Gordon Monson: The current Utah Jazz are stunning, if not staggering

The stripped-down Jazz still have a chance at making the playoffs.

(Trent Nelson | The Salt Lake Tribune) Utah Jazz center Walker Kessler (24) defending San Antonio Spurs forward Keldon Johnson (3) as the Utah Jazz host the San Antonio Spurs, NBA basketball in Salt Lake City on Tuesday, Feb. 28, 2023.

Where and what the Jazz are right now is stunning, if not staggering.

They’re a near-.500 team that, based on their boss’s moves and maneuvering, should be sucking eggs. Goose eggs. They’re like a Steinway that’s had its keys hammered off, like an Indy car that’s had its engine dropped and its Goodyears popped. They are Rory McIlroy playing with only a 5-iron, a 7-iron and a flop wedge in the bag.

But they do not suck goose eggs. They keep playing and racing and swinging.

They won’t win anything, but the players will not stop trying.

Let’s back off the similes and back up, do some literal comparing and considering here.

When it comes to this particular Jazz team at this particular time, measuring the where and the what against the where and the what in recent past seasons, every observer has to come to their own conclusion.

Is Danny Ainge’s plan a good one? Is it an acceptable one? Is it the right one?

Some of the important answers need time. But what about from here to there? How you hanging on, where are you? Even among doubters and realists, there’s reason for optimism.

But wait a minute, what about this: Were the Jazz constructed as they were last season, in spite of some of the disconnection on the court, in the locker room, in their own minds and attitudes, would they have had a chance to do what they hadn’t done in previous years — make a strong playoff run?

A glance at the standings indicates that there’s not much distance between most teams that will qualify for the playoffs. Only a few games separate those mid-to-high-range outfits. At the top of the standings in the West, at the start of this week, were the Denver Nuggets, who, led by Nikola Jokic, are a strong contender. But the rest of the teams — Sacramento (43-27), Memphis (43-27) and Phoenix (38-33) don’t stir a whole lot of competitive fear. They’re good, but they’re not intimidating and they wouldn’t have been unconquerable forces for the Jazz, as constituted over the past couple of seasons, before that team was deconstructed by the Jazz front office.

I know, I know, the track record heretofore is what it is, that Jazz team — which finished with regular-season records of 49-33 and 52-20 — having not gotten past the first two playoff rounds.

But those regular-season marks, if they mean anything, suggest that maybe this season, the Donovan Mitchell-Rudy Gobert Jazz would have had a shot at doing something better. We’ll never know, but the West just isn’t that formidable, not anymore.

Even the stripped-down Jazz have a chance at making the playoffs, currently at 34-36. The teams in front of them: Lakers (35-37), Timberwolves (35-37), Thunder (35-36), Warriors (36-36), Mavericks (36-35) and Clippers (38-34).

It does make you wonder what might have happened had the Jazz demonstrated a bit more patience for at least one more run, perhaps the breakthrough would have come.

They didn’t, it didn’t, and that’s that.

On the one hand, with the All-Stars the Jazz had in the fold, it was up to them to take the team to the championship Mitchell and Gobert so frequently talked about. When Ainge took over, and he made the moves he’s made, he’s taken that responsibility away from the players and put it on his own shoulders, to restart the build for authentic contention. That was an ego move on his part. On the other, Ainge didn’t passively shrug and sit back and ignore what he saw on the floor and in the locker room, the way some executives do.

Only the seasons ahead will draw conclusive praise or condemnation for what he has done.

Here’s the thing, though: There’s hope for the Jazz in the wake of their lack of patience.

And it comes in the remarkable form of what’s been so plain to see — the advancement of Lauri Markkanen, the development of Walker Kessler, and the promise of Ochai Agbaji. The position on the scale upon which those players ultimately will be found, from good to great, is kind of cool to think about. And there are other bright possibilities, including Talen Horton-Tucker, who has come on strong in recent games and who, it should be remembered, is only 22 years old. It just seems like he’d be about 28, with the mileage he’s already accumulated with the Lakers. He’s still a kid, a strong kid, but just a kid.

Potential is a word that has poisoned and punished and permanently damaged many a young player, but with Markkanen, it’s already been if not fulfilled, at least established. Look at the numbers: 25.4 points, 8.6 rebounds, 50-percent shooting, better than 40 percent from deep.

What Kessler has done in his rookie season, based on the immediate expectation, is remarkable. He’s made mistakes, but quickly climbed high peaks, especially over his last 10 games, during which the center has averaged 11.3 points, 12.8 rebounds, 3.7 blocks in 31 minutes per. On top of that, he’s committed just 2.6 fouls, efficient for a learning low-post player, and hit better than 76 percent of his shots. Whoa. Consider what he might do once he’s fully acclimated to the NBA.

Over his last 10 games, Agbaji has scored 11.7 points per, and demonstrated the athleticism that is so valued in the league, so needed by the Jazz.

Where do you think Kessler, picked 22nd overall in the draft, and Agbaji, picked 14th, would be selected were that draft to be done over now? The Jazz have a couple of keepers in those two rookies, and they are fully aware, as is the rest of the NBA.

Horton-Tucker has been a beast — both in the positive and the negative — over the past 10 games in which he’s gotten more minutes: 16.3 points, 5.6 assists, 5.1 boards and shooting 45 percent. He’s also committed 4.3 turnovers.

These numbers are just numbers, never telling the whole story, but … anyone who watches the Jazz can see there are indications of promise in their future, even in their present.

Two opposing truths can exist simultaneously.

The first is that the Jazz missed an opportunity, an opening to do what they had been unable to do over the past five seasons this time around, had they stayed the course for one more year. There’s no proof of that, but look around the West and how bunched up it is in so much good, not great, and realize that while the Mitchell-Gobert Jazz were never great, they had mastered good, and that would have given them a chance.

The second is that the new Jazz have real reasons to dream. Two more opposing truths: Management has done everything short of giving the shop away over the past year. The team also is just 3.5 games out of fourth place in the West.

And we haven’t even mentioned what everybody always mentions when it comes to the 2022-23 Jazz — that they have a ridiculous haul of draft picks in their pockets, to be used either as actual selections or as trade material to bring in more of what they need.

The fact that folks are arguing over whether this depleted Jazz team, at least the one that Will Hardy puts on the floor, should go ahead and do what it’s doing — fight for a playoff spot — or punt the last few games away for better draft positioning is … what’d we say at the start? Oh, yeah … stunning, if not staggering.