Ed. This is a make-up post for the Thursday Downbeat, which did not occur due to an emergency.
Utah Jazz have started off the new year with a loss to the Atlanta Hawks, and then a dominant victory against the Minnesota Timberwolves. The Hawks are 25-8, and on a 4 game win streak, and are 9-1 over the last ten. After beating the Jazz they went up to face the Portland Trail Blazers, and beat them in their own gym. They are a good team, and right now are the best team in the Eastern conference. In the big picture they are the third best team in the league, 2.0 games behind the Golden State Warriors. A loss there is very excusable, and was expected.
The Timberwolves, on the other hand, are the third worst team in the league, only the New York Knicks and Philadelphia 76ers are worse. After losing to the Jazz the Wolves have now lost 11 straight games, and it's expected because they are playing without three starters -- Ricky Rubio, Kevin Martin, and Nikola Pekovic.
So what did we learn? The Jazz lost to the team they should have lost to, and beat the team it would have been embarrassing to lose against. That's the outside look. But as people who are watching the games, well, we see a little bit more.
Yes, Utah lost to Atlanta, and yes the Hawks were up by 20 at one point, but Utah never gave up. They went on 5-0 and 12-1 runs in the fourth quarter to bring it to a 91-87 margin with 3:38 minutes left to play. That is a winnable game. And once again with my weekly mantra -- this team IS playing better basketball. A six point loss to a potential NBA finals team isn't bad -- especially when you factor in that the Jazz were playing that game by starting Patrick Christopher, who then got injured during that game. Sheesh.
Injury season has come early to the Utah Jazz; but that's okay. It allows for the necessary tinkering with the lineup by the front office and by the coaching staff. It sucks for me to not see Alec Burks out there on the floor (now in his 4th season his 5,168 total minutes are well behind the 2k / year idea I have). Having a huge hole there (Alec was playing 33.3 mpg this season, and having a career year in some traditional SG stats) means that Quin Snyder and Dennis Lindsey have to find some people to fill that gap.
Toure' Murry was just waived, and Rodney Hood is gimpy right now . . . so that leaves Joe Ingles, Ian Clark, and Patrick Christopher (when he returns from his injury). Personally now is the time to bring Dante Exum into the fold. He has demonstrated that he can a) play defense, and b) hit the three (33.7 pt% right now).
What do the Jazz have to lose? It's not games, this team apparently doesn't do that at the rate they did last season. And Jeff Hornacek STARTED at SG for the Phoenix Suns and was the back up PG back in the day. It just means he's the first guy to the bench and with all the breaks in the NBA game today it's not like he can get tired.
He's 19. It's ILLEGAL to be tired at that age.
Dante on the court more with Trey is something that helps Trey too. And making Trey better should still be one of the priorities for this season. He gets open more, he can play off the ball, and they can switch so he's not eaten alive every time on defense.
Speaking of defense, Rajon Rondo faced off against his draft team last week. The Dallas Mavericks beat the Boston Celtics 119-101, and Rondo finished with 29 points, 6 rebounds, 5 assists, and 1 steal. He went 5/7 from deep (waaat?) that night and gave his former supporters some good memories to cherish.
Trying to make sense of the conflicting arcs over the years was like anticipating where he would go on the fast break. You might think you had a handle on it, and then he would fake everyone out with a play you've never seen before. When others were referring to him as the team's little brother, his peers understood that his talent was essential. When they said it was his turn, he demurred.
He could be brilliant and captivating, yet he was also frustrating, easily the most perplexing athlete I've ever covered. His persona, at times charming and eccentric, at others aloof and boorish, only made things more complex. It was always personal with Rondo and one had to declare their allegiance. To his detractors, he was a selfish player who hid his flaws behind inflated assist totals, and to his defenders he was a misunderstood genius who couldn't be properly explained by either objective or subjective data. In between lay a huge chasm that too often went unexplored.
If he wanted to, Rondo could have owned the city. His sarcastic sense of humor and irrational hatred for anyone in an opposing uniform made him the quintessential Masshole. His analytical intelligence and off-beat game were right at home on the other side of the Charles River with its institutes of higher learning. He was the left and right side of Boston's brain, a city that can be both progressive and regressive; one that laughs behind its back at hidebound traditions just as it continues to make way for them in the entrenched corridors of power.
Rondo could have been a player for the "New Boston," which continues to evolve almost in spite of itself some two decades after the term first appeared. Maybe it's asking too much of an athlete who's not even from here, but Rondo could have bridged that gap between the old and new. No less an authority than Bob Cousy claimed him immediately as a perfect Celtic in ways that transcended the myth, yet Rondo was no traditionalist and his post-modern game didn't always translate for a mass audience.
Yea. Losing a big-time player is a huge deal. Why am I even bringing this up? Well, the Jazz have lost a bunch of players recently who were big parts of successful teams: Deron Williams, Carlos Boozer, Mehmet Okur, and Andrei Kirilenko. Beyond that core we've seen Al Jefferson and Paul Millsap play in Utah. What didn't we see?
A thank you video.
Check out the Celtics, winners of the most titles in the history of the sport, and what they did for Rondo.
Why don't the Jazz do things like this? It almost seems petty to try to demonize players who are no longer part of the team. But that's just how I feel. That's just one of several PR decisions that baffle.
Obviously, I'm a little biased. I like star point guards -- but point guards who play the game "the right way" (aka. the way I think is the "right way"). I think the Jazz COULD get one out of Dante Exum. Talking about Rondo, watching how he plays, seeing how teams recognize him . . . looking at how many minutes he played in his formative years . . . trying to get Dante on the floor more with Alec Burks' injury . . . I clearly have an agenda.
I want Dante to be as good as he can be as quickly as he can be so he can be a star soon. We needed a star. We went through a 25 win season in order to draft a star. And now we have to do the hard work of a) promoting him, and b) playing him. Other teams get returns out of their lotto picks in their first few years, why don't the Jazz? That's institutional I think. I think that institutional problem needs to be thrown out.
NBA.com 's Scott Howard-Cooper brings Dante Exum's name back up to #10 in his Rookie ladder.
10. Dante Exum, Utah Jazz (NR)
Once as high as fifth in the rankings (Nov. 26 on the strength of his assist-to-turnover ratio and defense, before sliding off the list on Dec. 10), Exum's return comes courtesy of an improved shot and shooting range -- both pressing problems before. He was at 44.1 percent overall the first 14 games of December and 41.9 percent on 3-pointers, including 48.8 overall the nine outings before Tuesday and 43.5 percent behind the arc. If it lasts from hot streak into consistent perimeter game, with his electric first step, defenses may already have big trouble.
Is having the 10th best rookie with the 5th best pick a good start to Exum's career? Last season Rudy Gobert was largely forgotten by the National media because the team (e.g. the Utah Jazz coaches) did not think he was worthy of putting out there early. Let's not continue recreating institutionalized short-sightedness. Heck, Karl Malone played 30 mpg as a rookie. For every "John Stockton didn't start early" quip there is enough anecdotal evidence to prove the contrary there.
But that's just how I feel
Who should start at SG for the majority of the rest of the year (if everyone is healthy): Gordon Hayward, Rodney Hood, Joe Ingles, Dante Exum, Patrick Christopher, Ian Clark, or someone else.