Portland Trail Blazers v Utah Jazz
Utah Jazz center Rudy Gobert defends Hassan Whiteside, of the Portland Trail Blazers, during a preseason game on Oct. 16, 2019, at Vivint Smart Home Arena.
Melissa Majchrzak/NBAE via Getty Images

Preseason defensive issues were a 'wakeup call', but Rudy Gobert and the Utah Jazz aren't worried

by Aaron Falk

On each possession, Mike Conley makes dozens of split-second decisions with the basketball in his hands. These reads are second nature for the point guard after 12 years in the NBA. But there are just as many things to consider on the other end of the court in Utah Jazz coach Quin Snyder’s system, and that means even a savvy veteran like Conley can have a hard time getting up to speed.

After five preseason games with his new team, Conley is still trying to change old habits, learn new terminology, and figure out how to play with the NBA’s two-time Defensive Player of the Year. In Memphis, Conley would have fought to stay in front of his man. Now he’s trying to stay on his hip, channeling him toward the big man in the paint.

“If they drive by you, let them go. I’ll meet them at the rim,” Rudy Gobert tells him.

But even that is different.

“I’m used to Marc Gasol and his Spanish accent,” Conley said. “Now I’ve got Rudy’s French accent, just trying to understand everything he’s saying.”

Conley and the Jazz weren’t happy with their defensive performances during the preseason. But with so much to learn in such a short time, they weren’t exactly surprised by them.

“I think offense, in large part, is instinctive, where defense is more habitual,” Snyder said. “… When you’re intellectually trying to remember something, it’s not instinctive yet.”

How quickly those things can become instinctive, and how quickly the Jazz can get back to being one of the league’s elite defenses will help decide how good this year’s Jazz team can be.

“Defensively, we can be something special,” forward Jeff Green said. “We’ve just got to communicate, continue to get better. … We know that we have guys who can score, but we know that defense is what’s going to take us far.”

Putting up points wasn’t a problem for the Jazz during the exhibition season. Utah averaged 118.4 per game (sixth-best in the league) in the preseason. On the other end, though, the Jazz were unhappy with their efforts. The team’s 111.4 defensive rating was worst among NBA teams in the preseason. The results: a 1-4 record and plenty of work to do before the games start to count.

“We’ve had some adversity in the preseason,” Snyder said. “In a sense that’s good. You get a chance to get a very honest, transparent look at where we’re at. And we don’t want to be where we’re at; we want to be better.”

The Jazz have been a top-10 defense the past four seasons under Snyder, a top-2 defense in each of the last two seasons.

“We’ve been a defensive team since [Rudy] has been here and we have to keep building that,” shooting guard Donovan Mitchell said.

Mitchell and Conley echoed their coach’s sentiments that preseason adversity can help a team improve.

“It’s good we had these kinds of games going into the regular season,” Conley said. “It’s a wakeup call. It allows us to understand that not everything is sweet, and it’s not going to be easy. We have to go work for it.”

Mitchell recalled how last year’s 5-0 preseason record only led to a slow start to the regular season.

“I’d prefer 1-4 to 5-0,” he said. “I think it puts more urgency on it. You remember how we started last year. I think, for us, it puts a lot more spotlight on what we need to do. It puts a lot more urgency behind it.”

And Conley believes it’s only a matter of time before the Jazz are clicking and playing defense at an elite level.

“We’re all trying to get up to speed,” he said. “It just takes time. The more we play, the better we’ll be.”

The league’s back-to-back DPOY agrees.

“The important thing is that we have that drive and we have that pride,” Gobert said. “I think we do have that, so I’m not worried.”

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