Utah Jazz have won five straight, why don’t we feel encouraged?

ATLANTA, GA - DECEMBER 19: Quin Snyder of the Utah Jazz reacts during the first half of an NBA game against the Atlanta Hawks at State Farm Arena on December 19, 2019 in Atlanta, Georgia. NOTE TO USER: User expressly acknowledges and agrees that, by downloading and/or using this photograph, user is consenting to the terms and conditions of the Getty Images License Agreement. (Photo by Todd Kirkland/Getty Images)
ATLANTA, GA - DECEMBER 19: Quin Snyder of the Utah Jazz reacts during the first half of an NBA game against the Atlanta Hawks at State Farm Arena on December 19, 2019 in Atlanta, Georgia. NOTE TO USER: User expressly acknowledges and agrees that, by downloading and/or using this photograph, user is consenting to the terms and conditions of the Getty Images License Agreement. (Photo by Todd Kirkland/Getty Images) /

The Utah Jazz are in the midst of a five-game win streak, but the way they’re squeaking by against inferior teams is less than reassuring.

If I had gone into a coma just prior to the start of the 2019-20 NBA season, then woken up today and someone told me that the Utah Jazz were off to an 18-11 start, I’d be feeling pretty excited about the team and its prognosis. Between all the new faces they were introducing this year and the tough span of schedule they had to endure during the first 25 games of the year, a .621 win percentage would feel pretty nice without any context.

However, for better or for worse, I’ve been wide awake for all 29 Utah Jazz games to start the season. And although the record looks pretty solid, especially considering the reputation of Quin Snyder Jazz teams of starting out slow, I’m feeling more skeptical than I am confident. In witnessing just how the Jazz arrived at 18-11, it’s hard to feel encouraged about where the team is heading.

The reason for that is that the Utah Jazz have suffered multiple blowouts at the hands of good to mediocre teams. They’ve also struggled to put away sure-fire lottery squads.

Some have pointed to the Jazz being among the best in the NBA in clutch situations, as they’ve pulled out a number of close games down the stretch. There’s certainly something to be said about this and it could be considered reassuring. However, some of the opponents they’re facing in these games simply shouldn’t lead to the necessity of pulling out a clutch win whatsoever. The Jazz most definitely should be taking care of business for 48 minutes rather than scrambling to come from behind and win in the final quarter.

It’s exactly for that reason that Utah’s current win streak feels a little hollow. Typically, fans of a team would be fired up to watch their squad rattle off five straight victories as the Jazz have just done from December 11th through December 21st. But unfortunately, not one of those games has come against a convincing opponent nor in convincing fashion.

The first was over a Minnesota Timberwolves squad that is essentially falling off a cliff. They’ve lost 10 in a row and continue to crumble. In fairness, this was probably Utah’s best win of the streak as they took control early and led for all but a brief moment in the first quarter. But considering that lately the Wolves have lost to the likes of the Memphis Grizzlies and New Orleans Pelicans, beating them isn’t all that impressive.

After that, the Jazz took on the hapless Golden State Warriors, which quite frankly should have been an easy win. Instead, the Jazz trailed by as many as 13, and had to fight their way through a back-and-forth fourth quarter to finally emerge victorious over a team that has only posted six wins on the season and is in dead last in the Western Conference. It was one of the most demoralizing wins I’ve ever seen, and certainly an ugly victory.

From there, the Jazz took on the Orlando Magic in a game which saw Mike Conley finally return from his hamstring injury. In the first half and to start the third quarter, the Jazz were prolific, going up by as many as 18 in what looked like could be their first blowout over a playoff-caliber team in quite some time.

Instead, Conley left the game after re-injuring himself and the wheels came off for the Jazz in the fourth quarter. All of a sudden, a double-figure lead had transformed into a seven-point deficit when Utah allowed Orlando to come crashing back into the game. With little time remaining in the bout, for a while it appeared as if the Jazz were going to give the game away to the visiting Magic. Instead, they dug deep and the heroics of Donovan Mitchell and Bojan Bogdanovic prevailed.

Last of all, the Jazz took on the Atlanta Hawks and Charlotte Hornets in consecutive road games that felt extremely similar. The Jazz trailed to both teams by double figures and had to fight back in the final period to narrowly earn the victory. The win over Atlanta was by just five points and over Charlotte it was by seven.

Charlotte has been better than expected this year and that’s a place that has been notoriously tough for the Jazz to play. Atlanta, on the other hand, has won only six games this season, is dead last in the East and coming into the game against Utah had just lost by 23 points to the pathetic New York Knicks. In other words, there was no excuse for the Jazz to have struggled so mightily against them.

Now, some might look at Utah’s win streak and simply say that a W is a W, and regardless of how it happened, the Jazz still got the outcomes they desired. Whether you win by 1 or 100 it affects the record the same, and in that regard the Jazz certainly took care of business.

I definitely believe there’s some merit to this. The Jazz are finding ways to win games and at the end of the day, that’s what matters most.

However, they’re also not doing a very good job of instilling confidence in their ability to keep up with the top teams in the league. If Utah can barely sneak by squads like Atlanta or Golden State, can’t hold big leads against the likes of Orlando, and is dismantled by foes like the Los Angeles Lakers and Toronto Raptors, how realistic are their chances of being a true force come playoff time?

Interestingly enough, Utah’s greatest problem has been the lackluster play of their bench. Game after game during this unconvincing win streak and prior to it, the Jazz’s starters have largely been positive in terms of plus/minus, while their bench has been massive negatives.

The game in Charlotte was perhaps the greatest example. Bojan Bogdanovic, Joe Ingles and Royce O’Neale were all plus-14 and Rudy Gobert was plus-16. Meanwhile, Donovan Mitchell, who played several minutes staggered with the bench was a minus-3, while Jeff Green was minus-7, Georges Niang was minus-10 and Ed Davis was minus-12. Davis has been so awful that Quin Snyder ultimately opted to play Tony Bradley in his place in the second half.

Emmanuel Mudiay was the only bench player on the right side of the line with a plus-five. He’s admittedly been better of late, but he’s also been aided by logging minutes with the starters. The simple truth is Utah’s second unit has been absolutely abysmal.

The Hornets game was a good example, and certainly wasn’t an anomaly. The same phenomenon has been consistent across multiple games. In Atlanta, no Jazz starter was in the negative while Green and Davis were minus-11 and Niang was minus-12.

On the season, Green is a minus-3.4 with a net rating of -7.9, Davis is a minus-3.8 with a net rating of -13.8 and Niang is a minus-4.3 with a net rating of -13.7. Those are all atrocious numbers, and it’s clear that something has to give.

Whether the Jazz pursue someone in a trade or the buyout market, or simply aim to stay afloat until Mike Conley returns so they can cut out one of their poor bench performers from the rotation, something is going to have to change in that second unit for them to be able to improve. Unfortunately, with where they stand currently, even a five-game winning streak feels hollow as the Jazz have yet to assert themselves as a legitimate or reliable opponent.

And that will make Monday’s game against the Miami Heat, who have proven themselves as an elite force this season and have just one home loss, extremely interesting. Will the Jazz up their game to match the competition and yet again find a way to win? Or will the lackluster play we’ve seen from them pretty much all season doom them to a blowout loss like they suffered against the last four elite teams they played?

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Unfortunately, I’m leaning towards the latter. And if the bench continues to be as atrocious as it’s been thus far, it feels practically unreasonable to project the Jazz as winners against a Heat team that stands at 21-8 and third in the East.