The Triple Team: The Jazz sat all of their best players against the Nuggets to try to lose — and then won anyway

(Rick Egan | The Salt Lake Tribune) in Utah Jazz forward Simone Fontecchio (16) dunks the ball as Denver Nuggets guard Christian Braun (0) defends, in NBA action between the Utah Jazz and the Denver Nuggets at Vivint Arena, Saturday, April 8, 2023.

Three thoughts on the Utah Jazz’s 118-114 win over the Denver Nuggets from Salt Lake Tribune beat writer Andy Larsen.

1. Not being able to tank, even when you try your hardest to tank

The Jazz, scared by the fact that they only lost by 16 points to the Oklahoma City Thunder, went even further lengths to try to tank this afternoon against the Denver Nuggets.

It wasn’t enough that leading scorers Lauri Markkanen and Jordan Clarkson were held out. It wasn’t enough that leading defender Walker Kessler was held out, nor was it enough that scoring point guards Talen Horton-Tucker and Collin Sexton were held out. Heck, even holding out veteran Rudy Gay wasn’t enough.

The Jazz looked at Kelly Olynyk’s near triple-double, and his public declaration of loving to play the game of basketball under any circumstance, and said: you, too, must sit. We won’t even make up an injury for you — we’ll call it rest.

Meanwhile, the Nuggets weren’t hyper-focused for this game, but they did play all of their starters. MVP candidate Nikola Jokic played 27 minutes, Jamal Murray played 28. They lead the Western Conference. And it even held some potential relevance for the team, in terms of whether or not they would have home-court advantage in the NBA Finals against the Cavaliers or the Sixers.

And somehow, the Jazz came out of that game with a win.

This team has thumbed its nose at expectation all year long. Some of that, they’ve said, is thumbing their nose at the outside expectations: of those who said (like I did!) that this team wouldn’t be talented enough to make any noise during the season, that it would be a procession to the bottom with zero drama. That has not been the case.

But truthfully, there also has been significant frustration at the team’s front office for doing this. At each step of the process, the front office has essentially worked to make the team worse — first at the deadline, then by extending injuries, then by forcing healthy players to sit. The players and coaches have publicly been extremely good soldiers about this. Everyone understands what’s going on. But privately, there’s real annoyance from some players directed upstairs for making this choice, going from in playoff position to out of it. Winning anyway is a fun form of rebellion.

I mean, give the front office credit: they assembled this incredibly resilient unit, full of end-of-bench guys who are good enough to play major minutes and give good teams a run for their money. They hired a terrific coach in Will Hardy, who is able to motivate them in any circumstance so far. All of these pickups will pay dividends in the future — just not with draft positioning.

By winning today, the Jazz lost their chance at a tie for 8th-best lottery odds, and can still potentially join Dallas in a tie for 9th with a win tomorrow and a Dallas loss.

2. Kris Dunn!

This 10-day pickup has been so, so good. The primary reason you sign Kris Dunn is his defense — he’s been essentially an All-Defense-caliber defender in his early career, though he fell short of playing enough minutes with the Chicago Bulls to actually win those honors.

That’s the primary reason I wanted to sign him for the Jazz’s teams of the past — they lacked good guard defenders, and it would have been nice to throw him out there in specific situations against the Jamal Murray and Reggie Jacksons of the world. Those, after all, are two point guards whose lane penetration absolutely killed the Jazz’s playoff runs. Ironically enough, Dunn limited both in the same game today.

But what has been unexpected is his ability to get separation for his own scoring. He’s not a vertically impressive athlete, nor is he especially quick. When you combine that with an inability to shoot, Dunn simply exhibited a lack of ability to score at the NBA level — it’s these limitations that saw him fall out of the league entirely.

So far with the Jazz, he’s shot a lot better — a definitely unsustainable 45% from deep. You don’t really expect that to keep up, even if Dunn’s underlying shooting really has improved. But what may legitimately stick is this herky-jerky scoring form he’s shown.

Even against Aaron Gordon, who’s been considered one of the best defenders in the NBA this season, who is much longer, quicker, and more athletic than Dunn... the Jazz’s point guard is just able to find a way to get separation. It happened three separate times tonight, in pretty much straight-up iso situations. Here’s the video:

How does Dunn do this? I think the biggest factor here is how he’s able to catch Gordon in unknown help situations. He drives sort of toward Jokic, and then gets the quick floater or layup off as Gordon thinks the help is coming. But truthfully, even the ballhandling to get exactly on the court where he wants to go is impressive — Dante Exum never had that, as a random example.

He also had 14 assists today. Most of those were pretty perfunctory “running the offense”-type assists, but here were four I liked best.

Good timing, good reads on all. Interestingly, Dunn said after the game he’s been watching tape on Andre Miller — another athleticism-limited NBA PG who still figured out how to get it done in scoring and assisting.

In the end, I’m pretty thrilled with what we’ve seen from him this year. While there will always be that “what-if” factor, imagining if the Jazz had gotten him sooner, he looks poised to legitimately help the Jazz next year too. He’s absolutely resuscitated his NBA career this year, and it’s been fun to watch it happen in Utah.

3. Tanking in the NBA

Which tanking example is worse?

• What the Dallas Mavericks did on Friday night, intentionally sitting all of their best players, including Luka Doncic and Kyrie Irving, in order to lose to the Bulls, even as they still had a 10% or so chance at making it to the play-in tournament?

• Or what the Jazz have done this season, sitting Lauri Markkanen, Jordan Clarkson, and Collin Sexton even as they weren’t especially hurt, and while they were just 1 game out of the 6th seed, for a majority of the season’s 12 remaining games?

It’s probably an eye-of-the-beholder thing. The Mavericks example has made far more people nationally angry, I think due to a confluence of factors: Luka Doncic is one of the league’s brightest stars, the high-profile nature of both Mark Cuban and Kyrie Irving, the fact it was so sudden and unexpected, and the fact that coach Jason Kidd was dumb enough to say the quiet part out loud — that the front office had decided to pull the plug. That’s probably why the league is “investigating” the Mavericks, but truth be told, the Jazz’s example has led to more games with players sitting out for no reason.

Regardless, it’s gross and it sucks. I think it’s even the right call for both teams — I have written that it was the right call for the Jazz. But I wish we had an NBA structure where teams weren’t so incentivized to lose games at the end of the season, when things should be their most exciting.

Honestly, some of my favorite games growing up came at the end of the Stockton and Malone era and during the Ty Corbin era as the Jazz fought for the 8th seed. Yeah, we basically all knew that the Jazz weren’t going to make the playoffs, but that didn’t make the games — like the triple-overtime Al Jefferson 28 points, 26 rebound performance — any less exciting.

Whatever it takes, throughout the standings spectrum, I think the NBA has to figure out a way to make the regular season matter more. The play-in tournament was a good step, but some teams are clearly ignoring that now too.

At the top, the Nuggets didn’t play their starters in the 4th quarter tonight, even though home-court advantage was at stake. In the middle and bottom, teams are consistently sitting out their best players. Nearly none of the league’s best will be playing in tomorrow’s grand decision-day end-of-season celebration, which is just a huge bummer.