Denver Nuggets hand Utah Jazz a blowout loss and a lot of lessons

Three thoughts on the Utah Jazz’s 142-121 loss to the Denver Nuggets.

(David Zalubowski | AP) Utah Jazz guard Jordan Clarkson slides across the floor after being fouled during the second half of the team’s NBA basketball game against the Denver Nuggets on Saturday, March 9, 2024, in Denver.

1. The Jazz are so far behind defensively

The Denver Nuggets are an extremely good basketball team. This game showed just how far the Jazz are from reaching anything near their level of competitiveness.

Other than the obvious talent discrepancy, what currently separates the Jazz from the likes of Denver is defense. For all the injuries, trades, and late-season malaise, defense remains the single largest practical reason behind Utah’s losses. On Saturday night, Utah allowed Denver to score 142 points, 30 of which were in transition. The Jazz nearly gave up back-to-back 40-point quarters in the first half, never really giving themselves a chance.

And frankly, this has more to do with personnel than effort.

According to BBall Index’s D-LEBRON tool (a holistic metric of a player’s individual stats and team-level defensive impact), the Jazz have three of the 25 worst defenders in the league (min. 200 minutes). As a matter of fact, Jordan Clarkson holds the worst D-LEBRON in the league, with a rating of -2.27 (for reference, Rudy Gobert has a league-best D-LEBRON of 3.12). Keyonte George and Collin Sexton trail closely behind, with ratings of -1.69 and -1.44, respectfully.

Utah’s only real positive defenders are Walker Kessler and Kris Dunn, whose roles have both fluctuated drastically this season. Markkanen’s defensive impact has regressed this year, John Collins remains too small to make an impact at center, and the rookies are still finding their way. Before next season, this area of the roster demands attention.

2. Lessons from Denver’s players

Denver Nuggets guard Jamal Murray, center, pursues the ball as Utah Jazz guard Kris Dunn, left, and forward Luka Samanic defend during the second half of an NBA basketball game Saturday, March 9, 2024, in Denver. (AP Photo/David Zalubowski)

Each of Utah’s rookies has something to learn from the Nuggets’ major role players. The cliché of being a “superstar in their role” is often overused, but truly applies to the likes of Jamal Murray, Aaron Gordon, Kentavious Caldwell-Pope, and Michael Porter Jr.

George, most obviously, could learn a lot from Murray. They’re both score-first guards, similar in size and athleticism, and play their best basketball at the point. The two battled, with George scoring 29 points to Murray’s 37.

Notably, George could learn from Murray’s ability to generate offense through movement. Murray relentlessly cuts, runs through screens, and creates positional advantages off-ball. Currently, most of George’s points come through beating his defender off the dribble or open catch-and-shoots opportunities. Murray’s movement offers a way to become a more complex threat on offense.

Taylor Hendricks, who missed Saturday’s game with a left big toe injury, should watch plenty of Aaron Gordon’s tape. After initially struggling to find his role in the NBA, Gordon has solidified himself as one of the league’s best two-way rim runners. While Hendricks has the potential to space the floor, he should learn from Gordon’s ability to position himself for easy dump-offs, lobs, and transition baskets. Despite his sub-30% three-point shooting, Gordon shoots over 55% from the field, in large part due to his ability to find easy looks. Until his shot comes around, this is how Hendricks can make an impact on offense.

Even Brice Sensabaugh, who scored a career-high 16 points, could learn from the likes of Caldwell-Pope. Check out this pre-draft excerpt from DraftExpress on KCP:

“Caldwell-Pope’s ability to rise up and bury difficult shots can be somewhat of a curse at times as well, as he tends to rely very heavily on this part of his game and can be naturalized relatively effectively by a taller and longer defender.”

Sound familiar? While Sensabaugh and Caldwell-Pope were clearly very different players in college, there is a lesson in KCP diversifying his game to become a valuable player. He developed as a defender and became an integral part of two championship teams. On Saturday, Sensabaugh showed off some of his auxiliary skills with three assists and three steals, albeit turning the ball over five times.

Denver Nuggets center Nikola Jokic, left, drives against Utah Jazz center Walker Kessler during the first half of an NBA basketball game Saturday, March 9, 2024, in Denver. (AP Photo/David Zalubowski)

After missing the previous four games, Kessler returned in a start against arguably the league’s best player. Most players struggle against Nikola Jokic and Kessler was no different.

In 24 minutes, Kessler scored six points, grabbed 11 rebounds, and blocked one shot. He was 3-9 from the field and had the worst plus/minus of Utah’s starters at minus-19. Jokic, on the other hand, scored 26 points, dished out 8 assists, and only missed two shots. After stopping him once early in the first quarter, Kessler seemed nearly invisible to Jokic for most of the night.

Kessler’s sophomore slump has been well documented. Injuries and a diminished role have obviously played a part in his decreased output. While matchups with players at Jokic’s level are nearly always an uphill battle, Kessler’s struggles remain concerning.

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