SALT LAKE CITY — The Utah Jazz hit the halfway point of the season, of their schedule anyway, earlier this week at Washington, where they took a surprising 107-104 victory. Two days later, they began the second half of the schedule with a disappointing loss to a 15-24 Charlotte Hornets team.
Those two games along with a decisive defeat in Denver and last-second loss in Miami on the four-game road trip were a microcosm of the team’s up-and-down season filled with big losses, unlikely victories and some near-misses.
The Jazz sit at 17-25, nine games behind last year’s pace when they finished fifth in the Western Conference and eventually advanced to the second round of the playoffs. Right now they are 4.5 games out of the final West playoff spot and just 3.5 games out of last place.
Not only did the Jazz lose their top player of recent years, Gordon Hayward, to Boston via free agency, but once again have suffered a slew of injuries that have sidelined Rudy Gobert, Dante Exum and others for a total of 122 games this season.
“We understood going into the year that this would be a year that we would be pivoting in some ways, finding out a lot about our team,” said coach Quin Snyder. “That process is taking place and it continues to. There’s a growth process that goes along with that. The injuries have exacerbated that because we’re experiencing new lineups.”
Snyder has talked a lot about focusing on the “process” more than results, although he calls results “relevant.”
“It’s hard to be in a situation where you’re losing,” he said. “You have to lace the whole experience with an amount of realism and at the same time continue to try to set a high bar for our group and their improvement and their progress.”
Here’s a look at some of the highs and lows from the season heading into the second half of the schedule.
Beating the team with the second-best record in the NBA on the road without two of your top players has to be No. 1 on the list. That happened back in mid-December against the Boston Celtics when the Jazz went into TD Garden and defeated the men in green 107-95.
That was the last time we saw Rudy Gobert in action as he went down with a knee injury in the second minute and was soon to be followed by Derrick Favors, who went out early in the second period. But the Jazz beat Kyrie Irving and the rest of the Celts with an inspired effort.
The Jazz have had a few dogs this year, the 27-point loss in Houston in early November, the 24-point loss at Denver the day after Christmas, the home loss to Miami when they only scored 74 points and were outscored 13-0 down the stretch, and a few others.
But perhaps the worst was the 103-100 loss to Chicago during a tough road trip against some of the league’s top teams. The Jazz had beaten the Bulls by 30 points at home just three weeks earlier and at the time, the Bulls were just 6-20. Nevertheless, the Bulls outplayed the Jazz, who were as healthy as they’ve been all season at the time.
MOST VALUABLE PLAYER
Donovan Mitchell | Scott G Winterton, Deseret News
Before the season began, there was a big question as to who would lead the Jazz this year after Hayward left town after seven seasons. There were several possibilities, including veterans Gobert, Favors, Rodney Hood and newcomer Ricky Rubio, but few figured a 21-year-old rookie who barely declared for the draft at the last minute, would be the guy. Yet Donovan Mitchell has been the team MVP, hands down.
In fact, it’s scary to think just where the Jazz might be if not for the play of Mitchell, who already has four 30-point plus games to his credit and is averaging an NBA rookie-best 18.8 points per game.
Mitchell was expected to bring a defensive presence to the team, but has exceeded all expectations with his outside shooting and uncanny ability to drive to the rim, not to mention his highlight-reel spectacular dunks.
MOST DISAPPOINTING PLAYER
There are actually several candidiates in this category.
Alec Burks has been in a funk after a promising start, hitting just 32.9 of his shots over the past 15 games and just 6 of 30 from 3-point range. In the team's last game, he didn’t even get off the bench.
Joe Johnson has been injured, missing 21 games with a sprained wrist, but he hasn’t come back as the same offensive threat he was last season when he was a big reason for the Jazz getting past the Clippers in the first round of the playoffs. This year he’s shooting just 27 percent from 3-point range.
Hood has been inconsistent and is among the worst 10 in the league in field goal percentage at just 40.3 percent.
Ricky Rubio | Spenser Heaps, Deseret News
But the most disappointing has to be Rubio.
Off the court, Rubio couldn’t be better. He’s extremely accommodating with the media, he’s a well-liked teammate and he’s making a difference by volunteering and earning the NBA community assist award for November.
However, Rubio, after a pretty good start to the season, has been inconsistent since. He was never known as a shooter, so maybe the fact that he still can’t hit above 40 percent after shooting 37.8 for his career isn’t a shock.
He currently ranks 125th in the NBA, third from the bottom at 39.4 percent, and is 132nd, second from the bottom at 29.7 percent, in 3-point shooting. Shooting aside, his 4.8 assist average is way under his 8.1 career average and about half what it was last year (9.1). His steals are at an all-time low.
MOST PLEASANT SURPRISE
Royce O'Neale | Spenser Heaps, Deseret News
At the start of the season, Royce O’Neale was literally the last man to make the team. It came down to him and 2016 draftee Joel Bolomboy, who had played better in preseason games just before the start of the regular season. But the Jazz went with the former Baylor player and O’Neale has proven his worth, especially lately.
In the win over Washington, he made all four field goals for 10 points and against Charlotte, he was the one bright spot along with Mitchell in getting his first career double-double with 11 points and 10 rebounds.
O’Neale is also an excellent defender, which Snyder said got him extra minutes in the first place. The good news for the Jazz is that they have him locked up for three years and will only pay him $1.6 million in 2019-20.
MOST UNLIKELY TO GET A $35,000 FINE
Mild-mannered and always polite, Rodney Hood is the last guy on the team you’d figure to get a technical foul let alone a big fine from the NBA. But after not being happy with a couple of calls at Washington last week, Hood talked too much and got ejected. Then instead of high-fiving a fan trying to take a phone photo of him, he smacked the phone out of the fan’s hand, resulting in the heavy fine. Hood was contrite and you can bet something like this will never happen again.
Right now the Jazz are in the proverbial “no man’s land,” not in the playoff race, but also with 11 teams behind them in the standings.
The majority of their remaining games are at home, barely, with 21 of 40 at Vivint Arena, and they play 20 games against teams with losing records. So the Jazz have a chance to make up some ground, especially with Gobert likely coming back this month, but whether they can make it into the playoffs again remains to be seen.