Gordon Monson: The Utah Jazz’s plan for tanking is in a pained state of limbo

Can the franchise push through the pain of rebuilding sooner rather than later?

(Rick Egan | The Salt Lake Tribune) Utah Jazz guard Keyonte George (3) and Minnesota Timberwolves center Naz Reid (11) go for a loose ball, in NBA action at the Delta Center, on Monday, March 18, 2024.

Lauri Markkanen spent last summer in the Finnish military.

He spent this Jazz season in a tank.

You know the difference between America’s M1A2 Abrams and the Jazz?

The Abrams shoots straight. So does the Leopard 2A6, Finland’s main battle tank.

While we’re at it: Knock, knock. Who’s there? Tank. Tank Who? You’re welcome.

I’ve got a few more tank jokes, but they might go off track.

Apologies. Sincere apologies.

Not only are jokes about tanks and tanking not funny, living through them, or in the Jazz’s case living in them, is a thousand times worse.

(Francisco Kjolseth | The Salt Lake Tribune) Utah Jazz guard Collin Sexton (2) takes a moment to get back up during their loss to the Cleveland Cavaliers 113-129 at the Delta Center in Salt Lake City on Tuesday, April 2, 2024.

And yet, here they are, having lost a gazillion games down the stretch — in a fashion that’s alternated between comical and just plain sad. And you can almost hear a player like Markkanen singing the lead vocals down on the bench, along with Jazz fans crooning in the chorus up in the stands, the old classic from Stealers Wheel:

Clowns to the left of me, jokers to the right,

here I am, stuck in the middle with you.

Can we say it all clear here?

Losing stinks. It’s worse than that, but I can’t use the more accurate verb in a family newspaper. Tanking stinks. But the Jazz and their fans have been shoehorned into getting used to it by management. And the fans never stopped going to games. They’ve given a team stripped down to its rawest stubs more support than many folks could have imagined.

If the losing and the tanking are to continue, what will the seats at the Delta Center look like then, even if they go cheap?

Failing a couple of dramatic moves — the use by the Jazz of some of their prime future draft prospects in trade for accomplished seasoned players now — this offseason, a proud franchise, a franchise that historically has known so much regular-season winning, but never achieved the ultimate postseason goal — will find out.

The fact that the Delta Center is empty as it’s fallen dark in April just might spill over when the lights flip back on in October. The Jazz and their fans will not only discover the bitterness of being pretty much beaten before the ball is tipped at the start of games, they’ll also know what it’s like to be looked upon as a joke. That’s something most Jazz fans have never experienced, not since the early years when the team first arrived from New Orleans.

That won’t be fun. It won’t be funny. Not for anyone, not the people who root for the home team around here.

(Francisco Kjolseth | The Salt Lake Tribune) Utah Jazz coach Will Hardy argues with referee CJ Washington (12) during the game against the Cleveland Cavaliers at the Delta Center in Salt Lake City on Tuesday, April 2, 2024.

But it was what Danny Ainge had in mind from the moment he decided to offload Rudy Gobert and Donovan Mitchell and Mike Conley and the rest of the guts of a team that just a few years back won more games in the regular season than any other team. The coach of that group, Quin Snyder, was not made to feel welcome as he should have been by the powers that be with the Jazz. He didn’t leave on his own because he was concerned or afraid of a rebuild. It was, in part, because he was not made to feel comfortable with management’s decision-making process.

And, as it turned out, that decision-making process hasn’t been very good.

And it’s taking its toll on the ultra-competitive and exceptionally capable Will Hardy.

The front office wanted flexibility so it could have a chance at outsmarting the league, but to this date, they’ve outsmarted themselves. We get it. The NBA pushes mediocre teams to get worse in order to get better through the draft, especially small-to-mid-market teams, outfits that aren’t “destination” cities for free agents, outfits that can’t make up for their boneheaded mistakes by swiping away quality players as they exit other teams.

