Four guards? Three? Utah Jazz’s lineup changes show a commitment to adjusting and adapting

After not liking the way Wednesday’s game went with heavy utilization of four-guard lineups, coach Will Hardy changed things up Friday, making sure that at least two of his quartet of talented big men were on the court at all times.

In Wednesday’s loss to Sacramento, the Utah Jazz tried to capitalize on their abundant backcourt depth by frequently deploying lineups featuring four guards and one big.

They apparently didn’t love the results.

“The speed of the smaller lineup feels good and looks good in practice, because there’s times where you’re like, ‘Man, they’re really moving and they’re pressuring the ball!’ And then you get in a game and it’s not quite the same,” said head coach Will Hardy. “You find out, ‘Man, we didn’t rebound well, and offensively it was just OK.’”

In the follow-up on Friday, in the win against the Clippers, Utah sometimes went to three-guard lineups, but never four at a time.

And when asked afterward about the change, Hardy gave an extensive but insightful look into his approach.

“I didn’t do a very good job on Wednesday, man. We tried something that didn’t work very well on Wednesday. I told you, we have humility, and we went back and we looked at it and we decided to change some things,” Hardy said. “In particular, Lauri [Markkanen] playing in three stints was a trigger, and it allowed us to play some different groups together. That’s our job, is to continue to self-evaluate our team, how we’re operating as a staff, things we’re doing on both sides of the ball, things we need to change.

“As a coach, your No. 1 focus usually is who’s in the game, and who plays well with who. And there’s still moments where it doesn’t look perfect, but I think tonight was better. Not just because we won; I just thought the flow of the game and how those lineups felt was was better than Wednesday,” he continued. “And we’ll continue to look at it — we are just as critical of ourselves after we win as we are when we lose. I’m sure there’s four assistants right now that hate 20 of the plays that I called, and, ‘Why did we do this matchup?’ And that’s what we do — we get together, we watch the film, we argue, we try to figure out the best answers, and then we take it to the team.”

That’s a pretty brilliant response.

The TL;DR version — we’re going to try some things out, and if they don’t work, we’re going to try some different things instead.

Given the Jazz’s sordid history of losing to the Clippers partly on account of an inability to adjust, it was lost on precisely no one that Hardy’s professed commitment to changing things up when necessary came on a night when the Clippers once again surged past them late, only for Utah to this time rally back and fend them off.

L.A. has historically given the Jazz trouble with small-ball lineups. And so, this time, Utah punished them with size, outrebounding the Clippers 54-30 overall, and grabbing 17 offensive boards that were converted into 33 second-chance points (vs. six O-rebs and eight second-chance points for the Clippers).

This was not the tired refrain of We know what we need to do, we just need to do it from recent years.

“There’s a time for everything, and I think we’re still trying out new new lineups. I think the coaching staff does a really good job of reading the game, how it’s going,” said Markkanen, who finished with 35 points and 12 rebounds vs. the Clippers (including five offensive). “I think that was a big deal for us to crash the class and try to get some second-chance points like we did. We got a lot of offensive rebounds. It just gives them a different look. I think we can play with both lineups, but today was that kind of day.”

Utah Jazz center Walker Kessler, top, goes to the basket as Los Angeles Clippers center Mason Plumlee (44) defends during the first half of an NBA basketball game Friday, Oct. 27, 2023, in Salt Lake City. (AP Photo/Rick Bowmer)

Much of the attention in the lead-up to this season was focused upon how the Jazz would find adequate minutes for the myriad guards they believe warrant playing time — Jordan Clarkson, Talen Horton-Tucker, Kris Dunn, Ochai Agbaji, Collin Sexton, and Keyonte George.

Friday saw them commit instead to playing at least two of their four talented bigs — Markkanen, Walker Kessler, John Collins, and Kelly Olynyk — pretty much at all times.

Collins had his second double-double in as many games (13 points, 12 rebounds — five offensive). Olynyk came off the bench again, but was in the closing lineup this time, and totaled 15 points on 5-of-6 shooting (including a momentous 3-pointer late), plus four rebounds, three assists, and one block and steal apiece. Kessler played only 21 minutes as a result, but still had solid moments, including burying a 3 on a designed play early.

“I mean, all those guys are unbelievably talented. You saw Kelly come in and hit some clutch 3-pointers. We just have a lot of depth in the frontcourt, and I think that that’s a definite strength of our team. And it’s fun to watch, fun to be part of, too,” said Kessler. “… It seemed to work out for us tonight. But, you know, any night can change [the] lineups.”

The Collins/Olynyk situation is a good case in point.

Both are acclimating to new situations this season — in Collins’ case, to a new city, new teammates, and new scheme; and in Olynyk’s, to a new role, after being the team’s starting four pretty much all of last season.

“[Collins’] versatility as a secondary roller, his athleticism going to the glass is something that we really like,” Hardy said. “Kelly, because of his unique skill set, gives us a lot of different options when he comes off the bench.”

Both players are feeling their way through things a bit at this point.

“In terms of adjusting to the city and my teammates, I feel like I’m doing a solid job — as solid of a job as I can do. I’m just waiting on the time to catch up,” Collins said after Wednesday’s opener. “… It’s going to take a little bit more time for it to be as fluid as we want.”

(Francisco Kjolseth | The Salt Lake Tribune) Utah Jazz minority owner Dwyane Wade, left, embraces Utah Jazz forward Kelly Olynyk (41) during NBA basketball in Salt Lake City on Wednesday, Oct. 25, 2023.

Olynyk added Friday night that he’s trying to navigate the changes, as well.

“Yeah, you’re still feeling out where you can be the most effective, and I think it changed [even] from the first half to the second half,” he said. “And that’s what it’s gonna be with my role on this team. It’s gonna be fluid, you’ve got to be able to adjust and adapt and make sure that you can read the game like you read a room, and know what you have to do to make a positive impact on the game.”

Hardy said — and Olynyk confirmed — that they’ve had several conversations already about not making too much of coming off the bench, of perhaps playing fewer minutes early on this season than he did last year, because he remains an integral piece.

That certainly was the case late Friday night.

And to Olynyk’s point about being able to adapt and adjust, that’s what his coach was doing with the game on the line.

Kessler and Horton-Tucker started, but it was Olynyk and Dunn who were in the lineup down the stretch — the former on account of the good offensive rhythm he was in, the latter because he was needed to make life a bit more difficult for Clippers star Paul George.

Hardy has said on multiple occasions in this young season not to read too much into any particular lineup decision, or minutes allotment, or rotation choice at this juncture.

After all, something he likes on a Wednesday morning may well be obsolete by the ensuing Friday night … only to perhaps reappear in a more opportune moment down the line.

“It comes back around,” Olynyk said. “Things kind of go in a circle.”