The Triple Team: Jazz have most turnovers in eight years in loss to OKC — are there parallels to that 2015 Jazz team?

Utah Jazz forward Lauri Markkanen (23) tries to dribble past Oklahoma City Thunder guard Luguentz Dort during the first half of an NBA basketball game Friday, March, 3, 2023, in Oklahoma City. (AP Photo/Nate Billings)

Three thoughts on the Utah Jazz’s 130-103 loss to the Oklahoma City Thunder from Salt Lake Tribune beat writer Andy Larsen.

1. 26 turnovers sink Jazz

The Jazz’s 26 turnovers tonight as a team were their most since 2015, when they lost 97-82 to the Houston Rockets. That night they had 27 turnovers; Gordon Hayward had five of them, Trey Burke and Elijah Millsap added four each. Remember Elliot Williams? Even I barely do, and I’m paid to remember things about the Jazz — he added three.

That was Quin Snyder’s first season, and honestly, there are some clear similarities between the rosters Snyder and Will Hardy have to work with in these games. Snyder’s first season featured a lot of legitimate building blocks: that team started Hayward, Derrick Favors, and Rudy Gobert. Joe Ingles found his way into the starting lineup that night. Likewise, the Jazz have Lauri Markkanen, Walker Kessler, Ochai Agbaji.

But it also featured some young guys who weren’t going anywhere. It turns out Burke was a fringe NBA player — Talen Horton-Tucker might be the equivalent on this Jazz team, as both are 22-year-old players already showing massive warts.

Mix Elijah Millsap (a defense first guard) and Elliot Williams (a 10-day guy) and you have Kris Dunn. I compared Simone Fontecchio to Steve Novak in literally the last Triple Team, he was on that squad. Like Udoka Azubuike, Jeremy Evans was a young player who was one of the best dunkers in the NBA without being able to do much else. (This year’s team has more random veterans on it than the 2015 team did, though — there’s no real equivalent for a Juan Toscano-Anderson, Damian Jones, Kelly Olynyk, or Rudy Gay then.)

My point: When you play a bunch of players who are on the fringes of the NBA, you’re going to have some high turnover games. Some of those turnovers are going to be from your fringe perimeter players who just can’t dribble or pass that well: Horton-Tucker, Millsap, Williams, Gay.

And some of them are just going to be from your good building block players, because they have to play with less talented guys. Markkanen had six turnovers tonight. But look how difficult a situation this is for him:

Fontecchio’s just kind of cutting to the middle, then pausing in the worst possible place. It makes it extremely easy for Isaiah Joe to just leave Fontecchio and step in and take a charge.

Besides, even if it was one of Markkanen’s worst nights in a Jazz uniform, he still finished with 20 points, 10 rebounds, on 6-13 shooting. You’ll take it.

There’s no doubt about it, though: just like that 2015 team, the Jazz are in asset accumulation mode, still so early in their quest for contention. They’ll need many more quality players before they’re a real force.

2. Ochai Agbaji’s aggression

Will Hardy has repeatedly said he’s looking for Ochai Agbaji to level up his aggression, just as the Jazz have leveled up his role on the team. And to his credit, he’s done that: for the third time in 3 weeks, Agbaji’s taken 10 shots in a game.

That he finished 3-11 from the field is of no real consequence to me: that’s just because he shot 2-9 from the 3-point line, and he’s a good enough shooter that you know 2-9 is an unusually bad game for him. But that he was that willing to shoot the deep ball matters too.

But my favorite Agbaji plays tonight were where he expanded his game — at least at the NBA level — by taking the ball to opponents who were in good but not great defensive position. Like here, in transition: I think the Agbaji of earlier in the season just slows this down, with Joe in relatively good defensive position and 3 OKC players back. But here, he gets Joe off balance, forces the help, and finds Kessler for the easy basket.

This is a regular ol’ dribble handoff, but Agbaji hits the drop coverage hard, even forcing the probably mistaken help off of Damian Jones.

I’d probably prefer the pass be a little bit earlier and to Kris Dunn in the corner here rather than relying on Jones’ man to leave him, but hey, it worked out. The aggression led to points early in the shot clock, essentially created by Agbaji’s willingness to turn defenders on the move into uncomfortable team defenses. That’s a big skill, and it’s nice to see him do that in addition to the 3-point shot.

3. Looking ahead

After tonight, the Jazz are tied for the 11th spot in draft positioning, which gives them approximately a 7% chance at a top-4 pick. Still not great.

But where might the Jazz end up? FiveThirtyEight’s projection system does a pretty good job of correcting for injuries and current form, and predicts that the Jazz end up with a 38-44 record, good for a tie for the 9th slot in the draft lottery — about a 17% chance at a top-4 pick.

FiveThirtyEight's look at the projected NBA lottery. (https://projects.fivethirtyeight.com/2023-nba-predictions/)

That’s because, unlike in seasons past, the Jazz actually have a pretty tough schedule to end the season.

Right now, the Jazz are favored in only four games in their remaining 18, which would give them a 35-win season. That would tie them for the 6th slot in the lottery, giving them about a 33% chance at jumping into that all-important top-4. Getting to 39 wins requires the Jazz to win some games they’re currently not favored to win — of course, they’ve been doing that all season long.

Okay, so that’s what the computer says. What happens when we add in our human intuition?

Ultimately, I think the answer is somewhere in between. The Bulls are a bad team with a tough remaining schedule. The Thunder, though, will probably improve their form once Shai Gilgeous-Alexander comes back — assuming that he will relatively soon. Portland is regaining Anfernee Simons, and it’s pretty clear that Damian Lillard, at least, wants to win.

I’d also point out another aspect of the above projections: the fact that 538 picks the Timberwolves to fall into the lottery zone. Again, we’ll see if and when Karl-Anthony Towns comes back, but they have the league’s 6th-hardest schedule left. The Lakers and Pelicans have two of the easiest. That could send them down in the lottery, and improve the Jazz’s picks and chances at the top.

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