Utah Jazz CEO of basketball operations Danny Ainge can’t be happy.
After two blockbuster trades and several smaller ones landed the Jazz a boatload of picks and journeyman veterans, Utah was widely expected to be at the forefront of the race for generational prospect Victor Wembanyama, the presumed first overall pick in the draft.
Instead, Utah jumped out to a 3-0 start against a very tough schedule before falling to the Houston Rockets Monday night, a loss that seemed predestined on a back-to-back after two straight overtime games in the days prior. They are ninth in net rating, 12th in offense, and 16th in defense — not mindblowing numbers, but considering they’ve played against the Nuggets, Timberwolves, and Pelicans, pretty dang good!
So what’s going on? Utah has a strange mishmash of shoot-first guards and journeyman bigs without rim-protection skills (except rookie Walker Kessler — more on him later). They don’t have a traditional small forward in the rotation. But put it all together, and it seems to be working…somehow.
Let’s start with the positives. Coach Will Hardy has already shown incredible creativity with lineups and a willingness to experiment with non-traditional positions. One thing I didn’t appreciate before the season started was just how mammoth the Jazz would be.
Hardy has routinely put out lineups featuring three of the Jazz’s four big men: Finnish bomber Lauri Markkanen, wily vet Kelly Olynyk, rookie shotblocker Walker Kessler, and Jarred “V8” Vanderbilt, who spends more time diving for loose balls than he does standing upright. Markkanen and Olynyk can both bring the ball up and stroke from deep, so it’s possible to play them with the more offensively limited Kessler and Vanderbilt in funky combinations that don’t sacrifice much scoring potential. Hardy has also tried super-small groupings, like last night in Houston, when he used the 6’9” Vanderbilt at center to combat Houston’s faster, smaller personnel.
The unusual lineups are all about getting Utah’s best players on the floor together regardless of preconcevied “fit” notions, and it all starts with Markkanen. Injuries derailed a promising start to his career in Chicago, and despite holding up well playing as an oversized small forward in Cleveland last year, Markkanen wasn’t met in Utah with as much fanfare as his teammate Collin Sexton. An offseason stint terrorizing other countries in the Eurobasket tournament for Finland apparently unlocked Markkanen’s omega form, and he has carried his confidence with him back across the Atlantic.
Hardy has used Markkanen in new and fun ways all over the floor. He can screen on- or off-ball, shoot from deep, take big men off the dribble, hit turnaround fadeaways, or brutalize smaller players in the post with an ambidextrous hook shot. I’m in love with this simple but fun play where point guard Mike Conley passes to Kelly Olynyk before setting a deeeeeeep screen for Markkanen for an easy layup:
Awesome! The two players not directly involved do an off-ball screen/swap to occupy their defenders, freeing up Conley and Markkanen to perform their dance. I’m a sucker for little guys setting picks to free up their bigs, and Conley is one of the best in the business.
If that’s not sexy enough for you, Markkanen can also fly through the air and yam on defenders at any time:
That’s just a casual dunk on 17-time Defensive Player of the Year Rudy Gobert, who realized the error of his ways too late to avoid disintegration. It seems unfair that a seven-foot-tall player can jump that high.
Another way Hardy has gone against expectations: starting former Sixth Man of the Year Jordan Clarkson and relegating newly-acquired guard Collin Sexton to the bench (where he’s only playing 18.5 minutes per game!). Jordan’s already started more games this season (four) than he has since he was on the 2016-2017 Lakers, who finished 14th in the Western Conference. I was skeptical about this decision, but Clarkson is passing at career-best levels, showing an eye for nice dump-offs to sneaky cutters Markkanen and Vanderbilt:
Clarkson is averaging an eye-opening 5.3 assists per game, nearly two assists more than he has in any previous season.
In fact, passing as a whole has been key to the Jazz’s offensive success so far. They currently rank sixth in passes per game and third in assists per game, astonishing figures for a team mostly made up of finishers, not table-setters. Besides Clarkson, Markkanen, Vanderbilt, and Conley are all averaging career-highs in assists through these first four games.
The old Utah teams under Quin Snyder were heavily scripted, with far fewer passes. These Jazz play a more free-flowing game, and the ball is pinging around as players pass up decent shots for teammates’ good ones.
The Jazz as a team are shooting well from deep, although that’s mostly thanks to Olynyk canning 11 of 14 triples on the season. Many Jazz bombers have been icy to start the season. Conley, Clarkson, Beasley, and Markkanen could all improve as Olynyk cools off, so this shooting prowess could be sustainable.
Kelly Olynyk has long been one of the most underrated players in the league, a seven-footer capable of slick passes, deadeye shooting, and
flopping drawing enough charges to amount to something resembling defense.
Walker Kessler, a rookie acquired in the Gobert trade, looks every bit like his predecessor: a hulking giant with an uncanny sense of timing. He’s averaging 3.5 blocks per 36 minutes, a mammoth number. He has no fear of challenging elite dunkers, either: he’s already notched his pistol with Rudy Gobert, Anthony Edwards, and Zion Williamson:
(One thing to watch — Kessler is already clapping his hands and sighing heavily as he gets ignored on the offensive end, a sight Jazz fans are more than familiar with. Welcome to the NBA, rookie!)
There are signs that the Jazz are punching above their weight class, however. Despite Utah’s large lineups, only Kessler can defend the paint well, and the Jazz are giving up the second-highest percentage of shots at the rim.
Conversely, they are giving up the fewest three-pointers and have gotten lucky on those attempts that are flung up; opponents are shooting a paltry 30.7% on deep balls. Three-point percentage is usually more a matter of fortune than defensive skill, and as that rises, the Jazz’s defense could suffer.
Utah’s offense and defense mirror each other in important ways. They are horrendous at defensive rebounding and taking care of the ball but terrific at offensive rebounding and causing turnovers. This particular combination creates a wild, intensely watchable on-court product filled with highlights and back-and-forth action. I deeply apologize for putting Utah 29th in my League Pass rankings; that was a mistake, even if I did bake in an expectation for trades that could still happen.
Which brings us to the next point: what is this team’s ceiling, and what will Ainge do about it?
I’m saddened to say that it’s tough to see the Jazz keeping this run going for too long. The West is too talented, and for all their depth and superb coaching, the Jazz don’t have a bonafide star yet (sorry, Markkanen). Some of the underlying metrics suggest that it’s likelier than not that the Jazz will return to Earth, and don’t forget that two of their wins came in overtime — if one or both had gone the other way, we likely wouldn’t be having this conversation at all.
But those three wins are already banked, indicative of a scrappy team that should be fighting for the play-in. Coach Will Hardy has proven adept at moving the pieces around to put his guys in advantageous situations, and many players are proving themselves to be more versatile than expected (heck, even 26-year-old rookie Simone Fontecchio showed out in his minutes against Houston, nailing three triples). At the least, it’s clear that this squad won’t be a bottom-four team in the league, as widely expected. Is that a good thing?
Despite all the draft picks they’ve accumulated, the Jazz’s best bet at winning the lottery remains their own selection. It seems unlikely that Ainge will be content to let the Jazz scrape their way to the 10-seed. Markkanen, at just 25, is young enough that he could be worth holding onto, but Clarkson, sniper Malik Beasley, and Conley (among others) seem destined for foreign ports sooner rather than later, which would have the side effect of freeing up playing time for poor Collin Sexton. (Beasley and Conley need to remember how to shoot to boost their value, however.)
I’m not sure that the Jazz’s endgame is vastly different than what we expected entering the season. They still want to chase the ping-pong balls. But I was definitely wrong about one thing. The Utah Jazz are fun as hell to watch.
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