The Utah Jazz have had a tough road trip. They lost all five games on the trip, gave up 96 or more points in all five losses, lost to the 76ers, Wizards, and Nets, and lost to the Celtics and Lakers by a combined 53 points. The team’s record is currently 27-18, but their win margin is only half a point, and the team is projected to finish with a 44-38 record. (Remember all those incredible fourth-quarter comebacks the Jazz had earlier in the year? That’s not exactly a sustainable strategy for winning.)
So what’s wrong with the Jazz? Deron Williams is playing as well as he ever has. The Flex offense is still humming, and the Jazz average 24 assists per game, the 2nd-highest mark in the league. Overall, the Jazz have the 11th-best offensive efficiency in the league, which is a slight drop-off from last season (the Jazz were 8th), but not bad at all.
The Jazz’s real problem has been their defense. Last season, the Jazz ranked 11th in defensive efficiency. This season, they rank 2oth. There are a number of reasons why the Jazz aren’t playing as well defensively as they did the last season, but the biggest one is likely Al Jefferson.
There’s a lot to like about Al Jefferson’s game. At 26 years old, he’s one of the few remaining pure post-up players in the NBA, and his jump hook is a thing of beauty. He’s capable of scoring from the block in a way that most young players simply aren’t taught to anymore, and that’s why he was the centerpiece of the trade that got the Celtics KG.
However, no team has ever been able to play decent def,ense while starting Al Jefferson, and that hasn’t changed now that Jefferson is in Utah. Starting in the 06-07 season, when Jefferson first became a starter for the Celtics, here are the number of points per 100 possessions Jefferson’s teams have given up when he was on/off the floor:
06-07 Celtics: 108.5 with Jefferson/102.8 without Jefferson
07-08 Timberwolves: 116.0 with Jefferson/103.9 without Jefferson
08-09 Timberwolves: 112.3 with Jefferson/113.2 without Jefferson
09-10 Timberwolves: 113.1 with Jefferson/111.2 without Jefferson
10-11 Jazz: 112.0 with Jefferson/101.3 without Jefferson
As you can see, the only teams that didn’t play significantly worse defense with Jefferson on the floor were the 08-09 and 09-10 Timberwolves, and that was only because they were so bad defensively Jefferson wasn’t able to do much damage. +/- is a very dangerous stat, but Al Jefferson has started for six seasons for three different teams, and all of them have played horrible defense when he is on the floor.
None of this disputes anecdotal evidence, either: Jefferson can block shots, but he’s extremely slow-moving on defense, doesn’t expend much energy on that end, and has long been considered a defensive liability.
For some reason, team’s have always been willing to overlook Jefferson’s defensive shortcomings because of his offensive gifts. Given that Jefferson is an unwilling passer who isn’t actually a very efficient scorer (he settles for a lot of outside jumpers and longish hook shots, and rarely draws fouls), it’s unclear why fans and teams continue to hold Jefferson in such high regard. Jefferson is clearly talented, and still only 26 years old, but needs to make some serious changes in his game if he wants to be a key contributor on a playoff contender.