NBA – Surprising second in the West, should the Utah Jazz change its plans?

The arrival of a new manager in the person of the ambitious and unscrupulous Danny Ainge, the change of coach with the departure of Quin Snyder, replaced by the young and inexperienced Will Hardy, the repeated failures season after season as well as the relationship increasingly flat – but probably much less dramatic than it was described – between Donovan Mitchell and Rudy Gobert: all the signals indicated an imminent reconstruction of the Utah Jazz after their exit from the road in the first round of the playoffs last April.

And it didn’t fail. The solid Royce O’Neal was transferred in return for a round of draft, again a step forward towards the overhaul of the workforce. Then the departures of Gobert and Mitchell, the two All-Stars of the group, followed, marking the end of an era for good. In exchange, the Salt Lake City franchise got their hands on 7 picks, 3 swap rights and 8 players, all under the age of 26 with the exception of Patrick Beverley, who was sent to the Los Angeles Lakers. in stride against Talen Horton-Tucker, who is about to celebrate his 22nd birthday.


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Talen Horton-Tucker (Utah Jazz)

Credit: Getty Images

There, no more doubt possible: the Jazz is heading towards a long process to regain the heights through the draft. That means testing and launching young players – often unprepared to win at this level – and getting rid of the last veterans on the team to salvage other first rounds. Except… the plan doesn’t go as planned at all. After more than a month of competition, Utah is second in the West, just behind Phoenix, and still in contention for the top spot. With a record of 12 wins in 19 matches well above all the predictions of specialists. A surprise… well not for the players.

A team too strong to tank…

« We looked at each other in the locker room and we said to ourselves that we were much stronger than what people thought of us. We have too many good players to tank. We knew that from the start. This is not a rebuild« , says Mike Conley, a player long tipped at the Clippers during the offseason but ultimately still in place. Maybe it’s not quite a rebuild from scratch anymore, indeed. But the team’s results remain amazing. Especially since the Jazz beat several confirmed formations (Suns, Nuggets, Pelicans, Grizzlies, Clippers, Trail Blazers).

With little rest between matches and also playing a majority of away games! Knowing that the Utah franchise is traditionally intractable in front of its public season after season. Conley and his partners didn’t enjoy a « favorable » schedule, instead they had one of the toughest starts to the season in the league on paper. Yet for a time they occupied the head of their Conference. Referring to the history of the NBA and the teams that found themselves in this situation – 12 wins after 19 games – they now have a 91% chance of making the playoffs.

Hearing about tanking is clearly something that feeds us

These performances are partly explained by the revival of Lauri Markkanen. Already good but too often misused in Chicago and Cleveland, the Finn finally established himself as the player presented by the scouts when he was drafted in seventh position in 2017. He is finally the expected modern and dominant interior . A tall 2.13 meter mobile and very skilful from any area of ​​the pitch. A nightmare for defenses. So far, he’s off to a career-best season with 22.4 points, 8.5 rebounds, 54% on shots and 36% three-pointers. He too does not believe in this theory that his organization would seek to lose as many games as possible to recover the (hypothetical) jackpot in the draft in 2023. « Hearing about tanking is clearly something that feeds us. Every time you win, you hate to read the next morning that it’s a surprise. We use that as a motivation to push us to continue like this and to pile up the victories to show people that they were wrong. »

Lauri Markkanen with the Utah Jazz jersey in the NBA.

Credit: Getty Images

Same refrain from his teammate Collin Sexton, who admits that the players « have something to prove.« Besides, this team is not just Markkanen. Will Hardy relies on a collective, well-oiled game, by creating systems »never before seen in the NBA » according to Tyronn Lue and relying on a whole batch of creators and quality attackers. They are six players with more than 10 points, including 19 for Jordan Clarkson. This squad is deep, prolific and effective. But how far can it really go, can it really be enough?

… But not talented enough to go far?

There has already been a little slack. Utah lost 3 games in a row before recovering. The players may not hold this level for the whole season either. And if ever the Jazz were to drop in the rankings, without falling too low, the leaders will no doubt consider transferring one or more veterans (Clarkson, Conley). With this departure, they may even be able to afford to give up one in February while continuing to fight for the playoffs. It will obviously depend on the place of the Jazz in the standings in two months. The surprise effect will not last forever. This squad is expected now.

With Markkanen, she has a room around which she can build for a long time. He is only 25 years old and he is developing a panoply of Dirk Nowitzki. Except that unlike the German, he is perhaps more cut out to be a number 2 in a team that is playing for the title. He is more likely to become one of the top 20 players in the world than one of the top 5 superstars in this league.

Wembanyama in a corner of the head

« I don’t know what the ceiling is for Lauri Markkanen. What I’m sure of is that he hasn’t reached it yet« , tempers Will Hardy. The Jazz already had a number 2 with Donovan Mitchell and even a number 2 bis or number 3 with Rudy Gobert. If Ainge has broken everything, it is not to take the same route. The President dreams of glory and a title, no second rounds of the playoffs. He knows that Salt Lake City is not a destination that attracts free agents. Utah will never sign Kevin Durant in the summer. To recover an alpha male, it goes through the The idea was therefore to nab two or three very high-ranking picks two or three years in a row, just to get our hands on Victor Wembanyama, for example.

But this team is ultimately too strong and above all too advanced to aim for the depths of the rankings. Detroit, Charlotte and Houston have three times fewer wins today. These franchises are going to keep losing. To end up with one of the five worst records in the league seems inconceivable and almost impossible for the Jazz. So just keep going. The group is special, happy. He plays basketball that is very pleasant to watch. Especially since with the changes made by the NBA, even the teams that just missed the playoffs now have an increased chance of drawing in the top-5. A leader like Scoot Henderson, the other big fish in the upcoming crop, would be ideal in Utah. But in the meantime, it’s worth changing plans and trying as much as possible to continue to thrill the fans.


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