There were no external expectations of the Utah Jazz a year ago.
That’ll happen when your All-Star forward leaves for greener pastures, or at least greener jerseys; when your defensive anchor misses 26 games early with a pair of knee injuries; when your new starting point guard has his worldview scrambled by an offensive scheme that frequently deploys him off the ball; when, because of all that, you start the season a woeful 19-28.
Of course, when you follow that up by your star center returning and making your team the most stingy defensive unit in the league; when your rookie guard unexpectedly shoulders the scoring burden with dynamic athleticism and aggression; when you go 29-6 down the stretch to finish with 48 wins; and when you win a first-round playoff series against an opponent helmed by the NBA’s reigning Most Valuable Player …
Well, if there weren’t expectations before, there sure are now.
So then, the question becomes:
[Pregnant pause …]
What do we expect now that we’re expecting?
At the conclusion of last season, general manager Dennis Lindsey acknowledged the obvious challenge ahead: “The dilemma is Golden State and Houston are clearly in front of us, and to be the last team standing, you have to go through the best teams.”
So now, because this offseason saw the Jazz eschew bringing in outside talent in favor of returning every key player from the roster save for Jonas Jerebko (who was replaced with draft pick Grayson Allen and G-League standout Georges Niang), and saw an already-stacked Western Conference get more so by importing LeBron James, what does that mean for the Jazz’s chances?
What, exactly, is this group’s ceiling?
An NBA survey of the league’s general managers saw 90 percent of them pick the Golden State Warriors — who’ve won two straight Finals and three of the past four — to win the West. The other 10 percent selected the Houston Rockets. The Russell Westbrook-led Thunder were predicted to finish third, while the Jazz came in fourth.
No one with the Jazz wants to make an outright prediction. But no one is downplaying the possibilities, either.
“We can go as far as we want to go,” said Donovan Mitchell. “We control our own destiny.”
“As a team, we’re gonna be the best we’ve ever been as a group,” concurred Rudy Gobert.
Jazz coach Quin Snyder wants to shift the narrative a bit. In his mind, how Utah stacks up against the competition is a premature argument anyway.
“I don’t want us to look at other teams. When we play them, obviously, pragmatically let’s look at them. But I don’t want us to be comparing ourselves to anybody at the beginning of the season,” he said. "I want us to be as good as we can be and work on that. If our focus is there, just maximizing who we are, I like that, I like where that leads us.”
Starting point guard Ricky Rubio agreed.
“We have to focus on ourselves first” he said. “We know that the Western Conference is getting tougher, but at the end of the day, it’s about us getting better.”
Speaking of which, Snyder wants to disabuse people of the notion that returning 13 players from last year’s team inherently limits what this year’s is capable of.
“I told the team I think there’s a lot of room for improvement. Sometimes we associate continuity with, I don’t want to say complacency, but that you’re a finished product, so to speak, that you have what you want with continuity,” he said. “That doesn’t necessarily hold true in my mind. We can have continuity as a foundation and still look for an upside and improvement.”
Everyone involved, apparently, takes that to heart. Because when asked what the key was to Utah taking the next step, there were a whole lot of different answers.
“Guys gotta be willing to share the ball, gotta be willing to move without the ball, and you gotta be willing to sacrifice sometimes,” said veteran big man Derrick Favors.
“Obviously, defense has to be improved. … I just think our guards can do a better job of holding the top scorers when they come into town, holding those guys in check,” said Jae Crowder. “… In the playoffs, I think we did a bad job of having lulls on the offensive end. … We have to always have our offense where it needs to be, whether it’s attacking the basket or making [outside] shots.”
“It’ll be important for us to start fast, limiting our turnovers, just continue to get better every day throughout the season,” suggested backup big man Ekpe Udoh.
“One of the things that’s gonna be important for us is to play both inside and out,” said Thabo Sefolosha. “Teams now have a tendency to switch and play a little smaller. We gotta take advantage of Derrick and Rudy and Ekpe rolling to the basket, feeding them. That’s gonna create some space.”
“Is our defense gonna be pretty good? … Are we gonna be a top-10 defense? A top-five defense? Can we be No. 1? Can we be No. 1 by a great margin? Or will the league catch up to us with the defense and will regression set in?” Lindsey asked. “… Jae Crowder performing at the level he did with the Boston Celtics is a big factor. Ricky Rubio understanding the way that the Jazz play five-man basketball, and that he’s not going to be as ball-dominant in this system as much, but maybe score a little bit more.”
“It’s incremental gains throughout different areas. If we offensive rebound a little better, turn it over a little less, finish a little better. … Can we shoot the ball from the 3-point line better? And can we shoot more of them?” added Snyder. “… And more than anything, it’s a question of being better at something we’re already pretty good at in defense. We can be elite defensively, not just good, not just great, but elite. … And if we can do that, we have a chance to win some games.”
So despite the similarities of the rosters, it’s clear no one is taking the attitude that anything is set in stone. Lindsey pointed out that, tough as the West is, there’s as much possibility to finish on the outside looking in as there is to place in the top four.
Favors made it clear he’s going to do what he can to avoid regression.
“I was here for the lowest of the lows, I was here when we won 25 games, and it definitely feels a whole lot better to win 50 and be in the playoffs,” he said. “And hopefully we come into this year and kind of repeat that, and get even further.”
That’s the goal. Just don’t call it an expectation — Snyder has no use for those, anyway.
“If you think that expectations are gonna help you win games, they’re not; and if people don’t expect you to do something, that doesn’t mean you can’t do it,” Snyder said.
“I don’t wanna pick up where we left off. That implies that it’s the same group beginning to do something,” he added. “This is a new journey. We can take with us the experience, we can take with us the chemistry, the things that we’ve learned, but this is a new team, and we can’t take February with us, we can’t take the playoffs with us. It’s a new year, and the sooner that realization occurs at a very fundamental level, the better the opportunity to improve.”