Back in September, we praised Utah for having the best offseason in the NBA. It’s probably not often you would consider the team that lost their longtime successful coach, and traded two all-stars, including a 26-year-old one, as having the best offseason. I really liked the value of what they got back player-wise, but it was based on the ridiculous amount of 1st rounders they got from the Gobert trade mainly. That’s from someone that doesn’t even value top draft picks as much as most. I also thought that Gobert was one of the most undervalued players in the NBA too. Even in that context it was crazy what the Timberwolves gave up to get him.
I thought Ainge could easily flip these assets and remake a 50 win team if he wanted or tank. He had a range of options available to him this summer. What I didn’t expect at the time was this team to go into the season with players like Clarkson and Conley still on the team or one that is projected to be nearly a 50 win team 18% of the season in. Utah is currently 10-5 and 538 currently still projects Utah as a 48 win team, with an 83% chance to make the playoffs.
I made reference in the summer article that Utah still had a team that needed to make some trades if they wanted to tank. My thought at the time was with Clarkson, Conley, Markkanen, Sexton, and Beasley that they might get to the high 30’s in wins. I think the 538 projection is a bit high, but regardless if it’s 38 wins or 48 or anything in between it’s no man’s land. Utah really needs to pick a direction and fast. They have already banked enough wins it will be hard to manufacture a tank if they keep this pace up another month. They’d probably need a 2-15 like tank stretch to even get back down to where they need to be, and even the young players seem a little feisty for that. The Wizard started out 15-3 last year so it can be done, but it gets harder.
This team reminds of the 2013-14 Phoenix Suns that also went 48-34 with a bunch of overachievers The one difference is at least this team has young talent with Markkanen, Vanderbilt, Sexton, and Kessler to who can still improve, and be part of the next Utah playoff team. Maybe you just don’t want it to be this season. Beasley could even fit into the long-term plan as well. I think I’d keep all of them around, but 30+ year olds Olynk, Conley and Clarkson need to be moved yesterday day if Utah isn’t really going for it in my opinion, and invest some of the assets into getting better. If the core young guys get you to the playoffs anyway that’s fine, and I think you are cool with that. I don’t see the value in the 30 somethings like Clarkson leading it. They need to sell high on them.
I liked the fit of Markkanen, Vanderbilt, and Kessler longterm back in the summer. I felt like Markkanen and Vanderbilt they could play a similar style as Markkanen did in Cleveland at SF. That is something I never expected to work in Cleveland originally, but after he played 75% of his minutes at SF/SG and the team had the success I was a believer in the versatility it provided. It’s still working well with Markkanen logging 44% of his minutes on the wing in Utah. Vanderbilt is quick enough to guard out on the perimeter as well. I like it. I think Kessler has the potential to be a great rim protector as well long-term behind them too.
Hard choices need to be made soon on the 30 somethings. It getting late quick on a tank and this is the draft with Wembanyama you get in if you are leaning in that direction.