Monson: Jazz are yearning to play a beautiful game
Utah wants to emulate Spurs’ superior ball movement.
Published: July 23, 2014 09:05AM
Updated: July 22, 2014 10:53PM
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San Antonio Spurs head coach Gregg Popovich, left, talks to Spurs' Tony Parker, of France, during the first half of an NBA basketball game against the Utah Jazz, Sunday, April 8, 2012, in San Antonio. (AP Photo/Darren Abate)

The beautiful game.

That’s the Jazz’s thing now. That’s what they want to play. That’s the kind of basketball they’re trying to adopt and embrace, even if their early version of it is ugly enough to scare the snout off a pig. And, at times, when the regular season rolls around, it will be. Comedian Phyllis Diller once said she was so ugly when she was a kid, her mom had to tie a pork chop around her neck to get the dog to play with her.

The Jazz’s remedy is more thorough than that.

They’re re-inventing themselves, inside and out, from last year’s homeliness and through this year’s makeover. The beauty they seek goes straight to the bone. It comes straight from the Swedish Bikini Team of basketball: the San Antonio Spurs.

It can be summarized in two words: ball movement.

But it affects more than just the offensive end. It affects everything.

“The first way to play good defense,” says Dennis Lindsey, “is to be well-organized on offense.”

That organization requires every Jazz player being able and willing to share the ball. In some respects, in describing what the Jazz did during their summer league experience, characterizations sounded more like something out of Bill Walsh’s West Coast Offense. The Jazz implemented a short-passing game, a spread offense, stretching the floor from baseline to baseline, from sideline to sideline.

“We need to keep the integrity of our spacing intact,” Lindsey says.

Back to the bikini team. During the Spurs’ victorious series with the Miami Heat in the NBA Finals, someone used all his fingers and toes to total up an astounding number: San Antonio averaged 97 more passes per game than the Heat. Over some stretches, the Spurs’ movement of the ball was both dizzying and wondrous. One high school basketball coach said that when the Spurs took their championship utilizing that unselfish methodology, every prep coach in America let out a shout, now having the slam-dunk evidence to present to their young teams.

Not only is sharing the basketball a beautiful way to play the game, it works.

Schoolboy coaches weren’t the only ones watching.

The Jazz, who have plenty of San Antonio DNA anyway, came to a firmness of judgment: This was their way to play.

Yeah, they don’t have Tim Duncan or Manu Ginobili or Tony Parker or Kawhi Leonard, but the players they do have would benefit from and flourish in such a pass-first system.

“With the ball movement, we’re going to have non-negotiables,” Lindsey says. “And we feel like, with our personnel, with our team, the ball cannot stick.”

That’s another bit of phraseology the Jazz are favoring these days: The ball cannot stick. Quin Snyder and Brad Jones hoisted it after nearly every game in Vegas last week.

An example of the ball sticking would be flashing back to the bygone days of Al Jefferson camping out in the low post, receiving a pass from up top and then working, and working, and dribbling, and working for his own shot, while everybody else on the court — and in the crowd — reached for some fast-acting, maximum-strength No-Doz.

That was then, this is now.

“We want to play with the pass,” says Lindsey. “We want five guys who are weapons to create a situation or threats to shoot it. We think that’s a good way to play basketball, a great way to watch it, and, with our personnel, the only way we can play.”

The great thing about the Spurs’ version of that was this: so many of their players could shoot it. What happens if the Jazz whip the ball around and around, ultimately creating an open shot, but then that shot is missed?

“A good question,” Lindsey says. “… It’s why you need shooters at every position, so they have shot confidence to take the open shot. Not taking an open shot is, in our opinion, the equivalent of not getting back on defense. That’s really what happens. You don’t take the open shot, NBA athletes on a shot clock recover, you lose your advantage, you force up something poor, without defensive balance, [there’s a] long rebound, long outlet, numbers going back at you.”

That’s Lindsey’s good-offense-leads-to-good-defense theory.

“Don’t turn the ball over,” he says. “Take the open shot. Don’t take bad shots. Go back with good balance to set your defense.”

Still, the question remains: Who are the Jazz’s creators and, in particular, their shooters?

Lindsey goes down the list:

He says Enes Kanter “has shown the ability to have great touch in many areas of the court.” Derrick Favors, he says, “has shown an improved proficiency from the high-low areas and the short corners.” Trey Burke, he says, “really has to take a step forward with his open shooting.” As for Gordon Hayward, whose shooting percentages have dropped from 48 percent to 45 percent to 43 percent to 41 percent, Lindsey says “there’s no reason why, given good balance, that he can’t shoot it.” Rodney Hood, he says, “can shoot the ball, but he’s a rookie.” Steve Novak, a limited veteran with deep range, will be counted on to provide what Lindsey calls “the Kyle Korver effect.”

“Not only does the ball go in when great shooters shoot it,” he says, “but there’s a little bit of a psychological component that goes along with [it] that everybody is able to take the collective deep breath with a great shooter on the floor. Even if it’s a role player like Steve.”

Dante Exum displayed terrific potential during the summer league, but his perimeter shot looked, at times, as though he were heaving logs onto a conveyor belt down at the lumberyard. Whichever guard position he mans, especially at the 2, that shot has to come. He knows it. Snyder knows it. Lindsey knows it.

It’s no stretch, though, to figure that all the Jazz shooters are sure to hit more open shots than contested ones. And that’s the point of what they are attempting to do with their version of beautiful basketball. Eventually, no pork chop around their necks will be needed.

“If you’ve got a team that really passes the ball, things can improve exponentially,” Lindsey says. “That’s what we really want to teach our young players — how to communicate, how to help one another on defense, how to play with a pass. If we’re able to accomplish those things, we’ll surprise ourselves with some of the results.”

GORDON MONSON hosts “The Big Show” with Spence Checketts weekdays from 3-7 p.m. on 97.5 FM/1280 and 960 AM The Zone. Twitter: @GordonMonson.