This is not the start the Utah Jazz or their fans envisioned.
Already stumbling out of the blocks in a Northwest Division brimming with young talent, the Jazz suffered a major blow when it was revealed that starting center Rudy Gobert could miss the next month or more with a bone bruise in his right knee. Not a good thing when your division opponents include the likes of Karl-Anthony Towns (Minnesota), Nikola Jokic (Denver), Stephen Adams (Oklahoma City) and Jusuf Nurkic (Portland).
Also not a good thing when your upcoming schedule includes stars like Milwaukee’s Giannis Antetokounmpo (two games against the Greek Freak), Jokic (twice), Blake Griffin of the LA Clippers, Anthony Davis and DeMarcus Cousins of the Pelicans, the Wizards’ John Wall, three games against OKC’s Russell Westbrook, two games against James Harden’s Rockets, perennial power San Antonio, the red-hot (and Gordon Hayward-less) Celtics, two games against LeBron James and the Cavaliers and a road game against the defending champion Warriors.
And that’s just between now and the end of December.
In a year during which the Jazz are supposed to compete for a playoff berth, is it possible that they’re plummeting toward a lottery pick instead? It’s early in the season, but there’s already a sense of doom and gloom around a team sitting three games under .500 in the stacked Western Conference.
Portland made the playoffs with a record just barely over .500 last season, but it will likely take more than that to get in this year. The Jazz are sitting in a tie for 10th in the West right now, a game and a half out of the last playoff spot. With the toughest month of their season staring them in the face — and without their best player — an uphill climb might look Everest-esque for Utah.
It would be a miracle if the Jazz manage not to lose any more ground over the next six-plus weeks. Minnesota, Denver and Portland are all playing well, and Oklahoma City appears to be finding its groove after struggling to integrate Carmelo Anthony and Paul George into its lineup early in the season.
That’s not to say there aren’t encouraging signs. Rookie Donovan Mitchell has his moments when he looks like a rookie, but he also shows the kind of freakish athleticism that made general manager Dennis Lindsey all too happy to pull the trigger on trading Trey Lyles to Denver on draft day. Ricky Rubio’s shot may have cooled off, but he’s still the best passing point guard the Jazz have had in years, maybe since before Deron Williams helped push Jerry Sloan out the door.
It just might not be enough to keep the Jazz from missing the postseason.
Darren Vaughan is a veteran sports writer from Moab, Utah. He loves that the dominant big man is making a comeback in the NBA. Email him at firstname.lastname@example.org.