- Expectations were high for the Jazz, but injuries have hurt their progression. Now, after a rough stretch, we're left wondering if they can weather the storm.
The NBA season is but a few weeks old and the philosophy behind the Jazz's roster has already been held to the fire. Utah has played 15 games already, winning seven. Only once has the entire starting lineup been active for the same game. Gordon Hayward missed the first six as he recovered from a fracture in his non-shooting hand. Just last week he aggravated the injury. Derrick Favors hasn't been healthy since the early stages of training camp. After trying to play his way through, Favors underwent an MRI to confirm a bone contusion in his knee last week that will sideline him indefinitely. George Hill started spectacularly for the Jazz before missing the last eight games with a hand sprain.
These are heavy blows to a rotation, and crippling ones in overlap. Nevertheless, they exist within a range of contingency that the Jazz did their best to plan for. Utah's woes are all too familiar; last season, Favors, Rudy Gobert, Dante Exum, and Alec Burks (who is, again, out for the foreseeable future) all missed significant time—developments that undercut an already shallow roster. “We knew that we were quite young and that if something did happen—and it did, with the injuries—that we could be a little lean," Jazz general manager Dennis Lindsey told SI.com in July. Utah is as cap-conscious as any organization in the league and wary of long-term investments that don't really move the needle. So coming into the 2015–16 season, they deferred building up their bench and rode light on rotation-caliber talent—so light, in fact, that it took a deadline deal for point guard Shelvin Mack just to scrape out 40 wins.
"We didn't manage the season well from a roster standpoint," Lindsey confessed.
Most everything since has been remedy. Utah took its roster and built it out laterally—adding Hill and Joe Johnson and Boris Diaw while expecting Exum's return, waiting out Burks, and betting on the development of Trey Lyles. So much of the breathless analysis leading into the NBA season concerns measuring up teams at their potential best. Utah wanted to improve that reach but also its buoyancy. A team's capacity to win games can sometimes be just as deeply rooted in weathering misfortune as it is capitalizing on the whole of its potential.
It's there that we now find the Jazz. Some teams are greater than the sum of their parts. Utah is just trying to make ends meet until it can actually put all of its parts to use.
There is bound to be some ugly, misshapen play in that—particularly for a team that was banking on balance. A few winnable games got away from the Jazz of late. Utah's offense stalled out when Houston saw compromised lineups for what they were. A flunked first half in Denver became a harsh reminder of the team's current limitations. The Jazz, as presented, are not a particularly good team. They don't have to be. All Utah has to do is stem the tide and survive.
A win here or there could be just enough to keep the Jazz's heads above water. Last a bit longer and Hill's return won't just steady the point guard rotation, but balance out Hayward and Rodney Hood's creative role in the offense. Give Favors time to really get right and benefit from his eventual, healthier return while experimenting, in the interim, with different looks and combinations that could later come into play. Even with the Jazz a notch below .500, seven of its 10 most-used lineups have been a net positive, according to NBA.com. The catch is that none of them has appeared in more than five games, leaving Utah pinched in lineup variants and amalgams. Utah's best players, Gobert excepted, are all quite versatile. Remove one and the rest can find a way to deal. Remove two and the adjustment becomes a real concession.
Utah will still grind its way through long possessions in pursuit of the best possible shot. The occasions when a great opportunity actually shakes loose, however, are a bit more rare without as many weapons consistently on the floor. The makeshift Jazz are capable of playing effective defense, too, with one hand essentially tied behind their back. Doing so is just trickier when Favors isn't around to help carry the center rotation and Hill isn't available to blanket the ball up top. One of the best defenses in the league becomes more matchup- and situation-dependent in the process.
The means are still there to be competitive—at least in the manageable way Utah's circumstances demand. Do better against the Denvers of the world (who pop up twice more on the schedule in the next two weeks). Take seriously upcoming games against the Heat, Wolves, and Suns. Hang around against the likes of the Hawks, Rockets, and Lakers to see what happens. The results won't always be pretty, but the Jazz can eke out wins with patience, discipline, and a touch of good luck.
Even after four straight losses, Utah has managed to outscore opponents by 2.6 points per 100 possessions in the aggregate—all while being so far from fully operational. That's the margin of victory of a team racking up wins in the high 40s. Better play in the interim would help to temper the wild swings in that kind of data, but even now Utah's bigger-picture indicators largely suggest that things are fine. Not great, and on some nights not even all that good. But fine within the scope of what could be reasonably expected and in light of how much time a healthier version of this team should have left to work with.
We've yet to see the full, additive function of Utah's best players building chemistry and working together. We've yet to see how even the lesser lineups might be lifted by reserves returning to more comfortable supporting roles. We've yet to see just how Quin Snyder, when given the luxury, might regulate the Jazz's playing time for the long haul. Depth isn't only a tool in case of emergency. It is an active boon meant for everyday use, provided that a team is forward-thinking enough to see the full extent of its value.
"We're hopeful that instead of chasing injuries, we'll be able to be a little more proactive with our depth," Lindsey said in July. "Could we strategically rest Gordon Hayward or Derrick Favors and plug in Joe Johnson and Boris Diaw? Or vice versa? That was some of the planning."
That prospect becomes more feasible when it isn't a demand of everyday life. The Jazz should eventually get to the point where they can sideline players on their own terms, with an eye to matchups, lingering injury, and scheduling considerations. The rest of the roster will bend and stretch accordingly—compensating much in the way it was actually intended.