clock menu more-arrow no yes mobile

Filed under:

The Jazz’s Improvised Reboot Can’t Go Wrong

Tanking is out of the picture, but just about everything else is in play. Utah has been one of the NBA’s biggest surprises, but with a wealth of options they’re also one of its biggest enigmas. Now the question becomes: Where do they go from here?

Getty Images/Ringer illustration

No team has defied expectations quite like the Utah Jazz this NBA season. Left in ostensible ruin this summer after trading away Donovan Mitchell and Rudy Gobert for a barrel of draft picks and underappreciated role players, Utah appeared to be on the ground floor of a painful and lengthy rebuild. Their over/under was 23.5 wins. The only team with a lower mark was the San Antonio Spurs.

But Utah’s rookie head coach Will Hardy didn’t believe the climb in front of him was as steep as everyone else seemed to think. He wasn’t leading a band of neophytes. This wasn’t like the youth movements in Houston or Oklahoma City. People assumed the pent-up frustration from several failed playoff runs would lead to a fallow period for the Jazz. But their incoming players told a different story. Before the season began, Hardy asked the team’s analytics guru George Rodman where his roster ranked in total NBA games played.

When Rodman told Hardy they were about 10th, Hardy had some evidence to counter the negative deductions he’d been hearing about his new team. “That’s not one, but that’s not 30,” he says about the ranking. “So everybody’s saying that we’re inexperienced, but it doesn’t look like we’re that inexperienced.”

Hardy also met with Mike Conley, the veteran point guard who’s almost a year older than his 34-year-old head coach. A chat about how they wanted to play on offense quickly evolved into a broader conversation about how complementary different lineups could be. What seemed like a pile of awkward puzzle pieces from entirely different boxes could actually be a snug fit.

There was overlooked young talent (Collin Sexton, Talen Horton-Tucker, and Jarred Vanderbilt) mixed with capable veterans on the back nine of their careers (Conley and Rudy Gay), and a few explosive scorers who can really shoot (Lauri Markkanen, Jordan Clarkson, and Malik Beasley). All they needed to exceed expectations that were saddled on them by the outside world was a collective buy-in.

“We’re not going to be bad at all!” Conley remembers saying before the season. “The more you sat down and kind of stood away from the situation, you realized how deep we were and how special it could be if we all come together and played a certain brand of basketball.”

That’s exactly what’s happened. Utah opened the regular season with a 21-point thumping of Nikola Jokic’s Nuggets. Seven Jazz players scored in double figures in that game. Two nights later, they went into Minnesota and dropped a whopping 132 points on Gobert’s head. Two nights after that they traveled to New Orleans and escaped with a one-point win, aided by Markkanen’s dominant 31-point, 12-rebound performance. Today, they have a top-10 net rating and a top-five offense.

“It was nice for us because you didn’t have to do a lot of guessing and checking and experimenting,” says veteran big man Kelly Olynyk, who was acquired for Bojan Bogdanovic in September. “The first thing we rolled out there kind of worked and the first plans we had kind of hit and stuck. … On any given night we can play with anybody and we have the players, the skill, and the talent—everything—to be at the top.”

Through the first quarter of a season that was expected to turn Salt Lake City into a way station, the Jazz have transformed on the fly in a way that’s made the highly improbable look like something everyone should’ve seen coming. Even after they were remade with a fleet of mercenaries—many of whom are in the last year of their contract—the Jazz still had depth, wisdom, skill, professionalism, and lineup versatility.

But a 14-12 record would not have been possible had they not learned how to trust each other in training camp, where Hardy confronted his team’s challenging circumstances by regularly reminding them that even though everyone had an understandably large chip on their shoulder, no individual could save the team. If they wanted to win, they’d have to do it together.

“They very easily could have tried to cannibalize each other in terms of everybody trying to prop themselves up and make it about them,” he says.

In an effort to accelerate Utah’s chemistry, Hardy ran constant scrimmages to manufacture the havoc of game-like situations. “I wanted them to get used to each other as a team, as players,” he says, “because ultimately if they have comfort together playing, they’ll be more comfortable just in general as a group.”

Nothing was scripted as coaches observed from the sidelines. Competition was fierce between the lines, though “not in a ‘let’s get in a fight’ kind of way,” Hardy says. “It was right on the line of … they were really going at it and testing each other. But it never went to that space of, like, we had to break them up.”

