The Triple Team: Did the Jazz want to lose to the Spurs, or did they just rest their guys for later?

San Antonio Spurs head coach Gregg Popovich talks with Quinndary Weatherspoon (15) during the second half of an NBA basketball game against the Utah Jazz, Friday, Aug. 7, 2020, in Lake Buena Vista, Fla. (Kevin C. Cox/Pool Photo via AP)

Editor’s note: The Salt Lake Tribune is providing free access to critical stories about the coronavirus. Sign up for our Top Stories newsletter, sent to your inbox every weekday morning. To support journalism like this, please donate or become a subscriber.

1. Do the Jazz just not care if they win, or are they trying to lose?

I wrote about how I don’t think these seeding games are super important for the Jazz — but I didn’t expect this.

On Friday morning, Donovan Mitchell, Rudy Gobert, Mike Conley, and Royce O’Neale all sat out, either due to invented bumps and bruises or in Gobert’s case, admitted rest. And since they announced it, I’ve been trying to figure it out the headline question, perhaps more succinctly stated as “Are the Jazz tanking?”

It is possible that the Jazz just don’t care if they won today. Then, they’re just resting guys because it’s a back-to-back with the Jazz playing Denver Saturday, and they think their best players are at increased risk of injury if they play two games in two days. They want them to be healthy for the playoffs. That makes some sense!

Maybe the thinking is that you want to play your normal rotation against the Nuggets because it’s a test: the Jazz will be able to see where they rank among their potential playoff competition.

On the other hand, maybe they’re trying to lose. Like, if they weren’t trying to lose, would we have seen a Justin Wright-Foreman, Rayjon Tucker, Miye Oni, Jarrell Brantley, Juwan Morgan lineup down the stretch of this one, with the game still within reach? That’s literally the last five guys on the depth chart. Wouldn’t Quin Snyder have thought “Oh, oops, we might accidentally win this one, let’s play Clarkson, Ingles, Bradley, or Mudiay?”

And if you were trying to maximize wins in that scenario, wouldn’t you rest them against the Nuggets? The thinking goes that the Jazz’s bench is one of the worst in the league, so they’re nearly guaranteed to lose to any reasonable team. But if the good players play, they’re definite favorites against the Spurs and probably only 50/50 against the Nuggets.

Why would they be trying to lose? First of all, I think it does benefit them to be in the six seed rather than the fifth seed, avoiding the Lakers in the second round and getting the Clippers. And I do think that the Nuggets are the best matchup for them, especially with talented guards Gary Harris, Jamal Murray, and Will Barton out. Those guys may or may not be available for the Nuggets in the playoffs, from what I hear.

The worry would be that the Nuggets would slip from the three to the four seed. Salt City Hoops’ Dan Clayton created this all-in-one look at the Western Conference playoff picture, and he believes that the relatively easy Rockets schedule will allow them to surpass the Nuggets and their relatively difficult schedule.

I’m not so sure. Both the Lakers and Raptors are locked into their spots, so I don’t think those are necessarily losses for the Nuggets. The Jazz very well might lose to the Nuggets too. Meanwhile, the Rockets’ schedule features the Pacers and Sixers, still fighting for their spots. Yes, the Sixers are missing Ben Simmons, but they’ve actually been better with Embiid but not Simmons on the floor.

The fact that the Jazz play the Spurs again on the last day of the season gives them some options, too. If they want to win to get the fifth seed, they can play the veterans. If they want to ensure sixth, they can sit their guys ahead of the playoffs.

I think they’re tanking.

2. So how did the typical bench players do?

Jordan Clarkson led the team with 24 points. I came into the game thinking that Jordan Clarkson would play like Jordan Clarkson usually does — the light is always green for Jordan Clarkson.

Instead, Jordan Clarkson raised the amount of Jordan Clarkson in his game more than I thought possible. Jordan Clarkson took so many Jordan Clarkson shots: some of them went in, some of them didn’t. Some of them were wild and had no chance.

And then he made a four-point play, an incredible tough scoop layup, and even some passes.

To be honest, I’m more concerned about the defensive effort he showed, but well, that’s probably more Jordan Clarksoning on that end too.

Emmanuel Mudiay went 4-13 from the floor, making some mid-range shots and missing more. He did have five assists next to only one turnover, so that was nice to see. I’ll be curious to see if he or Tucker is in the rotation when real games start.

Georges Niang didn’t do anything to address his slump. He started 2-2 from the floor with the game’s first five points for the Jazz, then went 1-9 after that with a couple of assists and a couple of turnovers. If he’s not an offensive threat, he’s not playable, quite frankly — his defense has always left a lot to be desired, and I don’t think it’s an effort thing. It’s a quickness/athleticism issue.

Tony Bradley gave the same 15 point, 11 rebound performance he always does when he plays major minutes. His consistency in this matter is commendable.

Juwan Morgan played reasonably well, then seemed to twist his knee near the end of the game, and had to be helped off by two Jazz trainers to the locker room. It looks like a major knee injury, which would be a huge bummer.

3. The third-tier guys

What made this game fun, though, was that the guys we never got to see got a chance to play. Some of them played well, others did not.

Miye Oni moved into the starting lineup and played reasonably well, scoring 14 points and adding seven rebounds, but no assists. Mark Whalen on Twitter said that he looked like dollar store Rodney Hood. I see it, but think Oni is a better defender but worse shooter than Hood is. Still, that may well be an NBA-level rotation player in the future.

Ed Davis makes me sad. Last year, he was a tremendous rotation player for the Nets, putting up the second-best Defensive Real Plus Minus in the league after Rudy Gobert. This year, it’s like his powers were sapped by the Monstars: that’s very clearly Ed Davis out there, but he just doesn’t do anything useful. He’s not an effective rim protector, individual defender, screen setter, or rebounder. What other skills left? It’s a tough situation to be sure, but he isn’t taking advantage of the chances he gets either.

Rayjon Tucker, in an effort to prove me wrong, took all three of his shots from deep today. He made one of them, and also got to the line for two free throws.

Jarrell Brantley was his usual mix of impressive at times and mistaken-laden at others. Defense like this is nice!

But he also is very capable of defensive mistakes, losing guys, and varying between over and underhelping. He’s still very raw, but as raw players go, there’s a lot there. He finished with eight points (3-8 FG), six rebounds, three assists, two turnovers, three steals, and one block. The Jazz don’t have a lot of players who can fill a stat sheet in that many categories.

Justin Wright-Foreman also shot 3-8 from the field, missing all three of his threes and adding a couple of turnovers. For him to be an NBA player, he’s either going to need to make his threes or round out his game in other ways, perhaps by being a better passer.