Utah Jazz coach makes a statement with a starting lineup shakeup and picks up a win

The Jazz played a less-talented but harder-working starting lineup than usual — and beat the New Orleans Pelicans 105-100.

(Francisco Kjolseth | The Salt Lake Tribune) Utah Jazz forward John Collins (20) and Utah Jazz guard Kris Dunn (11) kick off the start of their game against the New Orleans Pelicans at the Delta Center in Salt Lake City on Saturday, Nov. 25, 2023.

What’s the last time the Jazz chose a sub-par starting lineup just to make a statement?

Because that’s exactly what Will Hardy did on Saturday. While he had two stars (Lauri Markkanen and Jordan Clarkson) out due to injury and illness, Hardy didn’t compensate as predicted. Instead, the second-year head coach went to a starting lineup that no one would have anticipated to begin the year: Keyonte George, Kris Dunn, Simone Fontecchio, John Collins, and Omer Yurtseven.

For those following along at home, that’s one 20-year-old rookie in George, one player who wasn’t in the NBA for most of last season in Dunn, one player who wasn’t in the NBA two seasons ago in Fontecchio, one player who was just traded for Rudy Gay and a second-round pick straight up in Collins, and one player who played nine NBA games last season in Yurtseven.

I don’t think it’s an exaggeration to say that’s probably, on paper, the worst starting lineup used in the NBA this season.

Why would Hardy willingly do that?

It seems he was fed up. He was fed up with the play of his roster, who had back-to-back awful nights in which they could be seen not playing with requisite energy on either end of the floor. Or, as Hardy memorably put it after the game on Wednesday night, “If you’re gonna wear a Utah Jazz jersey, you have to give a s--- about the Utah Jazz.”

(Francisco Kjolseth | The Salt Lake Tribune) Utah Jazz forward Simone Fontecchio (16), Utah Jazz center Omer Yurtseven (77) and Utah Jazz guard Kris Dunn (11) start things off as the Utah Jazz and the New Orleans Pelicans play at the Delta Center in Salt Lake City on Saturday, Nov. 25, 2023.

So the coach started three guys on the very bottom of the roster, three players who have earned Did Not Play — Coach’s Decisions this year. He didn’t tell them they were starting until Saturday morning’s pre-shootaround film session, when the players involved learned about their new big roles when their photos came on the key matchup pages on the team’s projector. All said they responded with glee.

Hardy started them not because they were better than their teammates, but because at least they’d come out and compete. As The Athletic’s John Hollinger put it, it was as if it was the coach calling a player’s only meeting.

“I don’t believe in free minutes,” Hardy said. “I think that some of the guys that were on the floor tonight are showing that they’ve earned some minutes and that they’re willing to make sacrifices for the team.”

And he was right. Those three — Dunn, Fontecchio, and Yurtseven — played their hearts out in Saturday’s 105-100 win against the Pelicans. Dunn changed the tone with steals on one end and interior baskets on the other. Fontecchio guarded the Pelicans’ best-available player, Brandon Ingram, to relatively good effect. And Omer Yurtseven, though out-sized by Jonas Valanciunas, held the Pelicans’ big man to 3-10 shooting and just seven rebounds.

“This is for sure the first game this year that we’ve won because of our defense,” Hardy said. “I thought that every player that took the court tonight really, really competed on that end of the floor.”

He’s right. The Jazz allowed the Pelicans to only score 99 points per 100 possessions, the second-best total of the season. In that game — against the woeful Memphis Grizzlies at home — they also scored 133 points for the easy blowout win. On this night, the game was far closer, and it would take every bit of that effort to win.

The Jazz took a nine-point deficit into the fourth quarter, but at that moment, the team turned it around. Collin Sexton led the team in scoring with 16 points, and had 10 points and three assists in that final period alone — in fact, he ended the game, replacing Collins in the starting lineup. Sexton said he understood what he wanted from his coach.

“He wants more from us. He expects high things of us, just playing hard,” Sexton said. “Putting it all out there for yourself, but also for your teammates and for your coaches as well. If he’s fighting for us, we’ve got to fight for him, too.”

(Francisco Kjolseth | The Salt Lake Tribune) Utah Jazz coach Will Hardy as the Utah Jazz and the New Orleans Pelicans play at the Delta Center in Salt Lake City on Saturday, Nov. 25, 2023.

All 10 players Hardy played saw the floor for between 19 and 28 minutes. Center Walker Kessler, who returned from an elbow sprain in this game to good effect (11 points, 11 rebounds, two blocks), said that the team’s depth means that the players feel they can bring more effort, knowing they have quality substitutes behind them.

There’s a fair question to be asked here: What now? Having won the game, do the Jazz continue to start the players on the bottom of the roster until their effort turns out to not be enough to outweigh other teams’ far-superior skill? Does he return to his team’s bigger-money options, like Sexton, Talen Horton-Tucker, and Kelly Olynyk once they show they can and will compete? And who gets replaced when Markkanen’s hamstring is back to normal and Clarkson’s sickness ends?

But for one night, at least, Hardy put his money where his mouth is. After telling his players that their lack of effort would result in lesser playing time if it continued, he showed that his threats weren’t empty. He also picked up a win in the process.

Now, the upcoming month will show which other players will stay on board with his vision.

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