Utah Jazz and NBA have six weeks left — here’s what to watch for in the stretch run

Player development remains the primary focus for the Jazz in the tight Western Conference landscape.

(Rick Egan | The Salt Lake Tribune) Utah Jazz head coach Will Hardy gives instructions, in NBA action between the Utah Jazz and the New Orleans Pelicans, at Vivint Arena, on Tuesday, Dec. 13, 2022.

What the Jazz want to do for the rest of the NBA season may depend on who you ask.

Different levels of the organization clearly have different priorities. The players want to show what they can do, they want to improve, and they want to compete for their playoff position. The coaches feel the same way, supporting the players while knowing that the team exceeding expectations is good for their careers, too.

However, with their trade of Mike Conley, Jarred Vanderbilt, Malik Beasley, and Nickeil Alexander-Walker, the Jazz’s front office may have signaled their preference to go downhill — or at the very least, their agnosticism about the team’s record this season.

But there’s one thing everyone can agree on: player development. Developing Lauri Markkanen, Collin Sexton, Walker Kessler, Ochai Agbaji and the rest of the Jazz’s young talent will serve them now and in the future. Furthermore, coach Will Hardy says that the Jazz’s schedule over the final 22 games has enough time for significant practice, that they can use to help develop those players’ games and how they fit in the way Hardy wants to play moving forward.

“I look at these last 22 games and the schedule, I like the balance of it much more than the first 60,” Hardy said. “It finally looks semi-appealing in terms of how often we will be playing.”

What the Jazz ask from each player depends on their career plan. For Markkanen, Hardy says the Jazz are looking for him to become a leader off the court.

“Right now, it’s about stepping into sort of a different light with our team. His approach every day and the way that he carries himself is something that his teammates will follow and will set the tone for the last 22 games of our season.”

For Sexton, the Jazz are looking primarily at health — especially after the point guard strained his hamstring again before the All-Star break. Sexton isn’t thrilled about having to stay on the sidelines while he gets better, Hardy said.

“Collin has a lot of strengths. Dealing with the word ‘no’ is not one of them. He wants to play every day. He wants his workouts to be long. He wants to lift and run. He wants to play 48 minutes, and every game he wants it all,” Hardy said. “I think that’s what we all love about Collin is that you’re never going to have to coach effort with Collin, you’re never going to have to coach ‘want to’ with Collin.”

Kessler, meanwhile, is trying to find consistency in his rookie season in the NBA. Kessler’s had some amazing games since the calendar turned to 2023, but also has put up some duds against NBA talent at times. His coaches say he’ll need to find a consistency of approach and execution every night, even as opposing schemes and skill sets change.

Finally, for Agbaji, the coaching staff is asking for more aggression. The Kansas product found himself outside of the rotation to begin the season, and since earning more time, has been one of the lowest-usage players in the NBA; almost afraid to make a mistake. The coaches want Agbaji to find the aggression he used to become the Final Four’s Most Outstanding Player a year ago.

“I’ve tried to make it clear to Ochai that I have belief in him, and we have belief in him — and there’s going to be moments now where you don’t need to be as careful and you don’t have to play perfect.”

How those four players play — now all in the Jazz’s top six rotationally — will determine so much about how the Jazz end up in the season standings.

“Obviously, the coaches and myself would be lying to you if we said that we don’t look at the standings, we definitely do. But in terms of messaging to the team, things are just so tight right now that it’s just about trying to play good basketball,” Hardy said.

It’s a jumbled Western Conference, too. Starting with the Kings, there are 11 teams in the standings — Sacramento, the Los Angeles Clippers (who just got Russell Westbrook, after he was bought out by Utah following a trade with the Lakers), Phoenix, Dallas (now with Kyrie Irving alongside Luka Doncic), New Orleans, Minnesota, Golden State, Oklahoma City, Utah, Portland and the Lakers — separated by just six games.

That being said, it’s tight in the other direction, too. If the season ended today, the Jazz would have the 12th slot in the NBA lottery. But only three games separate them from the sixth-best lottery odds, where Indiana currently sits.

There are six teams in the NBA that look pretty comfortably in playoff position. There are four other teams that pretty much know they’re not going anywhere. That leaves 20 teams for the last 10 playoff spots. There’s only 28% of the season left, which means it’s time for teams to start really jostling for playoff position.

The seedings could flip every night out West, meaning every run of wins or losses the Jazz take, in either direction, could have big impacts.

Let the games begin.