SALT LAKE CITY — Last August, after the Utah Jazz had bolstered their roster with the offseason additions of George Hill, Joe Johnson and Boris Diaw, writers at cbssports.com boldly predicted that the Jazz would boast the best bench in the entire NBA this season.
While Hill would be inserted into the starting lineup, Johnson and Diaw were expected to join Dante Exum, Alec Burks, Trey Lyles, Joe Ingles and Shelvin Mack in giving Utah the best bunch of reserves that the NBA had to offer.
Those same CBS Sports guys also touted that the Jazz would be the fifth-best team in the league this season.
Of course, all those predictions took place before the Jazz lineup turned into a M*A*S*H unit with, at times, more players who were walking wounded than were walking healthy. Or at least it seemed that way.
Now, 31 games into the season, Utah's bench can't possibly be the best in the NBA this year.
Oh, make no mistake, it's certainly not because those guys aren't playing well because some of them have actually played great this season.
Instead, it's because several of those guys are no longer coming in off the bench. Nope, thanks to all of the team's injury problems, they've become starters. Indeed, some of them have been thrust into the starting lineup on a regular basis.
Hill, who brought some welcome veteran leadership to the ballclub and showed signs of brilliance early in the season, has now missed 20 games — eight with a sprained thumb, and now the last 12 with a sprained big toe.
That forced Exum into the starting lineup, but now he's having issues with his surgically repaired knee that made him miss the entire 2015-16 season.
So that means Mack has to start at the point guard position, which he did so well last season after being acquired in a late-season a trade with Atlanta. But instead of being the third point guard on the roster this year, he's now the starter.
Then there's Diaw. The veteran big man, brought in to help spell Derrick Favors at power forward, missed eight games early on with a leg contusion. But since returning, he's no longer on the bench, either, because he, too, has been shoved into the starting lineup as well after Favors was forced to miss 15 games with knee problems.
And, even though Favors is back now, he's still not starting and is playing on a limited basis due to a minutes restriction. So Diaw's still been in the starting five.
As for Burks, well, he still hasn't played in a game this season, missing all 31 of 'em so far as he tries to get his ankle, broken last season, into top playing shape again.
And Johnson? Well, he had to start the first six games of the season after Gordon Hayward broke his finger during the preseason. Johnson has started eight games in all after being a career-long starter during his previous 15 NBA seasons.
Rodney Hood, Utah's starting shooting guard, has also missed a handful of games, first with a balky hamstring, and then with the dreaded "flu-like symptoms."
So Ingles, who leads the NBA in 3-point shooting percentage, and Lyles have each started a handful of games, too.
Hayward and starting center Rudy Gobert have become strong, steady mainstays in the lineup over the last couple of months, but they're seemingly the only starters that coach Quin Snyder can depend on each and every night.
Hayward has been downright outstanding on most nights since returning six games earlier than anticipated from his finger injury. And Gobert, who hasn't missed a game yet this season — knock on wood — has been absolutely terrific, too.
But Snyder has continually had to shuffle his lineup, and with much less depth available on the bench, it can force guys to play many more minutes than expected, which can lead to late-game fatigue.
And that sometimes leads to the kind of disappointing letdown that befell the Jazz in Wednesday night's head-scratching loss to Sacramento, a game that Utah led by 20 points midway through the third quarter.
And as for that tremendous bench? Well, it might actually exist someday — when Hill and Favors get healthy enough to return to the starting lineup, and if Burks and Exum can get their own nagging leg ailments behind them.
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