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The Jazz and Spurs were supposed to be in a race for the No. 1 pick in the 2023 NBA Draft. Will unexpectedly hot starts change their tanking plans?
Early in this NBA season, the standings are a simple-celled creature. Most of what will become lies undefined before us. Last year’s Western finalists (Golden State, Dallas) and this year’s championship favorite (L.A. Clippers) are all currently outside the top-10. We know that won’t last. We also know that every year, some trends and teams we think are flukes end up being much more than that. It’s the top of the conference where things are weird. Can it last? If it did, would those teams even want that?
Utah, San Antonio and Oklahoma City are what legal tanking looks like. The Jazz traded their two All-Stars for some nice young players and a fat wad of draft capital. The Spurs are so deep in their rebuild Gregg Popovich made light of their low expectations on media day. Over the next seven years, the Thunder have 38 draft picks. These three teams are all but advertising that their present is entirely about their future.
Like it or not as fans, NBA teams are investments made by filthy rich capitalists who bet on their front offices of thirtysomething Ivy Leaguers figuring out the surest odds for the biggest payoff. The fans and their patience are at best taken for granted, at worst irrelevant. NBA Twitter is filled with very practical people who will explain why the best result after winning the title is never finishing 35-47. So what happens when the little engine that shouldn’t show signs it may not stop? What happens when the fans believe in a team that doesn’t believe in itself?
Surprisingly sweet music coming from the Utah Jazz
After shipping out Rudy Gobert and Donovan Mitchell this past offseason, Utah was expected to lose early, late and everywhen in-between. It made sense. The Gobert/Mitchell teams reached the playoffs the last five years, six if you count 2016-17 when Gobert was there and Mitchell still a year away. Despite regular-season dominance on both ends — giving up the fewest points in 2017 and 2018, then finishing top-5 in offense and defense two seasons ago — the Jazz never translated that to postseason success. Over the past six seasons, they never advanced past the second round; in three of the last four playoffs, they lost in round one.
Danny Ainge took over and got to business breaking things down. Trading Gobert and Mitchell brought Utah a haul of useful players, draft picks and swaps, courtesy of Minnesota and Cleveland. Collin Sexton is the only current player on the books beyond next season. The Jazz may find takers for players like Jordan Clarkson, Lauri Markkanen, Mike Conley and Malik Beasley. That is to be expected: rebuilding teams are supposed to trade anything not nailed down now for younger players, or cheaper players, or younger, cheaper players. What’s unexpected is that the Jazz are winning.
6-3 is not quite 73-9, but as no one confused this Utah roster with the 2016 Warriors, 6-3 is plenty exciting. Nor are the Jazz picking off weaker teams: they’ve already defeated Denver, Minnesota, New Orleans and — twice now — Memphis. Is this run of success sustainable? Maybe not, and we’re well aware of that. But what if maybe it is?
The Jazz average exactly as many field goals per game (42.2) as they give up, while shooting the same percentage as their opponents (46 percent). Under rookie head coach Will Hardy, though, their shot diet is different. Combine 2-pointers and free throws and the Jazz are outscored by 10 a game. It’s the 3-pointer saving their bacon so far, to the tune of a 13.3-point nightly advantage – and that’s with Markkanen, second on the team in attempts, shooting a career-low 29 percent from deep. So there may be better days ahead on that front.
Ahh, but all 3-pointers are not created the same. Forgetting the small sample size, it’s not like Utah is loaded with in-their-primes James Hardens, who can side-step and step-back their way to one self-created look after another. The Jazz are more a fist than five fingers, meaning they win because of the depth of their rotation rather than because of superstars. One way this has manifested: ball protection.
Every one of Utah’s top-10 players as far as minutes played, from Clarkson down to rookie Walker Kessler, has more assists than turnovers. All 10. Is this sustainable? Hard to project, given that we don’t know how many of these players will be on the team all season long. But any team that can outscore opponents from deep by 13+ a night while sharing the ball and not turning it over is not a fluke. That’s good, smart basketball.
