It’s February 27th and the Utah Jazz sit at a record of 31-31.
Four starters from last season played zero games and the team welcomed in several new rotation players after the off-season's trades. The trade deadline saw an additional four rotation players part ways in Conley, Vanderbilt, Beasley, and Alexander-Walker.
Tack on a brand new coaching staff, a difficult early schedule and a non-exemption from player injuries and the results of this season are mesmerizing. The preseason oddsmakers placed the total season wins over/under at 23.5. With 20 games left, FiveThirtyEight estimates 40 wins by season end.
What an incredible season, unforeseen by even the most optimistic of fans.
At a time when the Jazz seemed poised for a rebuild, a “one step back for two steps forward”, the Jazz have dug in their heels and committed to their culture and expectation for competitive building.
In fact, the benefit of hindsight and context actually tells us the team never had much incentive to lose and the roster foundation they stumbled into with Lauri Markkanen and Walker Kessler give them to high a floor to really lose.
Because of the dramatic roster turnover, the Utah Jazz front office and coaching staff prioritized an ecosystem that would allow the team to evaluate the new talent. They balanced the roster, they tinkered with rotations, and expanded roles for key contributors.
Turns out the team was pretty good. Markkanen’s combination of volume and efficiency was a huge development. Walker Kessler’s impact on both ends afforded the team balance and stability. By the time trades for key veterans were possible, the team developed too much inertia to really lose.
in the words of Walker ' ' ' pic.twitter.com/x52qoCmnBs— Utah Jazz (@utahjazz) February 24, 2023
Since the official deadline’s close, the Jazz are 4-2 with a +2.4 point differential per Cleaning the Glass. Factor in an upcoming five games in seven against the San Antonio Spurs, Oklahoma City Thunder, Orlando Magic, and Charlotte Hornets, those numbers are going to look better before they ever get worse.
Turns out the talent they traded at the deadline was a side plot for this season. Lauri and Walker were the secret sauce, the ace in the hole. They only received more responsibility and runway since the trade and are flourishing.
Saturday’s win over the Spurs confirmed the Jazz don’t belong in the top half of the lottery. They are too good and none of those teams have both a Markkanen and Kessler. The Jazz have always had too little room to lose this season and now more than ever do we realize.
Frankly, it may not matter. Utah owns the first round pick from the Minnesota Timberwolves, who sit tied with the Jazz in the standings with a bear of a schedule ahead of them. Utah also possesses enough assets to jump a reasonable amount in the draft should they choose.
Because of the abrupt change of direction for the franchise, many fans and media targeted next year for the Jazz to compete in the top of the lottery.
But as time goes on, there appears to be less and less incentive to mail it in next season.
Markkanen and Kessler will have their first offseason with the coaching staff. Last summer Walker was hampered with an injury, playing zero minutes in summer league. Lauri was finding himself in the EuroBasket tournament. They are going to be better and worse in some areas, but ultimately the tandem is as solid as this year.
Furthermore, the Utah Jazz are set to onboard three first round draft picks to pair with sophomore Ochai Agbaji. There will be no shortage of development tracks in the upcoming seasons.
Fans will also remember the Jazz have no other 2024 picks than their own, which conveniently is owed to the Oklahoma City Thunder if it’s out of the top 10. The rub is the protection continues into 2025 and 2026.
A recent podcast from ESPN’s Zach Lowe revealed the network’s draft expert, Jonathan Givoney, estimates the 2024 draft to be the worst draft class in 20 years. “Trade all your picks,” was Givoney’s half-joking advice to the league.
Zach Lowe on Lowe Post podcast with Jonathan Givony says that "2024 is going to be a horrible draft. Trade your picks now." Nets have no picks in either round, both going to Houston.— NetsDaily (@NetsDaily) February 24, 2023
Thanks to the trade that brought back Russell Westbrook, the Jazz have avenues this offseason to onboard rotation pieces they think compliment Lauri and Walker. Options include Fred VanVleet, Jerami Grant, Kyle Kuzma, etc.
The short of it is the Jazz want to be good next year, for good reason.
The Utah Jazz have already eyed the 2025-26 season to “be back”; be back to competition for a championship in the Western Conference. In order to be back, they’ll have to be trying to win and be very good ahead of the season opener.
The Jazz are slotted for two first round picks from the Minnesota Timberwolves and Cleveland Cavaliers in the 2025 draft and would still owe the Thunder their own pick (top-8 protected) if it hasn’t conveyed in 2024.
This offseason the Jazz will also be looking to resign Markkanen to a max contract, assuming this season’s play scales as we think. He’ll be in his year 28 season and the Jazz hope to have an additional star next him for real contention here.
The last thing the team will want to do ahead of extending their star is lose.
The more context is revealed and the better the team shows out, the more light is shed on the fact there’s little room or reason to lose.
They’ve walked into an All-Star in Markkanen, found an average starting center with upside on a long, 22nd pick rookie contract. They own 9 unprotected picks, 3 partially protected, 2 rights to swap, and only one pick owed elsewhere.
Updated Utah Jazz future 1sts infographic! Now featuring the Lakers first and totals at the bottom.#TakeNote pic.twitter.com/9pcN70KRfQ— Adam Bushman (@adam_bushman) February 18, 2023
They have over $37M in cap space this summer without doing anything and can get to $49M without a ton of trouble.
The Jazz entered last offseason with the goal of flexibility and options. They received both in spades. While they certainly took a step back, all signs point to the franchise fully intending to take several steps forward immediately.