Are the Utah Jazz in a Slump or Have Expectations Been Too High?

Feb 11, 2017; Salt Lake City, UT, USA; Utah Jazz forward Trey Lyles (41) shoots the ball against Boston Celtics forward Jonas Jerebko (8) during the first half at Vivint Smart Home Arena. Mandatory Credit: Russ Isabella-USA TODAY Sports
Feb 11, 2017; Salt Lake City, UT, USA; Utah Jazz forward Trey Lyles (41) shoots the ball against Boston Celtics forward Jonas Jerebko (8) during the first half at Vivint Smart Home Arena. Mandatory Credit: Russ Isabella-USA TODAY Sports /

The 2016-17 NBA season has been full of ups and downs for the Utah Jazz. So which Jazz team should fans expect to show up moving forward?

With the All-Star break mere days away, and the NBA season more than two-thirds of the way over, teams are steadily solidifying their identity and for the most part each organization in the league knows what to expect out of one another.

Some have defined themselves as lockdown defensive teams, others as fast-paced three-point masters. Some have become clear title contenders while others have proven themselves as sure lottery teams.

While there are several descriptions similar to these that one could use to describe the 2016-17 Utah Jazz and their identity, in all reality, the one that I feel is the most fitting is that they are a Jekyll and Hyde team.

Quite frankly, if someone had said prior to the season’s start that Utah would be in fifth place in the West heading into the All-Star break, I have a feeling that very few fans would have complained. This is a team that hasn’t made the playoffs in several years and many thought they might find themselves hard-pressed to qualify once again this season.

Nevertheless, things are going rather well for the Jazz as they currently hold a 34-22 record with just one game remaining before the All-Star break and are a staunch 8.5 games ahead of 8th place in the West. In other words, it would take a collapse of monumental proportions for Utah to miss the playoffs. In fact, according the ESPN’s BPI Playoff Index, there’s a 99.9 percent chance that the Jazz will indeed qualify.

So of course that’s all fantastic news, but unfortunately a recent three-game losing streak and some season-long struggles against the league’s best have created some justifiable anxiety about whether this Jazz team is a contender or a pretender.

Utah started out the season plagued with injuries, but were still able to come away with some impressive early wins such as their road victory over the San Antonio Spurs on November 1st as well as winning four out of five games on a tough Eastern Conference road trip.

Utah’s big wins made it easy to overlook their few slip-ups and the mantra out of Jazz Nation quickly became, “Just wait until this team gets healthy.”

In some ways, Utah hasn’t ever really been fully healthy as it’s seemed that just as one guy gets back in the rotation another one goes down. Rodney Hood is the latest example as he has been shut down until after the All-Star break after tweaking the hyperextended knee that he suffered previously.

However, with guys like Alec Burks, Derrick Favors and George Hill who all missed significant time in the first half of the season being back in the lineup, it’s no exaggeration to say that the Jazz have been healthier of late than they were all season prior.

But unfortunately that begs the question, then why are they struggling so severely now?

Some of their recent woes have included three straight losses, the latter two coming in blowout fashion while the first featured a disgracefully blown lead.

Beyond that, Utah has failed to beat a Western Conference team with a winning record since December 18th and are currently just 8-14 against teams above .500 in either conference. What’s perhaps more discouraging about all that is that the Jazz started out 5-5 against that same group of teams that currently have winning records, meaning that they’ve gone 3-9 against them since.

Furthermore, several individual players have struggled of late. George Hill, for example, saw his 55.4 percent three-point shooting from the month of November drop to just 32.2 percent in January. He’s up slightly this month but he’s gone just 5-of-18 in his last three games and most recently is coming off a dismal 2-of-11 shooting night from the field for just six points.

While few expected Hill to be able to maintain the hot shooting that he displayed in the early season, he’s dropped off more steeply than many expected. Rodney Hood and Joe Ingles are other examples of guys who started out hot but have since cooled of late.

Then there’s players like Derrick Favors, Alec Burks and Trey Lyles that simply haven’t been able to get it going consistently at all.

So all of these issues make it hard not to wonder, are the Jazz just playing poorly right now but will be able to snap out of it? Or is their recent slide and struggles against good teams indicative of the team they really are and evidence that their early season success was more fluke than reality?

