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Five Reasons to Believe and Not Believe in the Utah Jazz

So much for that tank job! After trading three key players, Utah is still one of the best teams in the West. But how likely is it that the Jazz’s early success will continue?

Getty Images/Ringer illustration

The Utah Jazz have lost three games in a row. That streak wouldn’t have shocked anyone before the season, coming off a summer in which the Jazz traded Donovan Mitchell and Rudy Gobert to become the least all-in team in the NBA. Yet a month into the 2022-23 season, Utah has been anything but the tank-race leader many expected them to be.

The Jazz were the first team to 10 wins, and their 10-6 record places them fourth in the Western Conference—ahead of Mitchell’s Cavaliers and Gobert’s Timberwolves in the overall league standings.

While several other prospective tanking teams, like the Thunder, Spurs, and Pacers, have been more competitive than anticipated in the early going, nobody has exceeded expectations like the Jazz. The team’s Vegas over/under before the season was just 23.5 wins, which converts to 4.6 expected wins out of 16 games. So Utah, with 10 wins, has overperformed by 5.4—by far the largest margin for any team this season.

Biggest Early-Season Overachievers vs. Vegas Projections

Team Expected Wins Actual Wins Difference
Team Expected Wins Actual Wins Difference
Jazz 4.6 10 +5.4
Trail Blazers 6.7 10 +3.3
Pacers 3.6 6 +2.4
Thunder 4.0 6 +2.0
Wizards 6.1 8 +1.9
Spurs 4.1 6 +1.9

Utah’s overperformance versus its Vegas projection is one of the highest this century. And it may not be a small-sample fluke: Every other team since 2000 that was at least five wins ahead of its expected pace through 16 games finished with a winning record.

Biggest Overachievers Through 16 Games This Century

Team Expected Wins So Far Actual Wins Difference Final Record, Result
Team Expected Wins So Far Actual Wins Difference Final Record, Result
2005 SuperSonics 6.7 13 +6.3 52-30, second round
2003 Pacers 8.4 14 +5.6 48-34, first round
2014 Trail Blazers 7.5 13 +5.5 54-28, second round
2023 Jazz 4.6 10 +5.4 ???
2007 Jazz 7.6 13 +5.4 51-31, conference finals
2000 SuperSonics 6.7 12 +5.3 45-37, first round
2010 Suns 7.9 13 +5.1 54-28, conference finals
2002 Pistons 6.0 11 +5.0 50-32, second round
2004 Jazz 5.0 10 +5.0 42-40, no playoffs
2014 Suns 4.0 9 +5.0 48-34, no playoffs

Will the Jazz join all those other overachievers with a winning record and possible playoff run this season? Here are five reasons to believe the Jazz are for real, and five reasons not to.

Reasons to Believe

1. Their point differential matches their record.

Along with ranking fourth in the Western Conference standings, Utah is third in the West—and sixth in the whole NBA—in net rating. Compared to teams like the Trail Blazers, who lead the West standings despite a middling point differential, or the Wizards, who are 8-7 despite being outscored, the underlying numbers suggest the Jazz have more staying power.

Utah’s impressive net rating is also a meaningful indicator because of the point in the season we’re about to reach: I wrote last year that while a team’s preseason Vegas projection remains the best predictor of its rest-of-season record early on, its point differential becomes a better predictor after Game 18. This week, the Jazz play their 17th and 18th games of the season. (It takes until Game 25 for a team’s actual record to overtake its Vegas projection.)

2. They’re winning the 3-point battle.

Under erstwhile head coach Quin Snyder, the Jazz almost always excelled at limiting opponents’ 3-point opportunities, a strength that carried over to rookie head coach Will Hardy’s regime. Once again, the Jazz are allowing the fewest 3-point attempts, as a proportion of overall shots, of any defense in the league.

Meanwhile, they’re taking the sixth-most 3s as a proportion of overall shots and making them at a healthy 37 percent clip. All of which means that Utah is outscoring its opponents by 14 points per game from behind the 3-point line—the largest margin for any team.

3. The offense is still humming.

In their last season with the Mitchell-Gobert-Snyder core, the Jazz boasted the league’s best offense, with an established and effective system fine-tuned over years of practice and continuity. Yet even after losing their stars and Bojan Bogdanovic in offseason trades, the Jazz—thanks in part to all those 3-pointers—still rank sixth in offensive efficiency, at 114.3 points per 100 possessions.

