It started when the Utah Jazz opened up the season with a shocking 4-1 record. When the Jazz were on the road, opposing team beat reporters, staffers, players, members of the coaching and front office staff of the opposing team would approach me and say things like:
“Well this has been interesting.”
“I bet this isn’t what you were expecting.”
Then the Jazz shocked everyone when they were atop the Western Conference with a 10-3 record and the remarks continued, but were more inquisitive about the future:
“Is this what tanking looks like?”
“Do you think this is sustainable?”
“What’s going on?”
“What are they going to do?”
My canned answer for everyone has been that yes, the Jazz’s start is unexpected, but I don’t know what’s going to happen, and that’s true. Here though, I hope to explain why the Jazz are in such a unique position and how every avenue has its pros and cons.
First of all, I fully expected for this Jazz team to be a tanking team. They traded away four starters, including Donovan Mitchell and Rudy Gobert, two decorated and incredible basketball players.
They also got rid of Bojan Bogdanovic, one of the most reliable and consistent players in the league, capable of dropping 40 on any given night, and Royce O’Neale, who, although he has his flaws, was on a team-friendly contract and has the kind of 3-and-D attributes that any team would like to have. And it was made abundantly clear through those trades that the Jazz were intentionally and successfully amassing draft picks.
It’s important to understand that this next part is my opinion. I do not think that the Jazz knew Lauri Markkanen was going to have the kind of breakout season that he’s had so far, looking like an All-Star through the first 16 games of the season. I do not think they knew that the roster they were putting together was going to work. I do not think that they thought they’d be this good.
I think that they knew they had a lot of good players, and I think that playing better than expected was a happy accident that at the very least would increase the value of some of the players that are not going to be a part of the future of this team. But a 10-3 start was more than anyone could have anticipated.
The Jazz did not send a front office contingent to Las Vegas to watch Victor Wembanyama take on Scoot Henderson because they like basketball. The players who are all but guaranteed to go No. 1 and 2 respectively in the 2023 draft are players that could be generational and completely change a team’s trajectory, and that’s interesting for any team that could find themselves at the top of the draft lottery, a place I believe the Jazz wanted to be.
Even after consecutive losses to the Washington Wizards, the Philadelphia 76ers and the New York Knicks, the 10-6 Jazz find themselves in a very interesting and precarious situation.
Remember over the summer, before Gobert or Mitchell were traded and ESPN’s Brian Windhorst gave us the meme that narrated the rest of the offseason? “What’s going on in Utah?” Windhorst asked.
That question and that meme are still hovering over this team, and here’s why:
Too good to tank
Had the Jazz made some more trades early in the season, had they been a little more average, the front office might have been able to massage things and force this roster into being a high lottery team. I mean, even the 2021-22 Washington Wizards, who started last season with a 10-3 record, plummeted to the 10th overall pick in the 2022 draft.
But again, the Jazz didn’t go see Wembanyama and Henderson with hopes of the 10th overall pick, and the 10th pick is not the one you tank for. It’s not the draft pick that you’re thinking is going to change the future of the team.
It kind of doesn’t matter though. The way I see it, this Jazz team is no longer in the race for Wembanyama. They’re too good, and these players have too much confidence.
In order to be one of the three worst teams in the league, and ensure the best odds at getting the No. 1 overall pick (14% chance), the Jazz would need to lose roughly 61 games. That means they would need to go 11-56 for the rest of the season.
If any of you have watched this team lately, you’d probably agree that it would be really difficult for them to not win at least 15 more games, and that would take them completely out of the running for a top-five pick. They would have to absolutely torpedo and plummet in order to be one of the three worst teams in the league and get the best lottery odds.
It would mean trading away not only Jordan Clarkson and Mike Conley, but also maybe Jarred Vanderbilt and Kelly Olynyk. Even then, the way that Markkanen is playing, he might accidentally win 15 games against some of the worst teams in the league.
Let’s look at this from another angle. Let’s just look at the Western Conference. This Jazz team is objectively better than the Houston Rockets, the Oklahoma City Thunder, the Los Angeles Lakers and the San Antonio Spurs. Unless the Jazz finish worse than those teams, they are at the very worst, headed for the Play-In Tournament.
Frankly, the Jazz front office did too good of job this offseason and the players have bought in so well to what Will Hardy has asked of them that this is not a team that can be made to lose games unless you absolutely change who is on the team.
Not good enough to last in the playoffs
This Jazz team is good and they are fun and they are chaotic and feisty and about a hundred other adjectives that are positive, but they are not built for a deep playoff run.
The most recent losses exposed how much the Jazz are going to have a problem dealing with premier players that are strong, physical and big. Joel Embiid and Kristaps Porzingis put the Jazz into a lot of bad positions.
And while this Jazz team has a lot of NBA experience on the roster and that is serving them well in the regular season, a lot of that has been built on the unselfish nature of the game this team plays. The playoffs, though, are a different beast, and they almost always require the great teams to have a player that they can turn to, who will take over the game and can shine under the brightest lights.
That’s not to say that it has never been done with a team who doesn’t have a bona fide superstar, but it’s incredibly rare and that’s not what was in mind when this roster was built. So what options are available to the Jazz to get better and prepare for a potential playoff run?
Flip some assets for a star?
The Jazz have the draft picks and some appealing young players that could be used to go out and make a deal for a star, the kind of star who could put a team on his back in the playoffs. But there are some major hurdles that would come with a deal of that magnitude.
No matter the player, the Jazz would almost certainly have to deal away Conley in order to match any large contract incoming, and though Conley is on the tail end of his career, he has been magnificent for this Jazz team and a huge part of what they have built.
It really can’t be overstated how important Conley has been on and off the floor for the development of what we’ve seen in these early days under Hardy. And to that point, we have to ask the question, would the chemistry of this Jazz team be too upset by any big deal that the team could make?
I think that the answer is yes. Adding a star to this team would completely change the vibe, it would change the offense, it would change the way this team operates at every level, and at this point, I don’t know if that’s a good thing.
If the Jazz make a big deal and get a star and they have to get rid of Conley and possibly some other young players along with multiple draft picks, and it all falls apart, then all of the maneuvering over the past few months was for nothing. They’d be without Mitchell and Gobert, they wouldn’t have a chance at Wembanyama, and they’d once again fall short.
Also, the fan base has already found a way to enjoy this sort of mishmash team of NBA role players. They’re having fun with this team. I don’t think they’d be OK if a big move was made and it failed to take the Jazz to the top.
What’s going on in Utah?
Danny Ainge and Justin Zanik have said numerous times that they are looking at things not just for right now but for the future. They’re taking the long view with this rebuild, and I think that the best route forward with that in mind is to just ride this season out and see how much you can get done with the team, as constructed.
If they are able to make the playoffs and make a little noise, at the very least we’ll be able to see what shortcomings are the most necessary to address, and the Jazz would have a whole year of data to work with.
There’s no reason to overreact to anything. This team came into the year with absolutely no expectations, and they’ve already exceeded those. Rather than shake things up, I see no reason why they can’t just ride it out and really see what is sustainable.
So maybe the answer to the question, “What’s going on in Utah?” is, nothing. At least, not yet.