Small-market franchises steal blueprints, theories, concepts, even team executives from the San Antonio Spurs, which pretty much explains what the Utah Jazz have been doing these past few seasons.
Right about the time Dennis Lindsey was hired as their general manager, the Jazz locked the doors of the NBA’s version of the Mom & Pop Shop and reopened as a pro basketball boutique. They went for the combo package: two for the price of one.
The plan was to preserve the team’s history, retain the small town charm, continue registering all those babies named after John Stockton, Karl Malone and Jerry Sloan for the ever-expanding Junior Jazz programs. This was pure old school – a textbook of reading, writing and arithmetic.
The second phase of the project – the introduction of the NBA’s modern era – was a shock to the Salt Lake City system. Analytics. Statistics and data. Performance assessment. Vice president of pro personnel. Director of sports science. Assistant coach of integrated player development. Director of rehabilitation. Assistant coach of basketball strategy.
More titles, more jobs, more of everything and anything necessary to keep up with the Joneses. While Utah and Golden State resumed their Western Conference semifinal Saturday evening, these aren’t the same old Jazz.
In the days when the Kings and Jazz wrestled in the playoffs, Utah’s only major professional sports franchise was quaint and corny, if eminently embraceable. Their late owner, Larry Miller, dressed in the locker room near Stockton and Malone. He shagged balls during warmups, slapped palms during player introductions, poked his head into Sloan’s huddle. Today, his relatives scream from their suites with all the other wealthy Jazz partisans.
“Obviously things have changed,” said David Fredman, director of pro scouting and the team’s original publicist. “We had a very small staff and for a lot of years been very successful. But when Dennis came in, hired from San Antonio, he had his eyes wide open. We had Paul Millsap, Al Jefferson, and were still hanging around, kept trying to get that eighth (final playoff) spot. Dennis decided we were going to do this right and not skip steps, which is easier said than done. It takes patience, and it starts with ownership. The Miller family allowed him to spend the money to get us up to date scouting wise, medical services, all those things he had picked up working for the Spurs, and the Rockets before that. He brought a very business-like approach to the organization.”
The Jazz still have absolutely no chance against the Warriors, of course, though that shouldn’t be held against them. No one else does, either, except perhaps the Cleveland Cavaliers. Patience is a virtue in this sense, too: Stockton and Malone are retired and their NBA Finals nemesis, Michael Jordan, wears suits and ties and runs the Charlotte Hornets. The Spurs of Kawhi Leonard are very good, not great. So Steph Curry, Kevin Durant, Klay Thompson and Draymond Green will go away eventually, and in the meantime, other teams will keep pursuing the dream, and the Jazz will, too – and search for the winning formula for good health.
The community is like Sacramento. They supported us even when we were down, showed up for the most part. But now they’re over the top.
Dave Fredman, Jazz director of pro scouting
Their presence in these playoffs masks a nagging issue, namely, the run of injuries to veterans and younger players alike. Point guard George Hill missed Game 2 with a toe injury. First-round draft picks Alec Burks, Derrick Favors and Dante Exum have missed considerable time over the course of their careers, with Exum sidelined all of 2015-16 and part of this year after suffering a torn ACL.
“The only thing that has interrupted their development has been their health,” Lindsey said, “but we don’t want to use injuries as an excuse. And we got lucky on a few things. I inherited a really good player in Gordon Hayward and we have Rudy Gobert locked up. We also like our young players Rodney Hood and Trey Lyles, and with the addition of the veterans (Joe Johnson, Boris Diaw, Joe Ingles, Hill), we feel good about our resources. But a lot of the credit goes to Quin (Snyder).”
A former three-year starter at Duke, Snyder arrived three years ago with an eye-popping academic and athletic portfolio. He possesses a Juris Doctorate and a master’s degree, and has coached under Mike Krzyzewski, Larry Brown, Popovich, Doug Collins, Mike Brown, Mike Budenholzer and Ettore Messina (CSKA Moscow). In contrast to most NBA coaches who delegate a significant portion of their on-court instruction to their assistants, the wiry, intense Snyder is actively engaged during practices and in offseason player development workouts.
Hayward and Gobert are among the major beneficiaries. The 6-foot-8, 232-pound Hayward, who has added 32 pounds since his rookie season out of Butler, uses his added strength to separate from defenders and absorb contact while finishing at the rim. The springy 7-1, 250-pound Gobert, the league’s leading shot-blocker and candidate for Defensive Player of the Year, sets forceful screens and has become increasingly creative around the basket. He even tossed a lob into the locker room late Thursday when he urged his teammates to play “angry” back in Salt Lake.
While Jazz fans quietly fret about Hayward’s future, fearing the Indiana native will decline an extension this summer and become a free agent in 2018, the vibe in the city is nonetheless upbeat and energized. Vivint Smart Home Arena is loud and lusty, known for its hilarious signs and banners.
During the Kings-Jazz playoffs in 2002, for instance, a fan seated directly behind the visitors bench held up a sign that read, “Vlade Divac Wears Women’s Underwear.” The Kings players pointed to the sign and ribbed their good-natured center mercilessly.
The following day after practice, Divac shook his head and grinned. The fans had it all wrong, he insisted, revealing that he wears “no underwear.”
Next man up? Matt Barnes, the Warriors reserve who recently suggested that Salt Lake was lacking in nightlife. As a playful retort, the Jazz organization designed #Nightlife T-shirts for Game 3 and are having trouble keeping up with the demand.
“The community is like Sacramento,” Fredman said. “They supported us even when we were down, showed up for the most part. But now they’re over the top. We just have to keep it going, solidify what we’re doing, draft well, see what free agents are available and manage the salary cap well. That’s why Dennis is so good. It takes a lot of discipline to do it the right way, not get ahead of yourself, especially in a small market.”