SALT LAKE CITY — The Utah Jazz are 20 games into the 2012-'13 NBA season. Yes, incredibly, almost a quarter of the year is already in the books. So what have we learned? We’ve learned this team can play great at times and awful at times — all in the same game. We've learned this team is good at home but horrible on the road. And we have learned that this team is as average as its 10-10 record indicates.
For the Jazz to improve here are five issues that need to be addressed:
1. What is this Utah Jazz team's identity?
Is it an inside-first team? Is it an outside-shooting squad? Heck, who are the starting five? When you’re 20 games into the season and you still can’t truly answer any of those three questions, you’re in trouble.
Players don’t know their roles and even guard Randy Foye told us on our radio show, "Gunther and Graham" on 1320 KFAN, that he is still trying to figure out the team’s terminology. When you’ve played 25 percent of the season after a full training camp and you still don’t completely understand what you are doing, that’s never a positive sign.
2. Defensively soft
The same Jazz squad that struggled against the pick and roll a year ago is having the same problems again this season. On the perimeter, Mo Williams can’t stay in front of quicker point guards, and when you have the likes of offensive-minded Al Jefferson in the middle you know you’re not going to get help on the inside. The only player that has that mental and physical toughness to give effort and play defense is Derrick Favors. That is clearly evident during the four games he has missed due to a plantar fasciitis injury. During that span, the Jazz have given up over 100 points in three of the four contests. All three nights of giving up over 100 points turned out be losses.
3. Lack of a star/leader
Jazz brass still point to the 2004 Detroit Pistons as an example that one can win a title as a team as opposed to having a star. But it’s clear the Pistons were an anomaly. Since then only franchises with at least one elite player have won championships. Who is the Jazz star? Jefferson? Paul Millsap? Williams? Favors could develop into that player but obviously isn’t there yet. The Jazz roster is constructed mostly of role players. Role players don’t win titles.
4. Millsap or Jefferson?
It’s the elephant in the room. It’s clear one has to go, whether it’s via trade or free agency. Both have strengths and both have several weaknesses as well. Jefferson can get you a double-double but also is a terrible defender and has a tendency to be soft on the offensive end. That was clear in crunch time against the Clippers Monday when instead of taking the ball strong to the basket, Jefferson tried a push shot that was rejected by DeAndre Jordan.
As for Millsap, he clearly brings the team heart and toughness but can be limited when having to match up against power forwards with length. The sooner the Jazz decide who they want to keep to team up with Favors the sooner this team starts to grow.
5. Walking the line
It’s always a delicate balance with the Jazz. Due to being a small-market team they feel the pressure from a business perspective to make the playoffs every year. Yet being a smaller city it’s also hard to attract high-profile free agents. Therefore, the Jazz have to build either via trades or through the draft. As for the latter, the Jazz are rarely bad enough to get into the lottery. So if the stated goal for the Jazz is to win a title how do they do it as currently structured? The answer? They can’t.
However, they can start moving forward by giving their younger players — Favors, Gordon Hayward, Alec Burks and Enes Kanter — more minutes. This will possibly mean more losses than wins, but in the long term it could pay big dividends. Add in a few trades and some complimentary players via free agency with the several expiring contracts on this Jazz roster and the team could be set up to be competitive for years to come.