The Triple Team: Jazz win a close one against the Pacers. An important question: do the Jazz want to win right now?

Utah Jazz guard Collin Sexton (2) shoots in front of Indiana Pacers guard Bennedict Mathurin (00) during the second half of an NBA basketball game in Indianapolis, Monday, Feb. 13, 2023. The Jazz defeated the Pacers 123-117. (AP Photo/Michael Conroy)

Three thoughts on the Utah Jazz’s 123-117 win over the Indiana Pacers from Salt Lake Tribune beat writer Andy Larsen.

1. Thinking about the direction of the team

This was a game you probably had circled if you were watching the standings — the bottom-half of the standings, that is. The Pacers’ mark of the sixth-worst team in the NBA is probably the lower limit of where the Jazz can fall with 23 games remaining in the season — giving them the sixth-best odds at the top two selections.

Clearly, the Jazz are prioritizing future assets over their on-court product now. Trading Mike Conley, Malik Beasley, Jarred Vanderbilt, and Nickeil Alexander-Walker away for three guys who don’t play and a first-round pick is as clear as a message as can possibly be. And truthfully, that trade made sense: that Lakers pick just is more valuable than the chance of making a short-lived Play-In Tournament run this season.

But that pick wasn’t the only long-term asset the team hoped to gain by making that trade. The front office also considered how the team might perform after the deadline, missing 3-4 rotation guys — and noted that dropping a few draft slots was also like picking up another draft pick. (After all, if the Jazz wanted to move from, say, the No. 13 slot to the No. 6 slot, they’d certainly have to use at least one, maybe two more future first round picks to do it.)

Winning games like tonight’s removes that future value from the team.

Now, I’m okay with winning. In fact, I support it! But I want the winning now to be in support of winning later, because this team realistically isn’t going to win enough this season to be championship competitive.

Did tonight’s performance help support winning later? To some extent, it did. Collin Sexton played a lot, and looked good. Talen Horton-Tucker was the team’s backup point guard, and added seven assists. Ochai Agbaji had some great moments, and some rough ones too. Perhaps next year, the team will be aided by the experience those players gained in this game.

But there were also some decisions that, frankly, will not help the team next season. I would expect Kelly Olynyk to not be a part of the Jazz next season — he’s a good player, but probably not worth $12 million in a vacuum. Meanwhile, Walker Kessler is one of the team’s cornerstones. Given that, I prefer Kessler play in any end-of-game situation — even ones in which he’ll be asked to do things that are outside of his comfort zone right now.

To my surprise, the team is still playing Rudy Gay. He is under contract next season, but is just at a point in his career where I feel his minutes could go to Simone Fontecchio or even to Johnny Juzang, to see what they can do.

Now, to be sure, the Jazz are not in an awful spot as a franchise whether they win or lose against the Pacers on a Monday night. They still have a good coach, a young star in Lauri Markkanen, and 15 future first-round draft picks. (Well, technically, they have infinite first-round draft picks so long as you assume the perpetuity of the NBA, but you know what I mean.) They’re going to be just fine, regardless.

But winning now does reduce their flexibility moving forward. Instead of realistically acquiring a No. 1 star on draft night this year, they’ll probably have to go get someone already in the league via trade. And of course, that will require the Jazz using many of those assets, ones that they could have used to get more talent. It’s easier to acquire a Big Three if you are able to draft one of them.

In short: if the organization has decided to prioritize the future over the present — and they have — then that decision should echo on-court decisions made by the coaches and training staff as well. Otherwise, it’s a significant missed opportunity.

2. Collin Sexton, lightning fast

Speed, I think, can be a little overrated in the NBA.

Think of Dante Exum — one of the fastest players in the league coming into the draft and during his time in Utah, especially pre-injury. But Exum wasn’t really able to use his speed effectively: he didn’t have the ballhandling to reliably use it to get to the rim in half-court settings, and if he did get to the rim, he wasn’t usually able to finish there. His lack of other skills — dribbling, finishing, shooting — outweighed the fact that he was elite with his feet.

Collin Sexton is also incredibly fast, certainly one of the fastest players in the league and definitely the fastest player on the Jazz. As Pacers commentator Quinn Buckner noted here, “Ooooh! Sexton is unbelievably quick.”

But unlike Exum, Sexton has much more control of his dribble and the ability to finish around the rim to make that quick step worth something. This is especially true when he attacks in isolation.

That urgency can also create opportunities for others, too. Watch this: after a made basket, Sexton sprints to the “rebound,” quickly taps the ball to the inbounder, sprints up the court, chucks it to Fontecchio, who finds Olynyk with a corner three.

This is effective because Sexton’s teammates got in position up the court as well. And that’s a key to this working: if Sexton’s all alone up there, he’s more likely to find himself in tough situations without an outlet. After the game, Hardy said he asked the Jazz to stretch, because he wanted them to run with Sexton, not lag so far behind him.

Even if it might be overrated, speed can still be a legitimate weapon. The Jazz, in order to take advantage of Sexton’s physical gifts, will need the Alabama product to make good decisions with the ball (as he mostly did tonight) and have his teammates support him, too.

3. Lauri Markkanen, dealing with ball pressure

This was kind of an interesting game for Markkanen. He excelled, because he apparently always does: 29 points on 10-20 shooting, plus 11 rebounds.

But he got put in some unusual situations tonight. For one, the Pacers used an interesting strategy on him: they defended him with the smaller Andrew Nembhard for most of the night. Nembhard stands at just 6-5 and is listed at just 196 pounds; in other words, Markkanen had a huge size advantage. Most of the time, it showed.

When the Pacers brought the double-team in the post, though, there were a couple of struggles. In one, he simply didn’t notice the second player coming, resulting in a steal. In another, he kind of picks up his dribble too early in response to the pressure, resulting in a sloppy-ish scoop layup miss.

Then, there was this turnover at the beginning of the fourth quarter.

All of this makes sense — again, it’s the among the first time in his NBA career that Markkanen is seeing some of these defensive strategies. Not a lot of NBA teams were previously doubling him in the post, or having a small guard him as he dribbled the ball up the floor. But it is a fun reminder that he’s still learning things — and that, believe it or not, even further development for the Jazz’s star is still possible.

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