Before the season began, a majority of NBA fans expected the Utah Jazz, Indiana Pacers and San Antonio Spurs to battle for the league’s worst record and amass Ls. Instead, all three of these ball clubs have exhibited an impressive style of play at different times that has seen them post a combined 27-23 record about 20% of the season. However, it may not be in their best interests to keep winning…
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Utah Jazz – aim down
As the proud owners of a 12-6 record, the Utah Jazz aren’t where anyone predicted they would be. This group of underdogs has so far shocked teams like Denver, Atlanta, Memphis, Phoenix and both LA franchises, and a team-first orientation makes them look like a real threat to the playoff mix. There are still understandable doubts as to whether they can sustain this throughout the season, but currently as the fourth-best team in terms of offensive efficiency, the Jazz prevail, with Lauri Markkanen’s game a big reason for their unprecedented start.
After being phased out by the Cavaliers in the Donovan Mitchell trade, the Finnish forward has made his way into early All-Star competition as Utah’s top scorer. Currently averaging 22.3 PPG, Markkanen is also starting to shoot his groove from deep (36.9%), which could pave the way for him to boost his already career-best numbers. Markkanen, who finished second in points average at the EuroBasket tournament during the NBA offseason, has maintained his impressive batting average and has strong support from the rest of the Utah roster. A mix of combo guards and all-around forwards keeps the team sitting at the top of the Western Conference standings, and while their impressive start to the season makes for a feel-good story in the league, it’s not the best for the franchise’s long-term future.
Image from nypost.com
Markkanen’s game was impressive and the likes of Jarred Vanderbilt, Jordan Clarkson and Kelly Olynyk proved their worth, yet Utah lacks a true superstar to build the rest of their roster around. That The popular belief was that jazz would be anchored at the bottom of the overall standings after trading away Rudy Gobert and Donovan Mitchell over the summer, but right now they’re beating their draft ratings and ruining their ratings in the process. Wheeling and Dealing has left the franchise with a wealth of future draft picks, including several first-round picks for the upcoming offseason.
However, with the pick tied to Philadelphia and Minnesota, the best chance of securing a top-flight pick is to embrace the tank. To do that, we could see Utah continue their active trading behavior and swap out more plays (not named Lauri Markkanen), and of course they should come back to Earth and lose more games than they win by the end of the season. Building the right culture and winning games isn’t a terrible alternative if this group keeps firing, but until they have true All-NBA talent on their roster, that should be their primary focus.
Indiana Pacers – Aim up
Tyrese Haliburton and Bennedict Mathurin are great. No one’s too surprised to see Haliburton take a leap in his first full season as a member of the Pacers, with the floor general posting an early 20/10 average in All-Star competition. However, his backcourt running mate surprised many NBA fans. Chosen 6th overall in the last draft, the former wildcat at Mathurin has burst onto the scene to begin his pro career. Mathurin’s 19.1 PPG, who started the season more at the free throw line than Paul George, Nikola Jokic and Brandon Ingram, was a welcome boost, and the unexpected punch he delivered was a driving force behind Indiana’s promising start.
Rumor has it that chip swaps Buddy Heild and Myles Turner also contributed to the Pacers’ 9-6 record. Hield in particular has excelled, he currently ranks 2nd for 3-point points per game while also boasting the highest rebound average of his career. The support of his backcourt running mates, Haliburton and Mathurin, culminated in Indiana’s strong offense finishing in the top-5 for scoring average (116.4) and assists (28.3) while posting the fifth fastest pace in 15 contests recorded. There is optimism the Pacers have the cornerstones they need in their backcourt, but they may struggle to stay at .500 if their big men falter.
Myles Turner was once again the main production source in frontcourt, going up and down the league for blocks and shooting lights from deep with 40%. Indiana’s young bigs Jalen Smith and Isaiah Jackson are also seeing their fair share of minutes, but running the Pacers I want another young wing/frontcourt stud to feel like my core is set going forward. Luckily for Indiana, they don’t have to give up a potential playoff berth to reach their draft goals, with three bites in the first round this season as proud owners of their own picks as well as picks from the Cavaliers and Celtics.
There’s enough on the roster to suggest the Pacers will continue to rise in the coming seasons, thanks largely to their two rising stars on the guards. However, if they find a diamond in the rough after this draft, there’s reason to be excited about their future, but there’s no way Indiana should consider improving their position in the draft. It’s always a smart tactic to end with better odds on a big pick, but head coach Rick Carlisle will be putting this team up to play hard every night with about 35 wins under their belt thanks to the talent they already have at Indianapolis.
Image from 8points9seconds.com
San Antonio Spurs – Aim down
Of those three franchises, San Antonio has the clearest trajectory if you ask me. They’ve done a good job of picking up emerging talent in three straight losing seasons and there’s still a bright future for the likes of Tre Jones, Jeremy Sochan, Devin Vassel and arguably their finest young play, Keldon Johnson. After All-Star Dejounte Murray was eliminated during the offseason, the aforementioned quartet thrived with added responsibilities placed on them to make the jump to some teams early in the season.
They’ve come back to earth of late, however, with a four-lost slide and a recent 1-9 stretch game that positions San Antonio in the area we expect them to be in — outside of the postseason picture. They continue to show the hallmark of the Spurs basketball brand and record the second most assists as a team each night, but much like Utah, I’m not sure they have a pillar to build their team around. Keldon Johnson is doing everything right as he enters his fourth pro season, taking his scoring rate to 21.9 PPG while converting 41.4% of his three-point attempts, and there’s yet a world in which he’s becoming one All-Star caliber players can develop .
Still, it’s clear that KJ needs more support from his Spurs teammates if they are to start another long playoff streak. Doug McDermott and Gorgui Dieng are currently the only players on the roster who are over 30 and they’ve thrown enough darts at the board that there’s no doubt some competent role players will emerge soon. One of the picks they seem to have hit is 2020 first-rounder Devin Vassell, who took his game to another level in his third year and may serve as a long-term member of San Antonio’s backcourt. Raising his score from 5.5 points a night to 12.3 and now 20.4 is an encouraging sign he can remain a great addition to the ever-evolving Spurs core.
While Johnson and Vassell’s maturation is promising, it can’t hurt for San Antonio to try to pick another high-profile candidate in the upcoming draft that will catapult the team into the postseason. If the season ended today, Spurs would have the sixth-best chance of finishing No. 1 and subsequently turning that selection into players like Victor Wembanyama, Scoot Henderson or another elite youngster. There’s enough on their roster for San Antonio believers to anticipate success in the not-too-distant future, but the downtrend to potentially land a breakthrough star is the smart path this season.