NBA Coast-to-Coast (3/7/18)

By Frank Brank
NBA Coast-to-Coast breaks down trends in play and interesting tidbits in the NBA as they relate to team rankings, sports betting, and overall style of play. We may cover anything from recent trends in line movement to coaching rotations that may affect the outcome of games.

The Jazz Suffocating Defense

The Utah Jazz has ascended to the best defense in our model yet again. They held this position for most of last year and had a few setback this season, including injury to Rudy Gobert and a few other starters regressing towards the beginning of the season. With Gobert, who is the best defender in the NBA over the last two seasons, Utah is impossible to conquer.

During this season, the Jazz have been merely average without Gobert. In games he has missed entirely, Utah has allowed 48% from the field, 38.9% from three, and 52.8% from two. With Gobert's prescence on the court, they've allowed just 43.9% from the field, 35.3% from three, and 48.0% from two. Opponents have scored 103.8 points with an absent Gobert compared to 99.0 in the games he's played. That difference is remarkable and unprecedented in today's NBA.

Had Gobert played the entire season with this same expectation, the Jazz would rank third in FG%, eighth in 3P%, second in 2P%, and first in points per game. Overall on the season, the Jazz have allowed a shooting percentage of 55% in the paint, which would fit them inside the top-10 in the NBA. However, with Gobert's abscence in nearly half the games, we would anticipate that to come down considerably.

It doesn't stop with Gobert. Utah has three players ranked inside the top-30 in defensive RPM and five players inside the top-77. Of the best three, Gobert, Udoh, and Sefolosha, two are centers that have dominated the post. Granted Sefolosha has missed considerable time this season, meaning they could be even better at full strength than currently constructed. All five inside the top-77 are either centers or forwards; hence, zero guards on the league's best defense rate as top defenders.

Utah's model may be the method going forward on how to build or construct a top defense. With three point shooting becoming more prevelant each year and the difficulty for defenses to actually affect the results of three-point shots, it makes more sense to build around defensively capable post players as opposed to offensive-minded post players or defensive-minded guards.

It has certainly worked for them, along with a few other top defenses in the NBA like the Celtics, Warriors, Raptors, and Heat. The Jazz would need to make up one game in the standings to make the playoffs, although that may not be the best result. For almost anyone playing the Rockets or Warriors right now, it's a death sentence. Given the nature of the jumbled mess of average teams after Houston and Golden State, Utah would have a real chance in winning a playoff series if they were able to make up two games and sneak into the sixth seed.

The Need for Love

Another team needing some Love heading down the stretch and into the playoffs is the Cleveland Cavaliers. Per RPM, Love has been one of the better players in the NBA over the last two seasons, including 39th overall this year and 12th last year. In both seasons, he's been a plus player on both sides of the ball despite being a scapegoat in much of the playoff runs by the Cavs.

Right now, the Cavs need his defense and rebounding more than anything. Cleveland has improved since the deadline when they flipped half their roster; however, they still aren't among the league's best, or even the East's best teams in the Toronto Raptors and Boston Celtics. It's a certainty that their new starting rotation of Hill, Nance, James, and Hood would enjoy getting some reps with Kevin Love in the rotation before the playoffs begin. Nonetheless, Love's health getting at or near 100% is the utmost importance at the moment if they want to reach another Finals.

Without Love, the Cavs rank seventh overall, in our model, with the third-best offense and just the 19th-best defense. The return of Love would boost them to fifth overall and the 17th-best defense. It's not a huge difference, at the moment but every point matters at this point in the season. The difference, for the Cavs, will be even bigger if he is able to ascend towards a top twenty or even top fifteen player in the NBA like he was a season ago.

Love has shown the flashes to be able to move into that category with his improved shooting abilities. Before hitting the disabled list, Love was shooting 40.4% from three, 50.7 from inside the arc, and 46.3% from the field for a 55.0 eFG%. With the offense and shooters surrounding him, Love has been able to become a more efficient shooter as he's taken less and more selective shots.

Cleveland made headlines after the trade deadline by defeating the Celtics and Thunder into the All-Star break. Their momentum did not carry over after the break as they've lost to every contender in the NBA that they've played: Nuggets, Sixers, Spurs, and Wizards. The Cavs' victories over the Pistons, Nets, and Grizzlies are to be expected for a team of their caliber.

The Love-less Cavs are currently just +3.9 points above the average team as they are currently constructed. Assuming Love's return is at or near 100%, they would jump to +5.3 points above average, which is much less than the healthy Raptors and Celtics marks, but would make them much more competitive in their upcoming and inevitable road series.