NBA: Jazz facing steep climb for a Western Conference playoff spot

AP , Tuesday 3 Oct 2023

New building blocks emerged for the Utah Jazz last season and that paved the way for offseason moves to accelerate a rebuilding process that began last summer.

Utah Jazz
FILE - Utah Jazz center Walker Kessler (24) dunks in front of Oklahoma City Thunder forward Jaylin Williams, right, in the second half of an NBA basketball game March 5, 2023, in Oklahoma City. Photo: AP


The Jazz traded for John Collins, signed Jordan Clarkson to a three-year, $55 million contract extension, and fully guaranteed $12.2 million on the final year of Kelly Olynyk’s deal. All three moves were done with an eye toward making a playoff push by balancing a youthful roster with a veteran presence.

“That’s the goal,” Jazz forward Lauri Markkanen said at Utah’s media day on Monday. “That’s the one motivator for us.”

Returning to the NBA playoffs could be a tough challenge — even with new cornerstones like Markkanen and defensive ace Walker Kessler on the roster. Utah still faces a steep climb toward becoming a contender in the Western Conference again.

The Jazz exceeded low expectations last season after dismantling their roster by trading away Rudy Gobert and Donovan Mitchell. Markkanen and Kessler emerged as surprise stars who helped Utah contend for a playoff spot until the final week of the regular season.

Kessler averaged 9.2 points, 8.4 rebounds, and 2.3 blocks as a rookie. Markkanen earned his first All-Star nod after averaging a career-best 25.6 points while shooting 49.9% from the field.

Bringing back Clarkson and Olynyk, while adding Collins to the mix, gives a youthful roster a veteran presence. The Jazz hope the combination will result in exceeding expectations again.

“They’re all entering their prime or in the prime of their careers,” Jazz general manager Justin Zanik said. “It’s a huge bonus for the rest of our young group to lean on and look at. It also helps Lauri as he continues to develop as a leader.”

Deciding on a point guard is the biggest dilemma facing Utah entering a new season. The Jazz employed a backcourt-by-committee approach late last season and could take a similar route again. Clarkson, Collin Sexton, Talen-Horton Tucker, Kris Dunn, and rookie Keyonte George will all get a shot at running the offense in training camp and during the preseason.

“I sort of know what training camp’s gonna look like and I would describe it as ‘The Hunger Games,’” Jazz coach Will Hardy said. “It’s going to be vicious, and I am excited about that.”

Fresh start

Collins is embracing a chance to reinvent himself in Utah after spending six seasons in Atlanta.

After averaging career highs in points (21.6) and rebounds (10.1) in his third season with the Hawks, he saw his usage rate and production steadily decline. Collins averaged 13.1 points a season ago while attempting only 10 field goals per game and shot a career-worst 29.2% from 3-point range.

Joining the Jazz has Collins feeling hopeful he’ll regain his earlier form on offense.

“It’s refreshing to have a group of guys that truly emphasize playing team basketball and want to do so,” Collins said. “That helps me wake up in the morning and motivates me to go play.”

Call of duty

Markkanen split time between basketball and military service for Finland over the summer. The Jazz forward completed compulsory military service required of all male Finnish nationals aged 18 years or older. It can involve six-to-12 months of armed service or 12 months of civilian (non-armed) service.

Spending days camping in the forest and shooting rifles was an eye-opening experience for Markkanen.

“That was a challenging part, being expected to lead and survive with stuff I’ve never done before,” Markkanen said. “Like on the basketball court when adversity hits -- I’ve been playing basketball for 20 years, I kind of know how to get through it.”

Healthy rookies

Utah opens its preseason schedule against the Los Angeles Clippers on Sunday in Hawaii. This will be the first chance for the Jazz to see all three of their 2023 first-round draft picks in action. Injuries sidelined Keyonte George, Taylor Hendricks and Brice Sensabaugh for part or all of the NBA summer league.

All three reported to training camp healthy and are expected to play in the preseason opener.

(For more sports news and updates, follow Ahram Online Sports on Twitter at @AO_Sports and on Facebook at AhramOnlineSports.)

Short link: