The Angles: How the Utah Jazz Can Fix Early Season Woes

The Angles: How the Utah Jazz Can Fix Early Season Woes article feature image

USA TODAY Sports. Pictured: Donovan MItchell.

  • The Utah Jazz face Denver Nuggets (-5) the on the second night of a back-to-back on Saturday night.
  • The Jazz (4-4) have sputtered out of the gate this season, especially on defense.

Everyone’s Western Conference darling, the Utah Jazz, have stumbled out of the gate this season. They struggled with the surprisingly competent Kings in their opener, lost a heartbreaker to the Warriors, and have wins vs. the Rockets without Chris Paul, the Pelicans without Anthony Davis, and Dallas. The team that’s given the Jazz real trouble, though, is Memphis, which beat them for the second time in two weeks on Friday.

Utah is a disappointing 4-4 on the season; a team that analytics wonks and League Pass lovers lobbed “second-best team in the West” hype on in preseason.

Utah opened as a 4-point dog to the red-hot Nuggets, and that’s been almost immediately bet up to Nuggets -5 (check here for updated odds).

However, one wrinkle could make this closer.


The Grizzlies play a drop scheme in pick-and-roll situations, the core block of the Jazz offense. Marc Gasol retreats off the pick, simultaneously corralling the ball-handler coming downhill as his defender catches up, and clogging space against the rolling Rudy Gobert.

Quite simply, it gives the Jazz offense fits.

This is where the Jazz miss Donovan Mitchell most. Ricky Rubio is a really good player in terms of setting the offense and making passes. And in the first half, he was productive offensively, scoring 17 points on 7-of-10 shooting.

But as is often the case with Rubio, the shooting regressed to form and he scored just five points in the second half, including two points in the fourth quarter as Memphis ran away. Stuff like this happened:

The Jazz put up just a 90.9 offensive rating in the second half vs. Memphis. Their bigger issue was defense, giving up a 122 defensive rating in the second half and a 120.9 mark for the game. Mike Conley and Marc Gasol tore them up.

The offense had its hand in it, too. The reality is that with Mitchell out, the Jazz are a beatable offense. Mitchell’s individual brilliance provides a counter that gets them to a much higher level. The Jazz offense isn’t bad, it’s just not good enough to hang against good teams with the personnel and scheme to counter them.

Thankfully, the Jazz face an entirely different team on Saturday night.

Denver has struggled with that same drop scheme because Jokic doesn’t navigate space as well as Gasol, and, honestly, isn’t as athletic as Gasol. But they’ve had a lot more success by getting more aggressive vs. ball-handlers, in particular using Jokic to hedge and recover. The problem occurs against athletic bigs who can roll in space:

The Nuggets’ lone loss this season was against the Lakers, and while there were a lot of culprits, JaVale McGee running wild played a big part:

You know who’s going to feast in that situation? Gobert.

Utah’s performance should be dramatically improved, even on the back-to-back, unless Denver completely switched up their coverage, which is unlikely in a November game.

The flip side of this of course is that Utah is tied for 13th in defensive rating this season. They’ve gotten carved up by a fair amount of teams and Denver brings a lot of firepower to the table.

However, Denver’s actually shooting terribly to start the year, second-worst in 3-point percentage. Jokic can’t compensate inside in the post vs. Gobert, and Utah at some point should recover its defensive principles to cut down on cuts and easy buckets.

The Grizzlies had success with that two-man game of Conley and Gasol, but Denver doesn’t truly have a mechanism like that. The Gary Harris-Nikola Jokic dribble hand-off is a deadly weapon and one that’s even worked on Utah, as The Athletic pointed out here. 

It’s not the same as a Conley-Gasol pick and pop mechanism, though, and for Denver to hang, Jokic will need to consistently hit from the perimeter to punish Gobert, who is hesitant to step out to range. Jokic is shooting 42% from deep, and that will be a big swing factor in this game.

The Jazz (+5) are being given too many points given this matchup. The specific things that limit Utah vs. teams like Memphis and some of the better-schemed teams don’t exist as limitations vs. Denver.

Denver’s offense isn’t humming yet and that’s their best chance to win this game. Utah’s also listed at a team over/under of 102.5 at some books, and that number is choice, as well.

Denver has surprised and passed nearly every test they’ve been faced with this season, but especially with the assumption that the back-to-back is factored into the line, there’s value on Utah.

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