Not so long ago, after a Jazz win, Rudy Gobert gave away the team’s blueprint for the future. If we’d paid closer attention to his words, we might have known all along who Utah was going to draft with its first-round pick on Thursday night.
“We just tried to come out with toughness and attitude,” he said. “We really wanted to win this game.”
Toughness and attitude. The Jazz have redefined their own version of T&A, and they’ve seen a connection to winning.
From the No. 21 slot in the draft, that’s what they got more of in Grayson Allen, maybe to the point where their cup runneth over. If there was a player on the board from beginning to end with more attitude than Allen, nobody could think of who it would have been.
Jazz general manager Dennis Lindsey said that was no coincidence: “We’re certainly not playing patty-cake or a nice friendly game of CandyLand. It’s competition, and you need certain guys who are calm and other guys who are proactive and can agitate, and can fight and stand their ground.”
You know Allen’s backstory. In his years at Duke, he led the country in irritation. He made annoying opponents an art form. He did everything but put his fingers in his mouth and stick his tongue out at them.
And you know the Jazz’s. Historically, they’ve been physical. But in recent years, they’ve led the league in … nice.
Three years ago, in an NBA Schadenfreude ranking, compiled by a Sports Illustrated writer, the Jazz were listed as the most likable team in the league, “with no rough edges to irritate” and with “no dominant style about which to turn up your nose, no offensive personalities at whom to seethe.”
That was when Dante Exum was a huggable pup, when Derrick Favors was more amiable than angry, when Joe Ingles was happy-go-lucky, pleased to be in the league, back when the Jazz did more losing than winning. We know where nice guys finish, at least according to Leo Durocher. Actually, he said they finish in seventh place, but that’s a technicality.
Good news: Now the Jazz have plenty of offensive personalities at whom to seethe.
Lindsey has transformed his troop of Boy Scouts into a team worthy of other people’s hate. It’s enough to make him proud. Some of it has come from internal growth, some from additions, but, no question, the Jazz’s Era of Rough Edges To Irritate has arrived.
The first hints of it came in EuroBasket 2015, when Gobert got into a Twitter battle with none other than Ricky Rubio, when Gobert played on France’s national team and Rubio on Spain’s. When the Spanish beat the French in a semifinal game, Gobert tweeted out complaints about the refereeing. And Rubio countered with this: “No class act.” Gobert fired back that he would “not forget this day.”
Next thing, the Jazz acquired Rubio to bolster their new personality. And it blossomed from there.
Gobert has done nothing but get more proud, more cavalier, more animated. He’s one of those rare NBA players who couldn’t care less what other NBA players think of him. He’ll block their shots and bump them off screens, illegal if they must be, all night long and never worry about hurt feelings.
Rubio might be mostly sweet-faced off the court, but on it? He’s a complete nuisance, or as Lindsey called him, “a stone-cold competitor.” There’s a reason opposing teams go out of their way to rough him up, to toss him around, to knock him to the floor.
Jae Crowder, traded for this past season, would as soon elbow an opponent’s nose into his face and out the back of his head as dust the net with a 3-pointer.
As Ingles has transformed himself into an NBA threat, he’s also altered himself from a funny mate with whom you’d like to sit down and share a cold beverage into a real competitive pain down-under. Ask Paul George and Chris Paul about that.
If there are areas — and there are — where Donovan Mitchell can improve, one of them will have to be in this same regard. He’ll have to quit being so likable to opponents. He must go straight Killer Kobe on the court.
Add Allen into that mix and … well, there are going to be moments when opponents will lose their ever-loving minds, when opposing crowds will boo their lungs out, when the Jazz no longer will land atop anyone’s most congenial list.
“In the last 12 months, it’s been very conscious in almost every conversation we’ve had that a tough, competitive DNA fits the organization,” said Lindsey. He pointed to the Stockton-Malone years as a primary example, and noted a couple of seasons ago that his team was lacking in that manner and needed to improve.
“We were No. 2 defensively,” he said. “But I didn’t think we were the toughest team. Quin [Snyder] concurred, so it has been a conscious [effort].”
Lindsey even came up with an abbreviated team moniker for the directive: “JPN” — Jazz. Physical. Nature. It definitely played a role in Thursday night’s draft decision.
“Grayson has some of those characteristics,” Lindsey said. “He shouldn’t apologize for it. We shouldn’t shy away from what he’s done in the past, but we’ll see where it takes us. Not only does his competitive DNA, toughness and physicality fit, but his skillset and his mindset.”
It’s bigger than just the team’s collective personality, though. Winning, not antics, is what will stir the anger/animosity more than anything. And the more outsiders dislike these guys, the more their pesty personality shines through, the more Jazz fans will adore them.
The thin line between love and hate in sports is the color of the jersey a player/team wears.
Tough winning is what the Jazz want.
“It’s something that fits our community,” Lindsey said. “It fits our organization.”
GORDON MONSON hosts “The Big Show” weekdays from 3-7 p.m. on 97.5 FM and 1280 AM The Zone.