The date was December 4th. The Utah Jazz had just rattled off their 6th consecutive win as they had defeated the Washington Wizards in a thriller. The Utah Jazz felt they had found their Gordon Hayward replacement, Derrick Favors was playing the best ball of his career, and Jonas Jerebko was filling in beautifully at the four spot. They were 13-11 and in the playoff hunt. Then the Utah Jazz got into the meat of their tough December schedule, and it all fell apart.
Since then the Utah Jazz have won only three games, three games in 33 days. They went from 7th in the West to tied for 11th with the Phoenix Suns. They have lost 16 games. They are now 3-17 on the road with a heavy road schedule in January awaiting them. In short, the Utah Jazz are dancing on the edge of the volcano and the NBA schedule is rushing to make the final push into the abyss.
Beyond Donovan Mitchell and flashes of brilliance from Rodney Hood, Thabo Sefolosha, and Derrick Favors, the Utah Jazz have been a mess. Ricky Rubio for the season has a +/- of -3.5. When he’s on the court, the Jazz’s offensive rating drops by 4.7. When he’s off the court the Jazz’s offensive rating increases by 6.4. That’s a difference of 11.1. That’s a heavy indictment of a starting point guard averaging nearly 30 minutes a game.
Meanwhile, the Jazz’s offensive rating over their last 15 games is second to last while their defensive rating is third from last. In other words, the Utah Jazz are one of the three worst teams over the past 15 games. Including today’s loss the Utah Jazz are tied with the Los Angeles Lakers for the worst record over the past 15 games at 3-12. These are not close losses either. The Jazz have a point differential right now of -9.7 in that same timespan. This is a bad team.
It’s easy to point to Rudy Gobert being gone as a reason they’re struggling, but due to personnel, that could make things even worse. The Rubio-Favors-Gobert pairing has killed spacing and is the league’s worst starting lineup combination that has received heavy minutes. If Favors and Rubio are still in Jazz uniforms by the time Gobert returns from injury, it could mean that lineup would have some effect on the Jazz’s defensive rating, but little effect on the Jazz’s potential for additional wins.
So what does this mean? Utah doesn’t have much time to turn it around. Most playoff matchups are set by the end of December, and Utah is currently 4 games out of the playoffs and 4 games away from the 3 spot in the NBA Draft. Utah Jazz fans are a few weeks from having to prepare themselves for a playoffs-less reality. Not many teams have pushed back into the playoffs after being this far out and this far along in the regular season. Only 13% of teams make the playoffs when they’re out of the top 8 in their conference on December 26th. The 2015 Portland Trailblazers accomplished it when they started the season 11-20. But Utah’s schedule doesn’t lighten up until February. By then Utah could be much worse than just 9 games under .500 with far fewer games to make up ground.
While it’s still in the realm of possibility, it’s looking less and less likely by the game. If Utah does turn it around and make the playoffs this season, it will be remembered as a very special season. If not, Utah has a soft landing in a loaded NBA Draft in June.