SALT LAKE CITY — Twenty games in, the Utah Jazz’s season has been like driving behind somebody going 10 MPH below the speed limit in the fast lane.
They’re not zooming along as quickly as preferred, but they’re still heading down the right road.
Sure, it can be maddening at times — and some fans driving behind them are honking like crazy — but the team believes it's making slow-but-sure progress.
The Jazz’s middle-of-the-road 10-10 record is good enough for the No. 7 position in the Western Conference.
But the team's overall performance is not good enough to meet higher expectations placed upon themselves and their fan base.
“Definitely underachieving. You always want to do better than what you are,” Jazz forward Paul Millsap said. “And (at) 10-10, I think we’re underachieving right now.”
Could be better. Could be worse.
“I think we’ve done OK,” Jazz small forward Marvin Williams said. “Obviously, sitting at 10-10 there’s a couple games out there that we wish we could have back, and maybe our record would be a little bit better. But as of right now, I think we’re doing OK.”
Underachieving but OK.
The glass of lukewarm water is both half empty and half full.
Now at the end of the first quarter, the team with a history of sputtering starts is hopeful the best is yet to come.
Coach Tyrone Corbin knows the team has underperformed, but said his team has “made some strides” since the beginning of training camp. That the Jazz have wavered but still remain in the mix out West is fortuitous, but it’s also a trend that might not continue, especially considering teams with talent like the Lakers, Nuggets, Mavericks and T-Wolves are situated behind them in the standings.
“It is encouraging,” Corbin said. “We talked about that from Day 1 — ultimately, our goal is first off to make the playoffs, and we’re on pace to do that. We want to finish as high as we can in that race, but you’ve got to be in the top eight to get that first.”
That almost certainly won’t happen if Utah doesn’t figure out its road woes.
The Jazz are terrific at the place increasingly being called “The Solution,” going 7-1 at home.
But the Jazz are horrific in the places that could be called “The Problem,” stumbling to a 3-9 mark away from Utah.
Their guard play — from Mo Williams, to Gordon Hayward and Randy Foye — has been somewhere between spotty, spectacular and spot-on.
Their big men — Al Jefferson, Paul Millsap, Derrick Favors and Enes Kanter — have been a combination of dominating and dumbfounding depending on the day.
They’ve scored 99.0 points per game, which puts them in the top third of NBA offenses. But they’ve given up 98.8 points an outing, which puts them right around the bottom third of defenses.
OK but underachieving.
Blame it on the excessive road games (12 of 20) or the lineup fluctuations (six starting groups) or fill-in-the-blank excuse, but the team has yet to distance itself from overall mediocrity.
“We feel we’re better than the record indicates, but we are where we are. We’re a .500 team now,” Corbin said. “We’ve played good in some spurts and we haven’t played our best at some times, but we’re growing. I think we’ll continue to get better in some areas that we need to get better in.”
The biggest improvement, Corbin pointed out, needs to be in simple consistency.
The Jazz have shown they can execute well and push the ball in a preferred up-tempo style while setting the pace.
Utah players have also shown they can clamp down and play defense, even putting together their stingiest showing in Wednesday’s 87-81 win over Orlando.
They just haven’t done it in enough extended situations.
“We want to do it for a complete game. That’s where we have to grow,” Corbin said. “On defense, we’ve got to make sure we’re getting back and stopping transition baskets. We have to get sequences where we get a sequence of stops while we’re scoring to get those gaps and make those runs longer. We want three, four, five stops in a row. More than just once or twice a game.”
Corbin envisions having a team that pounces on opponents from the tipoff instead of one that often requires a jumpstart. A team that finishes strong instead of falling apart as has been the case lately would be nice, too.
“That’s when you’re growing on the defensive end,” he added, “when you’re consistently getting stops and (going on) runs.”
Millsap said the Jazz have stayed together and haven’t let unspecified “off-the-court issues bother us,” so that’s a positive.
But he’s cognizant it hasn’t jelled with the new guys, young guys, returning veterans like planned, so that’s a negative.
“We’re a much better team than we put off, I guess,” Millsap said. “A couple of games we know we should have won, we just didn’t pull it off. Whatever the case may be, we should be a lot better.”
With 62 games remaining, there’s still plenty of time for that to happen.
“Everybody’s been on the same page so far,” he said, “and that’s how we’ve got to keep it.”
And hope it translates into more W's than L's. After all, 10-10 is as equally good and bad as it gets. It’s mediocre. The definition of a C grade, isn’t it?
Professor Corbin was hesitant to put a letter grade on the Jazz through the first quarter.
“To say that we’re A, B or C I would say that we’re growing and we’re growing in the right ways on both ends of the floor,” he said. “I don’t want to put a grade on that just yet.”
Williams was willing to cut his new team some slack.
“We’re still in the top eight in the West, so obviously you’re in a pretty good position,” he said. “So, I’d say B- maybe.”
When your hopes are at the A level, that’s certainly underachieving but OK.
"First thing, you have to be in the picture, and we’re in the picture now," Corbin said. "Now we’re trying to jockey (for position) and see how high and where you finish in those top eight teams."