Are The Utah Jazz Good Again?

Jan 8, 2024, 2:37 PM | Updated: 2:37 pm

SALT LAKE CITY – Seemingly out of nowhere, the Utah Jazz have won 10 of their last 14 games and appear poised to make a real push at the NBA Play-In Tournament.

In early December, that felt like an impossibility, but now nearing the mid-way point of the season, the Jazz are just one game back of the 10th seed in the West and are playing their best basketball of the year.

What has changed over the last 14 games, and is it sustainable?

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Are The Utah Jazz Good?

The main catalyst for the Jazz recent success is unquestionably the presence of Lauri Markkanen in the lineup.

The All-Star forward missed eight games beginning in late November, during which the Jazz went 3-5, including a 50-point loss to the Dallas Mavericks followed by back-to-back blowouts against the Los Angeles Clippers and the Oklahoma City Thunder.

Since returning to the roster, the Jazz are 10-4, including two games Markkanen missed as he continued to rehab his injured hamstring.

Over the stretch, the 26-year-old is averaging 23.5 points, 8.2 rebounds, and 2.3 assists while shooting 51 percent from the floor, 39 percent from three, and 87 percent from the free-throw line, closely resembling the numbers that earned him an All-Star nod last season.

Guard Play Has Improved Dramatically

While Markkanen’s presence has had the biggest impact by a single player, the overall growth of the Jazz’s guards may be the likeliest cause for the Jazz’s improvement, namely Collin Sexton and Kris Dunn.

After all, the Jazz were 4-11 to open the year, even with Markkanen in the lineup.

Coinciding with Markkanen’s return from injury was coach Will Hardy’s decision to insert Sexton into the Jazz’s starting lineup.

Since the promotion, Sexton is averaging 21.3 points and 4.7 assists while shooting 50 percent from the floor and 34 percent from three in his last 14 games.

Prior to starting, the guard was averaging 12.7 points and 3.2 assists while covering 44 percent of his field goals and 32 percent of his threes.

Dunn has also started nine consecutive games for the Jazz, and 10 of the last 15 since being inserted into the rotation full-time.

The veteran guard had made intermittent appearances for the Jazz to open the year, playing in 14 of the team’s first 22 games, but has been a steady presence in the rotation since mid-December.

Over his last 15 appearances, Dunn is averaging a modest 5.9 points and 5.5 assists but brings an element of stability and unselfishness to an otherwise shoot-first guard rotation.

Walker Kessler, Plus-Minus Wizard

Perhaps the most overlooked factor of the recent success of the Jazz has been the improved play from Walker Kessler.

The second-year center had a dreadful beginning to the year when he scored in double-digits just twice in his first eight games, and the Jazz were outscored by 78 points in the time he was on the floor.

After missing seven games due to an elbow sprain, and a somewhat rocky return to the lineup, Kessler has been an overwhelming positive on the Jazz during their recent hot streak.

Over his last 14 games, Kessler has had a positive plus-minus in 12 of his appearances, and the Jazz have outscored opponents by 119 with him on the floor.

The center’s strong impact on the bench has also helped reverse the negative plus-minus averages by both Keyonte George and Jordan Clarkson to start the season.

Clarkson had a -7.1 plus-minus average to open the year but has seen that climb to +2.8 since joining Kessler in the second unit. Similarly, George has seen his -7.7 average jump to +5.0 over his last nine appearances, ranking second-best on the team behind only Kessler.

Looking at the Jazz’s improved player over the last month of the season, it’s clear they’re a far improved team from where they were to begin the year.

Now the organization faces a pivotal stretch as they approach the trade deadline where they must decide if they want to improve the roster over the second half of the season, stand pat, or make moves for long-term assets.

Regardless, only three teams have better records than the Jazz over the last four weeks, and they’ve managed to salvage what was a dreadful start to the season.

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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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