When the Utah Jazz started the season with a 3-0 record, it was widely perceived as a fluke.
After their hot start, it did not come as a surprise when they proceeded to lose two of their next three outings. It was supposed to be time for them to assume their expected place as one of the league’s cellar dwellers this season.
Two weeks later though, they have now won six of their last seven games and lead the cutthroat Western Conference with a 10-3 record.
The vision was for Utah to tank this year after trading away NBA All-Stars Donovan Mitchell and Rudy Gobert in the offseason, but they have defied all predictions so far in one of the most bizarre storylines of this new season. As a matter of fact, they have a better record than Mitchell’s Cleveland Cavaliers (8-3) and Gobert’s Minnesota Timberwolves (5-7).
The winning ways of the Jazz may have compromised the intentions of their front office to maximize their odds in next year’s NBA Draft lottery in order to draft the phenomenal Victor Wembanyama. However, they do own the Timberwolves’ 2023 first round pick because of the Gobert trade and, based on how Minnesota’s season has gone so far, Utah might still be able to draft Wembanyama in a shocking turn of events if things go their way.
Rookie head coach Will Hardy, hired in the summer to replace Quin Snyder to oversee what was pegged as a rebuilding effort, has installed a free-wheeling offense prioritizing ball movement and kicking the ball out to three-point shooters. This has put them in the top four in three-pointers made and attempted through the first month of the season and they are second in points per game with 118.2 behind only the New Orleans Pelicans.
The Jazz’s team statistics make them appear to be a star-studded squad despite their roster looking like a lottery team on paper. Hardy has managed to maximize the talents of the players on his roster, with Lauri Markkanen shining the brightest through their first 12 games.
The 7’0 forward is playing the best basketball of his six-year NBA career, averaging 21.9 points on 52.9% field goal shooting, 8.8 rebounds, 2.7 assists, and 0.9 blocks per game. He is playing with supreme confidence and has successfully slid between all three frontcourt positions depending on their match-up which has been deadly to their opponents.
The 25-year-old Markkanen, who has been underwhelming up until this pivotal point in his career, is at last blossoming into the star that the Chicago Bulls believed that he could become when they picked him seventh overall in the 2017 NBA Draft.
If Markkanen can maintain this level of play for a few more weeks, he should garner enough of a case to merit a spot in this season’s NBA All-Star game for the first time in his career. His story is a reminder that some players just need more time and enough of an opportunity to reach their full potential.
Utah has accidentally built a solid team, maximizing the talents of overlooked players, and it looks like their front office is willing to let them keep going. With 10 wins already to their name this early in the season, trying to secure one of the five worst records in the league for maximum draft odds is a tall order.
The Jazz are the feel-good team of this NBA season and it will be interesting to see how far this lovable group can go.