The Triple Team: Are the Jazz too good to tank? Apparently so, as seen in surprising win vs. Kings

(Trent Nelson | The Salt Lake Tribune) Utah Jazz center Walker Kessler (24) defends a shot by Sacramento Kings forward Domantas Sabonis (10) as the Utah Jazz host the Sacramento Kings, NBA basketball in Salt Lake City on Monday, March 20, 2023.

Three thoughts on the Utah Jazz’s 128-120 win over the Sacramento Kings from Salt Lake Tribune beat writer Andy Larsen.

1. Update: the Jazz cannot tank

I was wrong. I was not alone in my wrongness, but that’s not much of an excuse.

This Jazz team is apparently too good to tank. Just 20 days ago, I wrote after a Jazz loss that the tanking had begun in earnest, and that head coach Will Hardy seemed like he was in on it too. Heck, two weeks ago, I went on the radio and said the Jazz probably had four or five wins in them for the rest of the year.


You can trade away fully four rotation guys, including three starter-level players, and play above .500 basketball.

You can then sit three of your remaining starters, and still win the game.

You can just start three rookies, a Lakers failed project, and a Pistons cast-off, against the Western Conference’s No. 2 team, and dominate the game’s opening minutes.

Apparently, Ochai Agbaji can be your go-to No. 1 option, and you’ll be great. Journeyman Kelly Olynyk can get near triple-doubles as your number two option. Kris Dunn, who hasn’t been in the NBA all year before a couple of weeks ago, can come off your bench and play the sixth-man role, responsible for scoring or assisting 43 points.

Udoka Azubuike, famously an incredible contributor who always excelled at the little things and never ever looks out of sorts, can play 18 solid minutes with a positive plus-minus, a perfect 13-point performance while adding eight rebounds. He will screen and roll with great timing, he will successfully and forcefully box out the league’s leading rebounder multiple times, and he will excel in a defensive scheme he’s never really played before at the NBA level.

Of course, you can win this game not through the magic of the underdog — forcing turnovers, running in transition, making more threes — but just defeating them in the half court. Out-executing the second-best team in the league, getting better shots, and converting on them.

Look, what’s happening with this team right now is movie-plot-esque. Okay, in many ways it is actually the plot of Major League: Management trading away all of their good players and instead having “a roster of rookies and aging players,” as the Wikipedia page puts it? That sure sounds familiar.

“Nearly three-quarters of the way through the season, the team is 60-61, far exceeding anyone’s expectations, and attendance has begun to improve.” Oh, are the Jazz three-quarters of the way through the season and 35-36, with every game sold out? Yep.

Now, will the Jazz run the table from here on out and win the pennant? I’m skeptical. But this Jazz team has punished my skepticism again and again.

At this point, it’s hard to count that possibility completely out. It feels like this Jazz team can do anything.

2. Walker Kessler is basically Rudy Gobert

Here are the league’s best defenders within 10 feet of the basket this season, per NBA.com’s tracking stats. (Minimum of five shots defended per game down there.)

All you can do is laugh! You have two former DPOYs in that list, the guy who’s probably going to be DPOY this year, the most underrated rim protector in the league (Brook Lopez)... and Walker Kessler and Lauri Markkanen.

Tonight, Kessler had two incredibly difficult jobs:

1. When the Jazz played zone, he has to play at the back of that zone, sprinting between the corners and protecting the rim. We wrote last game about how hard that role is, and Kessler did it effectively tonight.

2. When the Jazz had man, he had to guard Domantas Sabonis, who’s probably going to be on an All-NBA team this year. Moreover, the Jazz said “Hey, Walker. We know you’re a rookie, and we know Sabonis absolutely lit us up the last two times we played him. But tonight, every time he gets the ball, we’re not going to help at all, and leave you one-on-one against a top-5 post player in the NBA, who shoots 76% within three feet and 51% from 3-10 feet. Cool? Cool.”

And he did it. He was incredible — as much as so many Jazz players impressed tonight, I thought Kessler was their most important player.

Sabonis has him beat here, right? Wrong.

Okay, but he really has him beat here, yeah?!


Kessler’s ability to surprise players by using his off-hand to block shots is elite, as is his ability to stay within plays. Elite’s not nearly a strong enough word... he’s one of the two or three best players I’ve ever seen at that.

Are there improvement points? Sure. I think he can maybe make a bigger impact in the perimeter, when the scheme asks for it. There’s a whole lot of unexplored offense, none of which we can really know if he’s capable of doing yet.

But what we’ve seen already is pretty darn bonkers. This ludicrous list puts it in perspective.

Um, that will do.

3. A question of confidence

Look, the Jazz just probably do just need more talent. Despite my words above, they’re still a below .500 team. And that’s why I’ve been advocating for the tank — the simplest way for them to get an All-Star-level player is by getting fortunate in the NBA draft lottery, where it looks like three to five All-Stars are draftable this year. You get down into the bottom part of the lottery, or outside of it, and you’re probably getting Gradey Dick-style role-players. Obviously, there are no sure things, but that’s what the odds say.

But I don’t know... confidence is a funny thing in the NBA. And after this little stretch...

• Walker Kessler might read the above tweet and think he’s a Hall of Famer.

• Ochai Agbaji not only knows he’s an NBA player... he thinks he’s a starting-level player in the NBA. He’ll be ready to aggressively attack defenses, no matter who’s guarding him.

• Talen Horton-Tucker will think he’s on the way to become a starting-level guard. Kris Dunn will think he deserves not only an NBA spot, but an NBA rotation spot.

• Simone Fontecchio will think he can stick in the league, and likely play as a shooting four.

• Johnny Juzang will think he can earn a full-time NBA contract.

• So may even Udoka Azubuike!

The question to me is what they do with that confidence. There are players who see a period of success like this and grow on it. Draymond Green and Rudy Gobert did, for example, turning injury-induced stints in the starting lineup into likely Hall of Fame careers as two of the top ten defenders of all time. Kessler could go that way, for example.

Then there are players who find that success and then use it to do absolutely nothing. Andray Blatche scored 30 points five times in five weeks in 2010, and then used it to be the No. 1 result when you Google “laziest players in the NBA.” He found himself out of the NBA in four seasons at the age of 27. (If you want the recent Jazz example, I think it’s probably Trey Burke.)

What those players work at this offseason is so crucial to whether or not this stretch works out. If they meet their potential, than this was one of the most productive seasons in franchise history. If not, we’ll all regret that the Jazz weren’t able to lose more games at the time to acquire more talent when they desperately needed it.

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