The Jazz was supposed to be bad, but no one told Will Hardy or the players

Kirby Lee-USA TODAY Sports
Nov 4, 2022; Los Angeles, California, USA; Utah Jazz coach Will Hardy reacts against the Los Angeles Lakers in the first half at Arena.

LOS ANGELES – The squeaky door kept opening, letting in reporters who had missed the first 90 seconds of Will Hardy’s news conference before a Sunday tilt against the Los Angeles Clippers.

The Utah Jazz’s rookie coach, who became the NBA’s youngest coach when he was hired in July at age 34, stopped mid-sentence and shot daggers at the interlopers. Nevertheless, the stream of microphone-wielders continued in fits and starts for another few minutes.

“Team’s got one rule,” Hardy finally muttered under his breath. “Don’t be late.”

It’s fitting, then, that the new-look Jazz has arrived early under their very young and very serious coach. Utah seemed destined to plunge to the bottom of the standings after trading Rudy Gobert, Donovan Mitchell, Bojan Bogdanovic and Royce O’Neale this offseason, but has raced out to an 8-3 record, with quality wins over the Denver Nuggets, New Orleans Pelicans and Memphis Grizzlies. Indeed, the Jazz came to Los Angeles for the weekend and blitzed the Lakers, 130-116, on Friday before dispatching the Clippers with a 110-102 victory on Sunday.

Utah’s early returns have been so positive and surprising that they are borderline comical. Entering Monday, the Jazz ranked seventh in point differential, eight in offensive efficiency and eighth in defensive efficiency, looking more like a playoff candidate than a favorite to land French phenom Victor Wembanyama in the draft. Although it’s still very early, Utah has outplayed the Minnesota Timberwolves (5-5), who went all-in by trading for Gobert, and nearly kept pace with the red-hot Cleveland Cavaliers (8-1), who swung a blockbuster deal for Mitchell. Rarely do teams that sell stars perform this well, this quickly.

The initial discussion of both deals, which demolished a foundation that had delivered six straight playoff appearances, generally focused on the seven future first-round picks and three pick swaps acquired by Jazz CEO Danny Ainge. But several of the overlooked returning players – Lauri Markkanen and Collin Sexton from Cleveland, along with Jarred Vanderbilt and rookie center Walker Kessler from Minnesota – have helped drive Utah’s strong start.

Markkanen, 25, has emerged as the leading scorer in a balanced Utah attack that prioritizes spacing and snappy decisions. A former lottery pick who never quite broke through during his previous stops with the Chicago Bulls and Cavaliers, Markkanen has evolved out of his pre-draft reputation as a shooting specialist to become an all-around scorer. With the Jazz playing a five-out style that keeps the paint open at virtually all times, the Finnish forward is averaging career highs with 21.8 points, 9.4 rebounds, 2.7 assists and 4.3 free throw attempts per game by mixing in aggressive drives and timely isolations.

“Lauri does a lot of things that show up in the stat sheet, and a lot of things that don’t,” Hardy said after Friday’s win. “His defense probably isn’t talked about enough. He did a good job guarding LeBron James, who is one of the toughest covers in the league. He continues to be a steadying force for us on both ends.”

The chief strength of the Jazz’s offense has been its collective approach. Six players average in double figures, and Utah ranks seventh in assists per game. By removing Mitchell, a high-usage scorer, and Gobert, a paint-bound center, the Jazz has created more opportunities for guards Jordan Clarkson and Sexton to attack the rim against single coverage. Clarkson is a starter after years as a sixth man and Sexton has moved to the bench for the first time, yet both have settled into their new roles with little friction.

Hardy has pulled things together in a remarkably short time, especially considering that his starting lineup features players who ended last season on four different teams. His maiden coaching voyage has been aided by a lack of pressure and personality clashes.

“Our guys play really, really hard,” said Hardy, who got his start in the NBA as a San Antonio Spurs assistant before moving to the Boston Celtics last season. “We’re perfectly imperfect. We’re a little chaotic at times, but that’s how we like it. We don’t want the game to be too neat and tidy. . . . Every night, it can be somebody else’s night. That versatility and flexibility is what gives us a chance.”

Typically, a team with Utah’s profile might be expected to fade as the season unfolds. After all, the Jazz don’t have a proven superstar, are relatively inexperienced and rely on a high-energy style, which can be difficult to sustain across 82 games. Their opponents have shot just 32.3 percent on three-pointers this season, which is well below league-average, and the Jazz’s lack of interior defenders would prove problematic if they were to reach the playoffs.

“I don’t care if [outsiders] doubt us,” Markkanen said Sunday. “It fuels us. We know what we have in this locker room. We have great players. We play together. We play as a team. When we play our style of basketball, play fast and knock down shots, we can beat anybody. We’ve got to keep working to get better and not just be happy with these first 10 games.”

Before the postseason talk can get serious, Utah’s front office must decide whether it has already passed the point of no return when it comes to a possible deadline sell-off.

Entering the season, Clarkson, Mike Conley, Kelly Olynyk and Malik Beasley all seemed to be obvious trade chips if Utah wanted to position itself near the top of the 2023 draft order. Ainge traded experience for youth by sending Patrick Beverley to the Lakers for Talen Horton-Tucker in August, and it was reasonable to expect additional deals in that vein. Ochai Agbaji, a 2022 lottery pick imported from Cleveland, has barely cracked the rotation, and a minor deal could help make the rookie forward a higher priority.

But after a disappointing and miserable campaign that prompted former coach Quin Snyder’s resignation, Utah has embarked on a joyride that has made Ainge the early favorite to win executive of the year. The Jazz knows better than anyone that good vibes are hard to come by, especially in a small market that high-level free agents have consistently ignored. Proactively shaking up a functional group to chase lottery ping-pong balls could easily have a corrosive effect on team chemistry, and Ainge has already collected a mountain of future picks.

If Utah regresses in the standings before the Feb. 9 trade deadline, perhaps Ainge will have sufficient room to rekindle the fading dream of a Wembanyama-led future. If not, the unexpected good times will roll along.