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Why Jazz have entered a development and discovery phase: ‘Want to win for a long time’

“We haven’t been past the second round since 2007,” Jazz GM Justin Zanik says. “We want to build a team that has staying power.”

(Rick Egan | The Salt Lake Tribune) Utah Jazz head coach Will Hardy has a chat with Utah center Walker Kessler (24), guard Jordan Clarkson (00) forward Lauri Markkanen (23), in NBA between the Utah Jazz and the Oklahoma City Thunder at the Delta Center, on Tuesday, Feb. 6, 2024.

The Utah Jazz could have allowed this season to ride out without making changes. That would have been completely defensible, maybe even laudable.

Doing so, after missing the postseason last year altogether, may have pushed the Jazz into a Play-In Tournament berth. Chances are they could have even snuck into the playoffs this season and gotten waxed by Oklahoma City or Denver in the first round. There are certainly reasons to take that route, the most important being Lauri Markkanen has yet to experience the playoffs in his career. If you are associated with the Jazz, you want your best player to have that experience.

The next few months will tell if the version of the Jazz that made it through Thursday’s trade deadline will make the Play-In or the playoffs. After trading Simone Fontecchio to the Detroit Pistons and Ochai Agbaji and Kelly Olynyk to the Toronto Raptors, making the postseason will be tougher.

But at the end of the day, the triumvirate of CEO Danny Ainge, general manager Justin Zanik and head coach Will Hardy came to this conclusion: They don’t want a cute playoff team. They don’t want a little engine that could. They want a team that’s capable of competing for an NBA championship.

“We haven’t been past the second round since 2007,” Zanik said on Saturday morning. “We want to build a team that has staying power.”

Trading a starter in Fontecchio, a rotation player in Olynyk who may as well have been a starter and a young talent like Agbaji will hurt in the short term. Olynyk was Utah’s best passer and maybe the most versatile offensive player on the roster. Agbaji was still an uncut diamond in his second season, and Fontecchio was a revelation who helped turn the season around in December.

But Olynyk would be a free agent this offseason and plays the same position as lottery pick Taylor Hendricks. Fontecchio, for how good he was this season, would be a restricted free agent, and there was no guarantee that he was a part of the long-term plan. And if the Jazz wanted to extract real value out of a trade, real value had to go back. That explains Agbaji.

Hendricks needed to play. He’s spent almost all of this season in the G League with the SLC Stars, and you can develop only so much in the G League.

On Thursday night, in a loss to the Phoenix Suns, Hendricks blocked superstar Kevin Durant at the rim. Durant also dropped him on a vicious crossover. That’s real development, the kind that can’t be had anywhere but on an NBA floor. The Jazz know Hendricks could be a revelation or a disaster, but they need to know. They need him to be in the rotation, and he will be for the remainder of the season.

Zanik and Ainge need to know what they have in Brice Sensabaugh, the rookie first-round pick from Ohio State. He’s also expected to see rotation minutes in some capacity through the remainder of the season. Rookie point guard Keyonte George has no doubt proven himself at the NBA level at this point, but the Jazz front office needs him to have more responsibility down the stretch of the season. Development and discovery are attributes that the Jazz see as key to building a lasting winner. That’s why the Jazz deemed the deals at the deadline as necessary.

“All of us want to win,” Zanik said during his news conference. “But I want to win for a long time. We don’t want to just have a year where we had a good run. The goal isn’t the Play-In or the first round of the playoffs. Those aren’t the goals. The goal is to win a championship.”

So what does that look like currently? Thursday’s deadline meant hitting singles and not swinging for the fences. There wasn’t a “buy move” out there. Atlanta Hawks point guard Dejounte Murray was available and Chicago Bulls guard Zach LaVine, who is injured, was as well. But trading for either player would have cost the Jazz financial flexibility this summer. The Jazz decided a move such as that didn’t qualify as a big enough needle-mover.

That meant dealing key veterans.

The good news is that the Jazz came away with a first- and second-round pick in the 2024 NBA Draft. Before the deadline, the Jazz were trending toward not being in the draft. They owe their 2024 pick to the Oklahoma City Thunder, but that pick is protected Nos. 1-10. Without Olynyk, a functional small forward outside of Markkanen and Fontecchio’s perimeter defense, there is a real chance the Jazz keep the pick.

What won’t happen is Utah pulling the plug as it did last season. The Jazz played the young guys major minutes down the stretch, but they also played their veterans sporadically. That probably doesn’t happen this time around. The Jazz front office is at peace with either outcome, as long as the young guys are gaining experience. The players returned by the trade deadline deals don’t figure to help a bunch in the final weeks of the season.

Kevin Knox, a former New York Knicks lottery pick, was waived on Friday afternoon. Kira Lewis Jr., the former New Orleans Pelicans first-round pick, projects to be buried behind Utah’s guard depth. Zanik said that Otto Porter Jr. isn’t fully healthy and that his status for the remainder of the season remains murky.

So that means the odds of making the Play-In tournament are long. They aren’t impossible, however. If a year and a half have taught us anything, it’s that Hardy is a magician of a coach when it comes to getting the best out of his talent. Markkanen has turned into a true star, and one capable of impacting play on both ends of the floor.

Despite trade winds around Jordan Clarkson, Utah’s high-octane backcourt made it through the trade deadline unscathed. And, hey, maybe the kids are all right. Maybe Hendricks and Sensabaugh play well enough off the bench to impact winning.

Utah’s schedule is packed with home games for the remainder of the season. But the Golden State Warriors are suddenly playing well and the Los Angeles Lakers have turned a bit of a corner. It’s a coincidence that the Jazz face those two teams three times this week, beginning with the Warriors on Monday, because those are the two teams they are in direct competition for a Play-In spot.

The deadline deals figure to create a step back for the Jazz on the floor. You don’t trade three important pieces of your rotation and expect a different outcome. But the end goal is what matters for the Jazz as, in their estimation, this was a step that needed to be taken.

“This is going to be a chance for the young guys who haven’t played as many minutes at the beginning of the year,” Zanik said. “We want to give them a chance to play in meaningful games. Games that matter.”

This article originally appeared in The Athletic.