to him. But last season was the first time in his career that he’s played point guard and it wasn’t even for a full season. He’s still trying to find a balance between scoring and playmaking.

Then there’s the idea that the Jazz aren’t relying on the idea of a traditional point guard right now to lead the team, but instead are looking at backcourt pairings. So who do the players listen to? Is it Clarkson and Horton-Tucker? Is it Collin Sexton and George?

Going quiet

But the miscommunication issues the Jazz are sorting through aren’t just because they don’t have a clear leading point guard. This is also a team of introverts (with very few exceptions) and one of the most introverted players on the team is the best player on the court.

Lauri Markkanen is trying his best to be a better communicator and to lead by example, but even he admitted to faults when it comes to defensive communication.

After a loss to Conley and Minnesota this week, he said that there were times on the court when he was playing zone and the rest of the team was in man defense.

That’s probably where the biggest problem lies right now. At certain times in the game, the defense just stops talking.

Walker Kessler, one of the few extroverted players on the team and one who is supposed to be talking a lot on the defensive end, said that everyone on the court needs to do better in that regard.

“No question,” Kessler said. “I can do better. I’ve got to practice good habits and knowing the team better and say it all louder.”

Effort

But the final piece of this puzzle is that the Jazz have to care more and they have to put in more effort without losing focus.

Hardy has harped on the idea that his team is guilty of letting poor offensive stretches impact defensive effort.

“The activity has been pretty lackluster in general,” Hardy said. “There’s moments where we’re, we’re still focused on whatever just happened on the offensive end. I’ve missed three shots in a row and so my mind is somewhere else. Well, that’s a mindset shift that we have to have.”

And Hardy is right.

There are no easy answers for this. The coaches can yell and scream and try to motivate and put together a game plan and do all the preparation in the world to get a team ready to play a game, but once the ball is tipped, it’s on the players to put in the effort and keep talking for 48 minutes.

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Utah Jazz coach Will Hardy looks on during game against the Memphis Grizzlies at the Delta Center in Salt Lake City on Wednesday, Nov. 1, 2023. The Jazz coach says if his team is to improve defensively, it will require greater communication and more effort.

Spenser Heaps, Deseret News