As the Jazz continue to score at this level, they have to be included on any list of potential playoff teams. Last season, every team in the top six in offensive efficiency reached the playoffs. Ditto for 2020-21, and the season before that, and so on. The last team to rank in the top six in offensive efficiency and miss the postseason was the 2017-18 Nuggets. (A couple of those teams, like last season’s Hawks, needed to advance out of the play-in round to reach the playoffs.)

4. They have lots of creators.

Let’s dig into that new offensive system further. The Jazz no longer have anyone as dynamic on the ball as Mitchell—but they do have a coterie of creators, from starters Mike Conley and Jordan Clarkson to reserves Collin Sexton and Malik Beasley.

And even though all those players, save Conley, have score-first reputations, Utah’s ball movement is a pleasant surprise. Last season, the Jazz ranked 29th in assist rate; now, they rank sixth.

In each of the last two seasons, Mitchell handled the ball more than Conley. Now the veteran lefty is Utah’s lead creator. His statistical distribution evinces a shift in approach: Conley’s usage rate is at a career low, but his 8.1 assists per game represent a career high.

Conley isn’t alone. All five players in Utah’s normal starting lineup are averaging career highs in assists per game—even the big men. The Jazz don’t have any stars anymore, but they have a lot of threats who can share the burden and play together.

5. Lauri Markkanen is playing like an All-NBA candidate.

Well, they don’t have any established stars. Markkanen, however, might be rising to that level. Building off a strong performance at September’s EuroBasket competition, after he placed second behind Giannis Antetokounmpo in points per game, the Finnish 7-footer has broken out in his first 16 games as a member of the Jazz—to the tune of 21.3 points per game and 64 percent (!) 2-point accuracy.

Once an overlooked throw-in to the Mitchell trade, Markkanen is now second in the race for the Most Improved Player award, according to FanDuel. He’s tied for sixth—with Mitchell—in wins derived from estimated plus-minus, and tied for ninth—one spot behind Mitchell—in win shares. Everyone else at the top of these leaderboards is a bona fide star, and Markkanen is matching their production through a fifth of the season.

Most Valuable Players, 2022-23

Player Estimated Wins
Player Estimated Wins
Kevin Durant 3.7
Luka Doncic 3.6
Stephen Curry 3.6
Jayson Tatum 3.2
Shai Gilgeous-Alexander 2.9
Lauri Markkanen 2.5
Donovan Mitchell 2.5
Nikola Jokic 2.4
Paul George 2.4
Jimmy Butler 2.4
Ja Morant 2.4
Data via Dunks & Threes

Reasons Not to Believe

1. Offensive regression is coming.

Notice the conditional phrasing above: The Jazz should be a playoff contender as long as they keep scoring. As good as Utah’s offense has been, there are some indications that key scorers are due for regression.

Markkanen, for instance, is shooting 75 percent in the restricted area. That’s a near-Giannis level of finishing. Markkanen had never been above the mid-60s before, so odds are he’ll start missing more shots as the season progresses.

And a couple of the Jazz men currently scorching the nets from distance are shooting well above their established track records. Clarkson has made 6.0 more wide-open 3-pointers than we’d expect based on his own history. At this point, that’s the highest such mark in the league. And Kelly Olynyk isn’t far behind, ranking third with 5.7 extra made 3s. (Read this piece for more explanation on this method.)

2. They lack wing defenders.

Markkanen isn’t just the team’s lead offensive option so far—he’s also their de facto defensive stopper. Already this season, he’s been the primary defender on superstars ranging from Nikola Jokic to Anthony Davis to Paul George.

Markkanen isn’t a bad defender, but he had Evan Mobley and Jarrett Allen to clean up his spills last season in Cleveland. With Gobert gone (more on that absence in a moment), he has no such backup plan in Utah.

The Jazz don’t have any worthwhile options to take Markkanen’s place, either. Their rotation consists of a bunch of shorter guards—Conley, Clarkson, Sexton, Beasley, and Talen Horton-Tucker are all 6-foot-4 or smaller—and big men. Rudy Gay is the only traditional wing in the rotation, and Gay, averaging 4.5 points per game on 36/26/50 shooting splits, looks lost in his age-36 season.

