Sports

The Best Part of Winning? Smiling at Everyone Who Said You’d Lose.

SALT LAKE CITY — The crowd roared and bounced so enthusiastically that seats in the upper deck of the arena were shaking.

The public address announcer had been crowing since the third quarter that the Jazz were about to win the game, urging the Utah fans to believe it too. With 23 seconds left in the fourth quarter and the Jazz up by 1 point, shooting guard Malik Beasley sank a 3-pointer and began dancing. Then his entire team rushed from the bench to surround him in celebration. When their opponent, Memphis, lost the ball on a last-second play, the fans erupted.

It felt like a playoff game instead of what it really was: the seventh game of a season in which Utah is supposed to be — at least according to basketball pundits — tanking its season to gain favorable positioning in the June draft.

But the Jazz (12-7) have not been playing that way. They sit near the top of the Western Conference and their players have been defiant in the face of outsiders’ disregard for them. It’s still early in the 82-game season, but the Jazz have been enjoying their success.

“On the inside, we always thought we were going to compete,” Jazz forward Kelly Olynyk said. “We kind of let everybody else think and say what they want.”

The N.B.A. is driven by stars, so when Utah jettisoned its two perennial All-Stars over the summer, its path seemed clear: Utah was heading into a dramatic rebuild, resting its hopes on getting high picks and making the right choices with them. Right?

Kelly Olynyk was one of several players to join the Jazz over the summer through trades. He played for the Detroit Pistons last season, and has started every game for Utah this year.Credit…Nick Wass/Associated Press

The bottom-three teams in the standings at the end of the season will each have a 14 percent chance of securing the top draft pick, a selection likely to be used on Victor Wembanyama, the 7-foot-3 French prodigy. Even the second pick would net a valuable prize — the G League Ignite guard Scoot Henderson, who graduated high school early to begin his professional career. Before the season, any list of teams likely to draft Wembanyama included the Jazz.

Just a few years ago it might have seemed unfathomable that the Jazz would be in the hunt for the top pick any time soon. Utah had expected center Rudy Gobert, 30, and guard Donovan Mitchell, 26, to deliver playoff magic together for years to come. Utah had acquired both in draft-day deals with Denver: Gobert in 2013, and Mitchell in 2017.

In their five seasons together in Salt Lake City, they were named to a combined six All-Star teams but never got past the conference semifinals. The Jazz had the best record in the N.B.A. during the 2020-21 season, but still made a second-round playoff exit. Last season, Utah lost to the Dallas Mavericks in the first round, and then Coach Quin Snyder resigned after eight years with the team.

“I strongly feel they need a new voice to continue to evolve,” Snyder said in a statement released by the team at the time. “That’s it. No philosophical differences, no other reason.”

The Jazz hired Will Hardy, a former Boston Celtics assistant, who at 34 is one of the youngest coaches in the league. Then they set to work dismantling their roster.

In July they traded Gobert, a three-time defensive player of the year, to Minnesota for four first-round draft picks, a pick swap and five players: Beasley, Patrick Beverley, Jarred Vanderbilt, Leandro Bolmaro and the rookie center Walker Kessler, through his draft rights.

Then they traded Beverley to the Lakers for Talen Horton-Tucker and Stanley Johnson.

Donovan Mitchell, left, and Rudy Gobert, right, spent five seasons together in Utah but never made it past the Western Conference semifinals in the playoffs. The Jazz traded both over the summer.Credit…Rick Bowmer/Associated Press

In September, they traded Mitchell to Cleveland for three first-round draft picks, the right to swap two more first-round picks and three players: Lauri Markkanen, Collin Sexton and Ochai Agbaji.

A few weeks later, Utah traded the talented forward Bojan Bogdanovic to the Pistons for cash, Olynyk and Saben Lee, whom they later released.

Olynyk, Vanderbilt and Markkanen slid into the starting lineup. Utah also started the returning guards Mike Conley and Jordan Clarkson, who won the 2020-21 Sixth Man of the Year Award.

These were established N.B.A. players with starting experience, but few onlookers believed they could actually compete — or that the front office would want them to.

ESPN ranked Utah 25th in a preseason ranking of all 30 N.B.A. teams. According to Basketball Reference, the Jazz were tied with the Pistons, Thunder, Magic, Pacers, Kings, Spurs and Rockets — who all missed the playoffs last season — for the worst odds to win a championship this season.

Their over/under for wins was set at 23.5. Utah is already more than halfway there just a quarter of the way through the season.

The Jazz startled league observers with a 123-102 win in their season opener against the Denver Nuggets, a team led by Nikola Jokic, who has been named the league’s most valuable player the past two seasons.

“Every game people are surprised that we win,” Markkanen said. “We got a great coaching staff, we got great players on this team, so we can beat anybody when we play our best basketball. We try and have that underdog mentality going into games.

“People really are not expecting a lot from us. Use that to fuel us — not that you really need that; we obviously go out there and compete every night. Just if we ever need some extra motivation, I guess.”

The Jazz have gotten important contributions from several players, but Markkanen, 25, has undergone a bit of a personal renaissance with Utah, his third team.

He’s averaging 22.4 points, 0.9 blocks, and 2.4 assists per game, all better than his career highs. His 8.5 rebounds per game this season are his most since his second N.B.A. season when he averaged nine per game with Chicago. It had been 15 years since a Jazz player had at least 70 points, 25 rebounds and 10 assists through the first three games of the season, until Markkanen did it with 72 points, 29 rebounds and 11 assists through his first three games.

Hardy has helped the Jazz, who had 15 new players at training camp, jell quickly.

“A young coach coming in demanding that effort from you, but then at the same time he’s like: ‘Go have fun. Be yourself. Let’s play,’” Conley, 35, told reporters this month. He added: “We’ve got a great joy for the game right now, and it’s a lot of fun to be around.”

They’ve beaten struggling and surging teams alike. They’ve won games in which they’ve had early leads, and they’ve won with come-from-behind efforts. A recent three-game losing streak hinted at their flaws, but they followed it by beating the Phoenix Suns and Portland Trail Blazers, teams that have been playing well this season.

“Winning’s fun,” Olynyk said. “Winning’s a lot of fun.”

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