Consider the recent history of the NBA’s most oxymoronically named team, the Utah Jazz. By any measure, they have been one of the best regular-season teams in the NBA ever since Rudy Gobert faked coughing on everyone’s microphones right before he contracted COVID-19. Last season, they posted the league’s third-best offensive rating and fourth-best defensive rating. This year, they have the best offense in the NBA. Their franchise cornerstones each made the All-Star Game this season, and they have both an established system and a formidable home court advantage. And yet everything feels pretty close to collapsing in on itself. This year’s Jazz are inarguably going in the wrong direction, and they seem far more likely to suffer another early playoff exit than smooth out their idiosyncrasies in time to make this thing work.
The Jazz began this season on the same form that earned them the first seed in the 2021 Playoffs, and though they were derailed by untimely injuries to their best players, the smart bet was that they’d untoilet themselves once Rudy Gobert and Donovan Mitchell got healthy. They mostly did, winning nine of 10 on either side of the All-Star break. When this team is shooting well, they are very tough to beat. Gobert is still the best rim protector in the league, and their core has a ton of experience playing four-out, three-happy basketball around him in the middle. Trouble is, good shooting no longer seems like it’s enough to paper over the Jazz’s serious issues elsewhere. In basketball terms, they’re easily counterable when opponents go small, and they’re way too thin on the wing. Also, everyone is mad at each other, which seems like the real problem. Since that little flurry of wins, they have dunked themselves even further in the toilet. The team has posted five straight losses, and a 6–9 record over their last 15 against a mostly bad schedule. Last night’s collapse against the Clippers typified the vibe of their drab season.
The Jazz led the Clippers by 25 at one point during the second half last night, and held a 16-point lead with nine minutes left in the game. Rather than pressing their advantage, Utah completely melted in the face of a Clippers advance. Paul George, in his first game back since December, was the best player on the court, scoring 34 and adding six assists, five rebounds, and four steals against a Jazz team missing a few wing defenders. Still, one great performance shouldn’t be enough to erase that big of a deficit in that little time. As much as the Clippers won the game, the Jazz helped by collapsing on their way to a 121–115 loss. If this sounds familiar, it’s because the Jazz were booted out of last year’s playoffs after blowing a different 25-point lead to a Kawhi Leonard-less Clippers team.
As for the Jazz collapse: Their “whole thing” really only works to the degree that they can fling the ball around the perimeter and leverage one missed switch or rotation into a wide open three. Once they slow down, they’re not that difficult to defend, especially if the opponent can put a bigger guy on Mitchell. In the first three quarters of the game, Utah had 22 assists. In the fourth quarter, they had one, along with eight turnovers. It was gummy, ugly basketball, and it wasn’t really an outlier. The Jazz do not seem to have much fighting spirit—they are 4–22 in games they’ve trailed by 10 or more—at least not against opponents. They are great at beating up on and also beating themselves. Last night, Mitchell sealed the Clippers win with a Chris Webber cover act.
After the game, Mitchell and Gobert held what feels like their hundredth airing of grievances since they were paired up five years ago. The subject this time around was the never-ending cycle of pain the team’s two stars seem trapped in. “I don’t know what to say,” an exasperated Mitchell told reporters after the game. “This is the same shit … this is literally the same thing as last year.” Gobert said more or less the same thing, while also noting that the Jazz have this concerning tendency to forget how to play basketball when it matters the most. When the Jazz were down two with a minute left, Gobert was openly shaking his head in disgust on the court, as if he already knew what was going to happen.
At some point, the purely basketball-based argument for why the Jazz keep piling up agonizing losses in the same way stops holding water. There is pretty clearly something broken about this team’s chemistry, considering their lack of fight, the perpetually stilted Gobert-Mitchell partnership, and the team’s tendency to blow big leads and lose playoff series that they should not lose. Suffering a bad streak of games when you are struggling with injuries and a mangled rotation is one thing, but this Jazz team has been non-functional for a month now. Also, a pair of players who the Jazz recently traded seems to be taking a certain joy in the team’s failings, which speaks to their bustedness. I don’t see the Jazz making any kind of real run, given how poorly they match up with the Mavericks, and once they inevitably get owned in the playoffs this year, I don’t see how anyone can convince themselves that the Mitchell-Gobert thing is worth keeping together. I’m not sure how exactly that will shake out, given each player’s big contract and imperfect game, though something will have to change for the Utah Jazz.