When the Utah Jazz traded away Rudy Gobert and Donovan Mitchell for a historic haul of draft picks last offseason, it was a clear signal to the rest of the league that they were ready to rebuild.
The move made sense, given that they had plateaued as a second tier Western Conference team, and it was somewhat expected after Danny Ainge was installed as their general manager last December. Ainge’s fondness for flipping players for draft picks and remodeling rosters to his liking is well documented from his stint with his previous employer, the Boston Celtics.
The talent available in the looming 2023 NBA Draft, headlined by the once-in-a-generation talent Victory Wembanyama, made it practically a no-brainer to tank this season and hope for the first overall pick.
Utah’s opening night roster, which combined for a grand total of one NBA All-Star appearance, reflected these intentions and fans were ready to look ahead instead of the present.
However, their race to the bottom has not gotten off to the start that Ainge would have hoped for.
The Jazz have started the ‘22-’23 campaign sporting a surprising 2-0 record after pulling out a pair of impressive wins over the Denver Nuggets and Minnesota Timberwolves–two franchises that have postseason aspirations this year.
35-year-old Mike Conley, Utah’s sole player that has an NBA All-Star game on his resume, has gracefully orchestrated this mishmash of role players and overlooked veterans. He had 13 points, eight rebounds, two steals, and a block in their shocking 123-102 win over Denver and followed it up with 12 points, 11 assists, two steals, and just one turnover as they eked out a victory against Minnesota in overtime.
Aside from Conley, six other players scored in double figures versus the Nuggets and five more had at least 11 when they faced the Timberwolves.
Lauri Markkanen and Jordan Clarkson have enjoyed their roles as the primary options on the Jazz. In their match with Minnesota, Markkanen put up 24 points, 13 rebounds, five assists, and a block. He has carried over his momentum from the strong offseason run that he had as a member of the Finland national team and is flashing a level of confidence that he never showed during his first five years in the NBA.
Meanwhile, Clarkson bounced back from a quiet opening game to score 29 points on 10-of-17 field goal shooting. The 2021 NBA Sixth Man of the Year, now entrenched as a starter for the first time since his sophomore campaign with the Los Angeles Lakers in ‘15-’16, also added five rebounds, six assists, and a block. The Filipino-American has never been one to shy away from taking shots and he has every opportunity to shoot it this year.
31-year-old Kelly Olynyk, who played for the Celtics during Ainge’s tenure at their front office, played a key role in their win over the Timberwolves as well. His ability to shoot from the outside and create plays from the top of the key as a center confounded Minnesota’s twin towers Gobert and Karl-Anthony Towns down the stretch of the fourth quarter. He had to sit out overtime after fouling out late in regulation, yet still finished with 21 points, three rebounds, three assists, four steals, and a block.
Jarred Vanderbilt and Malik Beasley, two players that Minnesota packaged in the Gobert trade, played key roles in the victory too together with fellow newcomer Collin Sexton.
Rookie head coach Will Hardy has installed a free-wheeling and floor spacing system that makes Utah not just a fun one to watch, but a deadly unit that can beat any opponent when their shot is falling. The option to play both Markkanen and Olynyk as their big men–two above average three-point shooters for their position–is perfect for the modern offenses of the NBA.
The style that Hardy lets the Jazz play masks the individual flaws of their players and they could realistically compete for a Western Conference play-in spot. Unfortunately, it is more likely than not that their aspiration to secure the best odds to win next year’s NBA Draft lottery will take precedence. A strong showing during the next few weeks could lead to these players being traded to a contender or they may ultimately be shut down in favor of Utah’s younger prospects.
Once in a while, a ragtag veteran group comes together briefly and captures the heart of the most niche group of basketball fans. This Jazz team profiles as one of those darlings and could possibly go down in this idiosyncratic hall of fame.
This team is likely to be forgotten by the general public, especially if Utah packs it in this season and winds up drafting Wembanyama next year, though that does not mean that aficionados cannot enjoy this group while their time together lasts.