SALT LAKE CITY — Technically, the Utah Jazz and the Charlotte Hornets are both rebuilding. The Jazz traded Donovan Mitchell and Rudy Gobert and most of their starting lineup in the offseason. The Hornets? Well, they have been in a perpetual rebuild, with just star point guard LaMelo Ball to show for their efforts.
But, Monday night’s matchup, a 126-102 win for the Jazz at Vivint Arena, showed just how much of a difference there is between both teams. And the difference is striking.
The Jazz have a plan. The Jazz have a structure in place. The Jazz have stability. The Jazz have developed, with rookies Walker Kessler and Ochai Agbaji both playing key roles in Utah’s 25th win of the season, and having emerged as pieces for the Jazz heading into the future.
Charlotte has none of that. The irony is Ball could be considered the best player between the two franchises (and it’s arguable because of the incredible leap Lauri Markkanen has taken this season). But, beyond that, what do the Hornets have to show for multiple rebuilding years? They have for certain missed on shooting guard James Bouknight, who couldn’t crack a rotation on Monday night that featured Dennis Smith Jr. and Bryce McGowan. They may have missed on Kai Jones, who was also out of the rotation.
The Hornets are 13-35 on the season, heading for a definitive top-five pick and possibly headed for the right to select generational talent Victor Wembanyama. Even if that falls through, they are going to probably in a position to draft either Scoot Henderson or Amen Thompson, two other great talents in this draft.
But what will the Hornets’ draft pick come home to? Where is the structure? Where is the development? Even Ball, for how fantastic a player he is, he’s not a whole lot better than he was when he was a rookie. He’s just supremely talented and getting through the league on that raw ability.
On Monday night, the Jazz defeated the Hornets without putting a great game together. There were sloppy turnovers. There were pockets of the game where Utah didn’t play great basketball. But the Jazz typically execute at a high level, and they put together enough minutes on Monday night that the game wasn’t in doubt at the five minute mark of the fourth quarter.
It’s a cautionary tale for the Jazz, their players, head coach Will Hardy, and the front office. It’s also something that the front office is keenly aware of, which is why they structured this season the way they did. No bottoming out. Because when you bottom out, you have to unlearn all the bad habits that got you to that point.
The Hornets played on Monday night like they were just waiting for their season to end. Only issue with that? They have 34 games remaining. The Jazz moved to 25-25 with the win and are in the eighth spot in the Western Conference. Sure, they could have a losing streak and fall out of the postseason race. But they could also put a winning streak together and ascend to the sixth spot in the Western Conference, which means a playoff spot.
Here’s the rub: No matter what happens, the Jazz have put themselves in position where the games matter. The reps matter. The games, the possessions, the reps, in February and March? Those reps and possessions are all going to mean something. They will matter to Walker Kessler. They will matter to Ochai Agbaji. They will matter to Talen Horton-Tucker. They will matter to Nickeil Alexander-Walker, all young players who have played key roles this season in Hardy’s rotation.
That’s important, because when the Jazz truly enter the phase of building a roster this coming summer, when they have three first-round picks to use, when they use whatever cap space they have or make whatever trade they want to make, whatever young guys come in next season will come into a team that has established a culture and winning habits.
If Wembanyama is as good as advertised, and if Charlotte does get the opportunity to select him, this might not matter. Historically, there have been talents that have come into the league that have been so good that they transform the franchise that drafted them. But, that’s still rolling the dice if you are the Hornets. Let’s say they get Wembanyama. They have to get the right players around him. They have to put a system and a structure around him that allows for his talents to have impact. And they have to do it as the clock ticks on the roughly seven years the Hornets will have team control over his contracts.
Without a true lottery-like stroke of luck, the Utah Jazz won’t be getting Wembanyama. They won’t be getting Scoot Henderson, Amen Thompson, Brandon Miller or anyone that projects as a top five pick. That being said, they project to have their pick on the outer edges of the lottery. And the Minnesota Timberwolves pick may or may not be in the lottery, but it will certainly be better than projected at the beginning of the season.
Which approach is better?
That’s going to be the question that’s argued until the end of time. Building a championship level roster piece by piece? Or taking one big swing at a generational talent, hitting on that swing and fortunes change dramatically. Had Charlotte taken Alperen Sengun instead of Bouknight in the 2021 draft, they would be in a much better spot right now. Had they taken Quentin Grimes instead of Kai Jones in the same draft, they would be in a much better spot right now. That’s a shooting guard and a big in a draft where the Hornets had multiple first round picks. And they have appeared to whiff on both.
That’s where the Jazz have to be good this summer. As a small market, their draft picks are going to have to hit. They don’t need all three to pop. But they need at least one of them to pop. The impressive thing for this season is that Kessler and Agbaji have both popped, which means the Jazz are ahead of the curve.
But, two teams playing on the same floor on Monday night have gone about things much differently. It should be interesting to see in a few years how it works out for either.
(Photo of Walker Kessler and Gordon Hayward: Rob Gray / USA Today)