Friday, May 16, 2008

The Utah Jazz and fouling

If a coach patrols the sidelines long enough, eventually his team's personality and style will match his as an individual.

It should come as no surprise then that the Utah Jazz are a reflection of Jerry Sloan, who has guided the NBA team in Salt Lake City for the past 20 years.

As a player, Sloan, who spent 10 of his 11 seasons with the Chicago Bulls, was all about toughness, defense (four first-team selections, two second-team), effort and ... fouling. Make no mistake -- all those things go together. Although he was also a better than average offensive player (14 ppg for his career), defense was his game. Sloan was a scrapper. He bumped, pushed through, pursued the ball and the man, and he did all of them relentlessly.

Sloan's 2008 Jazz were whistled for more fouls that any other team in the league: 24.0 per game on average. (By comparison, the league average was 21.0; New Orleans, meanwhile, committed the fewest, 18.7).

In fact, in six of the past eight years, the Jazz have been the most foul-prone team in the NBA. Coincidence? Unlikely. Even though personnel matters, did Utah acquire players to execute Sloan's style? Or did Sloan mold the players to fit his image?

Watch the Jazz play for a quarter or two. Don't, although it is easy to do because Deron Williams does some amazing things, get caught staring the ball. Watch inside. On offense, no team runs off-the-ball cuts with more purpose, and sets screens with more conviction. Ditto on defense, where no team bumps more cutters, fights through more screens, and bodies up to more perimeter players.

Imagine gauging defense in this manner ... One end of the scale is as far from fouling as possible, say standing 10 feet away from your opponent, feet planted, hands at your sides, never moving. The other end of the scale is the most obvious foul possible, say reaching out with two hands to grab the opponent, perhaps even wrapping them up.

For the defensive team, every possession then -- both for the five players on the floor as individuals and collectively as a group -- involves defending somewhere between those two extremes. And somewhere on that continuum is the pivot point where the contact is too much, where fouls are called. It's not black-and-white, of course. Every referee has his/her own slightly different point.

Now, given that the goal of defense is to prevent the other team from scoring, one good way to do this is to spend as many possessions as possible as close as possible to -- and just to the left of -- that pivot point where fouls are called. The Jazz do this more than any other team in the NBA. They're physical for 48 minutes. They're constantly on the edge of being called for fouls. It's who they are and a big part of why they're successful.

One problem, of course, is that when a team spends so much time close to the line, it also crosses that line more often than others. And in this series against the Los Angeles Lakers, who have the practically unguardable Kobe Bryant, a smooth post player in Pau Gasol, the length, size and quickness of Lamar Odom, and an effective offensive system, the Jazz are fouling even more.

In the first five games of the series, Utah has been called for foul totals of 33, 30, 28, 27 and 31 (contributing to an average of nearly 39 free-throw attempts per game for Los Angeles). Given the Lakers' offensive skills, as well as the more intense nature of the postseason, these numbers aren't entirely unreasonable.

Every coach says his team needs to defend without fouling. That is true, but defending well means defending very close to fouling. Keeping from crossing that line, especially against a talented offensive team with matchup advantages, is difficult to do.