We want players that compete and bring it every night, and the coaching staff feels the same way. We feel the long-term benefits outweigh any short-term gain of tanking. —Utah Jazz president Steve Starks
SALT LAKE CITY — With just 22 games left in the season, and the NBA’s top-winning team in town, Vivint Arena was amped on Monday. A full house, bone-shaking bass beats and some positively filthy dunks can do that. So can a team fighting for the playoffs.
That 96-85 loss to Houston is temporary amnesia if you ask most Jazz fans. At the same time, this is all fairly incongruous. Shouldn’t this 31-30 team be lying down, waiting for the offseason? ESPN published a story Monday beginning with this sentence: “The tank is on.” The story addressed various teams purposely losing, in order to enhance draft prospects. But the Jazz don’t seem to be having any of it. They won 11 consecutive games and led by 13 in the first half against the league’s top team. If they’re tanking, they have a strange way of showing it.
Nevertheless, it’s hard to document in the standings exactly how much they’ve accomplished. The Jazz are in 10th place in the Western Conference. Where were they before they started their win streak? Tenth place.
They did nothing but win for three weeks, claiming 12 of the last 14, but haven’t budged in the standings.
Give the Jazz marketing people — and the players as self-marketers — an A. Monday was the team’s 15th consecutive sellout. In particular, give an A to Donovan Mitchell. He’s far from the only player deserving notice, but he could sell Cheetos in a health spa.
While Monday’s loss was expected — Houston has won 13 in a row — it illustrated how hard it is for the Jazz to move up. They’ve been winning in jumps, but moving in inches. Still, they're nothing if not persistent. They think “tanking” is a four-letter word.
“It has never come up,” Jazz president Steve Starks said. “I can’t imagine what that conversation would be like with Rudy Gobert.”
The Stifle Tower was getting salty even last summer, right after Gordon Hayward left.
While the Jazz are 2½ games out of the eighth playoff slot, they were five back on Jan. 22, after being dismissed by experts. By Monday morning, ESPN’s playoff metrics gave them a 53.5 percent chance of making the postseason.
They have 21 games left, but only nine against likely playoff-bound teams.
The Jazz’s streak wasn’t built on terrible competition. They beat Toronto, currently leading the East. They also defeated Golden State once and injury-hampered San Antonio twice. Given the Jazz’s overall position — hoping to slip into the playoffs — it’s impressive how they have promoted themselves. Some of that has to do with the arena’s revamped look, some with the players’ likability, and the rest with their overall persistence.
Twenty years after being a title contender, the Jazz are a kind of must-see event in Salt Lake. Never mind they’re in last place in the Northwest Division. They have a versatile, deep team. What they don’t have is a great record.
But they’re doing a bang-up job of selling optimism.
That’s far better than selling off a franchise.
The entire NBA actually does a nice marketing job. Almost everyone draws well, if you go by official attendance figures. Even the dreadful Atlanta Hawks sell 75 percent of their seats.
The Jazz, on the season, are at 89 percent capacity, but haven’t missed a sellout since Dec. 4. They are 16th in average attendance, eighth in the West. There was a time when the Jazz sold out every game and they were playing for titles. Monday afforded a clear look at where they rank against the best. Houston’s James Harden logged 41 points, eight rebounds and seven assists in a win over Denver on Sunday and followed with 26 points, 11 rebounds and five assists against Utah.
The latest loss didn’t look like a tank job by the Jazz, who at the end of December were 16-21. It looked like a letdown.
That’s good news for Jazz fans.
“I don’t know what goes on inside other teams,” Starks said, “but I know for us, (tanking is) not something we would ever entertain, because we feel it would have a long-term effect on our culture. We want players that compete and bring it every night, and the coaching staff feels the same way. We feel the long-term benefits outweigh any short-term gain of tanking.”
Missing the playoffs may yet happen. If so, expect them to do it the hard way.