No Exum, No Iso Joe, No Stifle Tower: The Utah Jazz are in trouble

SALT LAKE CITY, UT - NOVEMBER 08: Rudy Gobert (Photo by Melissa Majchrzak/NBAE via Getty Images)
SALT LAKE CITY, UT - NOVEMBER 08: Rudy Gobert (Photo by Melissa Majchrzak/NBAE via Getty Images) /

With three key players injured and a tough stretch ahead, the Utah Jazz’s margin of error is shrinking dramatically at this early point of the season.

Heading into the 2017-18 season, predictions and thoughts about the Utah Jazz were very much mixed. The national media was largely counting this team out, supposing that with the loss of both of the team’s leading scorers in Gordon Hayward and George Hill, the Jazz simply wouldn’t have the firepower to compete in a loaded Western Conference.

Several Jazz fans matched that sentiment, but others (including myself) sung a little bit different tune. Overall, almost everyone recognized that Utah was likely set to take a considerable step backwards this year. However, many believed that Ricky Rubio could be in for a stellar career revamp, Rudy Gobert would emerge as a much-needed team leader and dominant force and that Utah’s savvy though unheralded offseason additions would make this team better than many supposed.

Unfortunately, at least through the first 14 games of the season, none of those three items has exactly been the case.

Rubio had a solid streak where it looked like he was finally going to add scoring, particularly from mid-range, to his game, but of late he’s looked absolutely lost and unfocused, and quite frankly has been a detriment to the team on both ends of the floor. Meanwhile, Thabo Sefolosha has been solid for the Jazz and Ekpe Udoh has been good defensively, but for the most part, none of Utah’s new additions have come anywhere close to patching the hole left by Gordon Hayward.

Then there’s Rudy Gobert who didn’t exactly get off to the best of starts and now finds himself sidelined for at least the next four to six weeks with a bone bruise in his knee. That injury was the result of a reckless dive for a loose ball on the part of the Miami Heat’s Dion Waiters (shown in the clip below). The play sparked no small amount of controversy among Jazz fans, and if you’d like to hear my two cents on it, be sure to tune in to my latest podcast.

Gobert’s injury absolutely could not have come at a worse time as the Jazz find themselves losers of five of their last six contests, have largely made it through the home-heavy portion of their early schedule (with limited success) and are in for a brutal December that just so happens to be the most difficult month any one NBA team faces this season.

Supposing Gobert is out for the full six weeks, below is a snapshot of just a handful of the tough games the Jazz will be in for in his absence:

  • A four-game road trip against the New York Knicks, Brooklyn Nets, Orlando Magic (second night of a back-to-back) and Philadelphia 76ers
  • The Milwaukee Bucks twice (once on the road)
  • The Denver Nuggets twice (once on the road)
  • The LA Clippers on the road
  • The OKC Thunder three times (twice on the road, one of which is on the second night of a back-to-back)
  • The Houston Rockets twice (once on the road)
  • A brutal six-game road trip that features the aforementioned Bucks, Rockets and Thunder games as well as the Chicago Bulls, Cleveland Cavaliers and Boston Celtics
  • The San Antonio Spurs on the second night of a back-to-back

Wow. It’s hard to imagine a stretch being much more difficult than that. The Jazz would have a hard enough time winning a lot of those games with Gobert. Without the anchor of their defense and one of their main offensive focal points (who’s been swarmed in the paint so far this season because of Utah’s lack of shooters), the Jazz will have even less chance for success.

If Gobert was the only one out of commission for that stretch, it would be possible to feel somewhat more confident. However, unfortunately, for the second straight year the injury bug has once again taken a nasty toll on the Utah Jazz. Dante Exum, of course, went out during preseason and his return at all this year is questionable at best. Meanwhile, it was recently reported that Joe Johnson will miss at least another two weeks with his previously suffered wrist injury.

I’ve already touched on how detrimental Gobert’s absence will be, but combining that with no Exum and no Johnson is going to make this upcoming stretch absolutely difficult and the extended absence of all three of those guys could very well be a death knell to Utah’s playoff hopes as well as a very much justifiable cause for the Jazz’s disappointing start to the season.

Many of us “Jazz believers” felt that the Utah offense would be much better than many had predicted. However, without the likes of Johnson and Exum, that offense has struggled to find a rhythm.

As of this writing, the Jazz offense is currently 28th in the league in points per game, 27th in field goal percentage and in the bottom ten in three-point percentage. Their offensive rating has also been abysmal as Utah once again falls 27th overall. It’s all speculation at this point, but there’s almost no denying that the offense would be noticeably better if both Johnson and Exum were in action.

Joe Johnson was an electrifying offensive producer last year as he shot 43.6 percent from the field and 41.1 percent from deep. He was a calming force on offense that seemed always capable of hitting the big shot when Utah needed it most. Meanwhile, although Exum’s 2016-17 play would suggest that his absence isn’t that big of a deal, based on his play in Summer League, his preseason performances and his apparent chemistry with Donovan Mitchell, it’s no stretch that Exum would have made a major impact this season.

The Jazz are in desperate need of quick offense, players that can create and finish at the rim and help stretch the floor. Sure, it was only three games, but in preseason Exum provided just that as he converted on 46.7 percent of his shots from the field and an astounding 66.7 percent from deep.

Having him off the bench (or, heck, at this point perhaps even replacing a struggling Rubio as the starter) would have almost undoubtedly made Utah’s offense better and helped them to weather the discouraging stretch they’ve gone through of late.

But, alas, injuries are in full force, the Jazz are without three of their most promising offensive players (and their best defensive player) and have the toughest stretch in the league knocking on the door. That’s not a good combination, especially since recent uninspiring performances have left little hope that the Jazz will suddenly be able to turn things around facing such overwhelming odds.

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I was optimistic to start out the season, and truthfully am doing my best to remain that way, but based on what we’ve seen so far and the new issues Utah is facing as injuries strike again, the playoffs are quickly looking more and more like a long-shot.

The only reassurance is that if Utah can somehow manage to beat the Knicks tonight and improve to 7-8, that will be the exact same record they started at last year in a season that obviously ended up being electric in spite of several injuries. Ideally, such will be the case and Quin Snyder will be able to work his wizardry once again to keep his Jazz team afloat this season.

Unfortunately, I’m less than optimistic that such will be the case. Make no mistake about it, the Utah Jazz are in trouble.