The roars of last spring’s playoff crowds no longer echo throughout Vivint Arena. The buzz inside the home of the Utah Jazz is going to be different this year, to say the least.
No Donovan Mitchell, no Rudy Gobert. In all, 14 new players acquired in the past four months — and that’s not counting training camp contracts. A new head coach, new faces in the coaching staff.
And certainly, there are new expectations.
In years past, expectations were all about wins — wins in the regular season, ideally leading to wins in the playoffs.
“I think there’s some assumptions out there,” Jazz general manager Justin Zanik said Monday during the team’s media day. “Our veterans, they’re here, they’re in shape, they’re ready to play, they’re going to play. We’re going to try and win every single game from the jump.”
Of course, if they really were “tanking” for a better draft pick, they wouldn’t be so bold as to admit it in a news conference. But the Jazz do seem to have a sincere desire to reestablish a culture of hard work and team basketball that, frankly, was missing at times last season.
That’s new coach Will Hardy’s task to implement that culture.
“I want a team that competes. I want a team that cares about winning,” he said. “I understand that there are individual aspects to playing at this level, but I want people that are solely focused on winning basketball games for the Utah Jazz.”
Getting that done in the NBA can be a challenge, even for experienced coaches, even at the best of times. But this is a bit of a hodgepodge roster. It’s full of players that have been overlooked, either abandoned by their previous teams or not wanted by other teams enough to give up trade value. It’s a roster, in Zanik’s words, of guys who “have a chip on their shoulder,” of guys who “have something to prove.”
The only remaining starter from last year’s team, Mike Conley, acknowledged the difficulty of last season as well — and what he needs to show this year.
“I think last year, just a portion of the year, I didn’t play to my standard or what I felt my team needed from me. But I think [this year] is an opportunity to just go out and show what I’m still capable of doing,” he said.
Conley says he’s conflicted about the possibility of being traded. If he is moved, he says his family will likely stay in Salt Lake City for the season, so his wife and kids can have a full school year here with their friends. So a trade might mean a more competitive situation, but also means he’d be away from loved ones.
After trading Mitchell and Gobert, it seemed likely the Jazz would move on from many of their veteran players. Earlier this week, the team traded forward Bojan Bogdanovic to Detroit. New acquisitions Kelly Olynyk and Saben Lee were at Vivint Arena to take photos and videos with the team’s internal media Monday.
For the young players, this season is about establishing themselves in the NBA. Ochai Agbaji and Walker Kessler, first-round picks for other teams this year, will have spots in the rotation that they might not have expected in their rookie season. They’ll have to prove that their collegiate talents can translate.
Simone Fontecchio, a 26-year-old Italian rookie, was clear on his goals too. “I hope I can be here as long as I can. I want to prove I can be an NBA player.”
Meanwhile, the Jazz have three players in the last year of their first NBA contracts. Azubuike, Jared Butler and Nickeil Alexander-Walker have to fight for their right to stay in the NBA.
Take Azubuike, the only player on the team not yet cleared for 5-on-5 play as the result of ankle surgery he underwent last season. He was asked about this year’s importance individually to him, and he was pretty clear about how he felt about it:
“Oh, it’s big. Really big. I mean, I can’t put into words how big it is right now.”
The veterans, meanwhile, are focused on reestablishing their value in the league. Take Rudy Gay, whose value might be lowest on the team. He’s on the roster after a tumultuous season that saw him have significant disagreements with previous coach Quin Snyder, and his fall out of the rotation. Now, though, Gay wants more during the 2022-23 season.
“I came here to play. I want to play,” Gay said. “Imagine you [media] coming in here and not being able to ask questions ... that’s how I felt last year.”
With so many guys having goals for themselves, can the Jazz succeed? The players seem to know that it’s an uphill challenge, but it’s one that they’re willing to take on
“Guys individually want to have their own goals as well, and they want to use this as an opportunity to accomplish those individual goals,” new acquisition Jarred Vanderbilt said. “Having your individual goal is great, but as a unit, we just need to focus on competing.”
“It’s not an individual thing,” he said. “You can’t come in here with the mindset that it’s about you and only you. Nobody gets anything at the end of this at the end of the road if your whole team isn’t successful.”
For this Jazz team, success likely won’t come by last season’s measures — but by this season’s goal of competing, not winning? They’ve got a shot.