The Triple Team: Are Jazz officially in tank mode after loss to Spurs? There’s some evidence of that

(Trent Nelson | The Salt Lake Tribune) Utah Jazz center Udoka Azubuike (20), Utah Jazz forward Lauri Markkanen (23), and Utah Jazz forward Rudy Gay (22) as the Utah Jazz host the San Antonio Spurs, NBA basketball in Salt Lake City on Tuesday, Feb. 28, 2023.

Three thoughts on the Utah Jazz’s 102-94 loss to the San Antonio Spurs from Salt Lake Tribune beat writer Andy Larsen.

1. Jazz are officially in tank mode

I think we’re going to look back on this game and think of it as the official turning point in the season — the one in which the Jazz really started to tank. After all, the Jazz gave the Spurs their first win in over a month to break a 16-game losing streak, and had to play really poorly to do it.

What is the evidence they’ve chosen to tank?

• First, the injury report. Clarkson, you’ll remember, did seem to hurt his hand in the Jazz’s last game against San Antonio, but played the remainder of his normal minutes in that game. Collin Sexton’s injury, too, is a little suspicious: he was healthy enough that the team felt comfortable risking his performance in the All-Star game Skills Challenge, but not well enough to play the first three games coming out of the break? But Rudy Gay with a broken nose — sure, he can play. After all, he’s been the Jazz’s worst rotation player this season.

• Second, the rotational choices. Udoka Azubuike is on an expiring contract. He will not be on the Jazz next season. Damion Jones, even though he’s older, will likely be on the Jazz next year: he should almost certainly pick up his $2.5 million player option. Jones, also, is a much better player than Azubuike. Jones is the more logical short-term and long-term player to play — unless you’re trying to lose. Juan Toscano-Anderson played significant minutes on the champion Golden State Warriors, but the Jazz played Johnny Juzang in his first NBA game over him.

• Third, the lineups used. If you’re trying to win an NBA game, you simply can’t put a lineup with Kris Dunn, Juzang, Simone Fontecchio, Toscano-Anderson, and Rudy Gay at the five out there for nearly half a quarter. The lineup has no rim protection, no scoring threat, no real playmaker, and multiple defensive holes. If you’re trying to win, honestly, you put Kelly Olynyk out there for some of it and have him operate essentially at point center.

• Fourth, the timeout choices. The Jazz had the opportunity to use an extra “use it or lose it” timeout before the three minute mark with the team scuffling, Hardy let that chance slide. They used one with 2 minutes left, then didn’t use another one after that. They have seven timeouts to use in a game, and called five. (The Spurs, by the way, called four.)

This makes sense. The front office has been abundantly clear that they are not interested in being competitive for the rest of this season — that’s why you trade four rotation players even as you’re in the midst of a playoff battle. The question was basically whether or not they could get Hardy to go along with that mindset. After tonight, I think it’s pretty clear that he’s in, too.

Now, a six game road trip: two games against the Thunder, then the Mavericks, the Magic, the Hornets, and the Heat. The Thunder are probably better than the Jazz, at least the shorthanded Jazz; the Mavericks are too (but are 1-4 in their last five since acquiring Kyrie Irving), the Magic are weirdly 6-4 in their last 10, the Hornets have won five in a row, and the Heat are the East’s 6th seed. It could be a loss-filled trip, but we’ll see.

Regardless, here’s a picture of a Jazz-yellow colored tank I found in our AP image gallery.

This May 20, 2019 photo shows a M-41 Bulldog World War II period tank that sits at the entrance of Bluefield's Lotito City Park that was mysteriously painted a lemon-lime green color in Bluefield, W.Va. The Korean War era tank has turned bright lemon-lime yellow thanks to a mix up with paint colors. .(Eric DiNovo/The Daily Telegraph via AP)

2. Simone Fontecchio’s shooting

The pitch of Simone Fontecchio as an NBA player is essentially as a big sharpshooter who is decent enough at the other stuff to stay on the floor. Some suggested comps: Georges Niang? Steve Novak? Duncan Robinson? Davis Bertans?

And unfortunately, if he’s shooting 28.7% from three on the season, that’s not going to get it done.

The good news is that he has a long history of being a much better shooter than that. His year-by-year shooting percentages, since his career began in 2012-13:

Basically, since he turned 21, he’s been a pretty lights-out shooter. Those shots in the last two years, especially, outweigh the total of 89 3-point shots he’s had this year.

That being said, there are obvious reasons why 3-point shooting in the NBA is much harder. Closeouts come faster and higher than at every other league. You’re probably a little more tired from running up and down the floor a little. The ball is literally different. And in Fontecchio’s case, he’s also probably pressing a little bit, knowing how important shooting is to his game.

In other words, I’m glad he has one more year on his deal after this, to see if a little bit more pressure and a little bit more NBA time can contribute to a turnaround. If he doesn’t improve next year, though, then it’s probably fair to say it’s not going to work and move on.

3. Talen Horton-Tucker’s turnovers

After the game, Talen Horton-Tucker honestly seemed like he wanted to communicate with his teammates about the turnovers he threw tonight, especially in clutch situations. He threw seven overall, including three in the fourth quarter.

I’ll be honest, though... some of them are just such bad ideas that they kind of show almost a pickup game understanding of basketball. Like, he asked about this one:

Sir, that pass is at least two feet above Lauri Markkanen’s outstretched arm. Markkanen, as we’ve covered, is probably one of the top-5 7-footers in the NBA today, and you didn’t come close.

Mistakes can be made, but let’s say that pass is completed. Even if it is, it’s a really tough position for Markkanen to be in: it’s too far from the hoop to be a lob, there’s lots of help at the rim, and even the baseline pass to Dunn in the corner is probably covered. Mike Conley probably doesn’t even consider that pass, instead preferring to make a play within a structure Markkanen can succeed in more.

This one has kind of a similar problem.

Driving the paint is obviously good, but he’s really kind of driving to a spot eight feet away from the rim, not working with Walker Kessler on the pick and roll timing. As a result, when he can’t get all the way to the rim, he has to throw this crazy lob pass against his momentum, and it’s just almost certainly going to be intercepted.

It’s just bad improv, essentially. There’s good improvisation, too, and THT can show that off. But in the game’s most important moments, he would do well to follow the team structure to put everyone else in more of a position to succeed.