Writer Panel: Put Away the Panic Button Despite Jazz’s Early Stumbles

October 24th, 2018 | by Salt City Hoops

How worried should fans be about Mitchell’s shaky shot and the Jazz’s early struggles? (Ezra Shaw via espn.com)

A panel of SCH writers weighs in on the Jazz’s 1-2 start and how the club can turn it around with four road games looming. 

The Jazz are 1-2, but so far have only looked really good in the loss to Golden State. What’s the biggest issue holding them back so far?

David J. Smith: There are a number of contributing factors to Utah’s less-than-ideal start. For me, the backcourt shooting is the glaring issue right now. To a man, the Utah guards are struggling, as evidenced by their marksmanship — or lack of it — from the floor: Donovan Mitchell (34.4%), Ricky Rubio (25%), Dante Exum (40%, though he was pretty good pre-Memphis), Royce O’Neale (25%) and Alec Burks (33.3%). A few of them seem to be pressing offensively, forcing some shots. Furthermore, some offensive sets have simply not been sharp, resulting in a guard having to hoist a late attempt. Fortunately, this can be remedied through some patience and a refocus on ball movement. Luckily, their frontcourt teammates are picking up some of the slack.

Jonathan TurnbowThe defense has not clicked in yet at all. The NBA as a whole has started the season off at a very fast pace, and the Jazz need to get back to playing at the pace coach Quin Snyder wants in order for the team defense to remain a core strength. Offensive struggles can come on any given night, but defense can be consistent.

Thatcher Olson: There are a few issues that come to mind, but the biggest is consistency. The Jazz are good this year — the question is how good. But they sure aren’t good enough to give inconsistent effort and win against most, if not all teams in the league. They need to be consistent on both offense and defense, avoid getting complacent, and do what they’re good at.

Ken Clayton: Mental focus, which was lacking a bit against the Kings and Grizzlies, but seemed to be there when they played the champs. If the Jazz were playing down to the competition, they wouldn’t be the only ones. That happens all the time, and with all teams. Remember the 67-win Warriors? They lost to the 43-win Grizzlies twice (including once in Oakland), to the 41-win Wizards, and even the 31-win Timberwolves. The measure of an elite team is only having a handful of those types of losses, not 10, 15, or 20. In the Jazz’s case, mental focus just means staying committed to moving the ball and finding the best possible shots.

Clark Schmutz: Complacency. I think it is normal and natural for the team to just assume that they will continue last season’s hot run and be a great team right out of the gate. However, we have only seen a great effort from the Jazz against the Warriors and against the Grizzlies late when their backs were against the wall. The Jazz are very good, but not good enough to just show up and beat anybody, especially in the West. A slow start may be just what they need to create some urgency though.

 

What’s something you think the Jazz can try more of to get back on track?

David: Move the ball around. Like many, I re-watched the euphoric second quarter from the Golden State game, and it was the ball movement that was the most exciting part. Everyone was in on the action, the proverbial extra pass led to many an open three. Conversely, the Memphis outing was a prime example of the muck that rears its ugly head when the ball sticks. Utah is only registering 21 assists per game.

Jonathan: I would like to see Exum get early minutes on nights when Ricky Rubio is having a rough start. Last year, it felt like the Jazz went as Rubio went far too often. I’d like to see them get away from that. We learned last year that Rubio is capable of much better basketball than he played in Minnesota. This year the Jazz need to figure out how to tap into that with consistency.

Thatcher: While #TeamIsEverything is their motto, the reality is they need more production from their two stars. Rudy Gobert and Mitchell are the two cornerstones of this team, and they have both struggled at times to start the season. Mitchell is in a shooting slump and is trying to find the balance between isolation and team play. Gobert hasn’t looked as imposing on defense, as both Marc Gasol and Willie Caulie-Stein have outplayed him in stretches. These two need to lead the way for the Jazz to reach their potential.

Ken: They need more from Rubio (25% FG%, 16.7% from two-point range, 6.7 ppg). It has only been three games, but he has looked worse than he did at the start of the last season, when fans were lamenting acquiring him and considering storming el castillo. When he eventually played well, the Jazz were nearly unbeatable. The Jazz survived Sacramento and nearly beat Golden State without him thanks to Exum’s contributions and Joe Ingles’ ability to run the offense as a point forward, but everyone will be better once the Spanish Samurai is back to normal.

Clark: In the words of every coach that ever lived, the Jazz need to “get back to basics.” For the Jazz that starts with defense. They need to play with more force and energy on that side of the ball and the rest will follow.

 

Has the 1-2 start changed your opinion of how the Jazz’s season will go, or is this just an early hiccup?

David: It hasn’t changed my opinion too much. While they were slow out of the gates versus Sacramento, they overcame the opening night yips to get that W. They were quite good against the defending champions, who undoubtedly see Utah as a team that can give them trouble. And I personally think Memphis is going to be a problem for many teams in the ultra-competitive Western Conference. That said, there are some minor concerns. Check back in a week. 

Jonathan: No need to overreact like the Phoenix Suns, who have made October firings in consecutive seasons: Earl Watson last year and GM Ryan McDonough this season. The Jazz almost beat the Golden State Warriors at their own game in an insanely exciting game, and then made the mistake of letting the Grizzlies bring the “Grind House” with them to Vivint Smart Home Arena. I hold strong that the Jazz will finish second in the Western Conference. Let’s talk after 33 games. 

