On Wednesday night, the Utah Jazz defeated the Houston Rockets 109-101.
This continues a start that few could have seen coming. The Jazz are 4-1 through five games. In five games, the Jazz and Portland Trail Blazers lead the league with four wins. The Jazz lead the Western Conference in five games. Few expect it to stay that way, and rightly so. But the fact that we’re even here—jazz has won the Denver Nuggets, the Minnesota Timberwolves, and the New Orleans Pelicans—is a surprise in itself.
Below, we look at what’s going right for Utah and how the Jazz are in that position right now. Is any of this sustainable? We will try to check this as well.
When Lauri Markkanen committed to the University of Arizona, the way he now plays for jazz was the player people projected out of him. When the Chicago Bulls took him seventh overall, this was the player people were predicting could be.
He’s 25 now, and basketball-wise, Arizona and Chicago were almost a lifetime away for him. But he got off to the best start of his career with the Utah Jazz, and no other start to a season he’s had as a collegiate or professional basketball player comes close to how well he’s currently playing. He’s averaging 21 points and nearly nine rebounds a night. He averages three assists per game. He averages one steal per game and does it all efficiently. He defends well. He folds in transition and ends plays over the edge. The only thing he doesn’t do well is shooting from 3 point range.
If that’s the mark the Jazz gets, if that’s what it’s enduring, Utah has a bargain price. His career-high average to date is 18.7 points per game in his second season with the Bulls. But over the years in Chicago, Markkanen’s production steadily declined until he moved on and played for the Cleveland Cavaliers last season.
Markkanen is currently giving the Jazz someone who can play all three places up front and someone who will make for a difficult matchup for teams night after night. He scores without holding the basketball. He scores on all three levels, and the jazz offensive as a whole has evolved around his individual talents.
If we look individually, the Jazz are 4:1 with Markkanen as the best player. does it last We will see. But jazz uses this season as a canvas for fact-finding. The facts through five games? Markkanen is a core piece, a fundamental piece. He’s young enough to fit into Utah’s timeline. He’s versatile enough that future jazz can mix and match incoming tunes around him. And he’s showing that he’s good enough to be a regular in a very good team.
Markkanen credits his time in EuroBasket this summer as the impetus for his start this season. He’s had a free hand in this tournament, snagging rebounds, dribbling the length of the floor and making plays for himself and his teammates. He’s playing the same way for Utah earlier this season, and the Jazz have been one of the surprise teams in the NBA because of it.
The irony of it all: Had the New York Knicks and the Jazz agreed to a deal – one that fell through between them but eventually landed Donovan Mitchell with the Cavaliers – Markkanen wouldn’t be in Utah. And it has become a bargain for Jazz, along with the three unprotected first-round picks that Jazz coveted, along with two rights to trade first-round picks.
It remains to be seen how Markkanen and the Jazz react to teams doing more to take him out of games. And what the reaction will be as Markkanen and the Jazz encounter tougher and more difficult matchups. But for now, Markkanen has been one of the surprises of the league, and he’s taken jazz to unprecedented heights.
how far can you go
Because the Jazz Mitchell and Rudy Gobert traded, they don’t have the top-end talent that teams that consistently win at a high level have. However, this team has an unusual depth and versatility. Essentially what the Jazz are is a team of talented rotary players with elements that fit together.
Markkanen and Jordan Clarkson were dynamic offensively. As always, Mike Conley was a master at leading a team. Jarred Vanderbilt was a defensive dynamo. Malik Beasley, Talen Horton-Tucker and Collin Sexton were wildcards from the bench. The Jazz have a lot of gunfights. New coach Will Hardy operates a system that is difficult for teams to adequately prepare for in the turmoil of the regular season.
The Jazz have completed five games with four different lineups. In Wednesday night’s win against the Rockets, Hardy closed with Markkanen in the center. It was mostly out of necessity because Vanderbilt and Kelly Olynyk were each fouled. But the variation in lineups was interesting to see. Jazz can get big. You can get small. So even without the top-end talent, they have a well-rounded game rotation that can go deeper in numbers than most teams. It’s not going to win you many games in the playoffs because the playoffs are about the top-end talent. A team can certainly be competitive in the regular season, and the Jazz were that.
The schedule will be much rougher in the future. Utah will play nine of its next 14 games away from home. Most of these games are against playoff and title contenders. There will be multiple sets of back-to-backs. It’s all part of a 20-game opening streak that’s one of the toughest opening streaks for any team in the league.
We’re about to find out if the Jazz are really good or if they’re just playing good basketball for five games.
You can see how much the Jazz play for each other on almost every offensive ball. They are looking for each other. You make the extra pass. Then they make an extra pass on top of that.
Clarkson is the best example of this. He averages 5.3 assists in five games. He’s never averaged more than 3.5 assists in a single season. He adds a playful dimension to his ability to score goals, making him an all-around weapon he’s never been.
That was the concern at the start of the season. That this squad had far too few willing passers-by. Earlier this season, Conley and Olynyk were probably the two guys in the rotation known for their willingness to make games for others. But everyone did it this season and jazz has benefited from it.
That Hardy, at 34, has that buy-in from a mostly experienced squad is something that can’t be ruled out. The Jazz are 4-1 because everyone is on the same page. There has been no exception to this. Were there ball losses and bad moves? Yes. Were there any mistakes? Yes. But the squad came together and played together, which was impressive. This is especially so because not many in this squad know what’s going to happen in the long run.
With that in mind, this team came together and played at a level that few expected.
(Photo by Lauri Markkanen: Chris Gardner/Getty Images)