Markkanen continues to combine volume and efficiency, such as with his 38 against the Suns. (Rick Egan, The Salt Lake Tribune)
Every week during the regular season begins here at SCH with the Salt City Seven, a septet of recurring features that let us relive the biggest moments, key performances and hot issues in Jazzland from various angles. Check in every week for the quotes, stats, plays and performances that tell the stories from the last 168 hours in the world of the Jazz.
A quick look at the big, burning question of the moment in Jazzland
The continued growth of Keyonte George and the encouraging news about Walker Kessler mean the Jazz could be days away from having a difficult decision to make.
George is averaging 8.8 assists per game as a Jazz starter, and his team has a 120.0 offensive rating over that span. So this much seems pretty clear: it would be shocking if the rookie guard went back to the bench at this point.
But someone who had previously claimed a spot as a starter has to. Before Kessler moved to the injured list, the Jazz’s first five were him, John Collins, Lauri Markkanen, Jordan Clarkson and Talen Horton-Tucker. When a bum elbow forced Utah to rethink the starting group, both George and Ochai Agbaji stepped in, replacing the injured Kessler as well as Horton Tucker.
One option: break up the bigs. The Kessler-Markkanen-Collins trio has a -20.9 net rating in 211 possessions so far this season, which Will Hardy and his staff could take as an early sign that the combination doesn’t work. On the other hand, though: 174 of those 211 possessions came alongside THT. It’s entirely possible that the configuration could work with a complement of guards that doesn’t further complicate the spacing. (The collective maligning of THT has gone a bit overboard, but it is true that opponents are not that concerned about him off ball, even thought he’s currently shooting a higher percentage than Clarkson, George and Collin Sexton.)
Plus, who exactly sits if that’s the plan? Collins has arguably been the Jazz’s second best player, and Kessler is a key part of Utah’s future. Nothing’s sacred at 4-9, so they might consider it, but frankly it would also be fair game to give the big man trio a larger sample size next to some shooters before making deciding to bury the idea forever.
Agbaji feels too important defensively, as he has routinely been assigned opposing teams’ best wing or guard. Clarkson feels too important offensively, as essentially the only Jazzman who can consistently manufacture his own shot. It sure as heck won’t be the team’s lone All-Star, and we’ve already covered the reasons they likely won’t ask George to keep his warm-ups on longer.
It doesn’t sound like Hardy has it figured out just yet either. He told the Tribune’s Andy Larsen last week that the staff is “on the fence” about what changes to make, and that “nothing’s really off the table at this point.” He made reference to considering the rotation overall, and to the small number of minutes Kessler and George have played together: they’re minus-25 per 100 possessions in 74 shared minutes so far.
(It’s also worth reminding ourselves that lineup data has very little predictive value in general at this point in the season. It’s still interesting and descriptive, but new sample can make stats swing wildly back and forth at this point. Want proof? The best high-minute lineup in Sunday’s thriller against Phoenix was Markkanen with the four primary reserves at +8.9 — the same group that was -6.7 against the same opponent two nights earlier. Be patient with all stats at this point in the season, but especially lineup data.)
There’s no easy answer here. But there does have to be an answer, and we’ll know it soon.
Telling or interesting words from Jazz people
“I think the last four games, our offense has been way crisper. The spacing has been better, the communications has been better, the reads have been cleaner. I think defensively we’ve showed moments of very high activity… There are strides being made on both sides of the ball, it just continues to be about doing it for more of the 48 minutes. I do think the team’s improving.”
-Hardy, assessing the week minutes after a second straight down-the-wire loss
That feels like a fair macro assessment. After beating the shorthanded Grizzlies and Blazers, Utah came within a single possessions (or, ahem, foul call) of the vaunted Phoenix Suns… twice!
But that also doesn’t mean Hardy is looking for moral victories.
“Losing’s no fun,” he continued. “I want them and all of us to feel that. The worst thing in the world would be losing going numb on anybody.”
Stats that tell the story of the week
One of the worries about Markkanen’s trajectory is that he’d take an efficiency hit playing without a Mike Conley-level table setter. So far, that hasn’t happened. His true shooting is .633, the second best season of his career and mere tenths of a percentage point off of last season. In particular, he seems emboldened (or perhaps encouraged from the sidelines) about shooting early in the shot clock, and when he does, watch out: he’s currently shooting 52% from deep when he fires in the first nine seconds of the shot clock.
Suns superstar Devin Booker shot just 1-for-9 from the field (0-for-3 from three) while guarded by Agbaji in this weekend’s two games. For that matter, even the red hot Kevin Durant managed just 6-for-13 against Agbaji’s defense. He also turned the ball over three times with Agbaji as his primary defender, but did bait the Jazz guard into a 3-shot foul. In all, that’s 17 points on 17 used possessions. Agbaji is becoming Utah’s defensive Swiss Army knife.
Collins has been Utah’s Mr. Consistent. He has yet to have a game below 11 points or above 20 points. He just logged three straight double doubles, and his seven total points-rebounds double doubles on the season are more than all but seven NBA players.
