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Jabari Smith Jr. at center is the Houston Rockets' lineup 'Locksmith'

N.B. Lindberg
Utah Jazz v Houston Rockets
Utah Jazz v Houston Rockets / Carmen Mandato/GettyImages
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The defensive questions of Jabari Smith Jr. at center

The offensive advantages of playing a stretch-five are well documented, but they usually come with some defensive compromises. After one game, it’s hard to know just how good the Rockets' defense can be with Smith at center, but there are both positives and concerns to unpack. 

On the positive side, Smith had three blocks, and the Rockets held the Jazz to a 109.2 offensive rating after posting an offensive rating of 117.8 over their first three games. So they slowed them down, but how much of that was random variance? And how much of it was the Rockets?

The first elephant in the room was the Jazz’s performance in the first three games of the season. They were never going to continue to keep up that level of offensive performance, but that doesn’t mean the Rockets didn’t force them to play below their level. 

The Jazz committed a season-high 20 turnovers and took a season-low 32 3-pointers and 16 free throws. Those are all things the Rockets' defense can directly impact, and it’s clear they thought Smith playing center could help them match the Jazz’s five-out spacing. 

The Jazz’s finishing around the rim came in slightly above league average at 68%, but that’s a decrease from their season efficiency of 69.7%. The Jazz did shoot a scorching 57.1% on shots in the short midrange, where the league average is 41.1%. 

Of more concern is that the Jazz were able to attempt 25 of their 93 field goal attempts at the rim for a rate of 26.8%. That’s an increase from their season line of 23.1%, which includes their game against the Rockets. 

The biggest concern when going small is rebounding, and the Jazz undoubtedly took advantage of it against the Rockets. The Jazz have been an excellent offensive rebounding team, posting a 32.1% offensive rebound rate in their first three games. However, against the Rockets, they took it up another level, bruising their way to a 37.5% offensive rebound rate. 

Long term, this shouldn’t be a massive concern with Smith at center. He’s young and will fill out, the Rockets won’t always play three shooting guards, and Kenyon Martin Jr. is undersized at the power forward position. 

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