There are several ways in which a team can experience a season from hell.
The most common one being among the worst teams in the league. Losing pretty much night in and night out for 82 games a season is never a fun ride for anyone. The one solace to all of that? If you lose that many games in a season, it’s probably because you weren’t expected to win coming into the season. You can’t really disappoint when not much was expected of you to begin with. That’s the one solace to take for New York Knicks fans.
Another interpretation is when the injury bug ruins the season. It’s tough to watch a team that had the potential to be something special only to be ruined by battle wounds. There is a solace to all of that as well. As bad as things may be, the one comfort is that with past success, things were supposed to be better but, through no one’s wrongdoing, it just hasn’t. That’s the one upside to being a Portland Trail Blazers fan.
However, the worst variation of the season from hell is when a team that came into the season swimming in championship aspirations don’t look one bit like the team they were supposed to be. Why is this one the worst? Because there is no upside. Disappointment may have been a possibility, but the odds were very low, and even if it was in play, it wasn’t supposed to be to that degree. Maybe some injuries have come along, but even when the team’s healthy, it’s not making much of a difference regardless.
It isn’t a pleasant experience, and it makes the season seem much longer than it is. The worst part is that the potential was there. They just couldn’t reach it. Several teams over this past decade alone have endured through their own season from hell. The 2012-13 Los Angeles Lakers. The 2015-16 Houston Rockets. The 2017-18 Washington Wizards. The 2018-19 Boston Celtics. It’s rare to see one team go through something like this in a season.
In the 2019-20 season, we have two: The Philadelphia 76ers and the Utah Jazz.
The Sixers and the Jazz have nearly identical records — but Utah has one less loss at 37-22. They are both in the thick of the playoff race in both of their respective conferences. Moreover, both had two players from their roster representing the franchise during the All-Star Game in Chicago, as they should have. Yet, there seems to not be much surrounding either team besides pure melancholy.
How did this happen? For Philly, it’s a little explainable because the warning signs were there. JJ Redick alone did so much because of the spacing he provided, but he departed for New Orleans. Jimmy Butler gave the 76ers a cushion with his go-to scoring when Joel Embiid and Ben Simmons didn’t have it going and, he too, left.
The prevailing theory was that Philadelphia still had Embiid and Simmons – two of the league’s best players 25 and under – so, even with those departures, as long as they had the right support system around them, the team would only continue to grow. Tobias Harris, Josh Richardson and Al Horford among others are stellar supporting options as well.
And that’s the problem. They’re just not the right ones. The pieces just don’t fit together. Both Harris and Richardson have been productive in their roles, but they haven’t been able to replicate the same outputs they had with their previous teams. Horford has been a flat-out disaster as the fit with Embiid has not been good — much of that attributed to the former’s physical decline. The two have a net rating of minus-1.1 when they share the court – so the handsomely-paid Horford has been relegated to a bench role.
The idea that the 76ers might be better off trading one of Embiid or Simmons has picked up a fair amount of steam. Their two-man net rating isn’t exactly great – sharing a net rating os plus-0.9 – and with the floor spacing not as good as it once was – Philadelphia is 19th in the NBA in three-point field goal percentage – teams are exploiting the lack of shooting that Embiid and Simmons provide.
What baffles is that the 76ers have the look of a contender at home, having gone 28-2 – a better home record than the Milwaukee Bucks – while simultaneously looking awful on the road, winning only nine of 30 games.
It hasn’t been all bad. Matisse Thybulle has been as good as advertised defensively while proving himself to be a much better shooter than we thought, hitting on 36 percent from distance. Furkan Korkmaz has also come alive as a floor spacer. Even Simmons, who still has yet to prove that he can actually shoot a basketball, has improved his individual defense enough that he is very much in the running for a spot on an All-Defense roster.
But that shouldn’t be the biggest positives coming out of Philadelphia. This was supposed to be the year they took the next step. Instead, they’re on a 50-win pace. That wouldn’t be so bad seeing how they won 51 games last year, but staying the same when you were supposed to be in the title conversation is not a good sign.
The same can be said about the Jazz.
They too were expected to take a bigger leap this season, which, in all fairness is harder in the Western Conference, but they’re on pace to win 50 as well — a total that would match their wins mark from last season.
For the Jazz, it’s a little stranger to see this result from them. It’s true that they lost some key culture-forming pieces like Derrick Favors, Ricky Rubio and Jae Crowder, but it was clear that the team’s ceiling with those guys next to Donovan Mitchell and Rudy Gobert was limited — especially on the offensive end.
More importantly, they replaced them with excellently-perceived locker room guys that should’ve upgraded the roster as far as talent went. No one took issue with them bringing in Mike Conley Jr., Bojan Bogdanovic and Ed Davis among others. In fact, the common belief was that the Jazz would be a sleeper in the conference because their roster makeup had little holes.
But alas, it hasn’t been that way. Not at all.
Utah’s offense certainly has improved – they rank 10th in offensive rating scoring 112.1 points per 100 possessions – but the airtight defense that Salt Lake once prided themselves on has fallen out of the top ten. They currently rank 12th in defensive rating by allowing 109.2 points per 100 possessions.
The improvement on the offensive end stems unsurprisingly from Mitchell’s growth – 24.7 points on 46/36/86 splits – and the vastly improved three-point shooting, topping the league in percentage at 38.2. Not to mention, Jordan Clarkson has been freaking awesome for them – where would they be right now if they hadn’t traded for him? Still, they remain the same because defensively, they’ve taken a step back.
Bogdanovic has not helped Utah’s cause on that side of the ball, and because the Davis signing has flopped so badly, Utah’s interior defense suffers when Gobert goes out despite Tony Bradley’s best efforts. It might be safe to say that enough credit wasn’t given to Rubio, Favors and Crowder for what they did on that end. Just as it might be safe to say with his struggles and all, Utah acquired Conley at the wrong time.
It’s made Utah not as enjoyable to watch, too, and that’s why their season from hell has been so odd. This Jazz team competed in the conference for the last two years because they rose above their collective talent. The cohesion and sense of togetherness made them both fun to watch and easy to root for. Now, it’s not just that their progress has stagnated. The body language looks… different.
— Thisguy (@cheehooMF) February 25, 2020
Of course, that’s just one instance — but that chip on their shoulder just doesn’t seem to be there anymore. The Jazz will still make the playoffs pending any serious injury to Mitchell or Gobert, alas, their hopes of going on a long playoff run are fizzling as fast as the 76ers’ have.
If this really is where both seasons are headed, they then have to think about what their next move might be when it all ends. After 2013, the Lakers spent a lot of time picking up the pieces post-Dwight Howard. Following 2016, the Rockets re-tooled and built a better core around James Harden.
They say it’s not over until the fat lady sings and although she hasn’t done that for Philadelphia or Utah quite yet — she sure has been whistling for a bit now.