The Triple Team: Lauri Markkanen’s 38 points lead Jazz to win over Pistons. Is he an All-Star this year?

Utah Jazz forward Lauri Markkanen (23) drives during the second half of an NBA basketball game against the Detroit Pistons, Tuesday, Dec. 20, 2022, in Detroit. (AP Photo/Carlos Osorio)

Three thoughts on the Utah Jazz’s 126-111 win over the Detroit Pistons from Salt Lake Tribune beat writer Andy Larsen.

1. Lauri Markkanen’s game

Tonight was probably the second-best game of Lauri Markkanen’s Jazz career: 38 points on 13-20 FG. The standout skill was the 3-point shooting: he took 13 threes, made nine. That’s a career high for him.

When that happens, it’s easy to say “ah, well, he had a career-best shooting night — that explains the career-high points.” And of course, it does. But how to get Markkanen enough shots to take advantage of good shooting nights has been an ongoing issue. For example, he had 22 points against the Cavaliers in the first half — but only two points in the second half.

This is where I wish I could show you development from one night to the next, where Markkanen learned the lesson from last night, and then applied it the next night.

And what I found from watching the video is that mostly, the difference was that while the Cavaliers made an adjustment and started to defend Markkanen more tightly, the Pistons didn’t — because they are a young team that’s not super good at things like “adjustments” or even “defense” at this point.

Here’s the compilation video of Markkanen’s seven makes during the second half. The final three could be said to be either Markkanen being aggressive or the case of a play drawn up for him, well executed.

The first four, though? Those are just random plays — in transition, after a rebound, or Markkanen just spacing in the corner. That’s not about approach, I don’t think, those are just plays where the Pistons made a mistake and left the game’s hottest player open.

In short, I’m not convinced that the “Can Markkanen be a ball-dominant scorer?” question is answered by this game. Of course, it’s very very excellent to be what Markkanen definitely is: an uber-high efficiency play finisher. He’s been one of the NBA’s top 15 or so players to this point, and has clearly taken a new leap in his career.

2. Let’s talk Rudy Gay

While we’re doing 7-shot compilations, here’s Rudy Gay’s seven shots tonight:

Man, I hate some of these. He so frequently is turning down the open three to take a couple dribbles inside the arc and turn a high-efficiency three into a low-efficiency two. The Jazz take fewer midrange twos than anyone in the league — a very good thing, and a big part of why they’ve been a top-5 offense — but Gay bucks the rest of the offense to take those bricks.

Defensively, he’s slow. These two plays within a minute stood out to me in the early fourth quarter — I’m not sure either of these are Gay’s fault exclusively, but two communication mistakes this quickly leaves 3-point shooters open for no reason.

I am not alone on my Rudy Gay frustration — I receive more tweets on his play than any other topic. Fans don’t get why he’s playing. Here’s my best go at explaining it.

First, I think we should acknowledge: Rudy Gay doesn’t have positive trade value. He won’t develop positive trade value. There’s no team in the league that’s going to trade valuable assets for Gay. The team is not playing him in hopes he develops positive trade value

But what he might be is a useful contract in a trade conversation. Not a positive one, but one that might merge a gap between a player the Jazz could acquire and one they already have. Say the Hawks wanted to get off of Clint Capela’s contract, and get a floor spacer in return — you could trade Kelly Olynyk and Gay for Capela and a first round pick, or something like that.

Because the Jazz are still very much in building for the future mode, flexibility is good. And so you might as well keep him on the roster.

And once he’s on the roster, Hardy might have to play him. Why? Well, frankly, he was not a good soldier about not playing last year, when Quin Snyder demoted him to Juancho Hernangomez. Currently, the vibes are good with Gay playing, and reportedly, he’s been a much more positive voice in the locker room as he’s happy with his playing time. If that goes away, that might change — and this iteration of the Jazz is all about the vibes.

The other wrinkle to this? Gay has been an inexplicable plus-minus god this season. Despite looking awful, he was a +30 tonight. In general, the Jazz outscore opponents by 10 points per 100 possessions with Gay on the floor. I know, I can’t believe it. Is that 99% because he’s playing with a good bench lineup that’s better than other teams’ benches? Yes, it is. Is it worth messing with what’s working? You can argue that it’s not.

3. All-Star voting

NBA All-Star voting started today, and closes on Jan. 21.

Does Markkanen have a shot to make it? Remember, All-Star voting is separated into two groups for each conference: backcourt and frontcourt. NBA.com wrote a guide of the top eight candidates in each pool:

Western Conference Backcourt: Desmond Bane, Devin Booker, Stephen Curry, Luka Doncic, DeAaron Fox, Shai Gilgeous-Alexander, Damian Lillard, Ja Morant

Western Conference Frontcourt: Anthony Davis, Jerami Grant, LeBron James, Nikola Jokic, Lauri Markkanen, Domantas Sabonis, Andrew Wiggins, Zion Williamson.

Last year, there were seven guards and six frontcourt players sent to the All-Star game, after an injury replacement. But it’s difficult to say the production of Draymond Green and Rudy Gobert has been good enough to make it to the game this season. Anthony Davis and Karl Anthony-Towns have missed and will miss more significant time due to injury.

Essentially, that means that Markkanen actually has an extremely good shot to make it. LeBron’s going to get in, as is Jokic. I expect Zion will be the third front-court fan selection, though maybe it’ll be Andrew Wiggins again. After that? It’s wide open.

By the way: being an All-Star would be important to Markkanen. “That’s like absolutely always been my personal goal. Obviously I have team goals, and I’m going to push those first, but on an individual level, I want to be one of those guys in the league. I want to make it to the top.”

He says that it’s “definitely pushing him,” even when he’s not feeling 100%, to play and play his best. With how good the Jazz have been, how good he has been, and the All-Star Game in Utah, Markkanen should get the nod if things continue this way.

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