Speed and stifling D from the San Antonio Spurs
Under Gregg Popovich, the Spurs have taken on many forms. In the early Tim Duncan years, they were a defensive beast, annually among the league’s stingiest stoppers. By the late TD years, San Antonio went beyond the bounds of most league offenses and became something symphonic. The 2014 Spurs, the last to win a title for the franchise, were like Mozart’s music come to life. Lately, their song has soured; the Spurs have missed the playoffs the last three years. That’s a trick most franchises can pull off while standing on their head, but for San Antonio it’s unprecedented. Before 2020-21, they had never missed consecutive seasons, going all the way back to 1967, when they started out as the ABA’s Dallas Chaparrals.
This year we’ve seen a new version of the Spurs, one that takes advantage of one of their supposed weaknesses — their youth. San Antonio, 5-3 out of the gate, plays at the second-fastest pace in the NBA, opening up opportunities for easy 2-pointers and open transition 3s, many fueled by larcenous defenders like Keldon Johnson and Devin Vassell. San Antonio also leads the NBA in assists, and similar to Utah those assists generally come without turnovers. The eight Spurs to play more than 100 minutes this season all have more assists than turnovers.
The Spurs have to play fast and smart to have any chance to win since they’re being outscored by a whopping 15 a game on 2s and free throws combined. Their negative point differential is that of a sub-.500 team, but they’ve so far survived even that thanks to a defensive revival. Jakob Poeltl is one of the league’s best rim protectors, and after missing most of the past three seasons with injuries Zach Collins is providing stout interior D off the bench.
Tick, tick, tick . . .
An out-of-nowhere group of castaways come together to equal more than the sum of their parts in Utah, while a relentless group of kids get off to a flying start in San Antonio. Every sports movie tells us this is the stuff dreams are made of. Does that mean it’s time to add the Jazz and Spurs to your League Pass required viewing? It’s complicated.
First, the odds of either team continuing to play at a 50-win level are faint. The Spurs have a few veterans other teams may inquire about as the trade deadline nears, namely Poeltl, Josh Richardson and for those in need of shooting off the bench, Doug McDermott. Half of their top 10 in minutes are 25 or younger. If they flirt with .500 in the next few months, maybe the front office decides they’re ahead of schedule and they give the kids the chance to spread their wings. Maybe.
Utah’s a bit more complicated, which ironically makes their outcome easier to predict. Players like Clarkson and Markkanen are known quantities; they have value because they’ve shown what they can do for many years. No one’s really asked them to lead a team, but the beauty of the Jazz to this point is that no one has had to. Many hands make light work, in life and in basketball.
The league knows it, too. Any team in need of scoring punch will have their eyes on Clarkson; a contender whose point guard goes down to a season-ending injury may think Conley can pick up the slack; Markkanen or Kelly Olynyk offer shooting and spacing from the frontcourt, a look almost every team is looking for. The Jazz are versatile, smart and tough. That and a nickel gets you nothing in a league that’s virulently anti-middle class.
So where does that leave the fans? Is there any point in emotionally investing in a TV show you know the network is itching to cancel? If you’re not fighting for the trophy, you’re fighting for ping pong balls, the wisdom of our age insists. The Jazz are asking their fans to drink some gross medicine. “You may not feel like you’re sick now,” they insist, “but trust us: you’ll feel better in time.” Many of those fans may not feel sick at all, not at 6-3. But Dr. Ainge is here with his needles and he’s going to vaccinate, like it or not.
For Spurs fans it may be a bit easier; they’re built to fail, yet so young that failure can be sold as a means to an end. Take a franchise considered a model of accomplishment around the league, infuse with youth, season with some experience and let it simmer. The Spurs are slow-cooker food: a little patience, the thinking goes, will lead to such succulence. With Popovich still in the kitchen and their walls heavy with Michelin honors, San Antonio’s fans may have an easier time just rolling with whatever comes next.