The newly remodeled Zions Bank Basketball Campus is a state-of-the-art facility, with everything from video games in the players lounge to an underwater treadmill for hydrotherapy. But it’s a table in a conference room that Utah Jazz head coach Quin Snyder sees as the metaphor for the progress of the last four years.
When Snyder was hired here in 2014, he had never before been an NBA head coach. The coaches that were assembled had little NBA experience on their resumes. So Snyder went to work teaching. He held coaches meetings in the theater where the team watched game film. The meetings were intense, sometimes tedious, often long. They reminded Snyder of his time in law school.
“You were going to get called on and the professor was just going to come at you and challenge you,” Snyder says. “I challenged them.”
Coaches sat scattered throughout the auditorium. If someone in the back wanted to say something, he had to shout and the men in front craned their necks. If a coach on the front row had a thought, the ones in the back strained to hear.
Only later did Snyder realize the disconnect it could cause. That’s why the coach likes his new table. Now everyone on his coaching staff — once a group of mostly strangers with relatively little NBA experience — sees eye to eye.
“It’s metaphoric,” he says. “They talk to each other far more now. They share more ideas. We’ve all grasped what we’re doing on a deeper level and there’s just more comfort and confidence. As a result, we’re all making each other better.”
There were so many things that went wrong for the Jazz over the past year. Their All-Star forward said thanks but no thanks and left town. Their All-NBA center missed more than a quarter of the season with injury. There was roster turnover, and then more roster turnover. And yet, they have survived, surging into the playoffs, one of the league’s hottest teams.
How did they pull it off?
Just this week, Snyder was named the NBA’s Coach of the Month for the Western Conference. In short time, he might win the league’s Coach of the Year award. If he does, Snyder would credit his assistants — a constant and steadying force amid the chaos and uncertainty of the season.
“It’s the best staff I’ve ever been a part of,” he said. “I can say that with confidence.”
But, in the beginning, that was not a guarantee.
The makeup of the staff, and the way it was assembled four years ago, was atypical. Assistant Mike Wells, who started his NBA career with Houston in 1995, had never been a part of a greener staff. Meanwhile, Snyder didn’t know assistants Johnnie Bryant or Alex Jensen, holdovers from the previous Jazz staff. He had relationships with Wells and Antonio Lang, but had never worked extensively with them. His longest working relationship had been with his video coordinator, Lamar Skeeter, who Snyder had brought with him from Atlanta.
“I’m sure there were plenty of days when they were like, ‘This guy’s crazy,’” Snyder said.
The new head coach, though, was confident in his ability to build a program.
He came up with something he calls “the Four Ts”. Three of them were teamwork, toughness and dedication to training. The fourth — and most important ‘T’ — his staff already possessed.
“We had talent. You don’t know that right away. But just like you learn about a team, you learn about a coaching staff,” Snyder said.
The new head coach went about setting the tone early.
He made his assistants share offices and work undefined roles so they had to learn each other’s jobs and push their own comfort zones. Bryant taught Lang how to break down film. And after three days of watching him carry a book bag with him everywhere he went, Bryant finally told Lang where the coaches’ locker room was located.
Lang met Snyder when he was 17 and visiting Duke. When Lang was done playing professionally and coaching in Japan, he would sometimes send video to his friend and ask for input. But after 13 years away from the NBA, Lang was thrown into the fire when Snyder brought him on board. He was late — by seconds, he says — for one of his first meetings.
“I didn’t even know I was late, but he let me know in front of everybody. I got baptized early,” Lang says. “He’s different as my boss. He’s not Q anymore, he’s Coach.”
Snyder assigned all his assistants a mock scouting assignment to prepare them for how he wanted his reports. Jensen studied the French team. Bryant had Serbia. Lang scouted the Slovenians.
“I had a lot of red marks on that first scout,” Lang says.
On game days, Snyder’s staff meets at 8:45 a.m. to go over their plan for shootaround. When players arrive at 10 a.m., they implement the game plan and work on individual skills. After a midday break, everyone is at the arena by 4 p.m.
For Lamar Skeeter, the early work days often lasted long after the final buzzer sounded. Of all the coaches on the first staff, Skeeter had worked closest with Snyder in the past, and Snyder relied on him for advice and support. After the Jazz’s plane would land in a city ahead of a game, Skeeter would grab some burgers and stay with Snyder breaking down film until 4 or 5 a.m. Then they’d be up by 8 to do it all again.
