Lowe: How Utah's success will impact its rebuild, a Hawks trade that backfired and OKC's special two-man game

The Utah Jazz can be a decent team now thanks in part to forward Lauri Markkanen. Rob Gray/USA TODAY Sports

In this week's eight things I liked and disliked, how the Utah Jazz found success avoiding a deep rebuild, the special connection between Jalen Williams and Chet Holmgren and how a trade that's backfired has impacted the Atlanta Hawks' awful defense.

Jump to Lowe's Things:
Utah's rebuild approach | OKC's two-man game
Chicago's broken defense | Kuminga's new calm
Backfired Hawks trade | Duren's offense
Free throw high-five purist | Dinwiddie's conundrum

1. Building from the middle is back -- at least in small markets

Ask people within the Utah Jazz about prior teams they are thinking about in these heady times -- with Utah an improbable 13-4 in its past 17 games and ninth in the West -- and it won't be long until you hear some mention of the Houston Rockets from 2009 to 2012. Those Rockets lost two tentpole stars -- Yao Ming to injuries, Tracy McGrady in a trade -- but never bottomed out.

They hovered over .500 for three straight seasons while their general manager, Daryl Morey, now running the Philadelphia 76ers, compiled assets he hoped to trade for their next foundational star. That player became James Harden. Eight seasons of high-level playoff basketball followed.

Those Rockets had a directive from ownership to avoid a deep rebuild. Utah's brass had more leeway when it traded its two homegrown stars -- Donovan Mitchell and Rudy Gobert. They received good players in return, but those were clear rebuilding trades -- stocked with first-round picks from the Minnesota Timberwolves and Cleveland Cavaliers. The Jazz had no control over where those picks might fall. Utah's own picks held the promise of high lottery talent.

For the second straight year, the Jazz are smashing expectations -- even their own. Turns out, they acquired a tentpole All-Star in the Mitchell trade: Lauri Markkanen, matching his breakout numbers from last season and playing with more physicality on both ends. Collin Sexton, an afterthought in the Mitchell deal, is averaging 17 points on 49% shooting in Utah's rejiggered starting five -- a lineup featuring zero Utah draft picks, highly unusual for a rebuilding team.

That group does not have one "A"-level orchestrator, but everyone can keep the offense moving. The group's turnovers have dropped. John Collins was a free talent upgrade who can play his natural rim-runner role with Walker Kessler coming off the bench. Kris Dunn is a terror on defense.

The Jazz are good enough that they may have no choice but to build up from the middle. They are ideally fortified to do so.

A year ago, with a similar record, Utah went the other way, dealing Mike Conley to snag a future first-round pick from the Los Angeles Lakers. Utah's brain trust took a cold, hard look at last season's feel-good team and kneecapped it with an eye on the future.

They ended up with three first-round picks: Taylor Hendricks (No. 9), Keyonte George (No. 16) and Brice Sensabaugh (No. 28). George is a keeper. Hendricks has looked good in limited minutes. The Wolves' and Cavs' picks are still coming.

There may be no equivalent step-back trade this season, and the Jazz don't need to make one unless they receive an offer -- for Sexton, Kelly Olynyk, Jordan Clarkson, Dunn -- that is too good to turn down. They are deep enough to maybe trade one of those three and remain in the playoff race. Markkanen is 26. Sexton is 25. What's the rush to go up or down?

Utah can be decent now, maybe bank some playoff experience, and stay primed to hunt big names on the trade market. That is building from the middle and has been done before -- both on purpose, as with those pre-Harden Rockets, and somewhat by accident by teams who thought they were rebuilding but discovered they had stumbled upon a good roster. (Think of the Portland Trail Blazers in the season after LaMarcus Aldridge left, or the rag-tag Toronto Raptors in the wake of trading Rudy Gay.)

It's hard to bottom out with an in-his-prime player as good as Markkanen. The same goes for Tyrese Haliburton, which is why the Indiana Pacers forked over Bruce Brown and three first-round picks to acquire Pascal Siakam -- on an expiring contract -- from the Raptors. In a nice bit of symmetry, the Pacers in prior weeks -- before they were sure Siakam would be available -- were one of several teams to call Utah about Markkanen, sources said. The Jazz in those brief talks showed zero interest in moving Markkanen, sources said.