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The Jazz: If at first you don’t fail, try, try again

In a rebuilding season, one with an eye on the future and some coveted draft prospects, the Jazz are playing surprisingly well

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Utah Jazz guard Jordan Clarkson celebrates team’s win over Houston Rockets at Vivint Arena in Salt Lake City, Oct. 26, 2022.

Utah Jazz guard Jordan Clarkson celebrates the team’s win over the Houston Rockets at Vivint Arena in Salt Lake City on Wednesday, Oct. 26, 2022. The rebuilding Jazz are off to a shockingly successful start. Maybe even too successful?

Spenser Heaps, Deseret News

Wait a minute. What’s going on here? The Utah Jazz have four wins and only one loss? Are you kidding? Danny Ainge burns the roster right down to the ground and they win four of their first five games.

What’s a guy gotta do to tank?!

Order the team to shoot left-handed?

Start only four players?

Host the pregame meal at Chuck-A-Rama — an hour before tipoff?

The Jazz can’t lose when they try to lose.

They beat Denver, one of the best teams in the West, in their season opener. They claimed overtime wins on the road against Minnesota and New Orleans. They finally cooperated and lost by six to Houston on the road, but two nights later the played Houston again and won.

Four and one?

You can’t lose ’em all, Ainge might shrug.

If at first you don’t fail, try, try again.

The Jazz didn’t get the message. That message, roughly translated, is this: Lose.

Ainge’s M.O. is collecting draft picks. He collects draft picks the way kids collect trading cards. As every Jazz fan knows, Ainge, who became team president a year ago, has gutted the team. He traded away their best players, Bojan Bogdanovic, Donovan Mitchell, Rudy Gobert, Royce O’Neale, and, last season, Joe Ingles, in exchange for a few veteran players, and 11 first-round picks (including three swaps) spread out over seven years.

He’d like to claim a lottery pick for the next draft, but to do that the Jazz would have to be among the 14 teams that fail to make the playoffs. The teams with the three worst records in the league are given even better odds of winning than the other nonplayoff teams. All of which encourages tanking — trying to lose to get a higher draft pick.

The Philadelphia 76ers famously made tanking an art form for three seasons, beginning in 2013-14. They didn’t even try to hide their intentions. Sam Hinkie, the team’s general manager at the time, called it “The Process.” He dumped the team’s best players and refused to sign anyone who might, you know, win.

They were spectacularly bad. They won fewer than 20 games (out of 82) three consecutive seasons — and compiled a combined record of, ta-dum!, 47-199. At one point they lost an NBA record 28 consecutive games spanning two seasons. During the 2015-16 season, they finished with a spectacularly bad 10-72 record — a 12.2 winning percentage. TV ratings and attendance tanked too — to among the lowest in the league — costing everybody money.

The result of all this tanking led to the drafting of Joel Embiid (No. 3 overall in 2014) and Ben Simmons (No. 1 overall in the 2016). In Year 4 of The Process, the 76ers began to climb out of the cellar. They were 28-54. They made the playoffs the next five seasons. It should be noted that they have never advanced past the conference semifinals, which makes you wonder if the tanking was worth it. Since then, Simmons has pouted his way into being traded.

NBA owners complained to NBA commissioner Adam Silver about The Process. Adrian Wojnarowski of ESPN said on his podcast that the 76ers’ blatant tanking “spooked the league” and led to the addition of a play-in game in the playoffs (beginning in 2019-20) to motivate more teams to play honestly in pursuit of a playoff spot. But as long as the NBA rewards losing teams with greater odds in securing a high draft pick, the tanking problem will continue.

Which leads us back to Ainge. He hasn’t called it tanking or “The Process,” but if it walks like a duck and quacks like a duck … it’s a duck. Ainge’s scorched-earth policy with the Jazz roster seemed to guarantee the Jazz would lose. It hasn’t panned out so far. Not even with a lineup of Mike Mike Conley, Jordan Clarkson, Lauri Markkanen, Jarred Vanderbilt and Kelly Olynyk. The latter three played for other teams last season and two of them made exactly one start apiece for those teams last year.

Everyone wrote them off — Las Vegas oddsmakers gave them 1,000-1 odds of winning the title — so maybe that has motivated them. They even have a little fight in them. They trailed the Timberwolves — whose center is Gobert — by 17 points and rallied for the win.

The Jazz just have to keep un-trying and un-trying. Maybe Winston Churchill was thinking of tanking when he said, “Success is stumbling from failure to failure with no loss of enthusiasm.”

“Onward and downward!” said C.S. Lewis.

Or something like that.


Utah Jazz general manager Justin Zanik and Jazz CEO Danny Ainge laugh during a press conference at the Zions Bank Basketball Campus in Salt Lake City on Monday, Sept. 12, 2022.

Scott G Winterton, Deseret News