Thatcher: After the loss to the Grizzlies, I admittedly had my doubts. The Jazz showed they are still prone to bouts of anemic offense, and a below-average offense will keep them from being an elite team. However, I do think this is an early hiccup. Other teams have had similar disappointing starts, like the Rockets, the Celtics and the winless L.A. Lakers. The Jazz will be in the thick of the playoff race and I still expect them to finish between second and sixth.

Ken: There are a lot of variables in the first five NBA games. I remember one season when the Washington Bullets started 5-0, despite being projected in the lottery, and eventually ended up in the lottery. Oklahoma City is 0-3 and Utah and Houston are 1-2. I doubt any of those three ends up in the lottery, so it’s just early season adjustments, jitters, freak sunspot activity or someone had a bad horoscope. I still expect the Jazz to exceed 50 wins, but we’ll know more in a couple weeks… or maybe we won’t. With a tough schedule to start, we may still have questions about what the final record will look like when the schedule evens out.

Clark: I think it’s just a hiccup. We’ve seen slow starts and good responses from this very Jazz team before and this season, I don’t expect that to change.

 

It’s not all negative! Who has surprised you in a positive way?

David: Ingles has been terrific, picking up where he left off after a fantastic second half of the 2017-18 season. He has been much more aggressive (though seemed much more reticent to finish the Grizzlies game), which makes Utah so much more dangerous. Ingles is just so good at so many things. He is shooting lights out, continues to bother opponents and keeps the ball moving. It is surprising that he has not gotten to the free throw line once in 108 minutes. 

Jonathan: Obviously Burks has been a huge surprise. He seems to finally be fitting into Snyder’s system and using his scoring ability within the flow of the “blender.” There have been several plays where he has dished it for an open look instead of trying to dunk over/through someone. I’d like to say that Ingles has also surprised, but by now we all know he is the greatest basketball player on earth. Nothing should surprise us anymore where Jingles is concerned.

Thatcher: Jae Crowder has looked great. He has provided the same intensity and hustle we saw last season, but with the added bonus of making shots. In his first three games, he’s averaging 15 points and seven rebounds on 48/42/83 shooting numbers. While I don’t expect him to keep shooting eight free throws per game, having the Crowder we saw in Boston would be huge for this season and the playoffs.

Ken: Ingles, at least for two games plus a quarter. Joe’s shooting and playmaking saved the Jazz against the Kings, nearly did the same against the Warriors, and had them up five points early against the Grizzlies. Then it ended. Ingles was bound to regress to the mean, but this was more like sixty-to-zero, slamming on the brakes. Still, he has been Utah’s best player through three games, which jokes aside, wasn’t expected. Ingles is a key cog in the Jazz machine, but he shouldn’t be the team’s best player on a nightly basis. Honorable mention for rookie Grayson Allen, who performed well in his late-game minutes when he debuted against Memphis. We just haven’t seen him enough for him to be the answer here. 

Clark: Ingles has played like one of the best offensive players in the league and Exum and Burks have each had a game that they impacted off the bench. But Crowder has probably been the most consistent offensive player and has continued to be disruptive and versatile on the defensive end. I didn’t see him being this solid offensively.

 

What would the outcome of this 4-game trip need to be for you to worry?

David: A 1-3 trip would definitely be cause to worry. Houston — even sans Chris Paul — will be a handful and New Orleans has been phenomenal offensively. Dallas and Minnesota could be trouble. My prediction is 2-2. 

Jonathan: Even if they went 0-4, I don’t know that I would worry. We know what this team is capable of, which is why the brain trust brought nearly everybody back. They already have the chemistry, they will figure it out and right the ship. That being said, I fully expect them to return to Utah having won all four road games.

Thatcher: This will not be an easy road trip, but the Jazz need to go at least 2-2. That would put them at 3-4. They should beat Dallas, and with Paul out, they need to take advantage and beat Houston. New Orleans and Minnesota will both be very tough games, and I wouldn’t bet on them winning, though they are certainly winnable. Any worse than 2-2 on this trip would put them at 2-5 or 1-6. That would really worry me. The Jazz need to have a good trip and prove that they’re the team that took the Warriors to the wire, not the one that gave up runs to Memphis and Sacramento with inconsistent effort on both ends.

Ken: 0-4. I’d love to say 1-3, but the road is a tough place. They should have a chance against the Rockets, who will be without Paul and a host of other players. New Orleans will be tough. If circumstances were different, I’d be more bullish expecting wins at both Dallas (back-to-back and third game on the trip) and  Minnesota (final game of the trip), but circumstances aren’t different. The Jazz need to win them both, but one of them might slide, especially if they are still seeking some answers, focus, the real Rubio, bringing a rookie into the rotation, etc.

Clark: I can’t stop thinking about last season’s start and all the worry and calls for Rubio to lose the starting job. It felt like the world was coming to an end, or at least the season was after 30 or so games. I have made a resolution to not worry about this team for a good while, although if the Jazz go 0-4 and don’t look competitive, I will probably be concerned. Gobert said it best: this season is a marathon.

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