Then in the preseason, coaches started talking among themselves about how fast the ball was popping. Their message was breaking through. Now, they have an elite offense from top to bottom, including the fourth-most prolific scoring bench in basketball—not nothing, considering that Clarkson, the 2020-21 Sixth Man of the Year, has started every game this season.

The Jazz work in unison. Everyone is not only involved, but also infused by the sense that none of this will function correctly if everyone doesn’t do their job. In one sense, that’s stressful. In another, for a bunch of players who were lumped into blockbuster deals by teams that deemed their contributions unnecessary, it’s liberating.

“We don’t have a superstar, so to speak, anyone you’d pay as a superstar or a ball-dominant force on the offensive end,” Olynyk says. “So a lot of guys are involved in a lot of actions throughout the whole game. It’s tough to scout because you can’t really cut off one thing because we don’t have one thing that we base 50, 60, 70 percent of our offense on. You kind of really just take what the defense gives you.”

With a healthy chunk of this season already in their rearview mirror, expectations have been reset. The Jazz aren’t creeping up on anyone. What happens next is still one of the biggest questions in a Western Conference currently up for grabs. What’s sustainable? What’s a mirage? And where do they go from here?

When Hardy is asked if he thinks he’s coaching a playoff team, he scrunches his mouth as if a lemon just exploded inside it. “I would never put a ceiling on a team that hasn’t gone through a full season yet,” he says. “I mean, I would say to this point, you know, we have a top-10 offense. I know it’s not 82 games, but it’s not two games. I think we’ve shown that we can play on any given night with anybody. So I think if we stick together as a group, and get some good health and, you know, if their coach doesn’t get in the way, I don’t see why not.”

Intentional tanking is not in the cards. That ship has sailed. But it doesn’t mean the Jazz’s long- or even short-term direction is clear. Utah’s front office has myriad options to sift through as the rest of the season plays out. And unlike most franchise’s hard pivots that include the loss of All-NBA talent, where bottoming out and selling everyone who’s left to the highest bidder becomes the predictable move, the Jazz own enough future draft picks from other teams to separate their own nightly performance from the probability of striking gold in the draft. In other words: They can have their cake and eat it too.

“I like having a lot of balls in the air,” Jazz general manager Justin Zanik says. “It means that there’s a lot of optionality. I think the narratives out there publicly have been, ‘Oh, you have to build a team one way … Oh, you’re supposed to be bad,’ and that’s just not how we work around here.”

Indiana Pacers v Utah Jazz Photo by Alex Goodlett/Getty Images

When looking for a reason to believe Utah’s start will carry through the season, all talking points should begin with its offense, which is third-best in the league right now. It’s a selfless medley of cuts, slips, wide pindowns, back screens, handoffs, keepers, and flares that just about every player in the NBA would enjoy.

They rank just outside the top five in assist rate after finishing 29th last season. Conley, Olynyk, Markkanen, and Clarkson are all averaging the most assists of their entire careers. The Jazz never post up and rarely isolate. None of their players have a top-35 usage rate. It’s basketball holism without a pecking order. Normally that’s a bug. Utah has made it their superpower.

As an evenly-proportioned utopia, the Jazz are a total aesthetic reinvention of what they used to be. Over the last few years, with Gobert as the hub of a spread pick-and-roll system, their actions were anticipated, albeit efficient—an assembly line of lobs, dunks, and threes. The players who revolved around the 7-footer simultaneously benefited from his screens and were prisoner to his deficient ball skills. Defenses knew what they were about to do but couldn’t stop them anyway. Until the playoffs happened, and then they could.

These Jazz don’t have a constant roll man sucking help defenders off the perimeter or an irrepressible, hyper-athletic All-Star who dominates the ball. But defenses can’t stop them for a different reason: spontaneity. They’ve adopted a potent five-out configuration that allows them to hunt desirable shots with a relentless, random attack, churning through different creative actions that wouldn’t be possible if not for all the gravity provided by their starting frontcourt.

If this team has a headliner, it’s Markkanen, the 25-year-old former lottery pick who’d spent the first five seasons of his career looking for a situation like this one. He’s on track to make his first All-Star team, averaging a hyper-efficient 22.2 points per game as more of a threat off the ball than with it in his hands.

Olynyk is a crafty playmaker who’s shooting 46.6 percent from behind the 3-point line. “He rarely does the same thing twice in a row,” Zanik says. Those two give the Jazz something every offense is desperate for: space. Acres of it. Both have top-20 effective field goal percentages. Both can also see the floor, with Olynyk able to orchestrate as a pseudo-point guard from the top of the floor. (In early November, longtime Atlanta play-by-play announcer Bob Rathbun tabbed him “Magic Olynyk” as he carved up the Hawks.)

