Wednesday, March 25, 2009

How bad are the Jazz on the road, really?

We've all heard it by now, from Hollinger's daily jabs at our road record, to the talking heads on TV, and especially unruly fans of other teams tapping away on their keyboards on the Internet -- Utah has under-performed on the road this season. As of this article the Jazz are 14-20 on the road. That's a pretty poor mark, one of the worst out of all playoff teams in the Western Conference. If that's all you look at then it's pretty clear: the Jazz are a bad road team.

I'm not satisfied with just looking at that number and making sweeping statements. Let's go a little deeper, shall we? Let's take a look at the games on the road against the Western Conference. (Why am I automatically eliminating the games against the East? Partly because the Jazz right now have to be concerned with the West, and measure themselves against them -- and also because the Jazz end up playing some brutal Eastern Conference Road Trips with 5 games in 7 nights, and always end up running out of gas at the end. Those losses -- like a double overtime loss in Miami where Wade gets all kinds of crazy calls, in the 4th game of a 5 game set -- are not truly indicative of how well or poorly the Jazz can play on the road.) Against the West the Jazz are 9-10 so far. That looks a lot better than 14-20 right off the bat. Additionally, the Jazz are 4-1 in their last five road games against the West. They are getting better -- really anything is better than the 1-6 they put up in January. (more on this later)

So hopefully we've established that Utah sucks on the road vs. the East, and are about .500 against the West -- that's not too shabby. What is shabby is that the Jazz are 0-8 in their games on the road against the likes of the Los Angeles Lakers, San Antonio Spurs, Houston Rockets, Denver Nuggets, Portland Trailblazers, Dallas Mavericks and Phoenix Suns. (I'd put New Orleans in this list, but the Jazz have not played them yet at their gym yet this season) Now would be a great time to check out again and be satisfied with this poor record. Not me, though -- there is definitely more to the story than just an 0-8 record.

So far in these 8 games the Jazz have managed to lose every one of them. That's bad. But let's not overlook the fact that each of these 8 games the Jazz were playing in a gym where the home team wins (at the very least) 70% of their games (as per their home records so far this season). In fact, most of the teams the Jazz have lost to end up winning around 77% of their home games, with the Portland team being a stellar 80% on their home court. So it's not like the Jazz were losing games against teams that they were favored to beat.

Secondly, 6 of these 8 games have been the second game in a back to back set for Utah -- and 2 were the 3rd game in 4 nights. So very rarely have the Jazz played one of these amazing home teams when the Jazz were ready for them. One of those three times happened against the Spurs -- and Utah never wins there anyway, so that one hardly even counts anymore. In the other singular occasion the Jazz lost a road game against one of the top teams in the West when Utah was ready for them was a 113-100 drubbing at the hands of the Lakers (you may know them as the reigning Western Conference Champions, and a team that wins 80% of their games over-all). Utah has no shot to beat the Lakers in LA when Utah is healthy, let alone not even playing at full-strength; and this brings it all into the scope of my third point.

Utah played the majority of their road games against these top Western powers all in the same month (5 of the 8 games have been in January) -- it's no surprise that the Jazz lost all of those games. The Jazz were losing home games during that month as well (yes, the Jazz were losing HOME GAMES!). The Jazz went 7 - 8 that month. The Jazz were handed defeats in several blowouts and were losing to the likes of the Oklahoma City Thunder that month, and needed 43 points from Mehmet Okur to down the Indiana Pacers at home. This was not a good month for the Jazz. Why? Injuries.

Yes, injuries can be a valid excuse for losing games -- especially when they have occurred so frequently in one season. Not only have injuries left their mark on the Jazz all season long (it's not absurd to believe that if the Jazz were a few pieces healthier all season long that they would have at the very least 5 less losses, including some more road wins), but their lasting impressions have hurt the Jazz even when guys were available to play in games. As there were a ton of injuries, I'm just going to look at these 7 guys. (Note: these are not the Top 7 guys on the team, as Ronnie Brewer would be up there, but he's been very solid all year long and more importantly, healthy)

