The Utah Jazz had a chance on Tuesday night to move squarely into the playoff race in the Western Conference. If the Jazz had beat the Spurs they would have had a win percentage tied with the Golden State Warriors and Dallas Mavericks, who are in sixth and seventh in the West, respectively.
Instead, the Jazz closed out the night with a 102-94 loss to the Spurs and now sit at ninth in the Western Conference.
It should not come as a surprise that the Jazz coaches and players are not all that interested in the Western Conference standings. As much as the players want to win and will try to do so every night, they also are not stupid and they see how the front office has positioned the team heading into the home stretch of the season.
If the Jazz were going to try and make a legitimate playoff push, they wouldn’t have traded away their starting point guard and best game manager (Mike Conley) along with three other rotational players so that they can turn around and play two-way contract players and guys on 10-day deals.
Like it or not, this Jazz front office is more than OK with giving Will Hardy a roster that’s not going to light up a box score. And although Hardy is certainly wanting to teach winning habits to the players that will be a part of the Jazz’s future, it seemed that he played along with the directives from the top on Tuesday — playing Udoka Azubuike over Damian Jones and Johnny Juzang over Juan Toscano-Anderson.
The Jazz’s tanking measures are certainly being helped out by injuries to Jordan Clarkson and Collin Sexton, which the Jazz can be ultra cautious with (wink, wink). But they’re going to come up against a whole different type of beast this week.
The Jazz are heading out for their longest road trip of the season, which starts with two consecutive games in Oklahoma City, where the Thunder have made tanking an art form.
Now, before we go any further, it’s important to make a couple of things clear. First, the Jazz are never going to come right out and say that they are tanking or that they want to tank or that they’re thinking about possibly tanking, because the league would not react kindly to that kind of a public statement.
They will absolutely say things like, “We’re going to do our best to give the team the best chance in the future,” or “Even if it hurts us now, we’re going to make decisions that are better in the long run.”
That’s code for tanking.
Also, it’s important to know the difference between trying to lose and not doing the most to win, because I think Hardy falls into that second category. I don’t think he’s coaching games with losses on the mind.
I actually think he’s coaching to win games. But, you’re not doing the most you can to win if you are playing Juzang for 15 minutes in his very first NBA game. There were others that could have filled in for those minutes.
When the Spurs come to town on a 16-game losing streak, and the Jazz ended up on the losing end of a February matchup in which some interesting rotation decisions were made, it made me think back to Nov. 30.
The Jazz had been on a five-game losing streak and Hardy, as well as the players, was itching for a win. Hardy was not about to let the team lose, which meant playing his starters really heavy minutes, including nearly 40 minutes for Jordan Clarkson.
From that night’s story:
Hardy said that midway through the fourth quarter Sexton asked for a sub, which Hardy denied. Instead, his message to the team was to use timeouts wisely, take a breath, drink water, and get ready because they’re not coming out of the game.
I was like ‘Coach, I need a quick sub,’ and he was just like, ‘You’re not tired. You’re not tired. I’m gonna just walk away so better catch your breath,’ Sexton said.
That’s what it looks like when Hardy is coaching and doing the most to win. That’s not exactly what we saw Tuesday night against the Spurs.
So, now the Jazz will face Oklahoma City twice in games that could be decided by who is willing to tank harder.
These two games against the Thunder could show us the level of commitment the Jazz have to improving their draft position this summer. But, like I said, the Thunder are incredible at tanking, so the Jazz are either going to have to be OK with winning, or their really going to have to bring their tanking A-game.