The Utah Jazz were 19-28, and they had just been blown out by the Atlanta Hawks, one of the worst teams in the NBA. After the Hawks loss, the Jazz had fallen to five games out of the last playoff spot in the West. It sure seemed like all the playoff hopes were lost.
The season seemed all but over and some fans were saying the Jazz should tank the rest of the year. That was a reasonable thought to think. The Jazz were playing their worst ball of the season; Rudy Gobert was hurt, they lost Gordon Hayward in free agency last summer and it was logical to try and add another high-level player to a core of Donovan Mitchell and Gobert.
I don’t think anyone would have looked down on the Jazz for tanking the season after Hayward left and they had been killed by injuries to key players. Fans weren’t advocating for tanking like the 76ers’ “process” or anything like that. People were advocating for opportunistic tanking. Plus the best way for the Jazz to ever land a marquee player is through the draft. It made sense to tank. The Jazz players clearly were not on board with tanking.
Since the debacle against the Hawks, the Jazz won ten in a row with a thirty-point win of the defending champion Golden State Warriors and a road win in San Antonio, a place where the Jazz historically have a lot of problems. During this ten-game winning streak, the Jazz destroyed teams. Their average margin of victory during this stretch is 15 points and a lot of these wins have been over good teams. It’s not like they just hit the soft part of their schedule, they are going out and beating good teams.
How have the Jazz turned things around so quickly? Well, it’s a combination of a bunch of things. The first and most important part of this turnaround is that Gobert is healthy again. Since Gobert returned to the lineup the Jazz have the second best defense in the NBA. He completely dominates everything inside. Because of his length, Gobert can bother shots just by being there. He’s also opened up so much on the offensive end because of the attention he draws from the defense.
The second thing is that Ricky Rubio has been playing at an all-star level during this winning streak. Rubio is playing like he did when he was at his peak in Minnesota. He and Gobert finally look comfortable playing together.
The third reason is something that I think is flying a bit under the radar and that is Joe Ingles’ recent play. He’s been awesome for this team, especially during this run. He scored a career high 23 points during the winning streak and he’s been amazing on defense too. A lot of the time, he’s guarding the other team’s best wing player.
Is this sustainable for the Jazz? Yes and no. We will start with the no part. Eventually, the Jazz will lose again. The biggest reason why this wouldn’t be sustainable is because the shooting will probably regress. Rubio isn’t a historically good shooter and he’s been shooting incredibly well as of late. That’ll almost surely regress back to the mean, at least a little bit.
The next reason is the fact that the Jazz really are not a good offensive team and the offense has been burning teams down lately. Regression to the mean on the offensive end is why this might not be sustainable. Why it could be is the defense. This is without a doubt one of the best defenses in the league when they have Gobert on the floor. I tend to think that even when the offense regresses that the defense will be enough to push the Jazz at least into a playoff spot in the tough Western Conference.
The fun part about cheering for a team that most everyone has already said was doomed is that you relish the victories; every single one them. You know the season could collapse at any time. This Jazz team is another injury away from this winning streak not mattering at all and its season getting sucker punched away from them. It’s a little liberating, actually. Your expectations are low because you shouldn’t expect anything at all. You have no idea what could happen from a game-to-game basis, but for now the 2017-18 team is making a run.