“Our guys are enthusiastic about who this team can be.”
— Quin Snyder
As a collection of players, the Utah Jazz were trying earlier this season — remember then? — to figure out their identity, to form into what they actually were, what they weren’t, and what they might become.
They never really did.
There were the negative signs, a skid that saw them lose six of eight games, another losing dive of four games, another of five. There were struggles against good opponents, often caused by defensive lapses, such as in a 25-point loss to the Lakers and a 20-point dud against the Raptors. There were the difficulties acclimation-wise, performance-wise and injury-wise for Mike Conley, one of the team’s big offseason acquisitions that had brought with him high expectations.
And the positive indicators, multiple winning streaks — of four and five and 10 games, periods when the Jazz came together at the offensive end in a way that made them one of the NBA’s most impressive attacks. And toward the end — the almost-apocalyptic end — just before the league’s stoppage on account of the coronavirus pandemic, when the Jazz settled into a rhythm, a pattern that brought five wins, including one on the road over the Celtics.
And then … nothing. Nothingness.
No basketball for nearly four months as the whole endeavor, the whole world struggled — let’s put that in the present tense, struggles — with COVID-19. But as the Jazz reassemble now for a restart, as everyone wonders how the gathering in Orlando will work out for all involved, alongside a massive move in more important matters than basketball, namely, loud cries for social justice, the coach who leads the Jazz, a man who has found himself immersed in concerns over family/team/community health and racial equality, turns his attention to finding the real Jazz.
With the Jazz coming together to train and organize in preparation for the league’s Great Disney Adventure: eight regular-season games — if there is such a thing as regular anymore — and the subsequent playoff run in a bubble, he’s of the opinion that his team will respond, that the substantial polling sample of what went on from October to March (a record of 41-23, fourth in the West) is not a complete summation of how the Jazz will respond now.
Even with the loss of Bojan Bogdanovic, recovering from wrist surgery, Snyder believes the Jazz are of a collective mindset to gather and go. He stayed apprised of what those players were doing during the stoppage, and is encouraged by both their understanding of what he wants them to do and their attitudes about doing it.
First, the bigger stuff.
“It seems like a long time ago that we were in Oklahoma, and then touched back down here in Salt Lake for our initial quarantine,” he says. “And then, at the same time, it doesn’t seem as long now that we’re playing again. More than anything, the events of the last few weeks have captivated everybody’s attention. There was a point when there was a lot of dialogue within our team about … ‘Are we gonna play? What’s the timeline?’ And in a lot of ways, that subsided with the focus on what’s going on in our country.”
For his part, Snyder sits on an NBA coaches’ committee that meets regularly, searching for ideas to address social and racial issues, and is eager to put into place plans and actions that will further the greater good.
He says the coaches are “sharing thoughts about our relationship and our responsibility as leaders of these players. How we can do our part, not just in supporting them, but on our own, with our own initiatives to formulate an impact.”
And while he has poured substantial attention into those causes, complimenting his players for their activity, as well as participating not just on the committee, but also with his family in a peaceful rally in Salt Lake City and in forming ideas for future advancement in education regarding racial equality and understanding, Snyder believes the energy that goes into those efforts can dovetail with basketball in rewarding ways.
“These two things intersect,” he says. “Basketball can become an accelerant for those things. It can be something that keeps the conversation going and frames it in ways that can be productive. There’s a synergy between the two. Our players feel that. There’s not as much a distraction as there is an opportunity.”
As for what is happening and what can happen on the court moving into late summer, as individual workouts have commenced and more organized team practices will begin soon, Snyder says, “The guys who come into the gym, there’s a bounce in their step.”
Because of the specific loss of Bogdanovic, and the general weird circumstances surrounding the league’s restart, Snyder says he and his assistants are concocting new approaches for their team.
“That’s something that requires a lot of thought, in terms of … What do we do differently to maximize the group that we have? Do you go so far as to reinvent the wheel and take guys out of comfort zones? Or can you put them in comfort zones? Sometimes you stay with what you do, sometimes it’s making an adjustment. That’s been a big part of our thought process as coaches.”
One example might be the role that Conley plays, how it will be enhanced to make up for the loss of Bogdanovic’s 20 points per game, how the point guard will handle, distribute and score the ball, what opportunities he will be given to do so. If Donovan Mitchell and Rudy Gobert are what they are, maybe even a bit better, it will be on Conley’s shoulders to give the Jazz that third star in a playoff run.
Despite the loss of Bogdanovic, Snyder says, “There’s a belief within our team — without any disrespect to Bojan — [that] our guys are enthusiastic about who this team can be. It sounds crazy in some respects. It’s not a new season, but there’s so many unknowns, everything from the obvious, without the fans, in the bubble, all the precautions, the strange nature of the preparation. But when you have a team that has an enthusiastic mindset, that can be a real positive. … Our guys are going to be confident. We’ll look different, there’s no question about it, but we’ve got some good players who really like playing with each other. They’re competitive, and they’re together. The hallmarks of our team are there. They’re excited to get out there and to compete.”
Snyder uses a racing analogy to describe what could come next.
Do they have the horsepower?
“We’re trying to figure out what track we’re running on,” he says. “It’s our job to figure that out. Figure out what the car looks like. We’ve got some really good pieces that have the potential to do some good things, and hopefully go fast enough to win a few games.”
GORDON MONSON hosts “The Big Show” with Jake Scott weekdays from 2-7 p.m. on 97.5 FM and 1280 AM The Zone.