  • Deron Williams -- the best player on our team -- finally shook off his pre-season injury last month. Really, the first time D-Will dunked this season seems to be around the All-Star Break, which is an unusually long time for a guy who dunks a few times every month. It's hard to win close games when your best player is only about 70% of his regular self.
  • Kyle Korver has been in a shooting slump all season long (save for the last 2-3 weeks) because he had an injured wrist on his shooting hand. His percentages are far from his career averages this season and dude is finally getting on track. When your best pure shooter is in a season long slump it's hard to win close games down the stretch.
  • The power forward spot (you may know that it's a pretty important spot in the Jazz offense, just ask the #2 all time scorer in NBA History) has been the most hurt all season long.
    • Carlos Boozer (finally playing again after missing more than half the season) is a shell of his former self.
    • Paul Millsap's body was breaking down by the All-Star break and has sustained knee injuries to both knees this season, as well as an eye injury.
    • Andrei Kirilenko is not going to be confused with an Iron Man anytime soon, and has been in and out of the active line-up a bit this season. To make things worse, Jerry Sloan recently revealed that he's mysteriously losing weight and the Jazz don't know what to do about it. (How about buy him a sandwich?)
  • As flawed as he is, Brevin Knight is a veteran point guard who hardly ever turns the ball over and knows how to run an offense . . . when your starting PG is far from 100% you better hope that your back up is good to go. Knight has not been good to go this season (like every other season, and he's a guy who does end up missing a lot of games every year -- hhmmmm, maybe this is why he and AK get along so well?) -- and in the games he has played in he's been playing with his thumb hanging for dear life onto the rest of his hand.
  • When the rest of the team is falling apart, there has always been Memo for the Jazz, but this season even he has been missing games (and broke his streak of consecutive games) and the Jazz have been hurting in games that he plays in when he's not 100%.

Let's first address the game against the Spurs early this season. There's no way I'm suggesting that the Jazz would have walked away with a win in that game, but the Jazz did play it without Deron Williams, Carlos Boozer and Andrei Kirilenko. Hard to win road games when your three most talented players are out. The only other non back-to-back game the Jazz played was on the road against the Lakers -- and the Jazz did so without their top scorer and rebounder Carlos Boozer. Everyone else played, but they were quite banged up. Two losses where the final score was so disproportionate because of Jazz injuries. (Again, not saying that these would have been wins)

Next up is the 104-106 loss the Jazz had in the valley of the Sun. The Suns were pretty damn healthy for this game, and the Jazz were only bereft of leading scorer and rebounder Carlos Boozer. And they only lost by 2 points. In a road game. On the second night of a back to back. In the 3rd game in 4 nights. I seriously contest that the Jazz would have lost this game if the situation was a little different (either Boozer plays, or it not being a back-to-back, or not the 3rd game in 4 nights). This is a loss that I think is very misleading because it shows another loss (the bottom line), but this game was not similar to getting blown out by the Spurs or Lakers. Having Boozer play would have made us better on offense, and made the bench play that much stronger.

The next game I wish to highlight is the double over time loss in Houston where the Jazz ended up losing 115-120. Yao Ming is awesome. The Jazz were playing this game without Carlos Boozer, Mehmet Okur and Paul Millsap. Yeah, all three of our most impressive bigmen -- and the Jazz still took the Rockets to double over-time. (Fesenko was awesome in this game) And this game was also the second game in a back to back set. Here again I throw the challenge flag and say that this loss is not evocative of how good or bad Utah really is. This is also not like the Lakers or Spurs games . . . this is most likely a game the Jazz win (especially if you look at how the two teams have played over the last three season . . . Utah usually wins a game in Houston each season).

So four road games into this I feel that the Jazz have a pretty good case to suggest that things could have been 2-2 so far, instead of 0-4. These suggestions don't mean wins, but they do mean that they are not as poor a road team as previously assumed.

The next game against Dallas has the Mavs winning 115-108. Again, the Jazz were without the services of Carlos Boozer. Dallas is a great home team, and this was another one of the second game in a back to back sets and 3rd games in 4 nights sets for the Jazz. No real complaints here.

The final three games (Houston again, Denver and Portland) all happened in a sequence where the Jazz were playing without Carlos Boozer and Andrei Kirilenko. Boozer is a very efficient scorer who puts pressure on the other teams' defense and Andrei is a do-it-all utility man who has to guard to other teams' best player -- and usually does a pretty darn good job. In this case he would have defended Artest, Carmelo and Brandon Roy. Instead those three got to feast on C.J. Miles. That's a huge difference. Oh yes, all three games were the 2nd game of a back-to-back for the Jazz as well. And all three were losses -- like every other game listed here.

So, do 8 losses -- each against a great home team, 6 of which happened as the 2nd game in a back-to-back set, and each without Utah's top scorer and rebounder completely accurate in describing the Jazz as a horrible road team?

I say no.

The Jazz have some great opportunities to prove me right, starting with tonight in Phoenix for example.


servicepack66 said...

Well said Amar. The last 13 games will show the league what kind of road team they are. If they don't do well and still manage to get in, the playoffs are a different beast altogether and in a playoff series they might be able to steal one game away and still take the series (re: playoffs against Houston last year?). I hope the next few games will get them in Playoff mode.