“The opportunity to join the Utah Jazz and to be part of such a highly respected franchise with an incredibly bright future is a great honor. I approach this opportunity with gratitude and humility and am committed to doing everything I can to help the Jazz become a championship-caliber team.”
Those were the words spoken by Quin Snyder back in 2014, the first week of June, at the announcement that he had been hired to take the wheel of a team that had veered off the road, winning just 25 games the previous season, a team that was all good, except for having forgotten how to score, how to rebound and how to play defense.
It’s easy for everyone to forget how bad the Jazz were before Snyder took over, on account of and especially compared to where they are now. After the coach’s hiring, then-general manager Dennis Lindsey, himself a relative newcomer, said: “We’re glad to have him.”
They should have been.
Snyder’s stellar work has been apparent to anyone with eyes to see. But what he’s doing now, with this particular group of players, blows past everything he’s done before. The Jazz’s start after 40 games this year — 28-12 — surpassed every early record the club has had since the abbreviated 1998-99 season. Even the Finals teams in ’97 and ’98 fell short of this start.
It’s a thousand miles from where the Jazz were six years ago.
In his first season, Snyder guided a ragtag group that could not have won the Italian League to a rising 38-44 mark, confirmation that Lindsey was correct, the Jazz had hired the right guy for the right job.
The following year, as Lindsey continued on with his mantra that the Jazz wouldn’t skip steps, Snyder edged the thing upward to 40-42, with full intentions the following year of making the playoffs, which is exactly what the team did.
You saw what happened. The Jazz started slow, looking at times rather desperate, battling injuries and a difficult early schedule. And then, they blitzed through the back half of that season, finishing with a 51-31 record, storming into the postseason. They beat the Clippers in the first round, a major achievement, before falling to the Warriors.
What happened next, most Jazz fans have attempted to exorcise from their collective memory, centered on the loss of the team’s only All-Star, Gordon Hayward, who bolted for Boston, leaving the Jazz teetering on the edge of a competitive cliff, with all kinds of questions about the future tilting them toward a long, hard fall.
As they lurched, Donovan Mitchell was drafted, and it was left to Snyder to shepherd an outfit led by a rookie to new hope. It was found in a 48-34 record and another qualification for the playoffs, where the Jazz were ousted by Houston.
The next year, the Jazz improved to 50-32, having the misfortune of facing the Rockets again in the playoffs, suffering the same result. That’s when Lindsey came to the conclusion that the Jazz needed what Snyder had always wanted — more firepower on attack, more spacing, better perimeter shooting, even if it meant moving out valued pieces of the past.
This offseason, the Jazz added Mike Conley, Bojan Bogdanovic and Emmanuel Mudiay. Actually, half the roster was new, leaving Snyder with the ambitious-but-complicated task of melding the leftovers with the incoming.
After some early wobbles, he’s accomplished that.
The buy-in on this team has been impressive, with Snyder preaching his version of and vision for basketball at every turn: Play defense, hit the boards, get into transition, create space, move the ball, pop the open shot, repeat.
The Jazz have won 15 of 17 games. They are battling the Lakers and the Nuggets at the top of the Western Conference. And it’s not just the record and the winning. It’s the way the Jazz are achieving each. The defense, as usual, is anchored by Rudy Gobert, who has played of late some of the best basketball of his career. He is one of the 10 most dominant players in the NBA, maybe one of the five most. Everything in the Jazz resistance swirls around him, and everything in every opponents’ attack tries to avoid him.
While Snyder gets much of the credit for Gobert’s development, his assistants, such as Alex Jensen, deserve much praise here, too. Same with Mitchell — and assistants like Johnnie Bryant — who has transformed from a fresh young talent to a mature team leader, at the age of 23.
Development has been a key component to Snyder’s success since arriving in Utah, and that shouldn’t be a surprise, considering he honed that craft in previous stops along his varied coaching path.
“I realized I got something I love to do,” Snyder said 67 months ago. “To work hard and to learn.”
And to teach.
Another example of that has been Mudiay and his remarkable growth. The guard came to Utah, in part, because of Snyder’s reputation for matching reality with player potential. Mudiay had underachieved since his arrival in the NBA as a lottery pick, demonstrating athleticism that needed refinement. He’s finding it now, coming off the bench and contributing major minutes in a significant role.
The addition of Jordan Clarkson boosted the Jazz bench, but the improvement of Mudiay, Georges Niang and even Tony Bradley on Snyder’s watch has been important. Not to mention advancements of players such as Joe Ingles and Royce O’Neale, which are now taken with a shrug as givens. Even established talents — Bogdanovic — prosper more under steady, enlightened guidance.
And Snyder and the Jazz are doing all of this without the services of Conley, who, if he heals up, mixes in properly and follows suit, is bound to push the group forward and upward.
A word of caution: The Jazz are going to lose games coming up — like they did against the Pelicans in overtime on Thursday night — as the schedule stiffens and off nights happen. That’s the way it goes in the NBA.
Here’s the thing, though.
Each Jazz player knows his role and is filling it with … yeah, it sounds corny, but … joy. Watch the bench when the guys on the floor thrive, see the way the pieces interact, the way they share.
The Jazz are playing happy basketball, and while winning helps, it’s what Snyder has advocated from the beginning, back when losing, gloomy hoop, was all around, when he was first approaching his job with gratitude and humility and a commitment to make the Jazz a championship-caliber team.
Damned if it isn’t happening.
GORDON MONSON hosts “The Big Show” with Jake Scott weekdays from 3-7 p.m. on 97.5 FM and 1280 AM The Zone, which is owned by the parent company that owns the Utah Jazz.