Andy Larsen: This Utah Jazz season is at risk of becoming a bust, but it doesn’t have to be

After being blown out by the Lakers and falling to 4-10 on the year, can the Jazz turn things around?

(Ryan Sun) Los Angeles Lakers forward LeBron James, center, reacts after making a 3-point basket during the first half of the team's NBA basketball In-Season Tournament game against the Utah Jazz, Tuesday, Nov. 21, 2023, in Los Angeles.

There are good odds that the Utah Jazz played their biggest game of the season on Tuesday.

It was, after all, their only game on TNT this year. It was played against a contending foe, the Los Angeles Lakers. And it was critical for the Jazz’s In-Season Tournament hopes — had they won this game by a sufficient margin, they’d almost certainly be going to the tournament’s knockout stages.

All of the Jazz’s players, in fact, would guarantee themselves at least $50,000 each, the prize for teams that lose in the tournament’s quarterfinal. (Yes, they were aware of that. I asked the players in the locker room about it before the game.)

Instead of rising to the occasion, they fell off the map.

In the end, they were defeated by a score of 131-99 — the first 30-plus-point loss of the post-Mitchell-Gobert-Snyder era. They looked abominable on both ends of the floor. I’m not sure the Lakers ever truly got out of second gear. Why would you ever push for more effort offensively when a play as simple as this works so well?

On the other end of the floor, the Jazz looked meek. The main point of head coach Will Hardy’s postgame press conference was to criticize his team’s physicality, especially on offense. What exactly does that mean?

”Most drives in the NBA where you drive on an angle, there’s a point of contact,” Hardy explained. “You’re either gonna play through that person’s hip and turn the corner, or you’re gonna bail out. I think we bailed out a lot.”

Here’s an example of what he’s talking about. Jordan Clarkson gets the contact here and picks up the ball, putting himself and his team in a rough situation.

I don’t mean to single out Clarkson here, many other Jazz players did the same thing. But when the Jazz were presented with defense, they folded.

They played soft. And for everyone to see, too.

The Jazz now (almost certainly) crash out of the In-Season Tournament. They also crash to a 4-10 record.

Remember just one year ago, when they shocked the league with a 10-3 start? It seems like longer ago, right? Even then, though, fans knew that it wasn’t a harbinger of similar success to follow — the Jazz simply weren’t talented enough to expect that to continue.

And yes, talent is a gigantic issue with this team. Look up and down their roster and you’ll find troubling holes in the resume of the Jazz’s players.

Lauri Markkanen, the team’s star, has undoubtedly taken huge leaps since leaving Chicago and Cleveland — but he was a role player on those teams, not the No. 1 guy. As a result, he doesn’t have the ballhandling skills necessary to get a basket when the team desperately needs one; he needs someone to set him up.

But the Jazz’s point guards aren’t true point guards. Talen Horton-Tucker can’t shoot enough to be a shooting guard, but is too loose with the ball to be a point guard. Keyonte George is a really promising rookie who just turned 20 and has rarely played point guard in his previous basketball stops.

The team’s second-best player, Clarkson, found success in a sixth-man role on good teams. Now, though, he’s getting scouted every night. When he’s scoring, he’s effective. When his shot is off, he’s a real negative. Collin Sexton wasn’t really wanted by Cleveland, which is why they didn’t extend him until they were able to trade him away to Utah. John Collins wasn’t really wanted by Atlanta, which is why the Jazz were able to get him for a washed Rudy Gay and a second-round pick. Walker Kessler was generally expected to be a backup center when drafted, Kelly Olynyk was a bench player for the Pistons.

That’s not to say that those players are locked into their previous roles: Player development is a real thing, and the Jazz have traditionally been good at it. But the team’s front office will have to evaluate those players’ fit in those expanded roles. If it’s not working, obviously, either the player or the role needs to change.

But even beyond the skill of the roster, Jazz fans expected their upstart squad to still play solid basketball after last year’s surprise. They expected that last season’s efforts would set a culture — a culture of team play, a culture of development, a culture of effort given. Which is why it’s so discouraging to hear this from team leader Markkanen:

“I think they played harder than us. That’s it,” Markkanen said. “It doesn’t matter what coverage the coaching staff comes up with, if we don’t execute it with being aggressive ... and with physicality.”

If the Jazz played well and still lost because they’re out-talented, that’s generally accepted by Utah’s fan base, which is smart enough to understand where the Jazz stand in a rebuilding cycle. If they lose because they’re out-talented and out-hustled, well, that’s a real long-term problem that requires more time and more drastic changes.

It’s a problem they have an opportunity to solve. After all, they play 24 hours later against Portland, and they’ll undoubtedly look better against one of the league’s worst teams. Then, a short Thanksgiving break, and then two matchups against the Pelicans at home.

Tuesday was an opportunity missed. The 2023-24 season doesn’t have to be one too.

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