SALT LAKE CITY — A year of change continues for the Utah Jazz.
Longtime coaches Jerry Sloan and Phil Johnson exited stage right. Deron Williams was traded to the other side of the U.S. Kyrylo Fesenko wasn't invited back from Ukraine.
What next, no more pick-and-roll?
In actuality, the franchise's latest makeover is literally a big shift on defense.
The Jazz are overhauling their defense to divert opposing ballhandlers to the baseline instead of funneling foes into the paint.
The bold move, which has been introduced and implemented to players during training camp, is the first big imprint Jazz coach Tyrone Corbin has put on the franchise since taking over in February.
"It's just a totally different way of looking at it," Corbin said.
Indeed. The fundamental defensive change is akin to converting from a flex offense to the triangle.
The change came about during the extended offseason when Corbin and crew — assistants Scott Layden, Jeff Hornacek and Sidney Lowe — brainstormed about defensive philosophies they'd had success with in their various NBA careers, from playing to coaching to management.
They evaluated returning Jazz players — a group that often struggled defensively last season — and factored that into a new plan. They hope to see increased defensive efficiency and team help and to prevent miscommunication-caused breakdowns.
The coaches asked, "What would be the best way for us to have a chance to be successful?"
Push to the baseline was the answer they agreed on.
In theory, forcing the ball out of the middle by rotating and helping should limit opponents' options while also allowing Jazz defenders to better guard their own guys, slow down pick-and-rolls, thwart penetration situations and defend outside shots.
"If someone comes to the middle ... it sucks everybody in a bit because everybody's watching the ballhandler thinking there's some responsibility for them to stop him," Jazz guard Raja Bell said. "When you have that, it opens up four different people on the court to pass the ball to."
The benefit of sending offensive players to the baseline, he continued, is that it cuts off half the court. Players are limited, offenses get bogged down and attentive defenders are less likely to make mistakes while helping.
"If you know that it's one person's sole responsibility to get over and cut off the baseline, then everyone else isn't guessing," Bell said. "It's a lot more clear about whose responsibility it is, and it allows for really decisive rotations. I think it will help out a lot."
The system switch is geared toward shoring up the Jazz's interior defense, improving trust, helping those rotations and lessening the impact of not having a shot-blocker.
"We were stretching the floor out a little bit too much on the inside and giving up too many layups," Corbin said. "Or the extra effort wasn't there. It just gives us a better chance to not make those mistakes."
A big benefactor: Al Jefferson.
The center was used to playing defense the baseline way in Boston and Minnesota, as it's a much more common NBA defensive strategy. He struggled at times last year to be positioned correctly while trying to get used to the Jazz's previous D.
"I like it," Jefferson said of the change. "It's easier to help the helper when we're doing it that way."
Combine that shift with his improved physical condition, and Jefferson has made defensive strides.
The move gets him to his spot quicker, putting him in position to help more. He's also taking more responsibility in being a defensive captain of sorts because he can help communicate to Jazz forwards from his vantage point down low.
"Al's been great," Corbin said. "He's had almost quadruple the amount of charges (as last season). I've been happy with his effort."
Drawing offensive fouls will make drive-happy players (he mentioned Thunder guard Russell Westbrook) think twice about coming down the lane, Jefferson said.
For him, taking charges is also a way — sometimes a painful way — to show his renewed commitment.
"Yeah, they hurt too," he joked. "They wanted me to be a better defensive player. Taking charges comes with the game. That's what helps being a great defensive player and also a great defensive team, so I'm just trying to do whatever it takes."
That whatever-it-takes attitude is probably the biggest shift the Jazz can make.
Corbin summed up the team's defensive mindset as such: "Committed. Extra effort. Hard-working group."
The Jazz have bought into that.
"With any defensive scheme, you're only as good as the people are willing to do," Bell said. "If we can drill, we can all get on the same page and understand it and we're all willing to do it, it can be awesome for us.
"But," he added, "you're only as good as your weakest link defensively. You could have four people committed to it and if one isn't, it's not going to be a great change. ... But so far, we're off to a great start."
Jefferson echoed the importance of that non-system-related standard Sloan set a few decades ago.
"No matter where you send it," he said, "if you send it to the middle or you send it to the baseline, you have to have the effort."
That's something his new and old Jazz coach would agree on.
"It (pushing to the middle) worked here for a long time. We can't knock the history the team's had," Corbin said when asked if the change was considered during Sloan's tenure. "But the personnel's different. We just changed."
For the better, the Jazz hope.
"It's not like it's going to solve all of our problems," Jefferson admitted. "We still have to play defense."
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