The Utah Jazz lose in heartbreaking fashion against the Sacramento Kings, with a final score of 125-126. After a back and forth slugfest in the fourth quarter, Utah’s reoccurring struggle of rebounding late in games bites them once again. Multiple second-chance looks and loose ball plays resulted in Kevin Huerter’s game-winning three pointer. Here are some notes on the night:
Jazz couldn’t hit an open three
The Jazz shot 25% from three tonight. For the most part, Utah’s offense generated plenty of wide, wide open looks. But alas, they only shot 8 for 32 from range, even on a night where they generally shot well from everywhere else from the field. As a representation of such, take a look at this shot plot courtesy of NBA.com:
For the night, Utah ended up shooting 54.8% from the field. That’s actually above league average! But two’s are worth less than threes and its difficult to win when both Malik Beasley and Lauri Markkanen shoot 1-7 from three.
All-Star level play from both teams
Speaking of Lauri Markkanen, we must mention that both he and Domantas Sabonis played incredible tonight. Both should play in Salt Lake City at the All-Star Game in February.
Sabonis, to start off with, played about as good of a basketball game you can ask for. He ended the night with 28 points, 11 rebounds, and 8 assists on a perfect 12/12 from the field. Outside of his 7 turnovers (which in his defense, weren’t all his fault), he absolutely carved up Utah’s defense. Watching Sabonis play is wildly entertaining in a way that is pretty unique in today’s league. He doesn’t make any jaw-dropping athletic plays, but instead commands a basketball court in a Jokic-like manner. His passing, screening, and cutting is masterful and he repeatedly plays one step ahead of his defenders. It's truly beautiful basketball.
Markkanen, however, did stuff like this tonight:
LAURI MARKKANEN MY GOODNESS— NBA (@NBA) December 31, 2022
My goodness indeed. On a night where he couldn’t buy a bucket from downtown, he shot 15-17 from two-point range and single-handedly kept Utah afloat. While he couldn’t knock down an attempt at a game-winning turnaround jumper, he finished the game with 36 points and 5 rebounds. At this point in the year, I’m running out of new verbiage to describe his incredible play. But simply put, in my eyes, he’s undoubtedly an All-Star this season.
What is Utah’s direction entering the new year?
I want to take a brief moment to look at where Utah is headed in 2023. As the season stands, the Jazz have fallen to the 10th seed and sit at a record of 19-19. I think its safe to say that the team we have watched play over the last month or so is likely reflective of the true identity of this roster. While they have repeatedly fought to stay within games, the Jazz simply don’t have the top-end talent to be a real playoff team. Lauri Markkanen is an All-Star, but after that, Utah doesn’t have anyone on the same talent bubble.
This, of course, is what closer to what we expected when the year began. As the season draws out, Utah will continue to lose the element of “surprise” that helped launch them to a 10-3 start. They won’t beat teams with the chaos that left opponents in those early season matchups jarred. They’ll have a team largely filled with role players who come out every night with great energy. It's fun to watch, but not exactly a path towards championship contention.
So where do they go from here? On one end of the spectrum, they can look to buy low on high potential players (like John Collins) with the veterans and draft compensation they’ve accumulated. They can make the bet that, much like Lauri Markkanen, some of these players will bloom under a new coach in a new system. This route focuses more on winning now and building off the success they’ve experienced thus far.
On the other end, the Jazz could hold look to trade everyone not named Lauri Markkanen, Walker Kessler, Ochai Agbagi, and Collin Sexton. They can see what kind of draft compensation they can build from veterans like Mike Conley, Kelly Olynyk, Malik Beasley, and Rudy Gay. They can increase their odds at a top pick and see if they hit on a generational young player.
Honestly, I’m not totally sure one route is better than the other. Each holds their own significant risks. With the trade deadline coming relatively soon, I’m sure Utah will attempt to explore both of these routes (in all likelihood, they’ve already started). To me, this continues to serve as the most interesting storyline surrounding this team at the moment.