Jazz midseason review: Despite adversity, injuries, playoffs still a real possibility
Tom Smart, Deseret News
NEW YORK — At some point in the Utah Jazz’s loss to the Charlotte Hornets on Monday afternoon, a fan posed a question to a reporter on Twitter.
“Remember when there was lots of excitement about this Jazz season cause they were gonna be good?”
The answer, of course, is yes.
The Jazz and the NBA remember.
One could also answer that question with a question: Remember when Dante Exum, Rudy Gobert, Derrick Favors and Alec Burks were all healthy?
It’s interesting how people get excited about the possibilities of winning with a collection of players like that, but some conveniently ignore their absence when evaluating the success of the team.
Who knows what the Jazz’s record would be midway through the season if the team’s immune system hadn’t become so susceptible to the injury bug?
The one thing we know for sure is that Utah has had as much luck with injuries as Utahns who recently drove to Idaho and Wyoming did with the lottery. Four of Utah’s top five guys have missed double-digit games because of one hurt part or another.
Exum, of course, has missed all 41 games. Gobert was sidelined for 18 games. Favors has been out for 14 straight and is listed as doubtful Wednesday night against the New York Knicks at Madison Square Garden. Burks has been off of his leg for 13 outings.
“We’re playing some of these matchups where at times with our injuries we’re at a disadvantage. I don’t think there’s any shame in (admitting) that,” Jazz coach Quin Snyder recently said.
Based on how well the Jazz finished the 2014-15 season with that group — along with Gordon Hayward, Rodney Hood, Trey Burke and Trevor Booker — it’s easy to speculate that they’d be much better than 18-23.
One only needs to look back at the end of November when the mostly healthy Jazz were 8-8 before a series of injuries ravaged their roster. Already without Exum, who suffered a surgery-requiring knee injury in the summer, Utah lost Gobert to a sprained knee, Favors because of back spasms and Burks due to a broken leg.
All of the injuries and the ensuing roster juggling that Jazz coach Quin Snyder has been forced to do make it difficult to accurately evaluate this Utah squad at the midpoint of the season other than to simply say, “Injury prone Bad luck What might have been? Underachieving?”
Even with all of the adversity the Jazz have had to this point of the 2015-16 season, they’re still in line to accomplish one of their goals. Through 41 games, Utah is sitting in the eighth and final playoff spot in the top-heavy Western Conference.
The Jazz, who’ve lost six of nine games, are in a perilous position, however. Portland (19-25) and Sacramento (17-23) are both only a half game behind Utah. Denver is only two games back at 16-25.
“We have guys that are playing their tails off and working hard,” Snyder said, “and we’re going to have to overachieve to win. It’s just that simple.”
Not all has been lost despite the injury situation, which, by the way, has improved with Gobert’s return and the presumable impending comeback of Favors. Before his back began ailing, the 6-foot-10 big man from Georgia Tech was having his best season as a pro, averaging 16.8 points, 8.6 rebounds, 1.5 steals and assists and 1.2 blocks.
The Jazz are also hopeful Burks will return in the weeks after the All-Star break next month.
Perhaps the biggest silver lining with the health issues is that the Jazz have been able to give rookies Raul Neto and Trey Lyles invaluable playing experience that they simply wouldn’t have gotten.
Neto has settled into an unexpected starting role and has shown flashes of brilliance on offense and a better-than-expected proficiency on defense — somewhat similar to Exum last year.
Lyles got off to a rough start and looked like a long-term project for the first couple of months of the season. The 20-year-old, who would be in his sophomore season at Kentucky had he not entered the draft (taken 12th by the Jazz), has steadily improved over the course of the season on the offensive end. To wit, the versatile 6-10 power forward didn’t score in double figures in his first 32 games. However, Lyles has since scored in double figures four times, improving his career-high from 13 to 16 to 19 while showing an increased ability to effectively drive and hit corner 3s.
One of the biggest surprises of the season has been the emergence of Burke. After a couple of rough seasons to begin his NBA career, the former NCAA player of the year has provided a steady spark off the bench. Burke and Burks, jokingly referred to as a law firm, gave a spark from their reserve roles to a team that needs all the offensive help it can get.
Reserve center Jeff Withey has also improved with increased play this season, showing he is a decent option as Gobert’s primary backup in the middle.
Nobody has stepped up for the Jazz this season, however, like Hayward. After a slow shooting start to the season, the sixth-year small forward has risen to the occasion night after night in a variety of ways for Snyder and Utah.
Some nights, he’ll score a lot as he did in Monday’s double-overtime loss at Charlotte when he poured in 36.
Other nights, he’ll simply be the playmaker or the guy who’s taking on the toughest defensive assignment or the team captain who’s giving a young player a pep talk.
While Hayward has a tendency to fade a bit in the second half and make untimely turnovers, the 25-year-old has been the best overall player and leader on this Jazz team.
Snyder has spoken very highly of Hayward all season long, even in his early slump, and that was no different after his season-high scoring performance Monday. In many ways, the game summed up the season so far for Hayward and the Jazz.
Big-time effort. Not quite enough from the support group for a variety of reasons. Unsatisfying result.
“He was the only guy really attacking and giving us offense early in the game. We put a lot on him over the course of (48) minutes he’s playing,” Snyder said. “He was passing the ball. He had a lot of assists (nine). He was defending (Nicolas) Batum. As you know, I can’t say enough about the job he’s doing. We just have to keep giving him help.”
In another 41 games, the Jazz can only hope they look back at the trials of the first half and say, “Remember what we learned from fighting through that adversity and when some fans weren’t as excited about our play?”
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