NBA Season Preview 2017-18: Ricky Rubio can make the Utah Jazz’s defense even better


With the losses of Gordon Hayward and George Hill, the Utah Jazz will retool their offense without their top two players in usage rate last season. However, their defense should remain elite. According to Basketball-Reference, Utah ranked third in defensive efficiency, allowing 105.3 points per 100 possessions, and they return key players to that mark in Rudy Gobert, Derrick Favors and Joe Ingles.

The Jazz were not historically great in any metric essential to their overall defensive efficiency like allowed effective field goal percentage, allowed 3-point rate, allowed free throw rate, defensive rebounding and forced turnover rate. Instead, it was a balanced effort, ranking in the top 10 in all of those statistics except forcing turnovers, where they ranked 25th last season at 11.8 turnovers per 100 plays.

While Ricky Rubio may not replace the scoring production from Hayward or Hill, he should prop up that one weakness in Utah’s defense in forcing turnovers. Acquired in a trade for a first-round pick, Rubio has led the league in steals percentage — an estimate of possessions that end with a steal by a player when on the floor — in three of his first six NBA seasons, and finished with a rate of 2.5 or better each year. When looking at point guards with over 1,000 minutes in a season, the last Jazz point guards to have similar steals rates were Jamaal Tinsley (2013), Earl Watson (2012) and John Stockton (2003 and beyond). Hayward and Hill finished last season with steal rates of 1.6 and 1.7, respectively.

Rubio has also drawn his fair share of offensive fouls, placing 13th last year with 31, according to NBAminer. In his three other reasonably healthy seasons, Rubio’s placed second in drawn offensive fouls in 2016, seventh in 2014 and second in 2013.

How good could the Jazz defense be with similar production on defense, plus a boost in forcing turnovers thanks to Rubio? When looking at teams to place in the top 10 in allowed effective field goal shooting, allowed 3-point rate, allowed free throw rate and defensive rebounding since 1994, 25 of 32 teams to make the cut were top-five in defensive efficiency, including last season’s Jazz.

But maybe Rubio doesn’t force as many turnovers as usual. Or Joe Ingles, a solid steals collector himself, has a setback. What if the Jazz are merely average in that metric? Of the 14 of 32 previous teams to also place 20th or better in forced turnover rate, 13 were a top-three defense. Only five teams since 1994 were top 10 in all five categories essential to modern-day defense. The four San Antonio Spurs squads (2004-2005, 2016-2017) were the best defense in the league while the 2012 Atlanta Hawks finished sixth.

The added creativity from Rubio on offense will likely not make up for the loss of shooting and playmaking from Hayward and Hill. He’s finished only one season with making half his shots around the rim and he’s a below-average 3-point shooter. But the Jazz return their defensive stalwarts, and with Rubio they gained another who should help in their weakest area on that side of the floor.

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A step back in offensive efficiency is to be expected for Utah, but recent NBA history leans towards the Jazz repeating as top-three defense, and a reasonable shot as the best in the league.