Jazz Season Was An Overwhelming Success

Apr 9, 2023, 5:46 PM

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SALT LAKE CITY – The Utah Jazz fell to the Los Angeles Lakers on Sunday, ending the regular season with a record of 37-45.

The Jazz’s 36 wins are their fourth-fewest in the last 40 seasons, a remarkable number for a small market team in a league as competitive as the NBA.

Despite the low overall win total, it’s hard to argue the season has been anything but a major success, and one of the most important turning points in the franchise’s history.

Jazz Season Was An Overwhelming Success

Last offseason, the Jazz saw the organization’s second-winningest coach resign, traded two of the top-10 (and arguably top-five) best players in the team’s history, and shipped out two other starters over the course of four months.

They welcomed back only five players from the previous year’s roster, and saw two of those players traded mid-season, including the veteran leader on both the court and in the locker room.

What emerged was nearly a perfect mixture of building blocks for the front office of Danny Ainge and Justin Zanik to mix and match to build the next true contender in Utah.

Markkanen Emerges

First and foremost, Lauri Markkanen showed that he was an All-NBA caliber primary scorer, capable of carrying an offense against any defense in the league.

Markkanen had more games when he scored 30 points and above than when he scored fewer than 20. He did so at such an efficient rate he was not only named to his first All-Star game, but he wound up as a starter.

The Finnish big man is the first true “unicorn” to wear a Jazz uniform, becoming the first player in NBA history to record 100 dunks, and 200 made threes in a single season, and he did so in only 66 games.

Better yet, he dispelled the belief that he’s a one-way player who gives up as many points on defense as he scores on offense. Markkanen won’t be named to an All-Defensive team this year, but he’s far from a liability on that end of the floor.

Kessler, Agbaji Flourish

Behind Markkanen are two rookies that look to have long, bright futures in the NBA.

Walker Kessler is a no-double first-team All-Rookie member who aided winning more than any other first-year player in the league this season.

The Auburn product, acquired in the Rudy Gobert trade has a legitimate argument as the NBA’s top shot blocker, and has the offensive upside to contribute on a high-level contender.

Kessler’s old-school game may not ever allow him to become one of the flashier big men in the NBA, but his impact on the court is undeniable.

Agabji didn’t have the same burst out of the gate as Kessler to begin his NBA career, but showed impressive development once he entered the rotation full-time.

Over the final 42 games of the season, the Kansas grad made 22 starts, averaged 9.7 points, 2.5 rebounds, and 1.3 assists while shooting nearly 40 percent from the three-point line.

Agbaji has upper-tier athleticism, and projects as a high-level 3-and-D wing in the NBA, the type of role player that is found on every contending roster.

An Intriguing Backcourt

Also in the discussion to remain long-term fixtures on the team is a quartet of veteran guards that all showed significant value at separate points throughout the season.

Jordan Clarkson became only the fifth player in Jazz history to average 20 points, four rebounds, and four assists in a season, joining Karl Malone, Adrian Dantley, Pete Maravich, and Donovan Mitchell.

Collin Sexton showed impressive efficiency as a scorer recording a career-high .558 effective field goal percentage despite returning from a devastating knee injury.

Talen Horton-Tucker flashed continued intrigue averaging career highs in points and assists while demonstrating some truly dazzling performances in the latter half of the season, all at just 22 years old.

Perhaps the biggest surprise in the backcourt was the late emergence of Kris Dunn who signed a 10-day contract in February and made the most compelling argument to be the team’s starting point guard of the future.

Dunn averaged 12.3 points, 5.1 assists, and 4.1 rebounds in just over 20 appearances with the team while shooting a magnificent 53 percent from the floor and 45 percent from three.

The veteran has the type of personality that will pair well with Markkanen in the locker room, and the type of mentality that will help take the Jazz to the next step as competitors on the court.

Though there won’t be room for all four players down the roster down the road, there’s plenty of depth to pick and choose the best pieces of the puzzle.

Hardy Is The Right Man For The Job

Perhaps the most easily overlooked move of the Jazz rebuild is the addition of coach Will Hardy who did nothing but impress at each turn throughout his first year as an NBA head coach.

Hardy has the temperament to bond with the players on his roster, while also demanding the most out of them on both ends of the floor.

He brought levity to a locker room that had soured a year earlier, and recaptured the belief of the players held over from the previous season, becoming positive culture setters among their new teammates.

Under Hardy, the finished with a top-10 offensive rating, and was on the wrong end of true blowouts only five times, despite finishing with a single-digit lottery pick.

At just 35 years old, Hardy has plenty of room to grow into his role, but is already one of the 15 best coaches in the league, if not higher.

There Are Questions That Remain

Though it’s difficult to argue the Jazz season was anything but a success, there are questions heading into the offseason.

The first to be answered is how strong of a draft pick did the Jazz land after making a significant effort to dismantle last year’s roster.

Markkanen is a stellar face to lead the franchise, but how will the Jazz acquire another top-20 player to pair with him on the roster?

With a slew of draft assets going forward, the Jazz have positioned themselves to make multiple blockbuster trades. But drafting a star is the most cost-efficient way of doing business, and if that player isn’t available with the ninth pick, will the team regret not making a more serious short-term sacrifice in the name of team-building this season?

Additionally, what exactly is the timeline?

The Jazz would have made the playoffs this season had it not been for a midseason trade that sent Mike Conley to Minnesota. Currently, the Jazz will only have a first-round draft next season if they finish with one of the 10-worst records in the NBA.

Is this a team without significant upgrades in the offseason that can make a meaningful run to the playoffs, or are they destined once again to finish with 35-40 wins, not bad enough for a top pick, and not good enough to be taken seriously?

And what is the plan for Jordan Clarkson?

The guard said he hasn’t made much thought about his free agency this summer, though the Jazz should be the frontrunner to bring him back.

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Clarkson will be 31 when next season begins, likely near the latter end of the Jazz’s restructuring timeline, especially when it comes to assigning significant money.

The guard is a fan favorite, and his scoring and veteran presence are assets, but the team has shopped the guard around the league before and was unable to find a worthy suitor.

Would the Jazz benefit more from seeing Clarkson return, furthering his timeline as a trade asset, or letting him move on to a contender, and maintaining more flexibility with the cap space?

The Jazz entered the summer of 2022 with a roster that was splitting at the seams, and a culture in need of a reboot.

What they have entering the summer of 2023 is an All-NBA caliber seven-footer, two promising rookies, a talented foursome of guards, the league’s best young coach, and a nearly unimaginable treasure chest of draft assets.

It wasn’t a perfect season for the Jazz, and there are potential pitfalls that must be avoided, but considering where they were only 12 months ago, the last year can’t be viewed as anything but a success.

Ben Anderson is the Utah Jazz insider for KSL Sports and the co-host of Jake and Ben from 10-12p with Jake Scott on 97.5 The KSL Sports Zone. Find Ben on Twitter at @BensHoops or on Instagram @BensHoops.

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Jazz Season Was An Overwhelming Success