Watch NBA with fuboTV
Monday night brought the second matchup in the last 11 days of Utah and Houston, two of the NBA’s biggest disappointments, teams that were expected to top 50 wins in the West and perhaps even give a challenge to the Warriors.
Alas, as we approach Christmas, neither the Jazz (14-17) nor the Rockets (15-14) are in the conference’s current postseason picture.
MORE: Three reasons why Warriors have nothing to worry about
There is hope. The season’s start has not been a complete disaster in either place, and there’s reason to think both teams will eventually recover. But which is in a better position to scoot back up the standings — each is still within just six games of the No. 3 seed — and land near the top of the West?
Let’s have a look at how the Jazz and Rockets got to this point, and which team is better arranged to imagine that things might yet change in the coming weeks.
The early-season shuffle
Rockets say: "We’ve had injuries and upheaval!"
It’s been a bumpy first two months for both teams, and some of those bumps have been self-inflicted.
Houston started the season with a spate of minor injuries that kept the team from establishing a rhythm. The Rockets had stars James Harden and Chris Paul healthy for just two of their first seven games and went 2-5. When Paul missed three more games in late November, the Rockets lost all three. Houston likes to have either Paul, Harden or both on the floor for the entire game, and missing one leaves a big drop-off in depth.
There were, too, the Carmelo Anthony follies. Anthony played 10 uninspiring games for Houston before he was let go, and the Rockets have since gotten themselves into better order, rotation-wise. In 10 games with Anthony, the Rockets had an offensive rating of 104.3, 27th in the league. Since letting him go, the team is No. 1 in offensive rating, at 115.4.
More recently, the Rockets have settled into what should be their ideal starting five the rest of the way: Paul and Harden with P.J. Tucker and Clint Capela up front, and Eric Gordon moving from sixth man to fill the small forward gap left by Anthony. Coach Mike D’Antoni finally installed that lineup for the first time last Tuesday, and Houston has gone 4-0 since, with good wins over the Trail Blazers, Lakers, Grizzlies and Jazz.
Jazz say: "Our schedule stinks!"
For Utah, a major factor in the slow start has been a brutal schedule. It seems that everything has been pointed against this team. Take Saturday’s game in Mexico City, for example. The Jazz were playing the Magic, who had played (against the lowly Bulls) that Thursday in Mexico City and were already well-adjusted to the travel and arena. Both teams struggled, but the Jazz shot 31.5 percent and scored only 89 points in the loss.
That’s how it’s been all season for the Jazz. They’ve played just 11 home games and gone 5-6 at Vivint Arena. The worst team they’ve played at home is Miami, and the Heat are 13-16. Every other team is above .500, and Utah has seen the likes of Golden State, Boston, Toronto, Indiana and Memphis twice at home.
That’s going to change. According to Teamrankings.com, Utah has had the most difficult schedule in the league, and according to Tankathon.com, the Jazz have the easiest remaining schedule in the West. Things will lighten up for this bunch. They must pounce.
We say: Advantage, Utah
The schedule-makers were not kind to the Jazz, but there have been a handful of brutal losses that stand out: a 50-point loss in Dallas, losses of 27 and 33 points to Indiana and seven double-digit losses altogether. Those can’t be explained away simply by pointing to the schedule. The Jazz have problems.
In recent years, we’ve seen Utah start slowly before hitting a ridiculous hot streak after the New Year. They were 29-6 to close last season, and 28-15 after Jan. 8 in 2016-17. There’s a danger in waiting for the big run, especially with heightened expectations, but a softer, kinder schedule should be a big boost.
For Houston, committing to its current starting five brings risk. There’s just no depth on the roster. D’Antoni will need near-perfect health the rest of the way, and he will need guard Brandon Knight, acquired from the Suns after missing all of last season recovering from an ACL injury, to chip in with the second unit.
Even with Gordon used mostly as a reserve, the Rockets had the league’s least productive bench, and a group highlighted by James Ennis and Gerald Green will strike fear in no one. The Rockets are playing better, but the lineup change will leave other problems to address.
The big issues
Jazz say: "It’s a slump!"
If you want to sum up the Jazz’s issues in a player, start with Ricky Rubio. Last season, he tantalized us with the notion that maybe after six NBA seasons, he’d finally developed a respectable jumper, making 35.2 percent from the 3-point line. Not exactly Craig Hodges, but decent enough considering his career 3-point shooting was 31.5 percent.
Well, this year, Rubio has plunged back to 31.6 percent, his usual 3-point stomping grounds. That’s been true of the bulk of Utah’s top 3-point shooters. Joe Ingles was incredible from the arc last season, at 44.0 percent. This year? 37.8 percent. Donovan Mitchell has dropped from 34.0 percent to 30.3 percent. Jae Crowder has gone up, but only from 31.6 percent to 32.8 percent.
