Utah Jazz Mailbag: Who Is The Team MVP?
Jan 2, 2024, 3:55 PM
(Photo by Alex Goodlett/Getty Images)
SALT LAKE CITY – Welcome to the Utah Jazz mailbag where every week our NBA insiders answer your questions on social media about your favorite team.
Then, we’ll respond to as many as we can in that week’s mailbag.
Jazz Mailbag: Who Is The Jazz’s MVP?
As it stands right now in the season, which Jazz players are team MVP candidates?
— Ed Helinski 🇺🇸🇵🇱 (@MrEd315) January 2, 2024
Question: As it stands right now in the season, which Jazz players are team MVP candidates?
A: Ed, this is a great question and exactly why I love the mailbag.
First of all, let’s be clear that Lauri Markkanen is the Jazz’s best player, and even though his averages are down slightly this year from where they were last season, he’s still putting up All-Star caliber numbers on a nightly basis.
In fact, here’s a quote from coach Will Hardy on Monday before the Jazz throttled the Dallas Mavericks about this exact question.
“We could sit here and everybody could fill out a card right now, like hey, rank the guys 1-15 and there would be some variance. I imagine Lauri would probably be number one on everybody’s card and then after that, it’s kind of all a little bit subjective.”
Hardy is right, Markkanen is the Jazz’s top player, but beyond that, there are arguments for Jordan Clarkson, Collin Sexton, Kelly Olynyk, and maybe even Keyonte George as the Jazz’s second-best player this season.
— Utah Jazz (@utahjazz) January 2, 2024
But, let me take a different approach, changing MVP from Most Valuable Player to Most Valuable Person.
Under that definition, I would say Will Hardy has been the Jazz’s MVP, and that’s a great sign for the team’s fans.
From a roster design standpoint, the Jazz are a bit of a disaster. They have only one good defender in the paint in Walker Kessler, and three frontcourt players in Markkanen, Olynyk, and John Collins whose defensive contributions ebb and flow each night.
They have three (maybe four with George) score first guards in Clarkson, Sexton, and Talen Horton-Tucker.
Very few players on the roster, save Kris Dunn, Olynyk, and George are historically above-average passers.
And, they’ve heavily relied on unproven wings in Simone Fontecchio and Ochai Agbaji to play crucial minutes throughout the season.
Mix in a few two-week injuries to Kessler, Markkanen, Clarkson, and George to open the year, and the Jazz probably should be closer to the basement in the NBA, rather than having a suddenly realistic shot at a Play-In Tournament berth.
The reason they are where they are is because Hardy has kept the team’s belief in itself high enough that once they got healthy, and the schedule eased up from the gauntlet to start the year, they feel there is something to play for.
When the team was sitting at 7-16 on December 12, with the number of veterans who were (and some who remain) likely to be shopped at the trade deadline, the roster could have splintered into a bunch of individuals looking out for their own best interest.
Instead, the team has won eight of their last 11 games and seems to really enjoy playing together.
A coach’s job is to keep his roster together throughout the season through the highs and lows, and Hardy has shown a remarkable ability to do that in only his second season.
So as we near the midway point for the Jazz, I’d give him the MVP.
1. who is most likely to be traded?
2. Would you project Jazz to make play in, or convey pick to OKC , or fall in to the lottery?
3. To what do you most attribute their most recent success?
— Denny B Kartchner (@dennybradk) January 2, 2024
A: Denny I will try to address all of these to the best of my knowledge, and some based on feel.
First, I’ve been told that Kelly Olynyk has had the most robust trade market among teams calling the Jazz to see who is available.
That makes a ton of sense as Olynyk has had a terrific season off the bench averaging 8.1 points, 5.4 rebounds, and 4.7 assists while shooting a remarkable 55 percent from the floor and 41 percent from three.
Olynyk is a battle-tested veteran who can get real rotation minutes in the playoffs, has an outstanding basketball IQ, can play multiple roles, and is on an expiring contract of just over $12 million.
