Three thoughts on the Utah Jazz’s 126-103 win over the L.A. Clippers from Salt Lake Tribune beat writer Andy Larsen.
1. How Markkanen’s usage is changing
Lauri Markkanen continues to just be absurdly good. He had 34 points and 12 rebounds tonight, shooting 11-20 from the field and 6-8 from deep.
There’s not really an argument for him not being an All-Star. He absolutely should be. There’s even an argument he should start. I’m one of the 100 NBA media voters who get 25% of the voting credit towards deciding those All-Star starters, and it’ll be close for me. (Probably Nikola Jokic and LeBron James are two locks. Do you go with Markkanen or Domantas Sabonis for the third spot?)
So given that we’re taking his goodness as axiomatic, let’s instead learn about how his game has changed throughout the season. Two things have happened over the course of the year:
1. Defenses have changed how they’re guarding him, as they’ve learned how good he is.
2. The offense has changed how they’re using him, as Will Hardy has learned how good he is.
In particular, let’s look at the ways Markkanen has gotten his points. This breakdown is courtesy stats kept by Synergy Sports.
So what trends do we see?
First, the Jazz have moved Markkanen from more of a pick and roll ball-handler into a pick and roll screener. That’s really interesting, because the usual way to take advantage of a great player would be to put the ball in his hands more, and asked him to create. Instead, the Jazz have put the ball in his hands as a screener, getting him either in the middle of the floor or on the pick and pop.
Second, look at how much that off-screen number has increased. The Jazz are having him come off of his teammates’ screens — take this example from tonight:
Two of his teammates setting him up for an open wing three. Easy peasy.
Post-ups haven’t changed. Put backs are actually down. Cuts are up — his teammates are looking for him perhaps more.
Whatever it is, it’s working. Markkanen’s averaging 30 points per game in January, and looks so, so good.
2. Mike Conley and Clippers rumors
Mike Conley had a very good game tonight, To be honest, it wasn’t anything that he doesn’t normally do, but this was a good 3-point shooting variance game for him — he made 5-6. (It was a great 3-point variance game for the Jazz: they made 59% as a team, their best shooting performance in years.)
Speaking of which, Conley’s had his name in the news a lot recently.
• Marc Stein on Substack wrote “Sources say (the Clippers) also have trade interest in Utah’s Mike Conley Jr. amid a rising belief leaguewide that the Jazz — who have tumbled to No. 9 in the West at 22-24 after their great start — could become a much-needed seller at this deadline.”
• The Athletic’s Shams Charania reported “The Timberwolves and Clippers are expressing interest in Jazz guard Mike Conley Jr. ... The Clippers are searching for depth in the frontcourt and have discussed guard John Wall in potential deals, league sources say.”
• And Bleacher Report’s Jake Fischer noted: The Clippers’ Mike Conley interest dates back to at least this summer, when Los Angeles was weighing point guard options before John Wall headed to Staples Center after securing his buyout from the Rockets.
That’s three of the league’s four or five top news breakers all writing on Conley’s availability in the last week. He’s probably available.
How would a Clippers trade work? Really, their package that matches Conley’s salary is pretty straightforward: Robert Covington or Reggie Jackson (who both make about $12 million per year), John Wall, and Jason Preston (or Amir Coffey or Brandon Boston or whichever near-minimum contract) works pretty evenly.
Why would the Jazz do that? Basically, because Conley is somewhat overpaid at his current deal, and because you’d like to give his money to someone younger next season on a growing team.
Meanwhile, the Clippers might see Conley as a win-now upgrade over Jackson or Wall. Maybe you could convince the Clippers that the point guard upgrade to Conley would be worth giving up a second round pick — it really might be when Paul George and Kawhi Leonard play. (They don’t really have any firsts to offer until 2028, thanks to the trade that got them PG.) In particular, Conley is the best shooter of those point guards.
Conley is very valuable to this Jazz team, but it’s hard to imagine him being on the next contending Jazz team at 36 years old or older. According to the newsbreakers, there’s interest out there in his availability.
3. The Clippers’ plan with load management
Uh, the Clippers are in trouble, and they seem not to notice it.
They are currently in the eight seed in the Western Conference. They are two games ahead of the 13th-seed Los Angeles Lakers.
True, they are also two games out of the five seed — where they would face a good team on the road in the first round, and every round after that. Their road to a potential title would be extremely difficult.
Every game really matters right now; and it looks like they will matter at the end of the season. And the Clippers have lost eight of their last 10 games.
So why are they resting Paul George? Why are they resting Kawhi Leonard? Of course, the answer is “so they can be healthy for the playoffs” — guys, there may not be a playoffs for them to be healthy for if you keep doing this! Besides that, them resting their best players is awful for the league; this should have been an exciting game that was instead a blowout because of the Clippers’ decisions.
Look, maybe this will all turn out fine, and the Clippers will make the NBA Finals out of the West. I think they’d still probably lose to any of the Eastern Conference contenders, but that would have to be considered a successful season.
But it is very much on the brink of not being fine. To be honest, I’m probably rooting for that outcome, because I hope teams in the future don’t follow their model.
Editor’s note • This story is available to Salt Lake Tribune subscribers only. Thank you for supporting local journalism.