Los Angeles • Some will inevitably view the Utah Jazz’s 2022-23 season, now that it’s over, through either an outright negative lens, or at least with mixed feelings.
From a certain point of view, they have landed squarely in the NBA’s dreaded middle class — neither good enough to be legitimate contenders, nor dreadful enough to land the draft means necessary to import a potentially franchise-altering superstar.
Their six-year streak of playoff qualification came to an end, as the season-opening hot streak could not be sustained, and an organizational decision late in the season to prioritize draft position wound up gutting what had been a promising start. Conversely, the tank job felt half-baked, considering the aforementioned improbably successful opening segment mostly doomed their chances to land one of the best selections.
And yet, there’s an awful lot of optimism emanating from the organization now.
Lauri Markkanen took an unexpected leap into stardom, establishing himself as key piece to build around. Rookie center Walker Kessler similarly impressed by exceeding expectations and proving to be a foundational component. Ochai Agbaji, following an underwhelming start that saw him scuffling in the G League, became a legitimate prospect with potential on both sides of the ball by season’s end.
And head coach Will Hardy earned rave reviews both within the organization and from many on the outside for his masterful job in fostering a new culture and getting pretty universal buy-in, thus enabling a piecemeal roster to play cohesively and competitively night after night.
“Our goal from the outset was to try and create an environment that our players wanted to be in every day. I never want any player to dread coming to the gym,” Hardy explained. “And I think we were able to accomplish that this year. I think our team played with a tenacity and a competitiveness, but they also played with a level of joy.”
Between all of those factors, the Jazz’s rebuild process may be further along than anticipated.
A team expected to garner a win total in the mid-20s instead finished 37-45. It featured an All-Star Game starter and a surefire All-Rookie first-teamer and a wunderkind coach pulling the strings.
So … what do they do now? How do they proceed from here?
They’re already looking ahead to the next steps.
“We will see how the team’s gonna look. I think we have plenty of guys that are uncertain if they’re going to be here or not. Obviously, not my stuff to worry about,” Markkanen noted. “But I think we’ve got a great group of guys, and I think we can definitely make a push for [the playoffs] next year. So that’s the goal.”
It will surely require another summer of labyrinthine roster machinations to get further down that road.
A stockpile of assets
To begin with, the team’s myriad deals from last offseason have landed them with three first-round selections in the upcoming draft, set to take place June 22 at Barclays Center in Brooklyn — their own pick, one from the Timberwolves from the Rudy Gobert trade, and the Philadelphia 76ers’ pick, which comes their way in convoluted fashion as a result of sending Royce O’Neale to the Nets.
The Jazz’s pick will be the best of those. Their 37-45 record was the ninth-worst among the league’s 30 teams, and so, when the Draft Lottery takes place May 16, they will have the ninth-best odds of landing the No. 1 overall pick — roughly a 4.5% chance.
The roster also could undergo additional transition as a result of players’ contractual options.
Jordan Clarkson, Talen Horton-Tucker, Rudy Gay, and Damian Jones each have player options on their respective deals, thus putting the decision in their hands whether to automatically return to the team or to take their chances on the open market as unrestricted free agents.
During their exit interviews with media over the past few days, none said unequivocally how they were leaning, though Gay may opt in on account of having the most limited alternatives elsewhere, while Jones expressed perhaps the most willingness to return.
Both Clarkson and Horton-Tucker said they will rely on their agents to help them navigate the market and make a decision on what’s next. Horton-Tucker, though, who had something of a breakout performance late in the season as injuries elsewhere afforded him more consistent playing time, responded in the affirmative when asked if he’d like to be back in Salt Lake City.
“Oh yeah. I love it here, honestly. I got opportunity here, and I’m appreciative of that,” he said. “I don’t know anybody who wouldn’t love it.”
Big man Kelly Olynyk, meanwhile, has a team option to return. At the very least, the Jazz would have to pay him a guaranteed $3 million just to cut him. But given his performance this season, and his relatively modest salary of around $12 million, it seems a foregone conclusion that his option will be exercised.