Almost any perimeter scorer bigger than Conley will enjoy an advantage against the Jazz defense. Clarkson and Beasley were the primary defenders on Anthony Edwards when Utah played Minnesota, according to Second Spectrum tracking. Nickeil Alexander-Walker drew the Desmond Bane assignment. A mix of Beasley, Clarkson, Markkanen, Gay, and Horton-Tucker defended Michael Porter Jr.

None of those players is renowned for his defense. It’s no wonder the Jazz rank just 19th in defensive rating, per Cleaning the Glass.

3. They really miss Gobert on defense.

Over the last few seasons, the Jazz built their roster by targeting offensively oriented players and trusting that Gobert could buoy the defense all by himself. That approach worked in the regular season (less so in the playoffs). But removing the three-time Defensive Player of the Year from the middle leaves a gaping hole.

In previous seasons, even when opposing players beat Utah’s perimeter defenders, the Jazz still had Gobert to deter shots near the basket. Not anymore. Thus far in 2022-23, the Jazz rank just 26th in preventing shots at the rim, per Cleaning the Glass. Over the previous half-decade, by contrast, they’d never ranked below fifth.

Jazz Defense, At-Rim Frequency

Season Rank
Season Rank
2017-18 5th
2018-19 5th
2019-20 5th
2020-21 4th
2021-22 3rd
2022-23 26th
Data via Cleaning the Glass

Perhaps as a byproduct of all those shots at the rim, they’re fouling more now than they have in years. And they rank just 22nd in defensive rebounding rate, per CtG—their first time outside the top 10 since 2014-15.

This problem seems unsolvable internally because the Jazz don’t have the personnel to improve—and the defense may even get worse, if Utah’s luck with opponent shooting evens out. Jazz opponents have missed 11 more wide-open 3-pointers than expected, based on the shooters’ track records. That’s one of the league’s luckiest figures.

4. The schedule will toughen.

Strength of schedule typically evens out over the course of a whole season, but this early there are still sizable imbalances. And the Jazz have been a prime beneficiary in the first month, with a schedule tied for the league’s second-easiest, according to Basketball-Reference.

To be fair, the Jazz have some impressive wins on their résumé: one apiece against the Nuggets, Clippers, and Pelicans, and two against the Grizzlies (one with Ja Morant playing, one without). But Utah’s hot start loses a bit of its luster when factoring in the overall scheduling picture. Adjust for strength of schedule, and Utah’s point differential looks like only the 10th-best in the league. That’s still a fine margin, but it’s not indicative of a true contender, and the team’s remaining slate is certainly tougher than what it’s seen so far.

5. The front office might not want to be for real.

The big overarching question about Utah’s season is how much the organization values another winning campaign in the present, versus taking a strategic step backward for long-term benefit. After 20 wins, a team can no longer reliably expect to finish with one of the three worst records (and thus the best lottery odds); after 25 wins, its lottery odds likely drop precipitously.

Most years, a playoff run might be an acceptable tradeoff—especially with so many unprotected draft picks from the Cavaliers and Timberwolves coming in the future. Yet this isn’t most years: Losing big means a better shot at Victor Wembanyama. And with all respect to Markkanen’s apparent star turn, he’s not a cornerstone around which to build a franchise.

As it’s currently constructed, the Jazz profile as a mid-tier playoff team—maybe even good enough to avoid the play-in race, given other prospective contenders’ scuffles. But their defense is subpar and probably going to get worse, plus it’s hard to imagine Markkanen or Clarkson or 35-year-old Conley commanding a playoff series against the West’s brightest stars.

So if the Jazz suffer any more three-game losing streaks, or if they fall closer to .500 against a tougher schedule, will Danny Ainge and the front office be content with mediocrity? Or will the Jazz pivot and trade a raft of veterans to then simultaneously add even more future picks to their quiver, position themselves for a second-half tank for Wembanyama, and recoup value for the various veterans on the roster who are signed to shorter-term contracts?

In a sense, Utah thereby must ask itself the existential question looming over the league: Is it better to stay decent, or to blow it all up for a chance at a star? The Jazz took great strides toward addressing that dilemma with their offseason activity, following six consecutive seasons of early playoff losses. They’re still decent, nonetheless. They have more work to do if they truly want to change that dynamic.

Leaguewide stats through Tuesday’s games.