I look at the Boston Celtics, the Denver Nuggets, the New York Knicks, and the Miami Heat as playoff teams that could shore up their frontcourt in hopes of making a deep postseason run.
Let me also add that Kris Dunn could be a sneaky name that contenders might be interested in at the trade deadline.
Reliable backcourt help, even if only for a few minutes a night is always valuable, and a team like the Milwaukee Bucks could benefit from a guard who is going to defend the opposing team’s best player for 5-10 minutes a night to give Damian Lillard a slight breather.
Second, my gut tells me the Jazz are better off trying to convey their top 10 protected first-round pick to the Oklahoma City Thunder (via the Derrick Favors trade) this year than they are trying to fall back in the standing in hopes of getting a high draft pick.
I spoke to NBA Draft Insider Krysten Peek of Yahoo Sports about this situation for the Jazz, and she advocated for giving up the pick this year, in favor of owning their future first-round picks in the upcoming drafts.
You can listen to that interview in the player below:
Ultimately, this isn’t the year to try to tank your way into the top 10, so sending this year’s pick to the Thunder for a player that would likely be selected in the late 20s in most drafts is probably the right move.
Plus, the Jazz will still be very young next season with Keyonte George, Taylor Hendricks, and Brice Sensabaugh on the roster. Rather than developing yet another first-round pick next year, those three should earn plenty of time with the main roster in 2024-25.
Third, to what do I attribute the Jazz’s recent success?
The boring answer, and probably the correct answer is health. Having Markkanen, Clarkson, Kessler, and George in the rotation has been critical, and they didn’t have all four of those pieces together for 22 games between November 8 and December 23.
However, those injuries also forced Will Hardy to adjust the Jazz rotations in ways he may not have done had they been fully healthy and that’s been a major boost for the team.
Bringing both Clarkson and Kessler off the bench in favor of Olynyk and Sexton has improved the contributions from all four of those players, and it’s raised the Jazz’s ceiling considerably.
Does Reed Sheppard seem like a guy that could fit well with our roster next year depending on how things shake out with the trade deadline?
— James McKinney (@Jampod2k) January 2, 2024
Question: Does Reed Sheppard seem like a guy that could fit well with our roster next year depending on how things shake out with the trade deadline?
A: Admittedly, I haven’t begun my 2024 draft prep due, which I don’t usually start until we have a better idea of where, or even if the Jazz will own a first-rounder in 2024.
I do know that Sheppard is one of the quickest risers up draft boards as a breakout two-way guard at Kentucky who has really surprised some with his defensive instincts.
Kentucky’s Reed Sheppard is knocking on the door of the lottery. He’s arguably the best shooter in the draft, while showing high-level pace and vision whipping passes around with his terrific feel for the game. His defensive playmaking instincts have also stood out vividly. pic.twitter.com/nOpRx3ghcW
— Jonathan Givony (@DraftExpress) January 2, 2024
However, with George and Sexton looking like two long-term pieces in the Jazz backcourt moving forward, I think two-way size is going to be critical at every position on the floor.
Looking at Danny Ainge and Justin Zanik’s young acquisitions in recent years (Kessler, Agbaji, George, Hendricks), they appear to be valuing two-way players with size for their positions.
At 6-foot-2, with a reported 6-foot-3 wingspan, Reed may not fit that bill.
I will add that if the Jazz were to fall in love with a player in the draft, they can go out and land them, regardless of whether they convey their pick to the Thunder this year or not.
With the number of young players and future picks they own, if they identified a difference-maker in the 2024 draft, be it Reed or someone else, they have the ammunition to acquire them.
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Ben Anderson is the Utah Jazz insider for KSL Sports and the co-host of Jake and Ben from 10-12p with Jake Scott on 97.5 The KSL Sports Zone. Find Ben on Twitter at @BensHoops or on Instagram @BensHoops.
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