The Utah Jazz need a regroup after a lopsided road trip

PHILADELPHIA -- Before the Utah Jazz played the final game of what can only be described as an abysmal road trip against the Philadelphia 76ers, coach Quin Snyder was asked about his team's uneven start to this season.

"Oftentimes," Snyder said, "growth is not linear."

If the Jazz are going to meet their lofty preseason expectations, they'll certainly hope he's right.

There hasn't been growth lately -- only regression. The Jazz -- fresh off Sunday's 130-110 loss to the Toronto Raptors in which they trailed by 40 at halftime -- lost 103-94 to the Sixers at Wells Fargo Center on Monday night. They trailed by as many as 26 in the first half before a late comeback made that final score far more charitable than Utah deserved.

The loss dropped the Jazz to 12-9 on the season and 1-4 on this five-game road trip, one that saw the Jazz beaten handily three times, and took a 15-point comeback to beat the lowly Memphis Grizzlies to earn their lone win. A team that was touted by many to be a championship contender still looks like it is searching for its identity.

"I think we lacked communication in transition defense and all their guys got going," Jazz center Rudy Gobert said.

"It was a big party out there for them."

In the two seasons since Gordon Hayward left for the Boston Celtics as a free agent, the Jazz have been built in a specific way: with a starting lineup featuring Ricky Rubio and Donovan Mitchell in the backcourt and Joe Ingles, Derrick Favors and Gobert in the frontcourt. What that group, particularly Rubio and Favors, lacked offensively, it made up for by being one of the league's stingiest defenses.

That formula led to a lot of regular-season wins -- and to the Jazz finishing first and second in defense, respectively, the past two seasons. But it also led to a pair of lopsided losses to the Houston Rockets in the playoffs, who took advantage of those offensive weak links.

Following the two early exits, the Jazz made a pair of all-in moves to try to make that final step as a franchise: signing Bojan Bogdanovic as a free agent and trading for Mike Conley.

Bogdanovic has been as advertised, scoring 20.9 points per game and shooting almost 45 percent from 3-point range. On the other hand, Conley has struggled mightily to adjust to playing somewhere besides Memphis for the first time in his NBA career, shooting a career-low 36.9 percent from the field. And while the Jazz have stumbled out of the gate, they find themselves ranking 11th in the NBA in defensive efficiency and only 23rd in offense.

Rather than be an offensive upgrade over Rubio, to this point Conley has essentially been a replica of who he was replacing -- something both he, and the Jazz, are confident will change.

"It's not a matter of making shots or not making shots. That's not the issues for me, especially early on," said Conley, who is following up a career-high 21.1 points per game last season by averaging only 13.9 points per game this season. "It's being comfortable and knowing when to be aggressive, and how I can be effective with the lineup that we have.

"I'm so used to having the ball in my hands, so it's an adjustment."

Utah's struggles, though, aren't confined to Conley's up-and-down start. Ingles, who is coming off the bench regularly for the first time in three years as Royce O'Neale has replaced him in Utah's starting lineup, hasn't looked good for most of the season.

Some of that can likely be attributed to the loss of Favors, who would often serve as a pick-and-roll partner with Ingles when Gobert wasn't on the court. Instead, Utah now has free-agent signing Ed Davis, who isn't a threat in those situations and has been hurt most of the year, and young big Tony Bradley behind Gobert.

It was no coincidence that Ingles had one of his best games of the season Monday night -- 13 points, eight rebounds and eight assists in 30 minutes -- while playing extended time with Gobert.

That's something Utah may have to consider doing more of in order to try to get Ingles, who they are counting on to carry their second unit, going on a more consistent basis.

"There's a connection with those guys, there's no question about it," Snyder said. "That had a lot to do with their execution. But they found that during the course of the game.

"That's the thing about our games right now. We have to use the games to get better, particularly when you're in back-to-backs and you're on the road and you're not practicing. Those are things that we can turn to and try to keep going."

It'll take more than that, though. Mitchell went 6-for-19 Monday night, too often taking the kind of difficult, contested shots that the new additions to Utah's arsenal were supposed to render obsolete. The Jazz were outscored by 21 points while Jeff Green was on the floor; Green is shooting a career-worst 37.7 percent from the field this season. Snyder tried Dante Exum in the first half as his backup guard, and Emmanuel Mudiay in the second, but neither was effective.

Early-season struggles aren't uncommon in Utah. The Jazz have had a front-loaded schedule in recent seasons, only to take off as the season progresses and the opponents become easier. This season is no different. According to ESPN's BPI, the Jazz have played the sixth-toughest schedule thus far, and they have the fifth-easiest remaining slate.

"For me, it's important for our team too to learn from games," Snyder said. "Not to ignore bad games, by any means, but what can you do with it. I think that mindset if you keep working this team is different than the teams we have had. There is enthusiasm about that."

There may be enthusiasm, but right now there isn't the success the Jazz would like. Changing that will require the Jazz to get back to the things that made them what they were before this summer's overhaul -- an elite defensive team and not the slightly above average unit that is struggling to compensate for a currently bad, underachieving offense.

"I think for us, we've got to understand we are a defensive-minded team," Gobert, the two-time reigning NBA Defensive Player of the Year said. "We've got to come out with that same mindset every night. Obviously we added some offensive talent this year, but the offense isn't always going to be good.

"The offense is going to get better, but the defense has to be there every night."