The Jazz are primarily known as a defensive team, and while the defense has been off for much of the year, the real culprit has been the lackluster offense — especially the drop from 36.6 percent 3-point shooting (12th in the league) to 33.3 percent (26th). The shooting must get much better to return Utah to contender’s status.
It may be a slump, but it is team-wide, and the defense has not been good enough to hide it.
Rockets say: "We’re adjusting the defense!"
Many would have predicted the Rockets’ defensive struggles, with the offseason departures of forward Luc Mbah a Moute and Trevor Ariza, plus defensive coach Jeff Bzdelik. The Rockets don’t need to be a great defensive team — they had a defensive rating of 105.6, seventh in the league, last year. But they can’t afford to be terrible.
They are terrible now. Houston’s defense is 26th with a rating of 111.5, and even within the three-win sample size prior to Monday night's game, the defensive rating was 112.2. We’re not seeing a defensive uptick here.
Opponents are having success pulling Rockets big man Clint Capela away from the basket with shooters and small lineups, and the impact of that strategy goes beyond weakening his rim-protection ability. It’s leaving other Rockets trying to cover the paint and causing them to foul. The Rockets have had a spike in opponents’ free-throw makes, from 14.7 last year (third) to 19.4 (24th). That’s 4.7 points per game more opponents are getting from the foul line.
With Capela away from the paint more, Houston is also getting beaten on the defensive boards, badly. The Rockets are yielding an opponents’ offensive rebounding percentage of 31.1, 29th in the league. Last year, they were fourth in the league giving up offensive rebounds, at 25.0.
We say: Advantage, Utah
Sure, the Rockets could tighten up a bit defensively, but they’re unlikely to get back to the form that had them winning 65 games and challenging Golden State last year. They just do not have the personnel.
It’s far more likely that Utah gets its shooting together, especially as the team plays more home games. The Jazz have been decent shooting at home this year, making 36.3 percent of their 3s. But they’re at 31.4 percent on the road, so getting back to their own building more consistently should be a big benefit.
Jazz say: "He’s only 22!"
On the list of reasons the Jazz have struggled, Donovan Mitchell ranks right up there with the rough schedule. Utah excelled after making Mitchell the focal point of the offense as a rookie last year, but teams are more defensively geared to stop him in his sophomore season, and he’s still figuring out how best to react.
Mitchell’s numbers are not bad: 21.0 points, 3.2 assists and 3.1 rebounds per game, which pretty much tracks with last year. His efficiency — which was not a strength to begin with — has dropped sharply, though. He’s shooting only 42.3 percent from the field and 30.3 percent from the 3-point line, and he's still given to taking unwise drives into traffic that too often result in wild passes or poor shots.
That’s no surprise. Mitchell is young, and it’s difficult to expect a player his age to carry an offense without taking some lumps as he grows and adjusts. It’ll click for him eventually.
Rockets say: "James Harden, MVP!"
Give credit to Harden’s leadership. He’s had some down moments this year, but the Rockets’ struggles certainly can’t be placed on him. He’s leading the league in scoring again, at 31.5 points per game, and is shooting 45.4 percent from the field and 37.1 percent from the 3-point line. His back-to-back triple-doubles brought the Rockets back to .500, and his 47-point outburst against the Jazz pushed the Rockets to 15-14 overall.
That’s important for Harden. Three years ago, the Rockets followed a brilliant 56-win season with a 41-41 nightmare during which Kevin McHale was fired and chatter about the difficult, clashing personalities of Harden and Dwight Howard made the NBA rounds. Harden does not need that kind of talk resurfacing.
He seems determined to conduct a rescue operation on this wayward Rockets seasons. He’ll need better help from Paul, who is averaging 15.8 points (career low) and 40.8 percent shooting (also a career low), as well as Eric Gordon (career lows of 37.0 percent shooting and 28.8 percent 3-point shooting). But Harden is doing all he can to keep this season afloat in Houston.
We say: Advantage, Houston
The Rockets have won four in a row, and Harden has been the catalyst, as usual. Mitchell has not regressed, but he’s certainly struggling to iron out his decision-making ability, and only experience will teach him that.
Overall, though, the Jazz are not in as bad a position as their record would indicate. They’ll finally get a run of home games, beginning Wednesday against Golden State, which tips off a stretch with five out of six games at home.
The Rockets may have turned a corner with their recent lineup change, but their roster remains a pretty delicate Jenga game. Even with their extended shooting woes, the Jazz are set up for a convincing turnaround.