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'Shocking what this team could do': Jazz coach evaluates first half of season

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SALT LAKE CITY — Will Hardy had some concerns as he entered his first season as the Utah Jazz head coach.

It was a new team, assembled by various trades that were deemed as more future focused than anything else. That meant there wasn't a true top player the rest of the team would naturally follow. And he was a new coach who was younger than some of his players.

He thought there was enough talent on the team to be competitive, but it wasn't hard to envision a scenario where things went sideways quickly.

"Going into training camp, my biggest concern was: Are they going to buy it," Hardy said. "Were they going to try to be a team, or was everyone going to say look what I can do?"

It's worked out better than he ever could have imagined. Utah began the season with a 10-3 record and were at the top of the Western Conference. The Jazz have come back down to earth after their scorching start, but at the midway point of the season, the team is still in playoff contention with a 20-21 record.

That's good enough for 10th in the West and a spot in the play-in tournament. So is Hardy happy with the first half of the season?

"I'm very proud of where we are at this point in the season," he said. "I think our team being such a new group, a lot of new faces that didn't know each other, with a new head coach, I think the atmosphere and the environment that's been created in our building and around our team has been pretty amazing.

"Their ability to bond together very quickly, to understand that they all need each other and not have anybody try to make it about them. Everybody's trying to participate in every way possible to try to win games. I think it's why we are where we are."

Utah has the No. 3 offense in the league through the first 41 games, which continues to be a surprise.

Hardy's system has unlocked Lauri Markkanen's unique size and skill set, and could potentially turn him into an All-Star. Mike Conely is averaging a career-high in assists, as is Jordan Clarkson, Kelly Olynyk, Jarred Vanderbilt and Markkanen; the entire Jazz starting lineup is assisting at career-best levels. That's a pretty impressive feat.

On the other end, though, the Jazz have fallen to near the bottom of the league. Utah's defense ranks 27th in the NBA, which puts them in the bottom six, along with San Antonio, Detroit, Houston, Charlotte, and Orlando — the teams with the five worst records so far this season.

Utah has been shredded in transition and has struggled to collect defensive rebounds, as well.

"I think if those two areas improve, it can be pretty shocking what this team could do," Hardy said.

So what does that mean in regards to the upcoming playoff chase?

"I don't know. I really don't," Hardy said. "The West is so jumbled up. I think what's made the Western Conference really fun and interesting in this first half of the season is that over the course of a five-game stretch, the standings can really shift."

Utah has been on that roller coaster ride — going from the top of the West to the middle, to now hanging on to a play-in spot. Utah is just a game up on the Minnesota Timberwolves before they are completely out of playoff positioning.

"It's a great perspective for us and for everybody that this is the halfway point," Hardy said. "It seems like so much has happened this year already and to know that we have to do it all again."

The Jazz could go on a winning streak and be propelled right back up to home-court positioning — or the slide could continue.

Utah has had some bad luck in close games lately, but even so, reality might have hit the Jazz. A 10-18 record over the last 28 games with one of the league's worst defenses is hard to ignore.

The Jazz are still a feel-good story. Even in losses, they've played incredibly competitive and made the games fun to watch. Markkanen is a great asset, the team likes playing for each other, and Hardy can definitely coach; there's a lot of things to be excited about.

But the Jazz are just 2.5 games ahead of the Oklahoma City Thunder for the third-worst record in the Western Conference. Utah can still, as some fans definitely want, trade some veterans and end up with some very good odds for a loaded draft.

Or maybe Hardy and the Jazz aren't done surprising just yet.

"The Western Conference is a beast, and we're definitely right there in the thick of it," Hardy said. "So I'm happy with where we are and excited for the future."

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