All-Star weekend is a symbolic midway point of the season if not a literal one, coming, as it does, for the Jazz, after 57 games of their 82-game schedule.
Nevertheless, like a months-long extension of the winter holiday season, it inevitably brings about moments of self-reflection: Where are we now? And where are we going?
To revert to the literal once more, Utah’s record of 32 wins against 25 losses places the team in sixth place among a stacked field of talented Western Conference teams. Contextually, though, what does that count for?
Comparisons to last season’s Jazz team have been practically inevitable from the outset, considering the return of 13 players to the roster was followed by another difficult start and a subsequent resurgence. Coach Quin Snyder, however, is seeking to terminate, once and for all, any lingering notion that this group is anything other than a wholly unique entity still endeavoring to chart its own course and discover its own destiny.
“This whole season, we’ve needed to get away from the idea of déjà vu. Earlier in the year, you feel like you’re the same team, so you should have the same results, maybe. But there’s so many different variables … sometimes it’s like the butterfly effect — there’s one thing that’s different and it has an impact, it changes a lot,” Snyder said. “I think our path this season has been more about discovering who this team is. And that’s ongoing. I still think we’re a team that’s evolving — hopefully in the right direction.”
His players very much agree with those latter sentiments — that, with 25 regular-season games to go, the team remains a work in progress, but also that said progress does, in their estimation, seem to be trending upward.
LOOKING BACK, LOOKING AHEAD
• With their All-Star break under way, the Jazz have a 32-25 record, which places them sixth in the Western Conference.
• Utah is projected to win 49 games this season, which would require a 17-8 finish down the stretch.
• The Jazz’s remaining 25 games include 13 at home and 12 on the road; only eight are against teams presently at or above .500 this season.
Forward Jae Crowder noted that, with the way the season started, it might have been easy to assume it all might take on a familiar shape, but with the players’ commitment to not staying static, that was never going to happen.
“This just speaks to our group. I feel like early in the season, we had lost a few games, we had one of the toughest schedules — that’s not an excuse, but at the same time, we never got frustrated with the process of getting better,” Crowder said. “Once you have a group that can continue to learn and try to get better, you’re gonna have an incline at some point, and we have a little bit going into the break.”
Much of that incline stems from continuing to improve both at the things the Jazz are known to do well, and in areas which have previously proven problematic.
With the former, forward Thabo Sefolosha noted, “The defense has picked up, we wanna keep it that way — even do better. We’ve got enough in this locker room to be the No. 1 defense in the league, and we’re gonna show that.”
With the latter, star guard Donovan Mitchell cited the need to focus on reducing preventable turnovers, taking better care of the ball, and maintaining a high degree of urgency throughout entire games — all issues he said were costly in Tuesday’s loss in Oakland.
“We’re all pretty happy with where we’re playing,” he said. “Obviously, we wanted to win this one, but it’s another building block, another stepping stone. We’ll go get better and better.”
Indeed, those on the team asked about its remaining stretch run all insisted that the ability to believe — even this deep into the season — that they can continue to evolve both individually and collectively is a crucial component in determining Utah’s success. In short, there are surprises yet to be unleashed, potential yet to be unlocked.
They’ve already proven, in three games against the Warriors this season, that they have the capacity to compete. They know they must do more to take that next step, though.
“We can play with the best teams. I think we know that — now it’s on us to take the next step,” said Rudy Gobert. “Be able to get connected; be able to play defense for four quarters, not just three.”
Bringing it all full circle, Snyder was asked if there was a balance to be struck between separating this team from last year’s group, while retaining the knowledge that last year’s ignoble start and brilliant recovery have proven that there is a next gear ingrained in the team’s very DNA.
The coach conceded there was merit to the notion, while cautioning against drawing too many conclusions from it.
Yes, this team has the benefit of the knowledge gleaned from its past experiences, but, in the end, it must also forge its own new identity.
“When you’ve faced some adversity, then you have a touchstone, a reference point. That was probably relevant for us early in the year. We played a pretty tough schedule; I don’t think we were as good a team as we are now,” Snyder said. “We’re trying to be better, we’re trying to be good, but I think our guys know it’s possible to improve throughout the season, it’s possible to improve late in the season. That’s been the goal for us from the beginning, to maximize this group, to max out what we have.”
And only time will tell if that is actually enough.