This Time Last Year: Where the Jazz Are Starting Better — And Worse — Than a Year Ago

November 7th, 2018 | by Tyler Crandall

The offensive starting point for this year’s Jazz is actually better than the 2017-18 Jazz. Now, if they can fix the defense… (Tim Warner via ESPN.com)

Once again, the Utah Jazz are off to a shaky start. Just as they did last season, the 2018-19 Jazz have started the year with a 10-game stretch that has included some alarming losses and a middling record. But looking deeper at where this year’s team is falling short as compared to 2017-18, there are actually some signs that Utah is poised to be better if they can correct course on the defensive end.

At this point last season, fan optimism was being tested. The Jazz were just coming off a blowout loss to the Rockets in Houston, which followed a home defeat at the hands of the Toronto Raptors. The Jazz’s first 10 last season also featured an incredible overtime victory against Portland, where Ricky Rubio looked like a force unleashed with his first 30-point outing in a Jazz uniform. Rookie Donovan Mitchell had a then-career high of 28 points and went toe-to-toe with his friend Damian Lillard in 4th quarter and overtime. In this win, Donovan emerged as an alpha scorer after already taking the league by surprise with a huge put-back dunk over the two Laker rookies and a win. Utah also scored early quality wins against the likes of Denver and Oklahoma City. But despite that excitement, things were not all rosy in Jazz-town.

Through 10 games, Rudy Gobert, while not yet injured, was still not showing up as a dominant force he was supposed to be. The Jazz were 5-5, possibly playing worse than this year’s 4-6 Jazz are playing thus far. During these first games, the Jazz also left fans reeling after a brutal loss against a Phoenix Suns. The Suns had just experienced an 88-130 and fired their head coach, and then two games later, defeated the Jazz 97-88.

At this point, the Jazz defensive rating was actually pretty Jazzy, at around 104, despite giving up an offensive rating of over 133 to the Rockets in their latest loss. The offense was where the Jazz struggled in those opening weeks of the 2017-18 season. With a rating at 103.45 through 10 games, the Jazz offense was near the bottom of the league. But this didn’t really surprise anyone. The Jazz were expected to be exactly that. A bottom five offense with a top five defense.

Even though it looked so bad to start the season, the Jazz eventually figured it out on the offensive end. Of course, Donovan’s emergence has a lot to do with this, but a couple other factors contributed too, such as Ricky Rubio’s career year as a scorer.

After trading two ball-stoppers in Rodney Hood and Joe Johnson, and bringing in a gritty stretch four power forward in Jae Crowder, the Jazz cruised from being a very subpar offensive team to a team that was just about average, which was a marked improvement over the bottom-five team they were expected to be on that side of the ball. 

By contrast, this year’s Jazz look decent on the offensive during their shaky start, but weirdly, it’s the defense that’s missing.

Utah’s offensive rating is dead average to start the season: 108.9 points per 100 offensive trips, good for exactly 15th in the league. It’s the defense that shockingly–shocking if you haven’t been watching the games, that is–is holding the Jazz back, at 109.3, just below league average.

Various writers have tackled the questions about where the elite Jazz defense has disappeared to and what specifically is breaking down, so this will be left alone here. Regardless of the reason, it is safe to assume that the defense-minded club will eventually figure things out on that end. And if previous seasons are an indicator, the Jazz offense could, and probably should, get better as the season moves along. Only this time, they’re starting from a baseline of a league-average offense.

In other words, this year’s Jazz might be in better shape to get things back on track if they can return to their defensive identity. The 2017-18 Jazz’s defense started strong, faltered with Rudy’s absence, and returned to form with his comeback. Meanwhile, the offense started atrociously and slowly picked up steam, improving to a slightly below average offense by the midseason mark. This year’s team is already there on offense, and should ultimately fix the defensive issues.

If this same trend makes an appearance this season, barring any major injuries, of course, the Jazz defense has the potential to return to elite form–any day now, Rudy, any day–while the offense, from a starting point of average, should also see improvement, possibly into the top ten.

These trends offer evidence, perhaps scant, that give some encouragement and hope that the Jazz could still be the team many expected them to be at the start of the year.

 

Tyler Crandall

Tyler joins Salt City Hoops for the 2018-19 season, having previously written at The J-Notes. Tyler grew up in Utah watching the Stockton-to-Malone Jazz. He now lives in Brooklyn, NY and is an active tweeter at @tjcranman.

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