The Triple Team: What did we learn from this Jazz season? A review after Game 82

Utah Jazz forward Simone Fontecchio, left, shoots as Los Angeles Lakers guard Austin Reaves defends during the first half of an NBA basketball game Sunday, April 9, 2023, in Los Angeles. (AP Photo/Mark J. Terrill)

Three thoughts on the Utah Jazz’s 128-117 loss to the Los Angeles Lakers from Salt Lake Tribune Jazz beat writer Andy Larsen.

1. The emotions of Game 82

This was a meaningful game for both teams: the Lakers needed to win in order to avoid falling in the play-in tournament, therefore giving themselves an easier chance at making it into the real playoffs. For the Jazz, a win would have meant bad news: a tie with Dallas for the 9th lottery odds, and a coin flip could have put them into 10th.

And yet, it was the Jazz who maybe more obviously played harder, playing with real emotion. Heck, for the first time this season, Ochai Agbaji not only earned a technical, but was ejected for his conduct: a light toss of the ball to Derek Richardson’s legs, with reportedly some extra words to boot. The Jazz were within one possession within two minutes, but LeBron James’ threes — he was 8-14 from deep today after an abysmal shooting year overall — put the Lakers over the top.

Across the league, though, it seemed to be emotional — at least for the teams that had something at stake. The NBA’s biggest game today was Minnesota vs. New Orleans, which ESPN inexplicably snubbed to show Lakers/Jazz. And in that game, we had not one but two incidents in which players got so fired up that it may well end their seasons.

First, Rudy Gobert punched Kyle Anderson.

That’s... really bad. Kyle Anderson is definitely not blameless here, as he has some pretty choice words for Gobert, but you obviously can’t punch your teammate and get away with it, unless your name is Draymond Green. Gobert was “sent home,” it feels like it would be a surprise if he played in the play-in tournament.

Then, Jaden McDaniels, their best remaining defender, broke his hand when he punched a wall in the tunnel. Somehow, the Timberwolves won anyway, giving them the No. 8 spot in the play-in tournament. They’ll play L.A. next.

That wasn’t the only fight in the NBA. Teammates Bones Hyland and Mason Plumlee got into it, too?

That one is less damaging towards the Clippers, but still, not something you see every day.

To me, it’s revealing about how long the NBA season can be. Hyland and Plumlee were both on different teams earlier in the season. Anderson and Gobert had actually been relatively supportive of one another during the season, but blew up at the wrong time. Agbaji started the season nearly bereft of confidence, struggling even in the G-League as the team tried to keep his spirits high.

Unexpectedly, fireworks popped today, with some exciting games to come in the NBA in the weeks to come.

2. What have we learned about the Jazz’s bench during tank season?

The upside of playing none of your starters is that you can get a really good idea of how the bottom of the roster would fare in bigger situations. Are any of these players potentially useful when the stakes are higher? Are others good minute fillers in a future season? Or is there more opportunity to be had by trying out another player?

So what have we learned?

• Talen Horton-Tucker can be a compelling, ball-in-hand creator in a pinch: give him the ball and he can score and create. As of right now, he’s not going to do so efficiently: despite the good end to the year, he still only had a 52% true-shooting percentage after the All-Star break. He’s not currently an off-ball threat, thanks to the 3-point shooting. But he’s just 22, and if he realizes that he needs to remove a couple of bad shots per game, he could have real potential.

• Luka Samanic looks like something. He’s 6-10, can shoot, defended LeBron credibly, played in a team construct, and averaged 10 points per game in a mid-sized role in his seven games in a Jazz uniform. He has a number of different outs to be an NBA player, and is just 23 years old.

• The Jazz put the ball in Ochai Agbaji’s hands down the stretch... to middling results. He ended up shooting less than 40% from the field since the All-Star break, and never really got the playmaking going (until today, when he had eight assists before being ejected). There were real highlights, but real points in his game that he’ll need to improve this offseason — and at this point, you probably prefer him as a role player over a ball-in-hand player. Still, so much more good news than it seemed in November and December when he rarely played.

