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In an ocean of injuries, Exum's still hurts most

SALT LAKE CITY — At times for the Jazz, it must seem like death by a thousand cuts. Whenever a player gets up slowly, the crowd at Vivint Arena goes quiet. Coach Quin Snyder just looks numb.

It’s hard to blame him. The Jazz have missed 92 games due to injuries and absences this year. That’s not as bad as it might seem, only ninth worst among NBA teams. But it’s enough to make the coach grimace. Just last Saturday, Trevor Booker sat out due to a concussion. Though he returned for Monday’s loss to Charlotte, it signified the latest scare.

The Jazz have hit the midway point in the season, stubbornly clinging to the last playoff spot with an 18-23 record. That’s nothing to celebrate, but it’s better than it should have been, considering the attrition. Two days after Rudy Gobert turned in an 18-point, 18-rebound night, the Jazz lost at Charlotte on Martin Luther King Day.

But to borrow a phrase, they still have a dream.

With that as a backdrop, Snyder was recently asked which was the most devastating injury loss of the season’s first half. Was it Gobert’s sprained knee that cost him 18 games, Derrick Favors’ tricky back (14 games), Alec Burks’ fractured fibula (13 games), Rodney Hood’s balky right foot (two games), or Dante Exum’s rearranged left knee (41 games)?

All the injuries have messed with the team’s continuity and chemistry and kept the Jazz from reaching the .500 mark.

The answer, last summer and now, is Exum. When he went down in August, he held up the entire rodeo.

“It’s the one (injury) we forgot about,” Snyder facetiously noted.

The one where Exum’s knee went one direction and the laws of physics went another.

“We were all looking forward to how our team fit together as a whole; how Dante and Trey (Burke) would play together with their roles,” Snyder said. “So a lot of planning that went into the year shifted at that point,” Snyder said. “You start thinking about your team in a slightly different way.”

Or an entirely different way.

Although the Jazz can still have goals, such as the playoffs, their highest aspirations remain tied to a kid just 20 years old. That’s how it’s been for a long time in Utah. Too many kids, not enough All-Stars.

Nevertheless, good things are happening. Trey Lyles is unusually composed for a rookie and making noticeable strides. Burke is the player Snyder first mentions when discussing growth. Gordon Hayward’s consistency and confidence continue to rise and he’s carrying the weight more willingly. Hood keeps playing above his draft position. Gobert is stretching back into shape.

But with Exum gone, and Favors out, the Jazz are still in a holding pattern.

“Hopefully,” Snyder said, “everyone comes back and will be more determined to get better.”

With Exum’s return, the Jazz will have their true starting point guard. They will score easier in transition and take attention off Hayward. Defensively, they’ll be even more obviously better.

But they can’t be who they want to be until they have who they want to have.

Hayward is only 25, Favors 24, Gobert 23, which gives the Jazz some breathing room. Even if it takes a few years for Exum to mature, the Jazz’s stars should be at their peak. Karl Malone was almost 34 when he first went to the NBA Finals, John Stockton 35.

That doesn’t mean this incarnation will come close to those heights, but it could be respectable.

So the season’s second half begins Wednesday in New York. At the current pace, the Jazz will win 36 games and maybe make the playoffs. That would still be two fewer wins than last season. But unexpected problems at the bottom of the Western Conference have made them more viable as a playoff contender. Still, Exum isn’t expected to be back in uniform until summer.

Only then can the Jazz move beyond the injury they would most like to forget.

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