Beyond that, the front office braintrust of Danny Ainge, Justin Zanik, and David Fizdale will assess the players available when free agency opens up on July 1, and will be monitoring who becomes available in trade discussions.
In large part thanks to the trades of Gobert and Donovan Mitchell, the Jazz have 15 future first-round picks, two of which are lightly-protected.
Zanik noted at the trade deadline that a few other teams have a comparable number of picks going forward, “but the quality of ours is the best in the league.” The upshot, he added, is that the Jazz now have even more flexibility — “endless possibilities,” as he put it — to upgrade their roster. They can take on money, aggregate up to different salaries, take on unbalanced contracts.
And while you can’t necessarily predict when a superstar player will become available on the market, the team is now well-positioned to capitalize on any such scenario, with Zanik saying the Jazz have the requisite “firepower” to get such a deal done.
“There’s no transaction of that level that we’re not going to be involved in if it makes sense, because we have the ability to do those,” Zanik said. “So I’m excited about that if that comes up.”
The team’s young core
In the meantime, seemingly everyone involved is optimistic about the team’s core going forward.
“We’ve got such a good group of guys, such a good staff — it’s unbelievable. Everyone wants to win, everyone’s really buying in to each other,” said Kessler. “So being on a team like that, it’s really, really refreshing. Not saying that I have a lot of experience on any other teams.”
Veteran players on the Jazz who have been around the block a time or two, though, concur with the young big man’s assessment.
Clarkson, in particular, took issue with critics who suggest the team’s inability to post a league-worst record represents a failure of a season.
“I think it was a mix of both winning and seeing the young guys get this opportunity to grow as well. You look at guys like Collin [Sexton], Ochai, Walker coming back next year, all these guys have played in meaningful games. I don’t think these minutes have been wasted — it’s time that they have grown as players,” said Clarkson. “And then like early in the season, I think we surprised everybody. We were winning games, in a playoff race, and a few bad weeks will knock you out of the mix, and people start viewing you a different way.”
Gay, who conceded that he’s morphed his mentality from being a guy originally brought in to help get an experienced playoff team to the next level into a grizzled old vet intended to dispense advice to young teammates, is similarly sanguine.
“The maturity of Walker and Ochai is really compelling,” he said. “You guys probably don’t know this, but they’re probably tired of me, because I’m on their a-- every day about getting better and how they can be better. They probably think, just like my kids, ‘Ugh, this old guy.’ But I really see a bright future for all of them. I think, at this point in my career, I owe it to them to show them and tell them everything I know.”
Beyond the ascendance of the young talent, many on the roster pointed to the competitive spirit instilled by Hardy, noting that the team was seemingly never out of games — no matter how short-handed — simply he generated an environment that found a perfect balance between working hard and having fun.
“I don’t think anybody came into [any] game playing us and were like, ‘OK, we’re getting this one easily,’” said Olynyk, who described the returning players and coaches as young, talented, and energetic. “We competed every single night and gave everybody a run for their money, I think, pretty much top to bottom in the league.”
Gay, asked how he’d assess the team’s future, relayed a story about how, after the Jazz lost to the Thunder during the final week of the season, Agbaji was disconsolate in the locker room, despite Utah sitting out most of its regular starters and rotation players.
“He was super-upset, because he felt like our team was better than that team — no matter who was out, and no matter who played,” Gay recounted. “I think the whole team felt that way. And that’s just been the same way all year. And that’s a testament to Will and to the guys here.”
If fans are disappointed that the team changed course midseason to go away from playoff pursuit, well, just know the players share the sentiment.
And, next season, they don’t intend to be in that position again.
“Everybody wants to be a part of that and eventually win the whole thing. I really wanted to get that experience, but it wasn’t our time yet,” said Markkanen. “... Obviously, you want everything now. It’s disappointing, but we have a bright future ahead of us, so you’ve just got to look at the big picture.”