SALT LAKE CITY – The crowd roared and jumped so enthusiastically that the seats on the arena’s upper deck wobbled.
The PA announcer had been cheering since the third quarter that the Jazz would win the game and urging the Utah fans to believe it too. With 23 seconds left in the fourth quarter and the Jazz up 1 point, shooting guard Malik Beasley pocketed a 3-pointer and started dancing. Then his entire team rushed off the bench to surround him in celebration. When their opponent Memphis lost the ball at the last second, the fans erupted.
It felt like a playoff game instead of what it really was: the seventh game of a season where Utah — according to basketball pundits, at least — should tank its season for favorable positioning in the June draft.
But the Jazz (12-7) didn’t play like that. They sit at the top of the Western Conference and their players have shown defiance despite disregard from outsiders. It’s still early in the 82-game season, but the Jazz are enjoying their success.
“Inside, we always thought we were competing,” said jazz forward Kelly Olynyk. “We kind of let everyone else think and say what they want.”
The NBA is star-driven, and when Utah ditched its two all-time All-Stars over the summer, his path seemed clear: Utah was heading for a dramatic rebuild, hoping to get big picks and make the right decisions with them hold true. Right?
The bottom three teams in the standings at the end of the season each have a 14 percent chance of securing the top draft pick, a selection that likely applies to Victor Wembanyama, the Frenchman’s 7-foot-3 prodigy becomes. Even the second pick would net a valuable prize – G League Ignite guard Scoot Henderson, who dropped out of high school early to start his pro career. Prior to the season, every list of teams likely to draft Wembanyama included the Jazz.
Just a few years ago it seemed inscrutable that jazz would be on the hunt for the best choice any time soon. Utah had expected center Rudy Gobert, 30, and guard Donovan Mitchell, 26, to deliver playoff magic together for years to come. Utah had acquired both in draft-day deals with Denver: Gobert in 2013 and Mitchell in 2017.
In their five seasons together in Salt Lake City, they were named to six combined All-Star teams but never advanced past the conference semifinals. The Jazz had the best record in the NBA during the 2020-21 season but still managed a second-round playoff exit. Last season, Utah lost to the Dallas Mavericks in the first round, then Coach Quin Snyder resigned after eight years with the team.
“I truly believe they need a new voice to move forward,” Snyder said in a statement released by the team at the time. “That’s it. No philosophical differences, no other reason.”
The Jazz hired Will Hardy, a former assistant with the Boston Celtics who, at 34, is one of the league’s youngest coaches. Then they got to work and disassembled their roster.
In July, they traded Gobert, a three-time Defensive Player of the Year, to Minnesota for four first-round draft picks, a pick swap, and five players: Beasley, Patrick Beverley, Jarred Vanderbilt, Leandro Bolmaro, and rookie center Walker Kessler. through its design right.
They then traded Beverley to the Lakers for Talen Horton-Tucker and Stanley Johnson.
In September, they traded Mitchell to Cleveland for three first-round draft picks, the right to trade two other first-round picks and three players: Lauri Markkanen, Collin Sexton and Ochai Agbaji.
A few weeks later, Utah traded talented forward Bojan Bogdanovic to the Pistons for cash for Olynyk and Saben Lee, who later released them.
Olynyk, Vanderbilt and Markkanen slipped into the starting XI. Utah also started returning guards Mike Conley and Jordan Clarkson, who won the 2020-21 Sixth Man of the Year award.
These were established NBA players with starting experience, but few viewers believed they could actually compete — or that the front office would expect them to.
ESPN ranked Utah 25th in a preseason ranking of all 30 NBA teams. According to Basketball Reference, the Jazz tied with the Pistons, Thunder, Magic, Pacers, Kings, Spurs and Rockets – all of whom missed the playoffs last season – for worst odds of winning a championship this season.
Her win over/under has been set at 23.5. Utah is more than halfway there already, just a quarter of the season.
The Jazz surprised league observers with a 123-102 win in the season opener against the Denver Nuggets, a team led by Nikola Jokic, who has been named the league’s most valuable player for the past two seasons.
“Every game people are surprised that we win,” said Markkanen. “We have a great coaching staff, we have great players on this team, so we can beat anyone if we play our best basketball. We’re trying to bring that underdog mentality into the games.
“People really don’t expect much from us. Use that to power us – not that you really need that; Of course we go out there and compete against each other every night. Just if we ever need some extra motivation I guess.”
The Jazz has received major contributions from several players, but Markkanen, 25, has enjoyed a personal renaissance with Utah, his third team.
He averages 22.4 points, 0.9 blocks and 2.4 assists per game, all better than his career bests. His 8.5 rebounds per game this season is the most since his sophomore NBA season, when he averaged nine per game with Chicago. It had been 15 years since a Jazz player had at least 70 points, 25 rebounds, and 10 assists in the first three games of the season until Markkanen did it with 72 points, 29 rebounds, and 11 assists in his first three games.
Hardy quickly helped out the Jazz, who had 15 new players in training camp.
“A young coach who comes in demands that effort from you, but at the same time he’s like, ‘Go and have fun. Be yourself. Let’s play,'” Conley, 35, told reporters this month. He added: “We’re enjoying the game right now and it’s a lot of fun to be here.”
They’ve beaten struggling and up-and-coming teams alike. They’ve won games taking an early lead and they’ve won with efforts from behind. A recent three-game losing streak pointed to their weaknesses, but they followed suit by defeating the Phoenix Suns and Portland Trail Blazers, teams that have played well this season.
“Winning is fun,” said Olynyk. “Winning is a lot of fun.”