While expected at the bottom of the standings, after a busy offseason, the Utah Jazz continue to surprise by currently sitting on the throne of the Western Conference. But is this a surprise to the liking of Danny Ainge, the man in charge of basketball operations at the franchise? Instead he plans to return to the top level in a few years, through high chooses of drafting.
We destroy everything and we build again
Flashback: in the 2022 playoffs, Utah, led by its Rudy Gobert-Donovan Mitchell duo, was knocked out by the Dallas Mavericks (4-2), but still lost their star Luka Doncic in three of six against. A humiliating elimination like the death knell of this Jazz version of Gobert and Mitchell.
First of all, the coach, Quyn Snyder, who left the ship, on June 5th. Danny Ainge replaced him with Will Hardy, former assistant to Ime Udoka in Boston and unfortunate finalist with the Celtics. Then it was Royce O’Neale’s turn to be traded against a 2023 first round draft pick in Brooklyn. The first member of the Jazz Major 5 to leave.
On July 6, Rudy Gobert, three-time defensive player of the year with the Salt Lake City franchise, was traded to Minnesota for five players (including Malik Beasley and Jarred Vanderbilt) and four first-round draft picks. (includes a swap). That’s it, Danny Ainge went into “reconstruction” mode. Then, on September 3, Donovan Mitchell was logically traded to Cleveland for Agbaji, Sexton, Markkanen and three first draft rounds (plus two swaps). Finally, Bojan Bogdanovic, a fourth member of the 5 major, was sent to Detroit on September 22 against Kelly Olynyk and Saben Lee.
In less than two months, Utah is starting from scratch, we say. Veteran point guard Mike Conley at 6e Jordan Clarkson and Rudy Gay are the only survivors of the 2021-2022 version of the Jazz. Danny Ainge and Utah are looking for Frenchman Victor Wembanyama, who is expected to be the No. 1 in the future in the 2023 draft.
“Hearing about tanking, it feeds us”
At least, that’s what is expected on paper. Because of the ground, since the beginning of the season, Utah has impressed with ten wins for three losses and the best record in the Western Conference. Above all, Utah enjoys the game, with the second best attack in the league and has already placed some great trophies on its roster: Denver, Los Angeles Clippers, Minnesota, Memphis (twice) or even Atlanta, the latest at the moment.
So change the plan and we forget about tanking (accumulating losses to get a high draft pick next year) in Utah? For Lauri Markkanen, who is currently having his best season (22.7 pts and 8.8 rebounds per game), it’s out of the question:
Hearing about tanking is obviously something that feeds us, he explained in an interview with Shams Charania, for The Athletic.
Every time we win, we don’t want to read the next morning that it was a surprise. We use that as a motivation to push us to keep going like this and pile up the wins, to prove people wrong.
The team, built around talented veterans (Conley, Clarkson, Olynyk, Gay) and young revengers or left behind (Sexton, Beasley, Horton-Tucker…), and well led by its rookie coach, is not ends up withholding predictions. Clarkson’s inclusion in the starting 5 was a success (18.6 pts, 5.2 assists and 4.5 rebounds on 41.2% three-pointers); Mike Conley’s career-high 8 assists per game; Beasley and Sexton feed the scoring bench (25 points per game between them) and Lauri Markkanen is doing his best to be selected for his first All Star Game, an all-star game that will take place this year in… Salt Lake City.
We have too many good players to tank, even certified Mike Conley on The Athletic.
We knew that from day one. This is not a rebuild.
Winning games, too few for Danny Ainge?
So how far can the Utah Jazz go? In the short term, the calendar will tell us more about the capacities of Will Hardy’s men to stay at the top of the Western Conference, with tests coming against Philadelphia, Phoenix (twice), Portland, LA Clippers or even Golden State before the end of November. If Utah maintains its standards through the end of the calendar year, it will be possible to talk of the playoffs.
But is it only in Danny Ainge’s plans? It’s hard to imagine Utah winning a title with this team in years to come. Moreover, the boss of the Jazz announced this before the resumption of the season, the project was established for a (very) long time:
We have a plan to help us build a team that can win the title our fans deserve, he said on the franchise’s website.
It will take time to gather our workers. We all know we have our work cut out for us.
Is the Jazz win too much for the taste of his boss, who will see himself regain the Wembanyama nugget in June? It is possible, but it is difficult for him to publicly show the desire to disappear. And even less to ask his players to play the handbrake. But there is a solution: Ainge can take advantage of the Jazzmen’s good performances, see their market value increase, and trade them for expiring contracts and other draft rounds. Teams can position themselves to get Conley, Beasley, Clarkson etc. back. at that time trade deadline of February, to strengthen their workforce for the playoffs. And the level of the team will be immediately affected. Especially in the old days chief manager of the Boston Celtics is notorious for being unsentimental when it comes to trading players.
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Big dilemma then for the boss of the Salt Lake City franchise: win matches immediately and please the noisy fans of the Vivint Smart Home Arena, but without any real hope of a title, or lose (by a lot) to aim higher in the long run. term. In any case, Danny Ainge will not remain inactive.