SALT LAKE CITY — The crowd roared and bounced with such enthusiasm that the arena’s upper deck seats shook.
The PA announcer had been singing from the third quarter that the Jazz were about to win the game, urging Utah fans to believe him too. With 23 seconds left in the fourth quarter and the Jazz up one point, shooter Malik Beasley sank a 3-pointer and started dancing. Then his whole team rushed from the bench to surround him in celebration. When their opponent, Memphis, lost the ball on a last-second play, the fans erupted.
It felt like a playoff game instead of what it really was: Game 7 of a season in which Utah is supposed to be — at least according to basketball pundits — tanking its season to get a favorable positioning in the June draft.
But the Jazz (12-7) didn’t play that way. They sit near the top of the Western Conference and their players have been defiant in the face of outsiders’ contempt for them. It’s still early in the 82-game season, but the Jazz are enjoying their success.
“Inside, we always thought we were going to compete,” Jazz forward Kelly Olynyk said. “We kind of let everybody think and say what they want.”
The NBA is star-driven, so when Utah dumped its two perennial All-Stars over the summer, its path seemed clear: Utah was headed for a dramatic rebuild, pinning its hopes on top picks. and making the right choices with them. Right?
The bottom three teams in the standings at the end of the season will each have a 14% chance of securing the first draft pick, a selection likely to be used on Victor Wembanyama, the 7-foot-3 French prodigy. Even the second pick would fetch a valuable prize – G League Ignite keeper Scoot Henderson, who graduated high school early to start his professional career. Prior to the season, any list of teams likely to draft Wembanyama included the Jazz.
Just a few years ago, it might have seemed unfathomable that the Jazz would soon be in the hunt for the top pick. Utah expected center Rudy Gobert, 30, and guard Donovan Mitchell, 26, to deliver playoff magic together for years to come. Utah had acquired both during contracts with Denver: Gobert in 2013 and Mitchell in 2017.
In their five seasons together in Salt Lake City, they were named to six All-Star teams combined, but never made it past the conference semifinals. The Jazz had the best record in the NBA during the 2020-21 season, but still made a second-round playoff exit. Last season, Utah lost to the Dallas Mavericks in the first round, and then coach Quin Snyder quit after eight years with the team.
“I strongly believe they need a new voice to continue to evolve,” Snyder said in a statement released by the team at the time. “That’s it. No philosophical difference, no other reason.
The Jazz have hired Will Hardy, a former Boston Celtics assistant, who at 34 is one of the youngest coaches in the league. Then they got to work dismantling their roster.
In July, they traded three-time Defensive Player of the Year Gobert to Minnesota for four first-round picks, one pick trade and five players: Beasley, Patrick Beverley, Jarred Vanderbilt, Leandro Bolmaro and rookie center Walker Kessler. , by its trading rights.
Then they traded Beverley to the Lakers for Talen Horton-Tucker and Stanley Johnson.
In September, they traded Mitchell to Cleveland for three first-round 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, Olynyk and Saben Lee, whom they later released.
Olynyk, Vanderbilt and Markkanen slipped into the starting lineup. Utah also launched returning guards Mike Conley and Jordan Clarkson, who won the 2020-21 Sixth Man of the Year award.
They were established NBA players with starting experience, but few onlookers believed they could actually compete — or that the front office would.
ESPN ranked Utah 25th in a preseason ranking of the NBA’s 30 teams. According to Basketball Reference, the Jazz were tied with the Pistons, Thunder, Magic, Pacers, Kings, Spurs and Rockets — all of whom missed the playoffs last season — for the worst chances of winning a championship this season.
Their over/under for wins has been set at 23.5. Utah is already more than halfway through just a quarter of the season.
The Jazz surprised league watchers with a 123-102 victory in their opener against the Denver Nuggets, a team led by Nikola Jokic, who was named the league’s most valuable player in the last two seasons.
“Every game people are surprised that we win,” Markkanen said. “We have a great coaching staff, we have great players on this team so we can beat anybody when we play our best basketball. We try to have that underdog mentality in games.
“People really don’t expect much from us. Use that to power us – not that you really need it; we obviously go there and compete every night. Just if we ever need some extra motivation, I guess.
The Jazz got big contributions from several players, but Markkanen, 25, enjoyed something of a personal renaissance with Utah, his third team.
He’s averaging 22.4 points, 0.9 blocks and 2.4 assists per game, all better than his career highs. His 8.5 rebounds per game this season are his best since his second NBA season when he averaged nine per game with Chicago. It had been 15 years since a Jazz player had had at least 70 points, 25 rebounds and 10 assists in the first three games of the season, until Markkanen did so with 72 points, 29 rebounds and 11 assists in his first three games.
Hardy helped the Jazz, which had 15 new players in training camp, gel quickly.
“A young coach who comes and asks you for that effort, but at the same time he says, ‘Go have fun. Be yourself. Let’s play,'” Conley, 35, told reporters this month. He added: “We have a great joy for the game right now, and it’s a lot of fun to be there.”
They have beaten struggling and rising teams. They’ve won games in which they had early leads, and they’ve won through comeback efforts. A recent three-game losing streak hinted at their flaws, but they followed it up by beating the Phoenix Suns and Portland Trail Blazers, teams that have played well this season.
“Winning is fun,” Olynyk said. “Winning is great fun.”