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Foul play

Reinterpreted rules have thrown Jazz off key

Posted: Wednesday January 26, 2005 12:07PM; Updated: Wednesday January 26, 2005 12:07PM
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"You hit the elbow and I'll rake the wrists." -- The Jazz show Golden State's Troy Murphy their defensive style.

Every rose has its thorn. Take the new hand-checking rules, for instance.

The NBA ordered its officials to crack down on touch fouls before the season, to an eye-pleasing effect. Scores are up, quickness is in vogue and seemingly everyone's happy. (Especially all you Poison fans out there! Enjoy it while it lasts; I can safely promise this is the last time I will lead a column with lyrics from their song collection).

Thus far, we've heard a lot of discussion so far about the winners from this reinterpretation of the rules -- teams such as Phoenix, Seattle and Washington, for instance, which have lots of quick perimeter players.

But for every winner, there must also be a loser, and this case is no exception. So today, I will present the case of one of the biggest losers from the rules changes: the Utah Jazz.

The Jazz are mired at 14-28, the third worst record in the West, after finishing a respectable 42-40 a year ago. The main difference is at the defensive end. Last season Utah gave up 101.2 points per 100 opponent possessions, which put them right around the league average. This year that's up to a putrid 108.7 -- far and away the worst figure in the NBA.

Several factors contributed. Losing Andrei Kirilenko for 26 games obviously has been a major issue (Dr. 'Drei's line in his second game back: 14 minutes, 14 points, three blocks, two steals. Not too shabby for a guy who looks like he hasn't eaten in a month.). So have Jerry Sloan's bizarre personnel moves -- most notably the ill-fated Alex Radojevic era -- and Raul Lopez's continuing quest to be Spain's next great matador.

But Utah's defensive struggles also result from something more insidious. Its scheme simply doesn't work with the revised rules interpretation. The Jazz's defensive style under Sloan can best be described as full-contact. The Jazz fouled with wild abandon a year ago -- their league-leading 2,093 personals was nearly 200 more than any other team. That's no fluke, either, as it was the third time in four years Sloan's club led the league in putting a hurtin' on its opponents.

Obviously, one might expect the refs' reinterpretation to hit the Jazz harder than most teams, and indeed it has. While free throws are up around the league by 6.7 percent, the increase in free throws by Utah's opponents has been nearly double that at 12.3 percent. Keep in mind, this is from a team that already was light years ahead of the competition in getting whistled.

As a result, the Jazz have become the '27 Yankees of fouling. Check this out: The average NBA team permits 25.7 foul shots per 48 minutes. The second most frequent fouler, the Sixers, allow 29.1. So how many do you suppose Utah allows?

30? No.

31? No.

32? Getting warmer.

Try 32.4. Look at those numbers again. The difference between Utah and Philadelphia is as big as the difference between Philadelphia and the league average.

The resulting parade to the free-throw line is killing Utah. Even after allowing for the league-wide increase in fouls, the Jazz are giving up 1.3 additional foul shots a game from a year ago, which is costing them a little over a point a game.

Compare it to the league average and the numbers are much more stark -- 6.7 fouls shots per game. With Utah opponents getting so many extra trips to the line each night, it's almost impossible for the Jazz to do enough other things well for their defense even to be average, much less good.