At a young age, aspiring basketball players are taught two imperatives: (1) always have fun and (2) always play with heart on defense.
On Tuesday night, the Utah Jazz suffered an embarrassing loss to the Houston Rockets, the worst team in the Western Conference. This, the sixth loss in seven games, marks a new low point for a team struggling to find focus, purpose, or identity.
After the game, Rudy Gobert said, “I feel like those guys were having more fun than we did. At the end of the day, yes, there are those games that we are supposed to win. But I think we’ve got to enjoy the game. We’ve got to enjoy the job and try to enjoy playing with one another.”
Rule one, broken.
The Rockets, a 14-32 team who’s faced a variety of locker room issues this year, had more fun playing basketball than the Utah Jazz. These aren’t the quotes you wan’t to hear coming out of a locker room, especially when this season marks the third year of this core playing together. For the lion’s share of this season, a variety of Utah’s players have visibly appeard frustrated or out of focus. I rewatched the game and took note of every time a Utah player hung their head or showed signs of quivering confidence. I lost track before halftime.
So, unsurprisingly, Utah has infracted on the second imperative as well. Their defensive struggles, particularly on the perimeter and with rotations, are well documented. At times, their mistakes have reached such egregious levels that I can’t help but feel like the bulk of their struggles are the result of poor focus over anything else. It takes focus to execute a solid closeout. It takes focus to communicate on screens and actions. It takes focus to rotate and contest from the weak side. The Jazz have proven that they can do those things. They even did it in the fourth quarter on Tuesday. It just takes a consistent level of engagement that they’ve failed to reach thus far.
Here are a few perfect examples of those lapses:
O’Neale doesn’t close out like he’s afraid of Jalen Green shooting, yet he doesn’t close out like he’s worried of him driving. He gets stuck in the middle and get’s blown by. That’s something he can fix, it just takes an extra level of focus to understand personnel, time, and place when closing out.
And this play might just be the perfect microcosm of Utah’s struggles with focus on defense this season:
Nobody boxes out on the initial shot, allowing for an offensive rebound. Then, both Jordan Clarkson and Royce O’Neale aren’t paying attention to the ball or their man, leading to a great look from three for Houston. It doesn’t take an All-Defensive Team level player to fix something like this. It takes staying engaged for the full play.
That’s where the silver linings fall in all of this. In their current state, the Jazz aren’t a playoff team that strikes fear into anyone, let alone a championship contender. But given that it is the middle of January, no team is competing for anything. The playoffs are a months away and Utah has an ample amount of time to find their footing again. But they have to get to work on it now.
At this moment, I think there are a couple little things that could help. One possible way to bring life to this team is giving Eric Paschall more playing time. Don’t get me wrong, Paschall has flaws and isn’t the answer to all of Utah’s problems. But Paschall brings energy, something the Jazz are lacking. He brings excitement to hustling on defense and doing the little things. Another idea is getting Joe Ingles heavily involved in the next few games with Donovan Mitchell out. Give Ingles more shots, more pick and rolls, and more opportunities to get into his groove again. Last season, Ingles played incredible. Can the Jazz find some more of that magic again?
But finally, I think the Jazz have to see what’s available in the trade market. There are a handful of reasonable targets that could help this team. Marcus Smart, Kenrich Williams, Josh Richardson and Justin Holliday are some of my favorite players that are within Utah’s price range. They aren’t game changing, but they all bring solid perimeter defense and effort.
Nonetheless, Utah now faces a fork in the road. Do they continue spiraling down the path they're on, pointing fingers at new management, coaching, or players as the reason for their decline? Or do they use the trade deadline as an opportunity to shore up holes in the roster and regroup for a push in the latter half of the season?