Feb 1, 2017; Salt Lake City, UT, USA; Utah Jazz center Rudy Gobert (27) is fouled by Milwaukee Bucks guard Matthew Dellavedova (8) during the second half at Vivint Smart Home Arena. The Jazz won 104-88. Mandatory Credit: Russ Isabella-USA TODAY Sports
Feb 1, 2017; Salt Lake City, UT, USA; Utah Jazz center Rudy Gobert (27) is fouled by Milwaukee Bucks guard Matthew Dellavedova (8) during the second half at Vivint Smart Home Arena. The Jazz won 104-88. Mandatory Credit: Russ Isabella-USA TODAY Sports /

To be honest, in some instances I think we’re stuck with a new and disappointing reality, but in others I think the Jazz are just in a bit of a rut but will be able to break out of it. The main case in point there resides with Gordon Hayward and George Hill.

While I expected Hill to come back to earth a little bit as he has recently, he should still be solid for the Jazz and Hayward has been phenomenal all year. Therefore, the duo going a combined 4-of-23 like they did in Monday’s loss isn’t something that’s going to happen often. In fact, I’d be surprised if it happened a second time this season. I’m confident that those two should be able to bounce back sooner rather than later.

However, there are a few other key guys who I’m not so sure about. One of those is Derrick Favors who many thought once he was healthy, the Jazz would step up to a new level. Yet so far that couldn’t be further from the case.

In fact, on some occasions Utah has actually looked better without him on the floor. The anticipation of his return not panning out as fans had hoped is one example of Utah potentially setting expectations that were too high in the early season and will prove unattainable down the stretch.

Alec Burks‘ return was seen in a similar light as Favors’, but in some ways he has appeared to disrupt chemistry and hurt more than he’s helped as well. The Jazz are 12-8 since his return to action but are only 7-6 since he started consistently logging double-digit minutes on January 20th.

Therefore, while Utah should get somewhat better as the guys who have been their leaders all season get back to the level of play that they’re capable of, it appears that the inability of the role players to produce, especially those who were injured and were expected to return and provide a boost, may cause the Jazz to fall short of the heightened expectations that were placed on them after their hot start to the season.

In all honesty, their play over the last two months has me worried that they could find themselves dropping down the standings and ultimately be on their way to a first-round playoff exit, especially considering how much tougher their schedule gets in March and April.

Since as I’ve made clear that Hayward and Hill will likely get their mojo back, the key way for them to get back on track over the long term and prevent that scenario from happening will be to see an uptick in the level of play of their role players. Sadly, however, not much has happened of late to indicate that will take place any time soon.

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But there is still hope for the Jazz. First off, although Hood has been inconsistent this season, the team is 27-13 (.675) when he plays, so his return after the All-Star break could provide an enormous lift, assuming he stays healthy.

Finally, while Utah’s struggles go beyond their recent three-game losing streak, it seems like each time they’ve started a slide they’ve been able to bounce back in a big way immediately after.

Their first four-game losing streak of the season was followed up with a four-game winning streak and a stretch of seven wins in eight games that featured victories over the Denver Nuggets, Atlanta Hawks and Houston Rockets.

Later the Jazz followed up a discouraging stretch of losing three times in four games, falling to the Celtics, Raptors, and Grizzlies, by beating the Cleveland Cavaliers and building a six-game winning streak. Most recently, the Jazz followed up losses to the Grizzlies and Thunder by winning four games in a row, two of which came in dominant blowout fashion.

So while it would be nice to see the Jazz extend the highs and diminish the lows, this latest setback could very well just be another short lull that will propel the Jazz back to unprecedented heights. As Purple & Blues’ very own Ryan Aston tends to point out, things are rarely as good or bad as they seem.

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The Jazz have looked nigh unstoppable at times this season, but recently have looked pretty dismal. Yet there is still a lot of time left in the season and Utah’s record speaks for itself. This is a playoff worthy team that is capable of winning games regardless of who they’re matched up against.

And while they might not be quite the powerhouse that we began to dream they would be given their solid start amidst all the injuries, they should still be a force to be reckoned with come playoff time.

All stats courtesy of