The start of the Jazz season has been a lot of fun. Beat the reigning MVP? Check. Get Will Hardy his first win as a head coach? Check. Win their first matchup against Rudy Gobert? Check. Two more exciting wins, including a Kelly Olynyk game-winner? Check. Stay on track to maximize their odds of winning the Victor Wembanyama sweepstakes? *Family Feud buzzer sound*. As entertaining as the first five games of the season has been, the Jazz are in the same spot they were before the season began. Even if this hot start is somewhat real, where does it get them? A run at the play-in, and maybe even a first-round series loss could be fun, but Ryan Smith didn’t bring Danny Ainge to Utah to put together a fun, scrappy Jazz team. He came here to try and build a championship contender, and in a market like Utah, that is only going to happen by building through the draft.
Over the last three full NBA seasons (this excludes the shortened 2020 and 2021 seasons), the average record of the bottom three teams in the league comes out to right around 21-61. And though we don’t know what the magic number of wins required to maximize the odds of getting a top four pick will be this season, with a chance at drafting potential franchise-altering talents such as Wembanyama and Scoot Henderson on the line, we can assume it’ll be somewhere around there, if not lower.
As has been pointed out by both Jazz and national media members, there is a precedent of a tanking team beginning the season hot before slowing down and still finishing in the league’s bottom three. The 2014 76ers began the season 3-0 before eventually finishing the season 19-63, bad enough to finish with the second-worst record in the league. But, as currently constructed this Jazz team is much better than the 2014 76ers. Those Sam Hinkie Sixers had guys playing roles that they would never again come close to seeing on other teams, including a Rookie of the Year season from Michael Carter-Williams. Remember all those big contracts Michael Carter-Williams signed after he left the tanking Sixers? Me neither. James Anderson played the third most minutes on that team, and was out of the league at 27 years old two years later.
The Jazz, though lacking the top-end talent needed to win in the postseason, are a much better team than those Sixers. Four of the five starters on this Jazz team (all but Olynyk) were starting on teams that finished with a winning record last season, as was key backup Malik Beasley. Collin Sexton was a 24ppg scorer two years ago. Rudy Gay had a down year last season but is still at the very least a competent NBA player. The Jazz roster as currently constructed is just too good to just lay down and only win 22% of their remaining games.
Kevin O’Conner nailed it in his column this week: "it will be a lot easier for [the Lakers] to climb back into the play-in tournament as the season progresses than it would be for the Jazz to plummet down the standings. The Lakers can leapfrog teams that want to lose, whereas the Jazz would be competing with other teams racing to the bottom." Even if/when the Jazz make changes to make their roster worse, the closer they get to the 21 wins that the bottom three teams have averaged in recent years, the harder it'll be to maximize their chances of landing a top draft pick.
So, the sooner they make those moves, the better off they will be, right? Well, kind of. There is some incentive to hold off on trading their vets. As the season goes on and teams start to identify what holes their roster still has, or else as players start to go down with injuries, the value for guys like Mike Conley, Jordan Clarkson, and Kelly Olynyk might go up. But, as KOC points out in his article, "the value they could potentially gain is being swallowed up by the value they are losing by winning".
All in all, I still think the sooner the Jazz move off of some of their better guys, the better. The extra second-rounder that they might get from waiting to trade a guy like Jordan Clarkson would be nice, but it isn’t more valuable than the extra odds at drafting a potential superstar that they would gain by making the team worse in November instead of waiting until February. As the wins stack up, dreams of Wemby start to fade.