Andy Larsen: Jazz show Wizards why you don’t fire your coach in the middle of a back to back

Utah wins 123-108 in Washington, D.C., despite a coaching shakeup intended to inspire the Wizards.

Washington Wizards interim head coach Brian Keefe reacts during the second half of an NBA basketball game against the Utah Jazz, Thursday, Jan. 25, 2024, in Washington. (AP Photo/Mark Schiefelbein)

Washington • Thursday was one of the most bizarre days in my decade-plus on the Jazz beat. It just didn’t have much to do with the Jazz.

It was the media that broke the news to Jazz players at shootaround on that court at about 11 a.m. Thursday, that their opponent’s coach Wes Unseld Jr. had been dismissed. Point guard Kris Dunn was especially surprised; he had worked in a minor way in his time with the Wizards’ G-League team last season.

But surprise is warranted. To be sure, the Wizards have the league’s second-worst record, and generally do not look like a competent NBA basketball team in nearly any way. However:

• Unseld is widely regarded as a quality coach and mentor, and indeed, the Wizards want him to stick around in a role in the front office. But Wizards management said Thursday that Unseld had yet to decide to what extent he wanted to do that.

• They have what I would consider the league’s worst roster. I would rather have the Detroit Pistons’ collection of talent, including Cade Cunningham and Bojan Bogdanovic, than have my best players be Kyle Kuzma and Jordan Poole. The franchise should not have been stunned they were losing a lot of games.

• They were coming off an 11-point loss to the Minnesota Timberwolves, the Western Conference’s best team. Uninspiring? Maybe. But about what you’d expect against that quality of a team.

• That game against the Wolves was Wednesday night. That meant that the Wizards had no shootaround or practice for the team to get introduced to life under their new selected head coach, Brian Keefe. Indeed, Keefe told reporters that he learned that he would be head coach of the team about the same time that the media did. As a result, he said he had little to say about the Jazz — how could he have adequately prepared?

So in a scratchy game by the time evening rolled around, the Jazz didn’t play anywhere near their best... and won 123-108.

As you’d expect, the Jazz’s Lauri Markkanen was the best player on the floor, as he continued to fight for a spot in the Western Conference All-Star roster. He led the Jazz with 29 points on 11-20 shooting.

But it was John Collins who really made the difference. He had one of his best games of the season with 22 points, 16 rebounds, 11-15 shooting, and critically the highest plus-minus on the roster, a +22. The biggest statistical difference between the teams came on the glass, where the Jazz dominated in offensive rebounds by a score of 13-5; Collins had seven of those.

“You see a lot of guys rebounding, they’ll wrestle for too long. I think John’s good at bumping and then releasing contact so that he can be vertically athletic. He also has good instincts for the ball and has good timing on his rebounding,” Jazz head coach Will Hardy said. “He’s maybe the best guy on our team at just snatching the ball with two hands above the rim.”

Collins, by the way, knows what the Wizards are going through. He’s experienced two mid-season coaching changes in his career, one to Nate McMillan, one to Quin Snyder. And he, too, was surprised that the Wizards chose to make such a change on the same day as a game.

“For me personally, it didn’t even register until like the next day, right?,” he said. “For me, it was really the next day that everything solidifies. The first day my mind is just racing, thinking about my role, reading the tweets, whatever. Just kind of adjusting just my mind to the reality of a new coach.”

The Wizards didn’t get that chance, and it showed, as their deficit grew to 25 points before a late comeback with the game already out of reach.

It’s the kind of decision that highlights the differences in organizations around the NBA. Obviously, the Jazz are not world-beaters by any means, their 23-23 record accurately indicating their position in the basketball universe. But they’re well-positioned for the future, with good young players to build around, an efficient star in Markkanen, and a truckload full of draft picks.

Most importantly, they have a core brain trust. Hardy has been one of the most highly respected coaches in the NBA since being hired last year, while CEO Danny Ainge is hugely experienced, and sometimes feared, by his competition. And ownership is relatively stable — the Jazz haven’t fired a coach midseason in four decades.

The Wizards are still searching for their leaders. Unfortunately for basketball in Washington, Wizards president Michael Winger and general manager Will Dawkins didn’t inspire much confidence when explaining why they had chosen this moment to make a coaching change.

“It was just we had a conversation last night, which we do often. And it was just one of those where it was like, ‘man, how are we going to get better?’,” Winger said.

You get better by putting your personnel in position to succeed. You get better by acquiring quality players. You get better by building a culture in which people can perform their best.

The Jazz have that, and the Wizards don’t. It showed.