The Jazz’s first regular season Sunday home game in almost 23 years also became their first multiple-overtime home game in 4,234 days. The last time 53 minutes wasn’t enough to decide a game in the Delta Center was on April 17, 2012, when they beat the defending champion Mavericks 123-121 after three overtimes, behind a 28-and-26 night from Al Jefferson.
Recognizing the best (or most memorable) performances from each Jazz win
Time for some spherical praise to be doled out for Utah’s one win, plus some flowers after two close losses against a contender.
Jazz 115, Blazers 99: Jordan Clarkson. The Tweeps (Xers?) were unanimously behind Clarkson, and there’s probably no reason to get overly creative here. Inpredictable says that nobody came close to having Clarkson’s impact on the end result, and it was his most efficient shooting night of the season, with 30 points on 19 FGA. Sure, he was light in some of the other stats compared to other Game Ball performances, but Markkanen and Collins were both less efficient. Kelly Olynyk (12 and 12) might be my personal runner-up, and Collin Sexton was pretty important in this one too.
Strong in defeat:
- Jazz 128, Suns 131: Jordan Clarkson. Yeah again, no need to get cute here. At 37-3-5, nobody contributed as much to this almost-upset as JC, especially during a 21-point second. Again I’ll go Olynyk as the #2. When Phoenix went up 28-14, Utah responded with a 28-15 run of its own. That surge started with two Olynyk layups, an KO assist on a Sexton 3, Kelly’s own 3-pointer, followed by him setting up another Sexton jumper and a free-throw trip, and minutes later a transition kick-ahead assist. Without Olynyk, that game very likely gets out of hand early. Agbaji’s defense also deserves credit.
- Jazz 137, Suns 140: Lauri Markkanen. Watching the two 7-footers go shot-for-shot in this one was tremendously fun. The Finnisher’s final tallies here: a Jazz-season high 38 points, 17 rebounds, two blocks, two steals, and more shots defended as the primary checker than any other Jazz player, since he was assigned to KD for much of the night. Again, give praise to Agbaji, and to Sexton, who was a momentum-changer in the second half (after a first-half dud).
Projecting the Jazz’s place in the broader picture
We usually use this section to dig into either lottery implications or playoff odds, but since there’s a different sort of bracket coming up, let’s dedicate a few quick words to Utah’s hopes of climbing beyond the group phase in the In-Season Tournament.
In short, because the Lakers already beat the Suns and the Suns already beat the Jazz, Utah only comes out of Group A in one of two scenarios:
- If the Suns take care of business against the Blazers and Grizzlies, then Utah would need to beat LAL by 23 on Tuesday to claim Group A via a 3-team tiebreaker (and the Suns’ victories would have to be by a combined margin of less than Utah’s margin over the Lakers + 19).
- If the Suns slip up in one of their remaining games, the Jazz would get in with a win of any margin in Lakerlandia on Tuesday.
If they beat LA but don’t claim Group A, Utah could also have a decent chance at the one wildcard spot, since it would mean they could lap the loser of Kings-Wolves to jump into the top spot in the wildcard rankings. Denver is also 2-1 heading into a final Cup game at Houston, and the slumping Nuggets would have to win by at least 11 to pass the Jazz in the standings *if* Utah topples the Lake Show.
If Utah loses on Tuesday, their shot at an elimination-round berth is all but shot. I can only find one possible scenario where the Jazz get in at 2-2, and that’s quite the needle to thread.
Looking ahead to the next seven nights of action
Here’s a couple of sentences on each of Utah’s three games this week.
- Tuesday, 11/21: Jazz @ Lakers. **In-Season Tournament game** The Lakers have won five of six, including a Sunday game where LeBron James and Anthony Davis were both questionable but ultimately played and collaborated to the tune of 64 combined points. Former Jazzman Jarred Vanderbilt is ramping up for a return, but likely not in time to face his old teammates.
- Wednesday, 11/22: Jazz @ Blazers. The Jazz beat the Blazers at home just eight days prior to this next date, with a team that’s still without Scoot Henderson, Anfernee Simons, Robert Williams III and Malcolm Brogdon. Portland isn’t great at much, but they’re top five at forcing turnovers, which feels foreboding since Utah remains second-worst at offensive TOV%.
- Saturday 11/25: Jazz vs. Pelicans. The post-holiday schedule resumes with another of those weird baseball series, this time against the Pelicans on Saturday and Monday. The Pels are without CJ McCollum for the time being and are pretty middling overall (7-7), but a 36-point win over the Kings on Monday has them feeling a little better.
Random stuff from the Jazz community
Maybe it’s the time of year, but this writer remains a sucker for this type of #content. (Also cool that Booker joined when he had absolutely no obligation to do so.)
350 families received Thanksgiving meals thanks to the generosity of the @utahjazz & @JordanClarksons “JC Cares Foundation”. The meals were distributed at Heartland Elementary with the help of Utah Jazz volunteers, @WeAreJEF, and the school’s staff. Thanks to everyone involved. pic.twitter.com/MGHhzRRrMD
— Jordan District (@jordandistrict) November 20, 2023
Happy Thanksgiving! Now and always, we’re grateful that you continue to make this weird little corner of Internetland a part of your fan experience.
Full story from Salt City Hoops...