The Utah Jazz finished the season 37-45, 12th place in their conference. GM Danny Ainge, new coach Will Hardy and the entire organization do deserve a ton of credit for keeping this severely stripped roster. They floated around .500 all season long and finishing with a winning record at home (23-18).
The Jazz were 29-31 going into the All Star break but went just 8-14 to close out the season. However praise is what the Jazz deserve. With the massive roster overhaul, new ownership brought in 35 year old first time head coach Hardy and traded away their cornerstone franchise pieces in Donovan Mitchell and Rudy Gobert last offseason. It was hard to envision this team amounting to much this season besides an early pick in the much anticipated 2023 NBA Draft.
Expectations were low all across the board in Salt Lake City coming into this season. So it’s awfully difficult and relatively strange to praise a team that missed the playoffs (and the play-in for that matter). Even with the seasoned wheeling and dealing, Ainge getting an absolute haul from the Minnesota Timberwolves for what many believed to be an untradeable contract in Gobert’s deal, and after fetching another three first rounders along with now turned All-Star forward Lauri Markkanen, many still believed this Jazz team would be in the Victor Wembanyama sweepstakes all year.
Although Utah was not a good team, they weren’t the Spurs, Rockets or Hornets either. Oddly enough, the Jazz were far ahead of expectations. Coming into the season with an entirely new roster (only two players returned from last year’s roster) and a pre-season Over/Under of 23.5 wins, this group certainly exceeded expectations quicker than even the most optimistic Jazz believer would have thought.
The Jazz were in rebuild mode and everyone knew it. What everyone didn’t know or expect was Lauri Markkanen turning into an All Star player and having this “rebuilding” Utah team finish inside the top 10 in team points per game (Jazz finished 7th with 117.1 PPG right between Lakers and the Bucks- both of whom made the playoffs). Markkanen was awarded the NBA’s Most Improved award and deservingly so. He finished 12th in the league with 25.6 PPG on a new career high in FG percentage (50%).
Just for comparison’s sake the Jazz offense-yes, just the offense- this season ranked exactly in the same place as they did the previous season with Mitchell and Gobert at the reins. However it was evident the Jazz were a lot faster on Offense. Rookie Center Walker Kessler (who was part of the Timberwolves package for Gobert) was a pleasant surprise in year one as well. The highly efficient Kessler led all first year players in FG percentage, and blocks – which he also finished inside the top five in the league, as well as second amongst rookies in rebounds.
One carry over from Utah’s roster last season was former Sixth Man extraordinaire Jordan Clarkson. Clarkson most definitely reaped the benefits of Mitchell’s departure, sliding into the starting lineup and averaging a career best 20 PPG this season. Another pleasant surprise on the perimeter was rookie guard Ochai Agbaji.
Agbaji only averaged around 8 PPG on 43% shooting from the field, but the rookie showed flashes of the offensive prowess that made him a first round pick in last year’s draft. With multiple 20+ point performances in the final weeks of the season in extended playing time, Abaji definitely proved to this Jazz staff that he was more than just a throw-in in the massive haul Utah got in the Mitchell trade from Cleveland last summer.
Obviously the Jazz were nowhere near as dominant as they have been. You can’t just lose a three time Defensive player of the year and not suffer greatly on that end of the floor. Without the two All NBA stars, the Jazz definitely felt the impact of the loss of their defensive anchor in “The Stifle Tower,” Rudy Gobert.
The Jazz finished the season in the bottom third of the league in defensive rating at 116. Utah also finished in the bottom five of the league in points off turnovers, fast break points given up, and second chance points given up to opponents as well as being in the bottom ten of the league in points given up in the paint, a category they were regularly at the top of the league during Gobert’s tenure in Utah.
New Kids on the Block
Rookie Walker Kessler showed huge potential and contributed right away, protecting the paint and finishing near the top of the entire league in blocked shots. It’s a tall task to ask of any current big man, especially a rookie, to replace the 7’4 Frenchmen Gobert. Utah finished the season with a net rating of -0.9, good for 22th in the league. Even though the offense didn’t suffer as much as you would expect after losing two perennial All NBA talents, their loss was quantified and very visible on the defensive end.
Utah was in full rebuild mode and at the bottom of the league as far as wins go was a lot closer to the middle of the pack then you’d expect after surrendering a large chunk of their talent, namely Mitchell, Gobert and lets not forget longtime Utah sharpshooter Bojan Bogdanovic who was also dealt prior to this season starting. GM Ainge is not one for long rebuilds as apparent from his time in Boston, where he had a reputation of pulling off deals with such foresight that likely left his trade partners wondering where he was getting the inside info.
All the influence from the Celtics organization seems to have the Jazz on the right track. Utah can surely improve on their 3 point shooting (Utah lost Joe Ingles, Bogdanovic, and Mitchell – the teams top three-point options from the previous season) and their rebounding and defense, both of which are effects of giving up their elite rim and paint protector Rudy Gobert.
However, this team is closer to competing in the weaker Western Conference then many may have believed before this season got underway. Similarly to the path of the OKC Thunder, the Jazz have fourteen possible first round picks over the next six drafts. Additionally, they have between 35-55 million dollars in cap space.
Ainge and the front office are in a position to make a big splash and expedite this rebuild much to the delight of Jazz faithful.
Rodion “Rody” Makhover is a contributor to Back Sports Page, he mainly focuses his writing about the NBA and NFL but his love for sports ranges a lot wider. While fairly new to writing and without much formal education in it Rody certainly doesn’t lack the passion for competition. Growing up in Brooklyn, NY there was no shortage of teams to root for in the City. A lifelong Yankee, Giants and Knick fan it’s a roller coaster of emotions just about 365 days a year, but just like everything else in NYC, when it’s good it’s great. You can find Rody on Twitter and Instagram @rodymak