For every team that wasn’t actively chasing the championship, it looked like the goal was to tank for the next prodigal prospect: Victor Webemnyama. There was no team that was more true for than the Utah Jazz. After trading away both Donovan Mitchell for salary fillers and draft picks, the aim for Wemby seemed preset even before the season started. But something crazy is happening and I’m pretty sure it’s affecting this Utah team too, because this “tanking” is currently 6-3, third in the West, and riding a streak hotter than anyone expected.
What was Supposed to Happen
When the Utah Jazz got rid of Rudy Gobert and Donovan Mitchell, and hired Danny Ainge this team was set to follow the classic Ainge blueprint. Get rid of any value stars for future picks and assets and then slowly build a team of young players with high potentials and cheap contracts. We can look directly at the Boston Celtics for an example of this plan working to perfection. They were able to pick up the likes of Jayson Tatum, Jaylen Brown, Marcus Smart, and Robert Williams through this process of trading for picks before deciding to go all in on this contending group after significant success in the postseason. This is exactly where Utah is right now. They have a few pieces such as Collin Sexton and Walker Kessler who could turn out to be part of the future plans, but a majority of the roster is a stopgap team of aging vets from the previous regime and players that came over in the Gobert and Mitchell trades. Yet for a team that was meant to be fighting for the worst record, they are currently fighting for supremacy over the Western Conference.
What is Really Happening
The Utah Jazz started the season off with a bang. Winning their first three against legit playoff contenders in Denver, Minnesota, and New Orleans. They also tacked on two back-to-back wins over the Memphis Grizzlies and are sitting quite nice at 6-3. For a team with a new coach and an almost entirely redone roster this is surprising to say the least. The Jazz have really been able to capitalize on the scoring duo of Sexton and Jordan Clarkson, both who provide an instant offense impact, who are balanced out by the traditional point guard style of Mike Conely. This gives the team a very dangerous balance in the backcourt, with the ability to play through any of their 3 guards. The Jazz have also benefited majorly in the blossoming of Lauri Markkanen. For a 7-footer who brings great versatility on defense, the 21 ppg that he is putting up has pushed this team up the standings. It’s pretty hard to guard a 7-footer who can shoot and drive the lane, something that has really pushed the offense over the edge.
With Clarkson, Sexton, Conley, and Markkanen you have 4 pieces who can play within the offense and get their own bucket. The biggest problem for this team might have been defense but with the ability to play Markkanen, who can play on the perimeter and in the post, and Walker Kessler really allows the Jazz to mask the possible defensive deficiencies of their front-court. This was similar to the presence Gobert had in the paint but with wing defenders in Malik Beasley and Jarred Vanderbilt have been able to hold down the wing defense that plagued this defense years before. It seems like Ainge has really put a squad together that might not have the star power elsewhere in the West, but if he isn’t careful we could see a quiet playoff contender emerging in Utah.
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