The Triple Team: Lauri Markkanen almost brings Jazz back vs. Kings — who finally might be rewarding their long-suffering fans

Utah Jazz forward Lauri Markkanen (23) shoots but misses as Sacramento Kings forward Harrison Barnes (40) defends in the closing seconds on an NBA basketball game in Sacramento, Calif., Friday, Dec. 30, 2022. The Kings won 126-125. (AP Photo/José Luis Villegas)

Three thoughts on the Utah Jazz’s 126-125 loss to the Sacramento Kings from Salt Lake Tribune beat writer Andy Larsen.

1. Lauri Markkanen: brilliant

There’s so much to love about Lauri Markkanen’s game. But number one to me is the versatility: the ability when, the 3-point shoot isn’t falling (Markkanen was just 1-7 tonight), to be able to go inside and score over and over again.

Tonight, he had 36 points, and 30 of them came from inside the arc. Those 15 2-point field goals is a new Jazz high since 2013, when Al Jefferson had 19 FG in a 40-point performance against poor Greg Stiemsma.

And again, we see how many different ways Markkanen can score:

Here’s Synergy Sports’ table on all of the different kinds of possessions Markkanen has used this year:

Lauri Markkanen's possessions by type, 22-23 season. (Synergy Sports)

First of all, that’s a lot of different play types to all do at least about once per game or more. And you’ll also note how many Markkanen is rated as “Excellent” in — as a spot-up shooter, a transition player, on offensive rebounds, in isolation, and in handoff plays.

I also think it’s interesting to note how Markkanen has been better in isolation than he has been in pick and roll this season, either running it himself or finishing it. He obviously can participate in it — see a couple of those dunks, for example — but Markkanen is at his best when he’s either an off-ball threat or when he’s able to get a mismatch.

The Jazz have clearly built their offense around the off-ball threat aspect of that, and rightfully so.

I do sort of perversely wonder what would happen if the Jazz just gave Markkanen the ball, brought the opposing team’s worst defender up to defend a screen, and forced a switch. Would that be equally effective late-game offense? But honestly, the Jazz actually moving the ball and running plays offensively late in games has been such a breath of fresh air over the Donovan Mitchell Time™ clutch offense of seasons past that I far prefer this — even if the comeback fell just short tonight.

2. What Walker Kessler does

Walker Kessler was a +17 tonight, while Jarred Vanderbilt was a -16. Each played about 24 minutes.

Vanderbilt did some nice things offensively — he had six assists, for example — but the defensive difference for the Jazz when Kessler is in the game is stark. It looked like the game would fade away for the Jazz when they trailed by six with 3:39 left; but Kessler’s entry made it harder for the Kings to score.

That continued a trend throughout: when Kessler was in the game, the Jazz had an excellent 92 defensive rating. When Vanderbilt was, the Jazz couldn’t buy a stop, allowing the Kings to score 152 points per 100 possessions. And this is in a game where he was credited with zero blocks, too — it’s not that he was doing it in highlight-reel fashion, he was just calmly quarterbacking the only good Jazz defensive minutes of the game.

This is such an impressive defense-to-offense play:

No, he wasn’t credited with a block here, though it sure looks like one. But he absolutely sprints down the floor, and beats Domantas Sabonis down the floor — the same Sabonis who is probably an All-Star this season, and has won the All-Star Skills Challenge too.

Again, I fully expect Kessler to be starting full time — I’ve been using the phrase sooner rather than later, but what I really mean is “as soon as one of Jarred Vanderbilt or Kelly Olynyk get traded.” I think, for optics/trade value reasons, it makes sense to keep those guys in the starting lineup until then.

But statistically, Kessler’s been a top-5 player for the Jazz this year — win shares, EPM, VORP, BPM, RAPTOR all rank him 4th, ESPN’s RPM ranks him 5th. That’s pretty impressive from a No. 22 pick in the draft.

3. Good things for Sacramento?

Yeah, it was a painful loss for the Jazz. There are things to tighten up, for sure, and it’s disappointing to go 0-3 on any road trip.

But you know what? I’m happy for Sacramento. They’re now 19-15, the 5th seed in the Western Conference. And finally, finally, look like they might make the playoffs after missing them for SEVENTEEN straight years.

I understand Jazz fans won’t want to watch this clip... but watch it anyway, with sound on. Listen to that crowd after Kevin Huerter’s game-winner.

(By the way, plaudits to the Kings for hiring ESPN’s Mark Jones to be their main play-by-play guy. I have no idea what his call was there after the made shot because the crowd was so darn loud, but he does a really good job in general.)

Here’s an in-arena angle, too.

I mean... that gives me chills. Your team hasn’t been in the playoffs for 17 seasons, the league tried to move the franchise, they don’t have a true superstar on the roster... and the fans are still that loud?

Those people deserve happiness.

Us small markets have to stick together, and I’ll be rooting for Sacramento’s success for the rest of the season.