Utah’s offensive rating is excellent when both of those bigs share the floor (120.6 in 582 minutes); much of their success trickles down from there. But not all of it. This team has so many options that it almost suffers from decision fatigue. The possibilities are overwhelming on any given possession, regardless of who’s on the court. Utah’s rotation features lineups that have three near 7-footers or three small guards. All are effective. “I think that we play a brand of basketball that you can go out every night and play,” Olynyk says. “We have tons of versatility, knowing the way we play and who we play and how we play.”

Confusion is the ultimate equalizer, including in basketball. Keep them guessing and the playing field is leveled. “We kind of have a chaotic nature. One night it could be me that’s scoring a lot. It could be Lauri. It could be Kelly. It could be JC, it could be Beasley. Vanderbilt’s all over the place,” says Conley, who’s been out since November 19 with a knee injury. “I’ve been on teams who played together and done a lot of great things. I have not been on a team quite like this one. You have so many different styles mixed into one. You have so many different guys that can affect the game in so many different ways, but they’re all doing it still within the concept of what we want to be, and that’s unselfish and aggressive. … The paint’s open.”

The Jazz are third in drives per game, fifth in 3-point rate, and according to Second Spectrum, they not only run the third-most off-ball screens per 100 possessions, but also generate the second-most points per chance from them. This team is constantly moving, engaging weakside defenders and essentially forcing them to track more activity than any one set of eyes can handle. It’s exhausting—and that’s before they crash the glass (Utah ranks fourth in offensive rebound rate).

“I think it just keeps the defense guessing when we got a lot of guys doing different things. Sometimes we set screens, sometimes we slip, and we can make those reads and we can make those passes to the open guy,” Markkanen says. “We work on that stuff. Moving off the ball. Off-the-ball screening action. We’re trying to keep this thing rolling.”

It’s fair to wonder if/when the rest of the league will shut down the Jazz’s bread-and-butter actions. The more games they play, the more tape defenses can learn from. Hardy doesn’t buy that theory, though.

“This is not meant in a disrespectful way,” Hardy says. “I really haven’t felt in a game, like ‘Oh man, they are really taking us out of what we want to do.’” Instead, what’s hurting the Jazz more than anything are the stretches in which they go cold and then abandon their system that they can’t win without, devolving into one-on-one possessions that turn their lively offense into a game of solitaire. “It’s about reframing their brain,” Hardy says “You can play good basketball and miss [shots]. We need to stick with it and the percentages will come back to us.”

While the offense has led the way, Utah’s defense, which ranks 25th, is an issue. There’s no replacing a three-time Defensive Player of the Year. Utah’s promising rookie center Walker Kessler will certainly try—he’s actually blocked more shots than Gobert so far this season—but in reality, this team gets pummeled on the boards, doesn’t box out, gets trampled in transition, and tends to make costly mistakes at the point of attack. It’s hard enough to overcome those issues, let alone five-man units without any defensive-minded personnel. In a recent loss to the Bulls, Markkanen was DeMar Freaking DeRozan’s primary defender in the fourth quarter. Not ideal. (The Jazz allow the NBA’s lowest 3-point rate but also rank dead last in closeouts per 100 possessions, per Second Spectrum.)

Last week, a day after suffering their fifth straight loss, Hardy preached the need to remain even-keeled through the peaks and valleys that are sure to come. “If we play the way we want to play over the course of a season, the results will pan out,” he said. “It’s easy to get emotional after a couple of losses and think it’s all bad. But then you watch the film and it’s not all bad.”

The Jazz are pretty good and may qualify for the playoffs. FiveThirtyEight gives them a 63-percent chance of doing so. But they also aspire for more and have no top-20 players. Assessing them on those grounds, it’s fair to either be optimistic or defeatist.

Adopt a glass-half-full point of view and it’s easy to see this group improving with time as on-court chemistry continues to develop (they’re currently a turnover machine, in large part because of their unfamiliarity). For the cynics out there, Utah can’t keep winning close games and hitting 3s at such a high clip forever. A fall back to Earth is inevitable.

That uncertainty leads to unanswerable questions for a front office in wait-and-see mode, knowing everything could change overnight, if or when an offer that’s too good to turn down is made for one or more of their current players. It’s a beneficial spot to be in. But for players, it’s still a little precarious.

