The next time the Jazz Bear mascot holds that sign exhorting the crowd to support the home team’s final push, I’ll have an answer.
“How bad do you want it?”
Worse would be better, thank you.
The Jazz’s 2018 playoff quest realistically ended Friday with the start of the second half of the season. The Jazz would have to cover a 4½-game spread to qualify in the Western Conference. That’s unlikely.
So maximizing this season would require getting worse and drafting higher. The Jazz stand closer to the third-worst record in the NBA than to the West’s last playoff spot. We all know how this season will end, right? The Jazz (17-25) will recover sufficiently to win about half of their remaining games once Rudy Gobert returns from injury. They’ll miss the playoffs, enter the lottery and pick roughly No. 12 in the NBA draft.
That will be disappointing in multiple ways. This never could be labeled a wasted season, thanks to the discovery of rookie guard Donovan Mitchell — even with some flaws, as he displayed at the end of Friday’s loss at Charlotte. Yet the Los Angeles Clippers’ visit next Saturday will be a reminder of how much momentum the Jazz created last April with the franchise’s first playoff series victory in seven years. But that’s all gone now.
If the Jazz miss the playoffs, Gordon Hayward will have won. There’s no other way to view his move, considering Boston’s 34-10 record without him, due to injury.
The Jazz again are having to regroup, if not rebuild. They should become sellers in advance of the Feb. 8 trade deadline and start working toward next year. I’ve never advocated an all-out tanking strategy, and I won’t do so now. I’ll just say it’s OK for Jazz fans to find some comfort in losing.
The team’s outlook darkened even more Saturday, with the news that Gobert’s return is not imminent and that Thabo Sefolosha may require season-ending surgery. That development comes barely a month after I declared the Jazz’s historic Curse of No. 22 almost over, thanks to Sefolosha’s steady play.
How did this happen? The Jazz’s road record (4-18) is a joke. Gobert’s injuries are partly to blame. So am I, having questioned coach Quin Snyder last sason about why the Jazz were so good on the road and only average at home, relative to the NBA’s norms and the franchise’s history. Snyder has solved that problem during a season that has produced some weird twists and evoked frustration among fans.
HOME VS. ROAD
The Jazz’s home and road records under coach Quin Snyder:
2014-15 • Home: 21-20; Road: 17-24; Overall: 38-44
2015-16 • Home: 24-17; Road: 16-25; Overall:40-42
2016-17 • Home: 29-12; Road: 22-19; Overall: 51-31
Total • Home: 87-56. Road: 59-86. Overall: 146-142.
Imagine being attached to the Jazz this past week and watching them blow a late lead at Miami, somehow win at Washington with makeshift personnel then lose at Charlotte with nearly everybody available and Mitchell having scored 34 (of his 35) points by the midway point of the fourth quarter.
They crumbled again as even Mitchell struggled. It may be healthy to recognize that he can’t singlehandedly save this season.
Mitchell understandably needs more experience and improvement. He also needs some help. Other than overachievers such as Royce O’Neal and Ekpe Udoh, the Jazz’s roster is filled with players who could or should be doing more, and consistently so. I’m even removing Joe Ingles’ lifetime exemption from criticism now that he has a $52 million contract.
I expected so much more than Ricky Rubio has delivered, even knowing that watching him shoot would be frustrating. His game reminds me of how much I enjoy women’s basketball, except those players just miss too many shots I think they should make. That’s Rubio.
As for Dante Exum, who knows? Mitchell and Exum might make a dynamic backcourt. Yet Exum will go into his fifth season in 2018-19 as a continuing mystery mostly because of his injuries.
This brings us back to the 26-56 season of 2013-14, when the Jazz sort of tried to win, but not really. They ended up with the No. 5 pick that year, landing Exum. General manager Dennis Lindsey’s rebuilding plan was rewarded last season, although not because of Exum’s contribution, to any significant degree.
That’s the cautionary part of any effort to earn a higher draft pick. But in the case of this season, it’s probably worth another try.