“There was not a lot of sleep,” Skeeter said.
Over time, Snyder has grown closer with his assistants and added some of his own hires. The Jazz hired Jeff Watkinson, whom Snyder worked with at Missouri, to integrate training and player development programs. Snyder had known Igor Kokoskov since the ’90s, when Kokosvkov was on a U.S. tour, studying coaches. He came to Duke, met Snyder, and lived with him for a month. This season, Kokoskov has helped Ricky Rubio put together his best NBA campaign, and put himself in the conversation for head coaching vacancies this summer.
Zach Guthrie was a 19-year-old student at the University of Texas when he reached out to the D-League Austin Toros and asked if they could use his help. The intern’s duties included taking notes, driving Snyder to San Antonio to watch workouts, and anything else that was needed. When Guthrie was fired from the Magic in 2014, Snyder offered him a job in Utah. Guthrie now works one-on-one with Joe Ingles, and has helped turn the Aussie into one of the Jazz’s top scoring threats, and one of the NBA’s top 3-point shooters this season.
Snyder is caffeinated, demanding, tireless, unyielding. Often, he comes up with an idea and shares it with his coaches no matter the time.
During his first season with the Jazz, Lang slept with his phone by his side in case he got a message in the middle of the night.
“That never goes away,” Guthrie said. “On the iPhone, if a text is too long, there’s a feature where you press a button and it takes you to a different screen. I did not know that existed until Quin.”
Alex Jensen sees similarities between his current boss and his old one, the late Rick Majerus.
“They way they see the game,” Jensen said. “Most of us see in 2-D. Some get to 3-D. They’re, like, in 4-D.”
So the key for an assistant is to bring their own perspective while trying to see things through their boss’ eyes. Over time, that has become more natural.
“It’s the same as a player,” Watkinson says. “You get to where you have that familiarity with what he’s wanting or what he envisions.”
Bryant remembers so many times in his first year with Snyder clipping a play he thought would perfectly illustrate a pick-and-roll coverage only to have the coach find something wrong with it. Now on a plane, laptops open, nine coaches breaking down film. Bryant will show a play to Lang. The next morning, Snyder will mention the play in the meeting.
But at some of the lowest points of the season, there were moments when even the fiery Snyder struggled.
There were turning points in the Jazz’s season. An overtime win in Detroit. A game-winning 3-pointer in Toronto. But sometimes, those moments were quieter, like the soft buzz of a cellphone in the middle of the night.
“Like in any business, in any leadership position, it can be lonely at times. And the level of support that they’re able to give me … is beyond appreciation,” Snyder says. “We wouldn’t have been able to endure the middle part of this season had I not got a late-night text every now and then when somebody felt like I needed encouragement.”
That’s the job of an NBA assistant coach: To see, anticipate, do, to sacrifice.
“My dad used to call it a servant’s heart,” Snyder said. “He thought that was the most important thing about coaching.”
Mike Wells knelt in front of the whiteboard in the Jazz locker room, writing in block letters the keys to attacking and defending the Golden State Warriors. A few years ago, the task would have taken twice as long, Wells said.
Now, often a single word can often suffice. Someone shouts “Hawk” and players know to hawk the ball, getting into the ball handler and tracing the ball with their hands. They know “Nashing” means to search-dribble along the baseline. They know the “Gaucho” is the bottom weak-side defender.
“Rudy Gobert speaks French, he speaks English and he speaks Utah Jazz,” Wells says.
On the court, 90 minutes before tipoff, there are bodies and basketballs everywhere. Not one is out of place. Chaos organized. Skeeter sits on the bench with Dante Exum, poring over game film. At the same time, 7-foot assistant coach DeSagana Diop feeds pass after pass to Epke Udoh in the paint, who tries to get the right arc on his 5-foot floater, and Watkinson waits for Alec Burks to come off a ball boy’s screen, looking for a pass and a shot of his own. At half court, Bryant watches, crouched and critical, as Donovan Mitchell pounds a pair of basketballs against the hardwood, low and tight, the way he might need to later to slip through defenders for a bucket.
They do this same dance, with the same steps, every night.
“Now it looks smooth,” says Kokoskov, the Jazz’s lead assistant. “But it was a lot of work to establish [this]. It is like a rolling stone, a big stone you have to move. The first steps require so much energy. At this point, it just requires a little push.
“All these wins, prove Q was pushing us in the right direction.”