Patrick Kinahan: Miserable month hasn't deterred Jazz from thinking championship

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SALT LAKE CITY — Not even an awful stretch in January during which the Utah Jazz stumbled through a 4-12 record and spiraled down the Western Conference standings has damaged any championship aspirations.

"From where we stand as a team, we're a very competitive team," said general manager Justin Zanik during a recent 20-minute press conference. "When we're healthy and when we're connected, we have a chance to contend for a title."

Based on the 82-game regular season, history would suggest otherwise. NBA champions most often enter the playoffs with a top two seed in both conferences.

There are exceptions, though, notably last season when the Milwaukee Bucks won the title as the No. 4 seed in the Eastern Conference. But last season was somewhat of an anomaly in which the regular season was shortened by 10 games for COVID-related reasons.

The NBA has returned to 82 games, but at the same time this season is anything but normal. From the start, the virus has wreaked havoc on every team with players and coaches forced to miss an assortment of games.

Benefitting from a run of good health and fortune, the Jazz were rolling along at 26-9 and in contention to repeat with the best record in the league as December closed. In the six weeks since, a program was required to figure out which players were available.

The scrambled lineups contributed significantly to the Jazz dropping six of seven games one week into January and ending the month on a five-game losing streak. At one point, injuries and COVID left the Jazz without any centers in a predictable 20-point loss to the Cleveland Cavaliers.

There also was the loss to the Toronto Raptors in which the top seven players in the rotation were not available. But still, even without key contributors, the Jazz had no excuse for losing to the likes of a string of sub .500 teams last month.

In trying to see the positive, Zanik noted all the adverse situations have built a deeper bench for coach Quin Snyder to tap into if necessary. The likes of Trent Forrest, Udoka Azubuike, Eric Paschall and Danuel House Jr. all have shown potential.

"Some of the adversity that we've gone through with COVID and injuries have allowed some of our players to take advantage of their opportunities," Zanik said.

All told, the Jazz will enter the All-Star break this weekend holding down the fourth seed in the West. The Phoenix Suns, who finished one game behind the Jazz for the best regular-season record last year, are comfortably in first place in the West going into the break.

As it stands now, the Jazz are on target to face the Dallas Mavericks to open the first round. Assuming the seeds hold true, the Suns and the Jazz would play in the Western Conference semifinals.

Good luck.

The Suns, who lost in the finals last year, clearly are playing the best basketball in the league to this point in the season. After a 1-3 start, the Suns reeled off an 18-game winning streak and haven't looked back. Entering Tuesday's game against the Los Angeles Clippers, coach Monty Williams' team has won 16 out of 17 games.

Instead of improving at the trade deadline last week, it's easy to argue the Jazz took a step backward in the immediacy in a deal that lessened the team's luxury tax bill. Fan favorite Joe Ingles, who suffered a season-ending knee injury two weeks ago in a loss to the Minnesota Timberwolves, was traded in a three-way deal that resulted in the the Jazz acquiring Nickeil Alexander-Walker.

Drafted 17th overall in 2019, Alexander-Walker has shown some promise during his time with the New Orleans Pelicans. The Jazz see talent but it may take time.

"We've always wanted to bet on our coaching, our culture and our development staff to take some of the really good things that I think Nickeil shows and make it even better," Zanik said.

More from Patrick Kinahan:

About the Author: Patrick Kinahan

Patrick Kinahan is a radio host for 97.5/1280 The Zone and the Zone Sports Network. He, along with David James, are on the air Monday-Friday from 6 a.m. to 10 a.m. To read more of his articles, visit Patrick's author page.

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Patrick is a radio host for 97.5/1280 The Zone and the Zone Sports Network. He, along with David James, are on the air Monday-Friday from 6 a.m. to 10 a.m.


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