• Damian Jones looks like a low-tier backup center or very good third-string center. Udoka Azubuike still isn’t in great spots and has big weaknesses, but his big strengths popped more in the last two weeks than at any other point in his career.

• Juan Toscano-Anderson is a hustler, but it’s really, really hard to stick in the NBA if you’re as reluctant of a shooter as he is.

• Simone Fontecchio never really got going this season, despite some moments — remember, he had a game-winner this year! He’ll need to show real improvement in year No. 2 in order to stick in the NBA.

• Johnny Juzang looks the part of an NBA player... except the shots don’t go in. He’s only shooting 25% from three, and he’ll need that to be at least 35% to be in the NBA moving forward.

• Finally, Kris Dunn has been absolutely awesome since joining the Jazz... bringing great (if foul-prone) defense while figuring out how to shoot and score efficiently. He’s even made catch-and-shoot threes at a high level. The hope is he’s able to even mostly consolidate these gains. If he plays like this, he’s one of the league’s best backup point guards.

Overall, the end of the Jazz’s bench looks much, much more promising than it was in the last couple of years. And as I looked at other scorelines around the NBA today, it’s much much more promising than a lot of teams’ end-of-roster situations: Portland’s 56-point loss today was rough. The Jazz have a few players that look really potentially helpful.

3. Season in review

The Jazz accelerated their contending timeline this year.

Yes, they fell short of the odds of getting Victor Wembanyama or Scoot Henderson than they would have hoped — coming into the season, the front office likely hoped they’d have at least a 20% chance at those two, instead, it will be under 10%.

But two players exceeded expectations by so much that they already look to be huge, huge parts of the next contending Jazz team.

First, Lauri Markkanen was just utterly superb this year, having a borderline top-10 season. He was named an All-Star, became a starter, and likely will be All-NBA this year. If he’s able to consolidate his gains — and there’s no reason he shouldn’t be able to at age 25 — he will be the Jazz’s best or second-best player for years to come.

Second, Walker Kessler showed himself to not just be a capable backup center, as most expected for him coming out of the draft, but to be one of the league’s best rim protectors as a rookie. There’s still some stuff to clean up, but he also proved to me a very capable offensive player as well, especially finishing around the basket with aplomb. At worst, he looks like a long-term starter at center, and he does have All-Star potential too.

Having these two players drastically changes the Jazz’s timeline. Having Markkanen on such a below-value contract (only $17 million for the next two years!) and Kessler even cheaper ($2-5 million over the next three years) means that the Jazz have some urgency to get better to take advantage of the rest of the salary cap. The last iteration of the Jazz got capped out as Donovan Mitchell, Mike Conley and Gobert made enough money to make other good players unattainable. Having Markkanen and Kessler making $20 million combined gives them $120 million to do whatever they want with — but only for the next two seasons.

As a result, it becomes more likely that the Jazz use their best other assets — those 15 draft picks — as trade chips. Patience may not be the best play here.

They also discovered that Will Hardy is a pretty darn good coach. I always want to see how a coach succeeds in coaching multiple different groups before passing judgment: the way Jerry Sloan succeeded with both Stockton/Malone and Williams/Boozer in different ways was really impressive, for example. It’s hard to show that versatility in one year. But Hardy kind of managed that, by getting out to that 10-3 start early in the year with one core, and impressing after the trade deadline with another. He looks like a keeper.

While the events of the Draft Lottery on May 16 will determine much about the future of this team, they’ll be in pretty good position either way.


Once again, I want to thank you all for your support in reading the Triple Team this season. Believe it or not, between Salt City Hoops, KSL, and now here, this has been the 10th year I’ve written this column after every Jazz game.

Growing up as an upper-bowl Jazz fan to have this job has been a dream I never thought was possible, but it has been thanks to your consistent readership, financial support of the Tribune, engagement with these articles here in the comments and on social media, and so much more. Jazz fans are truly special, and it’s really a privilege to get to bring this team to you year in and year out. That will continue, no matter the format. I love you all.

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