Following a trend of recent years, the Utah Jazz are experiencing some turbulence to start the season. Unlike the past two seasons, though, the Jazz entered December with a record above .500 but still sit at sixth in the West with the league's 23rd-ranked offence.
That middling offence was countered by the league's best defence until a series of subpar performances knocked them from that perch. Utah has fallen all the way to the 10th-best defence in the league after surrendering 130 points to the Raptors, but they undoubtedly have the talent to get right back among the league's elite.
A major question for them and the Western Conference as a whole is, does Utah have a defence capable of slowing down LeBron James and the Los Angeles Lakers?
The Jazz had success in doing just that early on this season as they held the Lakers to a season-low 95 points. A better shooting night from the Jazz would've put them right in the game but the story of the night was LeBron and his staggeringly nonchalant 32 points, 10 assists and seven rebounds in just 31 minutes.
The second meeting was a different story.
The Jazz again struggled against LeBron as he finished with 20 points (on 9-for-21 shooting) and 12 assists in under 30 minutes, leading the Lakers to a commanding 121-96 win at Vivint Smart Home Arena.
With the struggles continuing, Utah's case for having more success going forward isn't exactly straightforward. The Jazz don't have a top-tier defensive wing, a fault you'd expect to be disqualifying in terms of slowing down the four-time MVP.
Royce O'Neale most closely fits that role but he lacks the experience you'd hope to find in a "LeBron Stopper." Joe Ingles and Jeff Green don't quite fit the profile either but Bojan Bogdanovic's moderate success against LeBron in the past - most notably in the First Round of the 2017 Playoffs - at least gives Utah plenty of bodies (and fouls) to throw at him.
With that said, Utah does have a unique advantage to slowing down LeBron and the Lakers: The rim protection of Rudy Gobert.
LeBron has changed his style of play this season. While he's still a preternatural scorer at 25.6 points per game, that's actually the fourth-lowest average of his career. He's still manufacturing points at a historic level, it just looks a little different.
OK, a lot different. For the first time in his pantheon career, LeBron leads the league in assists at just under 11 per game.
Point-LeBron has become a reality. He's always been the focal point of the offence but this season he's become more of a floor general than ever.
In the past, his dimes most frequently came off of drive-and-kicks to open 3-point shooters spreading the floor, but that isn't always a viable option for this Laker team.
The Lakers are 15th in 3-point shooting percentage but just 25th in attempts, a stark contrast to the 3-happy offences LeBron captained in Cleveland. Roughly a third of LeBron's assists have resulted in a made three this season. That follows a similar pattern to last season (35.0 percent) but is a notable dip from the historically elite offences he led in Cleveland where 56.5 percent of his assists netted a three in 2016-17.
The addition of Anthony Davis has fundamentally changed LeBron. He's the most talented big LeBron has ever played with, but Davis prefers to play alongside another center. To this point in the season, just 35 percent of Davis' minutes have come at center according to Basketball-Reference, meaning more minutes for JaVale McGee and the resurgent Dwight Howard, neither of whom ever stray too far from the rim.
As a result, LeBron has to spread the floor himself. He leads the Lakers in 3s made and attempted, one of the few feats he's yet to accomplish in his career. Consequently, the days of LeBron bulldozing to the rim on every play seem to be gone. He's taking the lowest percentage of his shots at the rim since 2014-15 and, as a result, is taking the fewest free throws of his career.
The combination of his differently-talented teammates and the wear of 57,000 NBA minutes have changed LeBron's style of play, but, while he's more of a perimeter player than ever, the Lakers as a whole are clearly an interior-centric team.
This is where Utah's advantage of having Gobert is key. The lack of truly threatening perimeter shooters - outside of Danny Green and LeBron himself - means Gobert can maintain a dominant sphere of influence around the rim. As his -13.9 percent defensive field goal differential inside six feet would attest, Gobert can fundamentally change how an opposing offence operates.
When he's on his game, Gobert can force opponents to stop shooting at the rim entirely. Leading into their second meeting of the season, the Jazz are one of the league's best teams at limiting shots inside three feet per game, as indicated by the numbers.
Gobert's impact is that he not only blocks shots but forces opposing big men to settle for looks an extra step or two beyond their normal range.
The Jazz force opponents to take the fourth-most non-restricted area paint shots in the league, a shot that, by league average, is made just 60 percent as often as shots inside the restricted area. If Gobert and the Jazz are successful, the Laker bigs - and even LeBron - will struggle to maintain their typical efficiency.
|FG% <3 ft||FG% Paint non-RA|
The Lakers follow the same trend as the rest of the league. While their field goal percentage is elite inside three feet, they fall to the bottom half of the league on paint shots outside the restricted area. This results in them taking the second-fewest non-restricted area paint shots in the league.
If any team has the defensive horses to slow down the Lakers, the Jazz are the best candidate. Gobert is the perfect player to force the Lakers to abandon the shots they want to take in favour of those they don't and he gives the Jazz an outstanding shot at slowing down the dominant Lakers.
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