It’s been a minute since Utah Jazz fans have been in this position.
The team has made the playoffs six years in a row. It had a pair of three-time All-Stars (and a three-time Defensive Player of the Year) in Donovan Mitchell and Rudy Gobert. For a time, it looked like the team might even be championship contenders.
And now …
Well, there hasn’t been this much uncertainty surrounding the Jazz since one Gordon Hayward ruined so many Fourth of July parties by scuttling off to Boston. And even that season turned out to be an unexpectedly good one, thanks to Gobert’s next-level leap, and Mitchell’s unexpected early brilliance.
This season does not figure to be a feel-good story like that. And so, with the team in full rebuild mode and chasing high draft picks going forward, some fans are conflicted.
What exactly do they root for in a season such as this?
As many losses as possible, so as to better Utah’s chances of getting theoretical generational talent Victor Wembanyama in the 2023 draft? And if so, does that mean rooting for all of the current players to be bad, to fail consistently in every clutch situation they may encounter? Does it mean hoping for more situations like last season, where the team looked very good for stretches of games, only to fall apart miserably time and again? Does it mean wanting fan favorites and good guys such as Jordan Clarkson and Mike Conley to be traded elsewhere, so they don’t accidentally make the team too good to land a high lottery pick?
It’s sure to be a confusing mess of emotions. And while we’d never tell you how to feel about your team and its presumed forthcoming lack of success (though, would a lack of success actually be a success, in this case?), the following is a hopefully-helpful four-point plan that can perhaps provide some guidance on what to root for, so that the Jazz might ascend from mediocrity sooner than later.
1. Young player development
When teams trade stars, they almost never get equal value back. The Gobert and Mitchell and Bojan Bogdanovic trades were all more or less the equivalent of exchanging a dollar for two quarters, three dimes, three nickels and five pennies. They’re not all going to stick, not even this season — the Jazz have 18 guaranteed contracts right now, and have to be down to 15 by the start of the regular season.
So the question, in this case, is which of the players the Jazz got back will be part of the long-term solution. Collin Sexton has scoring talent, certainly, but can he become more efficient and less wild? Are Jarred Vanderbilt’s defense and rebounding good enough to make him the four of the future? Lauri Markkanen and Malik Beasley have had some success in the league, but also some big holes in their game. Can they take the next step? And rookies Ochai Agbaji and Walker Kessler must show the capacity to at least be role players.
Basically, be on the lookout for players adding new skills to their repertoire (Leandro Bolmaro and Talen Horton-Tucker becoming competent shooters), or at least showing significant improvement in some existing area (Jared Butler cutting down his overdribbling, Simone Fontecchio going next-level on 3-point shooting). And on top of that, watch how certain players play together out on the court. Which lineups and pairings are most effective on either end? If a guy on the bubble is an excellent complement to someone firmly entrenched, that could make a roster decision easier.
2. Veterans on the move
At this point, the only holdovers from last season are Conley, Clarkson, Butler, Rudy Gay, Udoka Azubuike, and Nickeil Alexander-Walker. There’s a good chance not all of those guys will be on the opening day roster.
Some of the younger guys could simply be released, as none of Butler, ’Dok, or NAW are under contract beyond this season. However, if possible, the more meaningful move might be finding trade partners for the veterans yet.
This is a tricky situation, because if you want to achieve that aforementioned development of the young/new guys, it definitely helps to have some veterans around the mentor them, about both on- and off-the-court stuff. Several of the newbies have mentioned how much they’ve already gravitated to Conley, because he fills that role so well. Problem is, he’s still a very good basketball player. Good enough to help the Jazz accidentally win more games than the front office might want. Clarkson has some well-known holes in his game, and might shoot the Jazz out of some contests with 4-for-17 performances. Then again, he also has those games where he goes 13-for-22 and drops 40.
It’s a conundrum. But the team is probably ultimately better positioned if the vets helping behind the scenes are on the Kelly Olynyk level than on the Conley one.
3. Competitive play — up to a point
If the aforementioned player development is a legitimate goal — and it certainly is — intentionally being a very bad team seems counterproductive, no?
Well, here’s the thing about tanking teams — they don’t tank by outright throwing games; coaches are not telling players to intentionally miss shots or commit turnovers or blow defensive assignments. Rather, front offices assemble rosters that are short on talent and experience, and which are often composed of ill-fitting pieces besides.
A big early theme from these Jazz players is proving doubters wrong and overachieving. Malik Beasley even went so far as to boldly predict a playoff berth. The likelihood of that happening is remote, but his message proves a point — these players don’t benefit by being bad, and their coaches certainly don’t want them to never develop.
But there’s more than one way to lose a game. It might just be the case that these Jazz are so bad at passing and defense that they’ll lose a ton of games by default. Last year’s team became expert at building double-digit leads and then relinquishing them. But we saw that take a very demoralizing toll. Honestly, what would be ideal, and perhaps most indicative of having one foot apiece in the competing worlds of player development and ping-pong ball accumulation, would be consistently seeing this team start games poorly, amassing huge deficits, and then improving as the action goes on to the point that they almost — almost — pull it out, only to fall just short.
That is how you lose a bunch of games but still come away feeling good about it.
4. Rack up the losses
It’s been suggested that the front office is loath to bottom out completely, that it wants the team to be poor but not awful, for fear of developing long-term losing habits, and also because of the perception that the ’23 draft is so loaded, top players can be found throughout the lottery.
There are two problems with this theory: 1. Doing so would be a half-measure, akin to the previously-floated notion of trading Gobert but rebuilding around Mitchell; this front office has demonstrated it understands the value in ripping off the Band-Aid — if you’re going to be bad, commit to it, and get maximum value out of it. And 2. Is the “long-term losing habits” thing really a problem if the majority of players on this roster are not on the roster two or three years down the road?
Here’s the biggest consideration, though, for why losing as many games as possible is ultimately the most prudent strategy, as distasteful or repugnant as some fans might find it: If the ultimate goal is to have a superstar or two on the roster down the road, it’s far more likely they’re in future drafts than already on this roster.
And while superstars don’t always come from the top few picks of a given draft, far more often they do. You had a pair of stars, and sent them away. Do you like your chances of getting guys as good or better if you’re picking top-three, or eighth?
Yes, losing a lot stinks, but in this case, it’s a means to an end. One step back, so that hopefully, down the line, you can take two or three forward.
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