For a team that many analysts predicted to be challenging for the No. 1 overall pick, it's safe to say that the Utah Jazz have already succeeded expectations.
Currently sitting at 21-23 on the year and in ninth place in the Western Conference, many of those same analysts didn't think the Jazz would reach 21 wins for the entire season.
Utah hasn't just surpassed those expectations, they've set themselves up for a big second half of the season — but if that were to happen, how?
To answer those questions — and much more — Jazz Digital Content Producer, JP Chunga, and myself, Digital Content Writer, Ryan Kostecka, are here to give our thoughts and opinions.
Question: Are the Jazz where you thought they'd be at the halfway point of the season? Better? Worse? | Jason Chan / Ogden, UT
Chunga: Better! Did anyone expect the start? This team has a top 5 offensive rating after trading away their top two scorers. And it's coming from everyone. 70% of the scoring is from newcomers (most in the league). New year? New me.
Question: How good are the odds of Lauri Markkanen making the All-Star game? And do you think anyone else will be participating in All-Star weekend? | Logan Brod / Salt Lake City, UT
Kostecka: At this point, the correct question is whether Markkanen will start in the All-Star game? It sounds absurd, but with (Nikola) Jokic and LeBron (James) locked into starting frontcourt spots, there's one more opening. AD (Anthony Davis) and Zion (Williamson) are both recovering from injury and may not be available, which would make it a battle between Markkanen and (Domantas) Sabonis. I think Walker Kessler makes the Rising Stars game, and I wouldn't be shocked if there's some other Jazz flavor in the other competitions.
Question: Thoughts on Hardy as a head coach… is he as good as he seems, or is it a little bit of beginner's luck? | Toby Hyun / Carlsbad, CA
Chunga: He's tremendous for a first-year head coach. Jordan Clarkson is unleashed, and Lauri Markkanen is bringing Finlandia to Jazzlandia. He'll ride the wave if someone is cooking in the second half. He's not dogmatic in his rotations. I'm still waiting for Will to go full Jerry Sloan and get thrown out of a game, but he's giving tremendous reactions on the sidelines. A fierce pursed lip.
Question: Who has been the biggest surprise on this Jazz team so far? | Naiel Chaudry / Las Vegas, NV
Kostecka: There are so many options; Markkanen's rise as an All-Star, Jordan Clarkson's game evolving, Hardy's coaching acumen in his rookie season. Honestly though, Kessler as a rookie has been the most impressive. He's one of the best rookie defenders in the game and a top-5 rim protector. As his game continues to evolve over the years, he looks like a surefire All-Defense candidate — and a potential All-Star if his offensive game can come around.
Question: Do you think Utah will be active at the trade deadline? Buyers or sellers? | Foster Smith / Heber City, UT
Chunga: Talking to insiders around the league, there aren't many sellers. The parity of #THISLEAGUE has kept dreams alive thanks to the play-in tournament. I expect deals to be done the week of the trade deadline.
Question: After beating Cleveland on Tuesday — best game of the year — who do you think won the trade between the two teams? | Genevieve Kashat / Boise, ID
Kostecka: As of right now, it's one of those win-win trades where both teams appear to have massively benefitted — but it's still too early to decide. Let's say Cleveland wins a title with Don (Mitchell) leading the way; nothing can beat that. But if the Cavs don't and Utah controls their draft for five years, that gives the Jazz many options. Right now, it's 50-50, but time will tell how it all shakes out.
Question: What's a bold prediction you have for the second half of the season? | Peyton Waldrep / Bountiful, UT
Chunga: Walker Kessler starts. They've been bringing him along slowly, but he's going to force his way into the first five. The double block against Bam? He's already in the rotation, but the more comfortable he gets with Mike Conley and Jordan Clarkson, the more playing time he'll get. In the offseason, he should go to the "KG School of Setting Sorta Legal Screens."
Question: How important is this next stretch, where 10 of the 12 games are at home, especially leading up to the trade deadline? | Nash Roe / Billings, MT
Kostecka: This is arguably the most crucial stretch of the year for Utah, as they're 21-23. These 12 games go right up to the trade deadline, which is what will ultimately decide the season. If the Jazz go 8-4, they could see themselves inside the top six in the West, and the roster could stay intact. If they go 4-8 and drop out of the play-in tournament, I would not be surprised if they become sellers at the deadline. Either way, these next 12 games will decide where Utah goes for the rest of the season.
Question: Looking ahead, what's the most important stretch of games coming up for the rest of the season? | Ozan Kopelman / Scottsdale, AZ
Chunga: Start of March. 6 road games in 11 days post All-Star Break. Looks daunting!
Question: The Jazz are three games out of the No. 4 seed in the playoffs… is it too crazy to think they might be able to make a run over the second half of the schedule? | Alissa Telusca / St. George, UT
Kostecka: Well if you read my story about second-half predictions, I actually picked Utah to make a run over the final 35 games. I think they're coming together as a team, have a very good stretch of home games to kickstart the run, and are getting healthy again. I don't know if Utah gets all the way to the four seed, but I would not be shocked if this team misses the play-in and ends up in that 5-6 range.