As recently as this month, the Utah Jazz were rightly considered to be one of the most legit Finals contenders in the NBA. Although the team had been pretty hilariously routed by a Kawhi Leonard-less Clippers team in the 2021 playoffs, they roared into 2022 with top-10 defensive and offensive ratings, a pair of probable all-stars, and an even more sophisticated version of their tremendously effective spread pick-and-roll system. But since Utah beat Denver by six points on Jan. 5, everything has gone wrong for the team. Their nightmarish month was capped off with the news Monday that Joe Ingles had torn his ACL during Sunday’s 20-point loss to the Timberwolves.
The day after that Denver win, Rudy Gobert and Rudy Gay both tested positive for COVID-19, and the Jazz lost all four games Gobert missed by double digits, prompting Donovan Mitchell to call out the team’s lack of effort. Gobert returned for a nice win over those same Nuggets, though Mitchell suffered a concussion the next day against the Lakers and has not played since. Gobert, meanwhile, strained his calf in a loss to the Warriors less than a week later, which means the Jazz were without both of their stars ahead of a brutal stretch of games against Phoenix (twice) and Memphis. Utah has lost all three of those games before getting trounced by Minnesota, and as a result their defensive rating has slipped all the way back to 14th in the league. The Jazz have gone 2-11 while trying to sort out all of these injuries, and are now fourth in the Western Conference, trailing the Grizzlies by 4.5 games.
Into this breach stepped Ingles, one of the team’s best players and a dedicated sixth man who started six straight games, played some of his heftiest minute totals of the season, and is now out for good. Ingles finished as the runner-up for Sixth Man last year, and though he was having one the worst shooting season of his career before his injury, he was still a crucial piece. The Aussie basically never turned the ball over, seemed to always make the right pass out on the perimeter, and, most importantly, was willing to talk shit to anyone and help the Jazz maintain a real edge. A team devastated by COVID-19 and reliant upon the decidedly stationary Hassan Whiteside for defensive anchoring will now have even less margin for error.
Perhaps most concerning of all, Mitchell and Gobert appear to be back on uneasy ground after Gobert went out of his way to contrast Devin Booker’s improved defense with his own team’s lack of “winning habits.” For all the efficiency and logic of Quin Snyder’s system, the Jazz aren’t much without their two best players, and if they’re going to win even one playoff series, both guys will need to be on the same page, which they are very much not right now. Mitchell downplayed Gobert’s comments, and the Jazz will probably stabilize if everyone can get healthy, though they don’t have any serious trade ammunition. It was a brutal January for the Jazz, and the only good news is that February can’t possibly get much worse.