LOS ANGELES — From taking group trips to NBA Summer League games in Las Vegas to routinely cracking jokes via social media, the Utah Jazz have a team camaraderie that seems to be rare.
However, that off-court togetherness hasn’t necessarily translated on the court through the first 19 games of the 2018-19 season.
While many national media outlets projected the Jazz to be among the Western Conference’s elite, that hasn’t been the case as the Jazz fell to 8-11 after Friday’s 90-83 loss to the Los Angeles Lakers.
The latest loss marked the Jazz’s third in a row, and fifth of the last six games, with four of the next five scheduled on the road, including a Sunday stop to Sacramento.
Although Utah has played the third-strongest schedule throughout the league, according to Basketball Reference, the defense has taken a significant step back from last year’s top rating (102.9) to currently 14th in the league (108.0).
Utah also holds the fifth-worst offensive rating (104.7) while sometimes lacking a sense of urgency in certain situations. With nearly a quarter of the 82-game season now in the books, the Jazz have dropped from a promising fifth-seed playoff contender on the rise to a 14th seed in the highly competitive Western Conference, where 4.5 games separate orders 1-14 on the standings.
“I think you feel it. You get to a point where no one goes into the game and feels that way, where you feel like you’re not urgent,” Jazz coach Quin Snyder said of the team’s urgency — or lack thereof. “I think there’s another level where you internalize it even more, but really what it gets down to is what are you urgent to do? So, it involves also a focus.
“You don’t have to be urgent to get to a bench on a timeout, coaches would like for you to get over there, not so much at your leisure, but that’s a little different than urgency getting back on transition defense,” he continued. “I think it’s alert and urgent to move two feet and set a good screen, so it covers a lot of different things and it really involves focus as well.”
Part of the problem is that guys may be feeling like they can tap back into last year’s success, with much of the same roster in place, but are also dealing with the pressure of no longer catching teams by surprise.
Lakers forward Kyle Kuzma said he thought the Jazz would come out much hotter this season after finishing 29-6 last season to end with 48 wins, but that hasn’t been the case and teams are noticing.
“They’re a really good team,” said Lakers coach Luke Walton. “They’re well-coached, they’ve got good players, got into the playoffs last year. The second half of the season, they had one of the best records in the NBA, one of the best defenses, won a playoff series. All those things combined will catch a lot of people’s attention.”
At times, the Jazz have looked strong, in notable wins at Houston, New Orleans and Boston, but have also looked awful in a 50-point loss to Dallas on Nov. 14 and a 27-point loss at Indiana on Nov. 19 without Pacers All-Star guard Victor Oladipo.
The effort on the defensive end has regressed early on, especially in transition situations, while Ricky Rubio’s play has been up and down and guys are regularly attacking reigning Defensive Player of the Year Rudy Gobert at the rim. Also, Donovan Mitchell averages 20.6 points on just 41.8 percent shooting ,and a consistent second option has yet to emerge offensively, even with Mitchell exiting the Lakers game in the first half after suffering bruised ribs.
“It’s hard to tell. We had some off nights lately, but we just have to stay aggressive and it will come,” Rubio said after going 3-for-12 with seven points and five assists versus Los Angeles. “We have to get more easy shots like we have been doing and make them.”
Snyder insists there is no hidden drama within this group. Mainly focus and execution are contributing to the team’s slow start in his eyes, even with the same core in place, as guys are trying to push through the struggles.21 comments on this story
“Although there is continuity, there is familiarity, every year is different. Obviously, the competition is different,” Snyder said. “Remember back in high school when you ended the school year, you don’t start the next year in school the same as you went into the summer.
“There’s a lot of things that happen, so I think although there is a lot of commonality, our focus needs to continue to be on what this team can do to build its identity,” he added. “And certainly there’s a foundation there and we know what the blueprint is for our group and it’s our job to continue to work at executing that and you don’t want to be fatalistic.”