I felt pretty good about our 24 point thrashing of the Utah Jazz until I found out that they had just dropped consecutive games against the Wizards and Nets. Then they went out and lost to the Sixers and were just thumped by the Lakers last night by 29 points. Now they are set to face the rolling San Antonio Spurs (yikes). I'm not saying we didn't deserve to beat them, but it seems clear that there's something very wrong with the Utah Jazz.
Now, it is never as simple as just one thing. The problems they are having are probably wide ranging and complex issues. But I can't help but feel like one big problem is our old friend Al Jefferson.
Now, lets be clear here. I'm a big Big Al fan going all the way back to his rookie year. I love his assortment of post moves and I love watching him dink and dunk a team to death. Clearly, as Jimmy Toscano documented last week, his former coach and teammates are also still very fond of him. On the other hand, I also love that over the last 3 plus years we've enjoyed watching Kevin Garnett play instead of waiting for Jefferson to heal up from another injury and/or learn to play the pick and roll.
For all that Big Al is, there are just some things that he is not, and never has been. He's not a defensive player. I do wonder what a coach like Tom Thibodeau might have done with him, but Jerry Sloan isn't a slouch on defense either. Sloan is something of an expert on the pick and roll, but his bigs can't seem to defend the play.
A deeper look at Utah’s defense suggests the problem lies in the pick-and-roll — and specifically in its inability to stop dribble penetration at the top. An exhaustive look at video points to, primarily, the inability (or reluctance) of Millsap and Jefferson to jump out aggressively and cut off ball-handlers before they turn the corner. For whatever reason, both prefer mostly to sag back as Williams chases point guards over screens. That’s fairly common, and good big men can drop back and still manage to cut off a ball-handler if their positioning is sound and their feet are quick. Jefferson and Millsap can’t pull off the trick consistently. And when point guards get into the teeth of a defense, bad things happen — open shots, fouls and offensive rebounds that result from Utah’s big men having to help on the pick-and-roll action.
That is all well and good, but this is nothing new for Big Al. The Jazz knew going in that he wasn't a defensive player but they signed up for the Big Al Show anyway. At least he'd provide some scoring, right? Not so fast. Jefferson is scoring just 16 points a game and seems to be a bad fit on offense too.
The biggest problem I see with Al Jefferson right now is that he creates his own offense. He gets the ball and he does his low post work and creates a shot. Sometimes he is really on. He has had a handful of great offensive performances in second halves especially, but Jefferson's game doesn't really utilize Deron's strength as a creator and assist man. The way Jefferson plays offense, it wouldn't really matter if Deron or CJ Watson was his point guard. Jefferson doesn't really complement Deron at all in a lot of ways.
That's a real big problem when you don't fit well with the team's franchise point guard. Asking Big Al to run the pick and roll with Williams is like asking Drew Bledsoe to run the option. It just doesn't fit. Doesn't mean he's a bad player - just not the right player for Utah. He needs to get the ball on the block and do his thing. He would do well to pass out of the block more, but it would also help to have spot up shooters to make that a better option than whatever Big Al has up his sleeve.
With Deron's contract coming up in a year, the pressure is mounting on Utah to put a winning team around him. I wouldn't be too surprised to see Jefferson moved again in the not-too-distant future. (No, not back to Boston - at least until the Big 3 retire) Which is sad to see for a guy that many of us have always rooted for. This was supposed to be his big break after so many seasons of frustration with losses and injury. So far, not so good. Maybe things will turn around for the big guy, but I don't see it.