The Utah Jazz are 10-6 and have suddenly lost three games in a row. All of that early-season optimism from Utah's hot start has led to much hand-wringing within Jazz Nation.
The oddsmakers set Utah's over/under win total for the season at 25 games. Were they right?
It's unlikely that the Jazz will only win just 15 (or fewer) of their remaining 66 games, but maybe all that talk of the team being a bonafide force to be reckoned with in the Western Conference was premature. Or it could simply be that Utah's grueling schedule has taken its toll, with the players running on fumes in Tuesday night's home loss to the New York Knicks.
Fatigue was clearly a factor in that game. These two days off for the Jazz are timely and could be just what the doctor ordered in getting the team back some pep in its step.
Jazz insider Tony Jones of The Athletic had some common-sense musings about the state of the Jazz. Two key observations that Jazz fans need to take into consideration, which Jones elucidates, are how the NBA lacked any foreknowledge or tape on Will Hardy's squad early on this season, and the grueling realities of Utah's schedule.
One of the reasons the Jazz have been so good early is that the league didn’t really have a good scouting report on them. Sure, the league knows their players, who they are and what they can do individually. But collectively, the Jazz were a mystery. Also, not many took Utah seriously because the front office traded away almost all of the starting lineup.
It led to the Jazz sneaking up on a lot of teams. Yes, Utah has played terrific basketball this season. But, they caught the league off guard in largesse.
Indeed, the Jazz were a whopping unknown, and opponents slept on them due to a.) No history of a Hardy-coached basketball team in the NBA, and b.) So many new faces in Utah's starting lineup. Jordan Clarkson and Mike Conley are the only holdovers in the starting five from last year's squad, and the former wasn't even a starter.
Combined with the new role players like Lauri Markkanen, Kelly Olynyk, Jarred Vanderbilt, and Collin Sexton, and that's a whole lot of novelty that opponents needed time to get a bead on.
As Jones writes, NBA teams are now wide awake on the unique threats Hardy's scheme presents. The league is "catching up" on the Jazz.
But it's par for the course. Mitigating Hardy's ability to orchestrate a counterpunch to team's adjusting to his schematic machinations has been the brutal schedule and personnel fatigue that set in as a result.
Sometimes those shots just don't go in. That basketball reality is only exacerbated by the fatigue that set into Utah's bones as a result of that East Coast road trip and early-season schedule. But on those nights when Lady Luck isn't smiling upon a team, it's incumbent upon them to adjust and shore up the other facets of playing team basketball — like protecting the ball and playing defense.
"There's 82 games," Hardy said following Utah's loss to the Philadelphia 76ers. "I wish that we were able to be perfect through all 82... Sometimes you miss a timely shot and that's okay. We're always just focused on how we play, how we execute on offense and defense. Some nights, the ball just doesn't go in."
Even in their wildest dreams of 2022-23 success, the Jazz knew there would be a trial-and-error learning curve associated with Hardy's system and cultivation of his culture. The Jazz step onto the court each night with the mandate of winning games, but a massive focus remains on developing the personnel within Hardy's scheme.
These are growing pains the Jazz knew they would have at some point in the season, so expect them to be patient. As much as this season is about setting a culture and a winning locker room, it’s also about development. The Jazz know they have young players who are in positions they haven’t been at any point of their respective careers. Two days off, some practice, a lot of film work. That’s what will be on tap for Utah.
Should Jazz Nation hit the panic button? The answer, for now, is no.
If the Jazz are unable to capitalize on these two days off to develop a counterpunch and get their game legs beneath them again, then maybe. But let's face it: the Jazz have been playing with house money from Day 1.
Every unlikely win is a bonus to a fanbase whose team was telegraphing ultra-low expectations entering the season. It could be that the Jazz continue to plummet in the Western Conference standings as a lack of true superstar talent comes home to roost, and Hardy finds his way on his own trial-and-error coaching path.
Right now, the Jazz just need a win to snap this spell of bad ju-ju. Perhaps the Jazz flew too close to the sun to open up this season, and maybe their wings are a little singed now as a result.
But Utah will get the chance to throw down against the veritable Phoenix Suns on Friday night and provide some answers this trio of consecutive losses has triggered.