“Sometimes you get traded, sometimes they trade for someone, sometimes they don’t do anything,” says Olynyk. “If you worry about stuff that may not happen it’s only a detriment to yourself or your team. And then that can splinter in ways that you don’t want it to. So for right now, I think for me and everybody else here, you let the front office do their job, the coaches do their job, and you just focus on yours.”

Portland Trail Blazers v Utah Jazz Photo by Melissa Majchrzak/NBAE via Getty Images

During a September press conference, Jazz CEO Danny Ainge was asked about the value of having a lottery pick in the 2023 draft, with so much talent—including a 7-foot-4 winning Powerball ticket—presumed to be at the top of this class.

Ainge is not naive, and this isn’t his first rodeo. Almost 10 years ago he was in a parallel situation with the Celtics. That team had a young head coach, a bunch of draft picks and pick swaps courtesy of the Nets, and a blend of vets, mid-career transplants, and young prospects. A few of those picks eventually became Jaylen Brown, Jayson Tatum, and current Jazz point guard Sexton (a pick Ainge dealt to the Cavs for Kyrie Irving). They were never one or two trades from winning a title but he still worked to extract and add value. Point being: Ainge is more opportunistic than procedural, which makes Utah’s future uniquely unpredictable.

“I mean, the Jazz are built on mid-range picks with [John] Stockton and [Karl] Malone, and Donovan and Rudy,” Ainge said. “You can build teams [with late and mid-first-round picks] … I think Devin Booker was a 13th pick in the draft? Go on down the line. But draft picks are always important.”

These words might’ve simply been some off-the-cuff posturing by an executive who’s known for being aggressive. Or maybe they were a prescient glimpse at Utah’s reality. A position that remains undetermined.

The Jazz front office sees this season as “a fact-finding mission,” according to Zanik. They’re going to assess what they have and how well those pieces make sense together going forward. “Is that two or three players?” he asks. “Is that, all of a sudden, seven or eight?”

And from there, armed with a treasure chest of draft assets, Utah has several alternatives before them. They can be patient, surge ahead, or attempt to do both at the same time. As it stands, the Jazz own three first-round picks in the 2023 draft. Minnesota’s could be significant. While Utah has been a pleasant surprise in wake of the Gobert trade, the Wolves are an abject disappointment. Thanks to them, it’s possible the Jazz make the playoffs and get a top-four pick. Flattened lottery odds are their best friend.

Going forward, the Gobert trade could be the gift that keeps on giving. The Jazz also own the Wolves’ first-round picks in 2025 and 2027, and a top-five protected pick in 2029, with a pick swap opportunity in 2026. And then, from the Mitchell trade, Utah will receive the Cavaliers’ first-round picks in 2025, 2027, and 2029, with the chance to swap in 2026 and 2028.

Nothing is guaranteed (i.e., landing foundational talents like Brown and Tatum with a pair of no. 3 picks) and luck is required if Utah is ultimately going to open up a championship window in this era. But their embarrassment of riches allows them to be fluid in any negotiation. If they want to upgrade this season’s roster via trade, it shouldn’t shock anyone. They have enough picks to make a push without concern. They could also go the other way if a rival turns desperate and, say, grab a few more first-round picks for someone like Markkanen.

“What I always default to is what is in the best interest of the Jazz organization,” Zanik says. “And that means having a sustainable winning product. But it’s also with higher goals of being on a competitive road to a title, not just to have a nice little team that everyone can clap for and make the playoffs and be on that treadmill of being in the middle. So those decisions can be tough sometimes, especially because you value the character and abilities of players. But it also doesn’t mean that this group can’t be kept together as well, and add to it.”

Meanwhile, there are the players on this team, many of whom were either recently traded or thought they might be, who go to work every day knowing there’s a real chance they’ll be wearing a different jersey a few days, weeks, or months from now.

“You can’t run from the reality of the situation. We have a lot of different directions we can go, if management chooses to. But the only thing I can do and can control is what I do on a daily basis,” Conley says. “And if something happens, it happens.”

The Jazz enter every game knowing what they are, enjoying the start of what could be a magical ride. They play free, understanding it could all end before any of them want it to.

“But until then, man…” Conley says. “We’ve got blinders on. We’ve got earmuffs on.”

Real Ones

The MVP Race, and Where Does LeBron Fall on the All-Time Lakers List?

Sports Cards Nonsense

Tatum Hobby Takeover. Plus, Brandon Verzal on the Hobby’s First TV Show.

Against All Odds with Cousin Sal

News Around the NBA, How Many Interceptions for Mahomes, and Betaches

View all stories in NBA