How Should the Jazz Feel at the Season's Midpoint?
Current NBA playoff standings, over/underperformers, and where the Jazz sit in the West
The NBA season is long. Mere weeks ago, Jazz fans were soaking in the good vibes of a dominant 14-3 run to end the calendar year, but a mediocre 3-5 record since Jan. 1 has since raised some legitimate concerns about the team’s foundation.
First, some quick context. Utah’s recent rough patch all started when a roster depleted by Covid-19 and its associated safety protocols was left without Rudy Gobert or Joe Ingles against Toronto, in a loss featuring so many backups-to-the-backups even hardcore Jazz fans hardly recognized their own team. Still, without Gobert, Utah next squandered a 36-pt effort from Donovan Mitchell against the Pacers. Not soul-crushing or season-defining by any means, but not ideal either.
Somewhere between blowing a 22-point lead against the truly terrible 10-32 Detroit Pistons and losing to Cleveland at home by 20, the urgent introspection among the team’s key players began. Mitchell and Gobert came in hot with criticism of the team’s intensity, while Gobert took specific aim at Utah’s shaky perimeter defense. Though the big man’s recent return saw Utah secure a win over Denver, it remains to be seen whether Gobert’s candid assessment will enact a lasting change in the team’s inconsistent defensive efforts outside the paint.
The ugly four-game losing skid could just be an aberration in the NBA’s 82-game slog to the postseason, but Gobert’s pointed comments seem to indicate some genuine irritation. It’s always a little unnerving when the rock of your franchise levels criticism with this degree of specificity:
“When I watch some of these other teams, like the (Phoenix) Suns or the (Golden State) Warriors, those guys are a step ahead of us in terms of winning habits, I feel like they take every game personally…Devin Booker is playing his (expletive) off defensively. I’ve been watching him compared to two years ago, and guys like that, they buy in and you can tell they take pride in playing defense, stopping their man, doing whatever they can defensively to stop the other team and be part of a winning culture. I just think we’re not there yet, but I think we’re going to get there.”
Encouraging as that quote’s final upturned vote of confidence may sound, it remains a valid and important point: even with a historically efficient offense and a DPOY-caliber big man in the middle, the Jazz have work to do to overcome a competitive playoff field. Now roughly at the season’s halfway mark, here’s how the Jazz measure up to the rest of the western conference:
Phoenix Suns (33-9)
No longer the surprise of the league but rather a team with legitimate staying power, the Suns look primed for a title run. They’re a top-2 defense night in and night out, match up well with basically everybody, and the Booker-Chris Paul duo remains super annoying, but incredibly potent.
Golden State Warriors (31-12)
It’s the Warriors, so you know what they’re about. Klay Thompson is back, Steph is doing his thing, and while they aren’t THAT Warriors team anymore they’re still a playoff matchup nightmare. They’re dangerous, and everyone knows it.
Utah Jazz (29-14)
Utah is 4.5 games out of first place, which under normal circumstances wouldn’t be anything to complain about. However, playoff runs falling short in recent years have the Jazz desperate for something more. The roster is certainly capable on both ends of the floor, but it still feels like the defense surrounding Gobert needs to click between now and June for this team to go all the way.
Memphis Grizzlies (30-15)
The league’s first and most rambunctious overachiever, Ja Morant’s Grizzlies are red-hot and admittedly super fun. Morant is without question the breakout star of the season, but it remains to be seen whether the untested, unseasoned Grizzlies can hold their own in a 7-game series.
Dallas Mavericks (24-19)
Fifth in the west isn’t a terrible spot to be in, but it’s hard to feel like the Mavs haven’t underperformed through the first half of the year. Perhaps that speaks to the potential Luka Doncic brings to a roster, or maybe it’s a credit to the team’s quietly-good defense. Dallas routinely teeters between “don’t let them get hot” status and a non-contender that can still frustrate the hell out of other playoff hopefuls before its season ultimately falls short.
Denver Nuggets (22-20)
Nikola Jokic can only do so much. The Nuggets are underperforming due to Jamal Murray and Michael Porter Jr.’s notable absence, but Jokic is enough of a force to keep them in the field of lower-tier playoff teams who may turn things around if they suddenly get healthy.
Minnesota Timberwolves (21-22)
Is it fair to say Minnesota is overperforming despite being under .500? The T-Wolves are in the hunt for a playoff berth thanks (in part) to crippling injuries and rebuilding seasons to the majority of the teams below them, but taking advantage of a suddenly thin middle-class within the western conference is no crime.
Los Angeles Lakers (21-22)
The problem with evaluating a Lakers team before the trade deadline is if they suck badly enough (and they do, they really do) you can usually bank on the team making some key moves to get back in the mix by season’s end. The Russell Westbrook experiment is going about as poorly as we all thought it might, but Lebron is still Lebron and he’s probably going to find a way to make the playoffs regardless.