This early, the Utah Jazz are surprising cage fans all over the world by leading the NBA’s highly-competitive Western Conference with a 10-win, 3-loss slate despite a major revamp in last year’s star-studded team roster.
Having failed to reach the 3rd round of the playoffs in the past years, the Jazz had sent their top players packing right before the start of the season. Bundled out were all-star defensive specialist Rudy Gobert (traded to the Minnesota Timberwolves for Malik Beasley, Jarred Vanderbilt, Patrick Beverley, Leandro Bolmaro, Walker Kessler, 4 first round picks plus a pick-swap); offensive scoring machine and hometown favorite Donovan Mitchell (traded to the Cleveland Cavaliers for Lauri Markkanen, Colin Sexton, Ochai Agbaji, 3 first round picks and 2 pick-swaps); sweet-shooter Bojan Bogdanovic (traded to the Detroit Pistons for Kelly Olynyk, Saben Lee and cash), Royce O’Neal (traded to the Brooklyn Nets for a 2023 draft pick). Dispatched earlier was Joe Ingles, their dependable 6th man (traded to the Portland Trailblazers for Nick Walker). Gone too was coach Quinn Snyder, who had led the Jazz to the playoffs every year since 2016.
With 4 of last year’s 5 starters out, and with no elite stars and go-to guys in the roster, everyone saw the team obviously taking the ‘rebuild’ mode this year. Danny Ainge, Utah’s shrewd CEO for Basketball Operations, engineered the mass eviction of its 2021 roster after the failed playoff campaigns in the past years. Many believed that Ainge would most likely resort to ‘tanking’ to bring in fresh faces from the draft.
But, hell, no.
Just when other guys had given up on the Jazz this season, a new coach arrived in town who had other ideas in mind. Thirty-four year old Will Hardy, the youngest coach in the NBA today, came in with so much positivity and with no plans of tanking whatsoever.
Hardy had honed his skills as an assistant to Coach Greg Popovich in San Antonio, before joining Coach Ime Udoka last year in Boston. Hardy was the de facto associate head coach of the Boston Celtics, second only to Udoka, and he played a major role in the Celtics’ surprising Finals run last year. Hardy was Ainge’s personal choice to lead the team’s ‘Reboot’ Camp as they prepared for the season at hand. Hardy’s coaching pedigree comes from a lineage that emphasizes such basics as proper conditioning, culture development and accountability. Thus, the players were not surprised when Hardy had everyone take conditioning drills at the start of pre-season practice sessions.
These drills were, of course, extremely hard for the veterans. Perhaps it was providential that there were no name-players in the line-up, as there was no one to question the coach’s decision for everyone to take the conditioning drills. But the drills made sure the team was in shape at the starting gate. And the hard scrimmages developed the camaraderie and teamwork inside the court. These essential sweat-it-out activities, the hard work, the aches and pains, all these would draw positive results, with the team producing outstanding statistical numbers at the start of the season: 1st in 3-Points Made (3PM), 2nd in Offensive Rating, 2nd in Bench Scoring, 2nd in Points Per Game (PPG), 4th in Steals and 5th in Assists. The Jazz would have the rare distinction of being in the Top 10 in both the offensive and defensive ratings.
The Jazz are in shape and are fun to watch. They defend hard, they box out doggedly, they move the ball, they look for the open man, they make the extra pass, and most importantly, they cheer for each other. Each one plays better knowing that they all have the trust and confidence of each other. And everyone has been delivering. From the starters to the bench. It’s always a mystery -and a pleasant surprise – who would be stepping up each and every game.
The biggest beneficiary to this is Finnish star, Lauri Markkanen. Markkanen played an average of 30.8 minutes last year for the Cavs, with an output of 14.8 pts, 5.7 rebounds and 1.3 assists per game. This year, though a small sample size with just 13 games, he is averaging 33.1 minutes, with a 22.7 points, 8.8 rebounds and 2.5 assists per game average, a huge jump from his stats last year. With these figures, he is making a strong case for the All-Star Games, and is an early candidate for Most Improved Player.
Also showing marked improvement is Jordan Clarkson, who had taken the 6th Man of the Year Award a few years back. Clarkson’s usage last year averaged 27.1 minutes, with 16.0 pts, 3.5 rebounds and 2.5 assists per game. This year, his numbers went north on all counts; 30.6 minutes, 18.6 points, 4.2 rebounds and 4.9 assists per game.
Utah’s players all have something to prove. Mike Conley (35 years) and Rudy Gay (36 years) want to prove they can still compete at the highest level. Jordan Clarkson, Lauri Markkanen and Colin Sexton want to show they can be more than just mid-level stars. Malik Beasley and Talen Horton Tucker want to prove that they are starter-material at the very least. Walker Kessler wants to be the best rim protector around. The rest of the players have chips on their shoulders as well. But they also understand their limitations, and hence, they know they need each other in order to succeed.
But can the team sustain its winning ways? With barely 13 games out of a full 82-game season schedule, it is difficult to say if the team has what it takes to continue winning. They are certainly a refreshing team to watch, and they love to run, space the floor, pass, provide help defense and more. They have a good balance of youth and experience; speed and skill; they have the stamina, the inside and outside game; they have a dynamic coach and coaching staff. But there are other aspects to factor in in order to sustain this drive; and these include injuries, trades, and team schedules.
What is clear is that teams have a tendency to relax at this early stage of the season. They will make experimental line-up options, try out new defensive alignments or match-ups, try new offensive patterns. Come the homestretch, defenses will tighten up, and the superstars will start to make their presence felt. If the new-look Utah Jazz have developed enough confidence in themselves by that time, then they should be able to match wits and bang bodies with the rest of them. If they still believe they will not be equal to the task, then perhaps trading for at least 1 elite star will do the team good. (At present, the team owns 14 first round picks from now to 2027.) If that doesn’t pan out, tanking will become a viable option. With a rich talent pool in the incoming draft, the Jazz will have a good chance of landing the likes of Victor Wembanyama, acknowledged as a generational talent that could change the landscape of the NBA in the near future. It’s decision time for Utah, and it will be better to make decisions now, than wait for the playoff struggles next year.
For a closer look, just click on the pics. Cover photo courtesy of: The Salt Lake Tribune. Other pics courtesy of: Forbes Magazine, The Salt Lake Tribune, SLC Dunk,KSL Sports, Deseret News, The San Diego Union-Tribune, Mavs Moneyball and Sports Illustrated.