Are the Utah Jazz bad? Mediocre? Improving? They could be at a tipping point right now.

After entering the season with some thoughts of challenging for a postseason appearance, the slow start has been a disappointment. But the team is publicly confident

(Bethany Baker | The Salt Lake Tribune) Utah Jazz guard Jordan Clarkson (00) sits on the bench during a timeout against the LA Clippers at the Delta Center in Salt Lake City on Friday, Dec. 8, 2023.

When the Utah Jazz held their annual media day availability this past October, there was optimism from the players that they could build upon last season’s competitiveness and translate that into something more.

A few of them were guarded and a bit opaque about what such progress would look like, exactly.

“We don’t really necessarily put an end goal on the team,” said Walker Kessler. “Last year, we competed in every game of the year — we played hard, we played for each other — and when you have a team like that, no one knows the limit.”

“I think we’re going to come here and compete, win, try to make some noise,” added Jordan Clarkson. “… This year, we’ve got a good mix of guys who’ll come in here and compete and try to win games.”

Others, though, didn’t bother with generic platitudes, coming right out and saying that their objective was a postseason appearance.

“That’s the goal. That’s what we’re trying to work towards,” said Lauri Markkanen. “I still haven’t made the playoffs, so that’s one thing I’m really looking forward to — getting on that stage and experiencing that. Yeah, that’s one motivator for us, at least.”

Given the loaded nature of the Western Conference, it was always going to be an ambitious target this season.

Perhaps no one — even the reticent among them — could have envisioned just how out of reach it would seem to be.

Back-to-back wins against the Knicks and Blazers, and a follow-up victory against the Nets had the effect, at least, of the Jazz no longer being lumped in with the likes of the Pistons, Wizards, and Spurs. A blowout loss to the Kings and a lethargic defeat at the hands of a woefully short-handed Cavaliers team blunted the enthusiasm a bit, however.

As it stands, Utah is only slightly closer to the final play-in position than it is to the league’s bottom-dwelling clubs.

That reality prompted a question to Kelly Olynyk, who came to the Jazz from a Detroit team that finished 23-59, and who concluded the prior season on a Houston squad that went 17-55:

Is there some concern internally that this Jazz team could experience a similar descent into mediocrity?

“That’s a good question. I feel like we’ve got a lot of guys that are too young [and so] they don’t even know that that’s a real fear,” said Olynyk. “As it progresses and progresses, you have to right the ship at some point. Yeah, I don’t know. That’s a good question.”

(Bethany Baker | The Salt Lake Tribune) Utah Jazz forward Kelly Olynyk (41) speaks with a referree during the game against the LA Clippers at the Delta Center in Salt Lake City on Friday, Dec. 8, 2023.

There are abundant caveats to and asterisks adjoining the team’s struggles this season, with an early injury to Kessler, and subsequent injuries to Markkanen and Clarkson and rookie Keyonte George chief among them.

And yet, there have also been seismic deficiencies.

While George has shown moments of true promise, the team’s point guard play in general has been wildly inconsistent, with Collin Sexton and Talen Horton-Tucker displaying tantalizing potential and stretches of promise, only to inevitably revert to the same old maddening mistakes.

Kessler has been experiencing a prolonged sophomore slump, with his timing and aggression perplexingly off-kilter in many games, even following his return from an early-season elbow injury.

The Jazz were embarrassed in a 131-99 loss to the Lakers on Nov. 21, then further exposed in a dispiriting 121-105 defeat at the hands of the Blazers the next night, a pair of setbacks that brought some damning condemnations from head coach Will Hardy.

“The only two things that I care about are: play hard and pass,” Hardy said then. “And we’re at a point now where if you’re not willing to do both of those things, you cannot play for the Utah Jazz.”

He wasn’t done, though, going on to suggest that players were being perhaps a bit too blasé about those losses.

“I go home after every game, win or loss, and I’m constantly beating myself up about things that I did or didn’t do,” Hardy said. “And I just want them to take the same responsibility and ownership over this program. If you’re gonna wear a Utah Jazz jersey, you have to give a s--- about the Utah Jazz.”

Two weeks later, the Utah Jazz were annihilated in humiliating fashion by the Mavericks, with Luka Doncic amassing a 29-point triple-double by halftime en route to a 147-97 drubbing that Hardy infamously labeled, “a masterpiece of dogs---.”

It feels like this part of the season could be a tipping point.

Do they sporadically adhere to Hardy’s message and thus enable bad habits and, worse, apathy to seep in? Or do they drill down on the work and at least mitigate up-and-down results by absorbing and learning from the lessons contained therein?

For what it’s worth, since that Dallas debacle, they have at least noticeably stepped up the effort.

First came close and competitive losses to the Clippers and Thunder. Then they built large leads and held on on late against the Knicks and Blazers. A whupping in Sacramento was followed by competency against Brooklyn. The fiasco in Cleveland was a precursor to considerable relief in Detroit.