However, if the Jazz were going to tank, something they’ve not often done in the past, nor as we see now are any good at, they wasted time doing so, fiddle-faddling around, prolonging the team’s pain by being part-good, part-bad.

At present, they’re real bad, holding their few quality players out, as the Hindenburg burns to the ground. Oh, the humanity.

As they traded away their experienced big Frenchman — Gobert — for future draft picks, they blew their shot at the young big Frenchman — Wemby — by going only partway with their plan last season. They currently are paying big time for that bygone indiscretion, whatever their odds, long or short, might have been at landing Wembanyama. And while this coming draft is supposedly talent-sparse, they won, at first, too much, planned deferments or not, and now they are collapsing all around. The 2025 draft looks much more promising.

And everywhere you go, people ask, “What’s the Jazz’s plan? How is this going to work?”

The answers: Uuuuuggh and duuuuhhh.

Nobody knows because the Jazz themselves don’t know. They can’t know because they’re neither in the minds of potential acquisitions, nor the teams for which they play. The Jazz want to make the aforementioned offseason moves, but they aren’t clear on what or who they can get when and at what price.

(Francisco Kjolseth | The Salt Lake Tribune) Utah Jazz forward John Collins (20) gets the ball knocked away by Dallas Mavericks forward P.J. Washington (25) during an NBA basketball game Monday, March 25, 2024, in Salt Lake City.

General manager Justin Zanik avoids the tank word and instead focuses on phrases such as “development of young players.” That digs up another question: Are guys like Keyonte George, Taylor Hendricks and Brice Sensabaugh, even if they bump ahead as the Jazz lose, difference-makers?

The flow of free agents, something the Jazz have rarely tapped into with any significance, has slowed, he says, because of the NBA’s emphasis on helping teams extend their own players.

“The main driver of how you’re building teams is developing your players and adding by trade,” Zanik says. “We’re in a more unique position than some other teams. … Not only just the flexibility we have, but just the multiple assets we have to deal.”

He adds: “You always want to get as many No. 1 guys as you can. In the absence of that, you want to get players that help the team function, and hopefully in a longer timeline than just a one- or two-year basis because of age.”

But that’s like sitting at the roulette table, hoping the ball lands fortuitously, as is guessing about positioning in future drafts, who might be available at what spot and what it would take to get to that spot.

Zanik tells The Tribune’s Andy Larsen that the Jazz want to build around Markkanen and Walker Kessler, but are those players, while good, great enough to lead the Jazz to the higher trajectory they sought from the beginning?

As for the t-word, Zanik says, “I think it’s really hard to bottom out with what we already have, which I would rather have than not have.”

Then why are the Jazz holding players out now as they lose and lose badly? They already are tanking, whether they admit it or not.

It makes you wonder whether it might have been better for the Jazz to hang onto what they previously had, as sick as it had become for stupid reasons, healing up competitively with their few All-Stars on the roster, and then scrap and claw for whatever cheap abridgments they might have been able to acquire as complementary pieces.

Or, what if the Jazz had held onto Gobert and Conley, and traded Mitchell, but added Markkanen and some draft picks? Just wondering here, just wondering.

Conversely, if you buy into the tank mode, and it’s understandable why you would for the reasons already discussed, then buy it hard and fast, go all in, and get ‘er done. But, again, it’s a crapshoot. You could be like Oklahoma City, if somehow you’d be fortunate enough to land Shai Gilgeous-Alexander, among others. Even at that, are the Thunder much better than the Jazz were just a few years ago? Or, you could be like the Clippers of the ‘80s, losing and drafting, losing and drafting, losing and drafting, straight into waves of laughter around the league.

Tanks, but no tanks.

Yeah, what do we know, then? We know this: Tanking is good, when it works. Trusting the process is good, when it’s worth trusting. When it doesn’t, when it isn’t, ticket prices don’t go down, wins don’t go up, and it …

Stinks. No, it (fill in the forbidden verb).

Uh-huh, that.