Should the Utah Jazz, Indiana Pacers and San Antonio Spurs aim up or down?

Before the season commenced, a majority of NBA fans expected the Utah Jazz, Indiana Pacers and San Antonio Spurs to be contending for the worst record in the league and stockpiling L’s. Instead, at different times, all three of these ball clubs have flashed an impressive game style that has led to them chalking up a combined 27-23 record through about 20% of the season. However, it might 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 them to be right now. This cast of misfits has galvanised around one another to shock teams like Denver, Atlanta, Memphis, Phoenix and both L.A. franchises thus far, and a team-first orientation has them looking like a genuine threat to be in the playoff mix. There are still understandable doubts over whether they can keep this up for the entire season, but currently sitting as the 4th best team in terms of offensive efficiency, the Jazz are getting it done, with Lauri Markkanen’s play a huge reason for their unprecedented start.

After being discarded by the Cavaliers in the Donovan Mitchell trade, the Finnish forward has put himself in early All-Star contention as Utah’s lead scorer. Averaging 22.3 PPG right now, Markkanen is also starting to hit his groove shooting from deep (36.9%), which may pave the way for him to increase his already career-best numbers. Finishing second in scoring average at the EuroBasket tournament during the NBA offseason, Markkanen has maintained his impressive rate scoring the ball and he’s being ably supported by the rest of Utah’s roster. A mix of combo guards and do-it-all forwards have the team sitting atop the Western Conference standings, and while their impressive beginning to the season makes for a feel-good story around the league, it isn’t the greatest thing for the long-term future of the franchise.

Image from nypost.com

Markkanen’s play has been impressive and the likes of Jarred Vanderbilt, Jordan Clarkson and Kelly Olynyk are proving their worth, and yet, Utah lacks a true superstar that they can build the rest of their roster around. The popular belief was that the Jazz would be anchored at the bottom of the standings after trading away Rudy Gobert and Donovan Mitchell in the summer, but right now, they’re overperforming and ruining their draft odds in the process. Wheeling and dealing has left the franchise with an overabundance of future draft picks, including multiple selections inside the first round in the upcoming offseason.

However, with selections tied to Philadelphia and Minnesota, the best chance they have of securing a top-tier pick is to embrace the tank. To do that, we could see Utah continue their active trade behaviour and offload more pieces (not named Lauri Markkanen) and naturally, they should come back to Earth and lose more games than they win by the time the season concludes. Building the right culture and winning games isn’t a terrible alternative if this group continues to fire, but until they have a bonafide All-NBA talent on their roster, that should be their primary focus.

Indiana Pacers – Aim Up

Tyrese Haliburton and Bennedict Mathurin are awesome. No one is too surprised to see Haliburton take a leap in his first full season as a member of the Pacers, with the floor general in All-Star contention posting a 20/10 average early on. His backcourt running mate, however, caught a lot of NBA fans by surprise. Selected 6th overall in the most recent draft, the former Wildcat in Mathurin has burst onto the scene to start his pro career. Getting to the free throw line more often than Paul George, Nikola Jokic and Brandon Ingram to start the season, Mathurin’s 19.1 PPG have been a welcome boost and the unexpected scoring punch he provides has been a driving force behind Indiana’s promising start.

Rumoured trade chips Buddy Heild and Myles Turner have also helped contribute to the Pacers’ 9-6 record. Hield in particular has excelled, currently ranked 2nd for 3-pointers made on a per-game basis, while also boasting the highest rebound average of his career. Supporting his backcourt running mates Haliburton and Mathurin has culminated in Indiana’s potent offence sitting in the top-5 for scoring average (116.4) and assists (28.3) while recording the 5th fastest pace through 15 contests. There is optimism that the Pacers have the cornerstones they need in their backcourt, but they might struggle to remain around .500 if their big men falter.

Myles Turner has once again been the main source of production in the frontcourt, pacing the league for blocks and shooting lights out from deep at 40%. Indiana’s young bigs Jalen Smith and Isaiah Jackson are seeing their fair share of minutes too, however, if I’m running the Pacers, I’d want one more young wing/frontcourt stud to feel like my core for the future is set. Luckily for Indiana, they don’t need to abort a potential playoff berth to achieve their draft goals, with three bites at the cherry in the first round this season as the proud owners of their own selection, plus the Cavaliers and Celtics’ picks.

There is enough on the roster to suggest the Pacers will continue to ascend in upcoming seasons, largely thanks to their two budding stars at the guard positions. If they can find a diamond in the rough as soon as this draft though, then there are reasons to be excited about their future, but by no means should Indiana consider tanking to enhance their draft position. Finishing with improved odds at a high pick is always a smart tactic, but head coach Rick Carlisle will keep this team playing hard on a nightly basis, with 35 or so wins on the cards thanks to the talent they already have in Indianapolis.

Image from 8points9seconds.com

San Antonio Spurs – Aim Down

Of these three franchises, San Antonio has the clearest trajectory if you ask me. They’ve done a good job of accumulating aspiring talent in three consecutive losing seasons and there’s still a bright future for the likes of Tre Jones, Jeremy Sochan, Devin Vassel, and arguably their best young piece, Keldon Johnson. With All-Star Dejounte Murray dealt away in the offseason, the aforementioned quartet have flourished with extra responsibility thrust upon them to help get the jump on a few teams in the early portion of the season.

They’ve come crashing back to Earth in recent times though, with a four-game losing skid and a recent 1-9 stretch positioning San Antonio in the area we expect them to reside – outside of the postseason picture. They continue to display the trademark Spurs brand of basketball, recording the 2nd most assists as a team on a nightly basis, but similarly to Utah, I’m not sure they have a pillar to build their team around. Keldon Johnson is doing all the right things early in his 4th pro season, upping his scoring rate to 21.9 PPG while converting on 41.4% of his three-point tries, and there’s still a world where he can develop into an All-Star calibre player.

Still, it’s clear that KJ needs more support from his Spurs teammates if they’re going to commence another lengthy playoff streak. Doug McDermott and Gorgui Dieng are the only players currently over 30 on the roster and they have thrown enough darts at the board that no doubt a few competent role players will emerge before too long. One of the picks they seem to have nailed is 2020 first-rounder Devin Vassell who, in year three, has taken his game to another level and may serve as a long-term member of the San Antonio backcourt. Increasing his scoring from 5.5 points a night, then to 12.3, and now to 20.4 is an encouraging sign that he can remain a great addition to the ever-evolving Spurs nucleus.

While the maturation of Johnson and Vassell is promising it can’t hurt for San Antonio to try and acquire another top-tier prospect in the upcoming draft that will catapult the team towards the postseason. If the season ended today, the Spurs would have the 6th best odds of landing the No. 1 pick and subsequently turning that selection into the likes of Victor Wembanyama, Scoot Henderson or another elite youngster. There is enough on their roster for San Antonio faithful to expect success in the not-too-distant future, but trending downwards to potentially net a game-changing star is the smart way to go this season.

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