Andy Larsen: As loss to Clippers showed, the Jazz are just less talented than most of their opponents

The pain of rebuilding was apparent in Thursday’s 117-103 defeat to L.A.

There are a lot of little quotes around the Utah Jazz recently that hint at an undeniable fact: They’re just not as good at basketball as their opponents.

Take one from head coach Will Hardy on Thursday’s practice, before their 117-103 loss to the Los Angeles Clippers: “We do have a lot of guys on our team who, throughout their careers, especially in the NBA, have been role players.”

Hardy went down the list of players on his roster. Jordan Clarkson has been asked to start as the Jazz’s primary ballhandling scorer, when he’s used to being a sixth man. Lauri Markkanen has “never been the No. 1 player on a scouting report.” Teams have scouted Walker Kessler, and “teams aren’t just letting him go where he wants to go.” And Keyonte George has never been a point guard before.

Yes, on one hand, that means the players involved aren’t used to their roles, and there will be growing pains as they learn them. They should be allowed to try out those roles, and fight through failure — because if they succeed, they may play those roles for the next winning Jazz team.

On the other hand, there’s also a reality that when you have players learning new roles, there might be a reason no other team had used them there before — because they’re not talented enough.

The conversation after the game would also lead you to a similar conclusion.

“I think our team’s approach today was fantastic. I’m proud of the way the team played,” Hardy said, after a game in which they didn’t have a greater than 20% chance of winning after the two-minute mark of the second quarter. The Clippers, their opponent, are certainly a good team, but they’re not one of the best. NBA oddsmakers believe there’s only about a 3% chance that they win the championship this year.

(Bethany Baker | The Salt Lake Tribune) Utah Jazz guard Jordan Clarkson (00) drives past LA Clippers guard Terance Mann (14) at the Delta Center in Salt Lake City on Friday, Dec. 8, 2023.

Hardy’s right. The Jazz really did play well on Friday night, at least from a process point of view. Simone Fontecchio really did “play his heart out,” as Hardy said he did. Talen Horton-Tucker and Collin Sexton really did make good decisions with the ball. John Collins really did have perhaps his best game in a Jazz uniform, with 20 points, 13 rebounds, and 4 blocks. Even rookie Taylor Hendricks contributed.

And yet, the game wasn’t particularly close. Kawhi Leonard scored 41 points on an array of difficult shots. Paul George casually put in 20 points on 13 shots. James Harden didn’t have his best game, and still contributed by getting to the line. Even Ivica Zubac impressed, with all of his multi-year tenure as the Clippers’ starting center.

It’s nights like this where you realize how far the Jazz have to go.

To be sure, the Jazz’s talent situation will improve with the return of Markkanen from a hamstring strain. He’s missed the Jazz’s last seven games, and the Jazz have deeply missed his All-Star caliber presence. He will certainly improve matters. But with how out of their depth the Jazz are right now, Markkanen alone likely won’t be enough for the team to really start winning games.

The truth is that it’s going to take a roster change. There are two ways this could trend.

One, the Jazz could try to make a win-now trade to try to get one of the league’s available talents — Zach LaVine or DeMar DeRozan from Chicago, for example. They could likely get those players for relatively cheaply in terms of assets spent.

But no one really thinks the Jazz are one or two players away from a title. We’ve seen the core of LaVine and Markkanen before, and it didn’t push the Bulls particularly close. It would improve their win total in the 2023-24 season, but not their overall well-being in the long-haul.

(Bethany Baker | The Salt Lake Tribune) Utah Jazz guard Talen Horton-Tucker (5) shoots a lay up against the LA Clippers at the Delta Center in Salt Lake City on Friday, Dec. 8, 2023.

So the second option is probably wiser: the slow, herky-jerky path of the rebuild. The Jazz will likely try to sell whatever players they consider not to be keepers for future assets. They’ll give time to young players, and see which ones float, and which ones sink. They look like they’ll keep their top-10 protected pick they owe the Oklahoma City Thunder as a result of the Derrick Favors trade, and use it on another lottery chip.

Most of all, they’ll ask their fans to be patient.

“Our fans should want to win every game, like, that’s totally normal and healthy,” Hardy said. “We also understand that we have one of the smartest fan bases in the NBA in terms of having perspective and understanding where we are in this process.”

It’s early days yet, in other words. There may come a day when the Jazz are more talented than most of the teams they play, when they are nearly guaranteed wins when they play to their potential.

But the Jazz aren’t there yet. Not even close.