The mere mention of the injury bug makes most Jazz fans’ skin crawl. It sends some into fits of denial or superstition. Can simply talking about injury invoke the wrath of the basketball gods and send the final seven plagues? I hope not.
The Jazz are all too familiar with injury, losing Rudy Gobert, Derrick Favors, Dante Exum and Alec Burks for long stretches as recently as last season. It’s back with a vengeance this year, benching starters Gordon Hayward, George Hill and Favors for early stretches, and gluing potential sixth man Burks to the pine indefinitely yet again. The bug is here and biting, so it’s time to shine the interrogation light on it and get it to talk. How are the Jazz faring considering these injuries? What hope does recent history offer to injury-riddled teams?
2016-17 Utah Jazz
The infected: Gordon Hayward (out 6 games; broken finger), George Hill (out 9 games; sprained thumb, sprained toe), Derrick Favors (out last 8 games; bruised knee), Boris Diaw (out 8 games; leg contusion) Hood (out 2 games; illness, pulled hamstring).
Different starting lineups (to date): 11
First 20 games: 11-9
Final record: TBD
Despite early hits to their roster the Jazz are doing quite well. Some may already be sick of the “when the Jazz get healthy” caveat, but it’s the appropriate tagline to most conversations about them right now. It is pretty shocking that the projected starting five (Hill, Rodney Hood, Hayward, Favors, Gobert) have played together just once this season. And yet the Jazz have held on, shifting roles and exploring 11 different starting lineups.
They are on track for about 49 wins, but their schedule suggests those wins could come more easily this month as they face more lottery teams. Their current record is a little deceiving. According to ESPN, the Jazz’s RPI, which combines strength of schedule, Jazz win percentage and their opponents’ win percentage, is ninth in the league. Their early schedule would have been tough even with a healthy team. They showed some heart, taking care of San Antonio and Dallas on the road. Following a four-game skid they turned around to win four straight led by the dynamic tandem of Hayward and Hill. Gobert is bringing solid effort to each possession. Hood and Trey Lyles are spreading the floor and making the right decisions. It’s almost enough to forget that their starting power forward, Favors, and second-string spark, Burks, are still confined to the bench. Then the Jazz drop a close one at home to the 6-win Miami Heat while Hill watches from the sidelines and reality hits like a wave of nausea.
You’re savage, injury bug. Here’s a look at three other teams that suffered a similar plight with mixed results.
2014-15 Oklahoma City Thunder
The infected: Russell Westbrook (out 14 games; broken hand), Kevin Durant (out 55 games overall; foot fracture), Anthony Morrow (knee), Mitch McGary (broken foot), Reggie Jackson (ankle), Andre Roberson (foot).
Different starting lineups: 17
First 20 games: 7-13
Final record: 45-37
Summary: Reigning MVP Kevin Durant and perennial All-Star Russell Westbrook were playing out of their minds, winning 59 games in ’13-14. Oklahoma is alight with possibility, until Russ’ and KD’s bodies betray them. Simultaneously. The Thunder reserves struggle early without the two stars. After missing 14 games, Westbrook’s return is emphatic as ever, but Durant’s ailing foot keeps him in street clothes for most of the season. Westbrook rises to the occasion, averaging 28.1 points, 8.6 assists and 7.3 rebounds per game, but his supporting cast isn’t enough. After competing with the Spurs in the Western Conference Finals a year prior, the 45-win Thunder watch the 2015 playoffs from home, surely one of the most disappointing finishes in franchise history.
Takeaways for the Jazz: The connection between the Jazz and the Thunder might not be an obvious one. The Jazz don’t have an MVP candidate or a current All-Star, but Hayward’s and Hill’s absences showed just how much they rely on their two best players to run the team efficiently. However, like the Thunder, the Jazz reserves had a good opportunity to show some of their lauded depth when their stars went down. But that didn’t always result in wins. Hill and Hayward remain undefeated when playing together in five games this season. But that’s just it. They’ve hardly had the chance to do so, much like Durant and Westbrook circa 2014-15. Fortunately, the Jazz front office has wisely surrounded their starters with capable role players who can contribute, which may be the closest thing to insurance should the ship start taking on more water. (Please no!) Jazz reserves need to stay ready for the upgrade to Jazz starter at a moment’s notice.
2015-16 Memphis Grizzlies
The infected: Mike Conley (heel, foot), Marc Gasol (foot), Tony Allen (hamstring, knee), Zach Randolph (sprained ankle, knee), Mario Chalmers (knee), Vince Carter (calf strain), Mario Chalmers (knee), Lance Stephenson (sprained wrist), Matt Barnes (hamstring, thumb contusion), Chris Andersen (shoulder), everyone else on the Memphis roster…
Different starting lineups: 25
First 20 games: 11-9
Final record: 42-40
Playoffs: Swept by Spurs in first round
Summary: The shorthanded Grizz break records in a unique fashion— 28 players suit up for them in a single season, with former Jazz man, Bryce Cotton, capping off the feat as Mr. 28 himself. This team grits out more ugly wins than they know what to do with through early March, sort of shoulder shrugging their way into playoff contention. The Rockets and the Jazz stack up enough losses to usher them right through the door with a 7th seed party favor. The Spurs make short work of them with a 4-0 sweep in the first round of the playoffs.
Takeaways for the Jazz: The end of the season isn’t for dinking around. A team can still make the playoffs even if they don’t deserve it if another team deserves it less. The world doesn’t actually end if you have to play 25 different starting lineups in one season. Okay, maybe gifting the playoffs to Memphis was worth it in exchange for that Bryce Cotton dunk, right?
2009-10 Portland Trailblazers
The infected: Brandon Roy (out 17 games, primarily knees), Greg Oden (out 61 games; season-ending fractured knee), Nicolas Batum (shoulder), Jeff Ayres (shoulder), Patty Mills (foot), Travis Outlaw (foot), Coach Nate McMillan (Achilles heel)
Different starting lineups: 16
First 20 games: 12-8
Final Record: 50-32
Playoffs: Lost to Suns, 2-4, in the first round.
Summary: Finally, a happy ending…sort of. Any team that can squeak 50 wins and playoff berth out of a season like this one has earned it. So there is hope. This infographic, created by a distraught Blazers fan, hilariously details all the maladies dealt to Portland that fateful 2009-10 season. Most notably, former no. 1 draft pick, Greg Oden, fractures his knee 21 games into the season, effectively ending his career before a brief attempt at a comeback in 2013. Brandon Roy shows his skills, averaging 21.2 points, 4.4 assists and 4.2 rebounds per game, but his vulnerable knees keep him from 17 games. Only two players play all 82 games for Rip City—former Utah Ute Andre Miller and Martell Webster1. Even coach Nate McMillan is so used to loading up the stretcher that he wants a turn of his own, missing four games with a ruptured Achilles heel. But they make the playoffs!
Takeaways for the Jazz: Don’t ask how this story ends…(rest in pieces Brandon Roy, Greg Oden, Nate McMillan’s coaching career2). Favors’ knee may be worth worrying about and delaying his contract extension is a good move for now. With or without Favors the Jazz are young and promising like the 2009-10 Blazers and can make the playoffs and win some games even if the injury report gets lengthy. Team basketball and a balanced attack is the Jazz’s strongest antidote to injury. Less reliance on any one player makes them less vulnerable should that player get hurt. Lastly, get those prayers up to the basketball gods and eat your vegetables. This could be a wild ride.