As Hardy and his predecessor in Utah both are fond of saying, progress isn’t always linear. One moment, the Jazz are being extolled for shaking up opponents with newfound proficiency at zone defenses. The next, they’re taking a step back against the Kings (as Keegan Murray at one point made 11 straight 3-pointers in his way to a 47-point night) and then yet another step back vs. the Cavaliers (as journeyman guard Sam Merrill enjoyed his own prolific night beyond the arc).

The team isn’t denying that it has a long way to go.

“I’ve been on two teams here where we felt like in the beginning of the year that we were locked in to win a championship. I’m not saying this team is not built to do that, but I know we have to take steps,” said Clarkson. “We are going to take some hits, but at the end of the day, I think our main goal is — especially for older guys — you want to want to be playing at the end of the season, whether that’s play-in, playoffs. That’s been our expectation since the beginning of the year, so I think that’s what we have held our hat on, as older guys trying to get this thing together, bringing the young ones in as well.”

Neither are players denying that this season’s early results have been disappointing.

“I mean, at the beginning of the year, everybody thinks they’re gonna have a chance to do something,” said Olynyk. “Obviously, we didn’t start how we wanted, it hasn’t gone the way we wanted.”

But for now, at least, they are publicly espousing the belief that the slow start need not be indicative of unavoidable doom.

“You’ve got to just keep building. What’s happened in the past happened; now you gotta learn from it, grow, keep building, and not let the past dictate the future,” said Olynyk. “… I’ve been in those situations before and I’ve been on good, winning teams have gone to the conference finals, [NBA] Finals, stuff like that — it’s definitely a different feel when you’re winning and you’re having success individually and as a team and as an organization.

“They know what that’s like here, they know how to get there, they have the people in place who know how to do that and get there, from the top down. So I trust that they’ll get it to where it needs to be,” he added. “But it’s a process, it’s not gonna happen overnight. They say successes are 10 years in the making, or five years in the making, or whatever it is. You have to keep building.”

Others throughout the team believe that hearts and minds remain in the right place.

Hardy’s earlier admonitions about everyone needing to give a [expletive] notwithstanding, he dismissed an inquiry about whether these players had grown harder to motivate amidst the mounting losses.

(Trent Nelson | The Salt Lake Tribune) Will Hardy as the Utah Jazz host the New York Knicks, NBA basketball on Wednesday, Dec. 13, 2023.

“I don’t think so. doesn’t feel that way. When we come to practice every day, I don’t feel like there’s a group that’s hanging their heads or has low energy. They’re coming to work every day and they’re trying to get better,” he said. “No one likes to lose, and I think for me as a coach, ‘happy’ is the wrong word, but I’m glad that they’re upset that we’re losing. I think the worst thing that could happen is losing goes numb on people, and it becomes about their stats or it becomes about whatever people think of them individually. It’s a team sport, and I felt like our team has stuck together through some tough moments early in the season.”

The coach added that no one is making excuses about injuries.

No one is showing less energy in practices.

Or less attention in film sessions.

Or less dedication in weight room workouts.

“I don’t think, in any way, we’re at a point where I feel like I’m having to get overly creative or make things up to try to get them inspired to play,” said Hardy. “These guys know that they get one opportunity at a career in the NBA, and they’re hungry to go out there and play every night.”

But are they good enough to win night after night? Not right now.

Can they become so with continued work and dedication? We’ll have to see.

It’s inevitable that the roster will continue to evolve — through trades, through the draft, through free agency. But no one on the roster at the moment is looking ahead to some quick-fix salvation.

“The only people that’s going to help us get out of this situation is us,” said veteran guard Kris Dunn. “It starts with practice, and we know that, and each and every day we bring the right spirit.”

He added that the team’s relative youth and inexperience are inherent stumbling blocks to immediate success. Getting everyone more cognizant of the schemes, and more understanding of the rationales behind, will result in everyone becoming more interconnected in their actions, thus smoothing out many of the apparent rough edges.

Olynyk concurred, emphasizing that the process of getting the Jazz’s young core to not only understand what they need to do but also why might be a painfully slow process, but a necessary one.

And it will require a delicate balance of grace and discipline.

“You don’t want to put guys in a box or put too much pressure on them, or expectations, but you still hold people accountable,” said Olynyk. “Because if you don’t, it’s gonna be a s--- show everywhere. It’s a fine line.”

(Francisco Kjolseth | The Salt Lake Tribune) Utah Jazz forward Lauri Markkanen (23) and Utah Jazz guard Talen Horton-Tucker (5) celebrate their 125-108 win over the Brooklyn Nets following their NBA basketball game in Salt Lake City Monday, Dec. 18, 2023.

In the interim, Utah’s players and coaches will take the good moments where they can get them.

Markkanen, asked in the aftermath of the win over the Knicks (which snapped a three-game losing streak) just how much the Jazz needed a positive result, cheekily replied, “A good amount.”

Then he gave an actual answer.

“It was good. We come in every day and work, and I think that minds have been positive, even though we’ve been losing a couple of games. So of course it’s better to lose than … Sorry, I’ve been on too many losing teams,” Markkanen said, laughing at his verbal faux pas. “Yeah, it was important for us to get that win and kind of have that confidence. I mean, it was still there. But just to do it as a team, that was the most important thing.”

And it will remain so, if the Jazz are going to turn it around.

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