The Triple Team: There’s good news and bad news about the Jazz’s locker room vibes after loss to San Antonio

(Rick Egan | The Salt Lake Tribune) San Antonio Spurs forward Jeremy Sochan (10) and Utah Jazz forward Lauri Markkanen (23) go after a loose ball, in NBA action between the Utah Jazz and the San Antonio Spurs, at the Delta Center, on Wednesday, March 27, 2024.

Three thoughts on the Utah Jazz’s 118-111 loss to the San Antonio Spurs from Salt Lake Tribune Jazz beat writer Andy Larsen.

1. The vibe of the locker room

I have good news and bad news.

The good news is that the locker room vibes are way better than they were six weeks ago, when I sent this tweet about the locker room being incredibly frustrated after the trade deadline. Spirits have lifted significantly. Some players laugh and joke and chat postgame, others just change pretty quickly and head home.

The bad news is that it’s because none of the players really care if they win or lose anymore. Now, it’s not full zero: the players still compete. They still want the best for themselves and the Jazz, and they’d certainly prefer to win than to lose. But the sting of losing is absolutely gone.

That was on pretty full display tonight, as the Jazz lost this game from the opening tip. There was a significant turnover problem, there was a significant 3-point defense problem, and there was a significant Victor Wembanyama problem. But while the Jazz made the game closer as the game ended, the Jazz’s win probability never went above 25% in the second half and never went above 10% in the final 10 minutes.

Will Hardy has an impossible job here — try to maintain buy-in and team-first thoughts in this environment. Without it, player development is next to impossible. But there’s just no real reason to put wins first if you’re a player — after all, Danny Ainge and co. aren’t.

The Jazz have now lost 10 of their last 11, and they have nine remaining games. They’ll likely be favored in none of them.

2. Markkanen plays the whole second half

Lauri Markkanen played just over 42 minutes tonight, including the entire second half. This was a little surprising, given that Markkanen has been in and out of the lineup due to injury management after getting a significant contusion to his quad/knee area.

“We talked a bunch and he said that he was feeling pretty good and wanted to keep going. So we just let him ride,” Jazz coach Will Hardy said. “Obviously it’s good for Lauri to feel those experiences. As you’re aiming towards like the future of the team, you get in the playoffs and the best player plays a lot.”

Markkanen was happy to have played the extra minutes — he said he wanted to strengthen the bench unit. Having him out there with the bench also gives him the chance to use more possessions and get more shots up, and Markkanen possessions are typically much more efficient than those used by other players.

That being said, he also did feel tired by the end. “I haven’t done that in a in a while. So just coming back to playing, there was a little fatigue,” Markkanen said. “I think took a couple of bumps there at the end. So we’ll see how we move on from here, but as of now I feel fine.”

How the Jazz have treated their injury report since the All-Star break has been a little befuddling at times. Line items like John Collins (rest) or Kris Dunn (rest) point 100% towards tanking. But then why did the team bring Markkanen and Jordan Clarkson back for Monday night’s game? Is Clarkson really experiencing left lower back soreness? And why are they playing the injury maintenance game with Markkanen, only to have him play 42 minutes?

I don’t really understand. They haven’t done anything that’s super problematic in either direction, but the approach hasn’t been especially consistent.

3. Jazz eliminated from playoffs

Tonight, the Jazz were officially eliminated from the playoffs.

In Utah Jazz history, the longest the Jazz have gone without making the playoffs is four years. It’s happened twice: once when the team first moved to Utah, and once in the Ty Corbin/Quin Snyder transition period.

This is now year No. 2. When can the Jazz make the playoffs again?

Obviously, there’s no crystal ball here, and making the playoffs now is easier than it used to be since the advent of the Play-In Tournament. But things do look pretty bleak for the Jazz.

Earlier Wednesday, I was doing my weekly guest appearance on ESPN700 with Spence Checketts, and he asked me: is this the worst Jazz team ever? I don’t think there’s really any true argument that there is: the 2013-14 Jazz and 2004-05 teams were clearly worse record wise, and I think clearly worse talent-wise as well. The Jazz’s bad record through this point I think is largely because they’ve given up.

What I think is possible is that this is the point in recent memory where the Jazz’s immediate future looks most bleak. After the 2013-14 season, the Jazz had a top-5 pick and great lottery odds for what looked like a 3-superstar draft in 2014, with Andrew Wiggins, Jabari Parker, and Joel Embiid. The Jazz didn’t win that lottery, but there was a path towards immediate improvement. After 2005-06, the Jazz drafted Deron Williams.

In next year’s draft, the Jazz will likely have the No. 8 or No. 9 selection, but in the worst draft in a decade, one where All-Star talent is in either short or nonexistent supply. The upside is that the Jazz do seemingly have some promising rookies, like Keyonte George, Taylor Hendricks, and Brice Sensabaugh, who look like at least nice NBA players. And of course, there’s the treasure trove of picks they have — but those won’t turn the team around immediately.

A quicker turnaround could be possible, if the Jazz use those picks to trade for a star this summer. Without that deal, though, it’s going to be a long road.

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