On Monday night, following the Utah Jazz’s 139-116 decimation of the visiting Lakers, Mike Conley was asked in the locker room if their shockingly successful 9-3 start had altered the team’s internal expectations about this season.
Talen Horton-Tucker, eavesdropping from the next locker over as he got dressed, reacted viscerally, scrunching up his face as though his personal character had just been insidiously maligned, and then vigorously shaking his head side to side to indicate the negative.
Conley, seeing his teammate out of his peripheral vision — something of a constant these days — let a wry smile creep over his face, then answered, succinctly and definitively.
“The expectations were always to win,” he said. “So there’s been no changing that.”
And so it is that a team forecasted by most outsiders to be bad enough to contend for the draft rights to generational talent Victor Wembanyama is, instead, in first place in the Western Conference.
It’s fact worth repeating and emphasizing: first place in the Western Conference.
Yes, there remains an awfully long way to go, but that has to mean something, right?
“I didn’t know that. I really haven’t thought about that type of stuff this early in the season,” said first-year head coach Will Hardy. “All of us in the room have been around the NBA long enough to know that that doesn’t mean anything yet.”
OK, fair enough — nobody on the Jazz is going on a celebratory bender because they have the best record in their conference with 70 regular-season games yet to play.
And yet, the sheer juxtaposition of external presumption vs. unfurled reality is stark enough to be noteworthy. Even to the players who say they believed in themselves when no one else did.
“Everybody had expectations for us — but we had expectations for ourselves. Our expectations outweigh anybody’s, any day of the week,” said Collin Sexton. “You can just tell how much of a chip on our shoulder we’re all playing with.”
“I mean, I feel like we’ve got to give ourselves the flowers at some point,” added Horton-Tucker. “But we’re not going to be happy with this.”
They are happy, though. That, it turns out, is one of the driving forces behind the early and surprising (at least to others) success of this squad.
Rudy Gay, who signed as a highly-regarded free agent a year ago, only to endure a miserable campaign that saw him exiled from then-coach Quin Snyder’s rotation midway through the season, was asked early on in the 2022-23 schedule what his goal was, and his answer was revealing.
“Get the joy back from playing basketball and just try to have fun,” he said.
Fun has been a common refrain among this particular group of players.
“The vibes are great,” said rookie center Walker Kessler. “Everyone’s having a good time, playing loose, playing free. Coach is doing a good job letting us play. And here we are with our record.”
“As long as we continue to string [wins] together, everybody’s happy. It feels good to win no matter who gets the credit,” added Sexton. “… That’s the feeling that Coach [instilled, which] brought us together in training camp. He just wanted us to play, he didn’t want to put any of us in a box — you can tell how much freedom he’s giving us. He’s just allowing us to be ourselves.”
“Guys are just meshed, guys like each other — which is half the battle in the NBA,” concluded Kelly Olynyk. “[We’re] just coming together and having fun — playing the game, playing together, playing unselfish, having each other’s backs on both ends of the floor.”
What a difference a year makes.
Last season’s team was expected to contend for a championship, but never really got rolling, as their chemistry unraveled.
“I think we should be looking closer [at] competing for a championship than the other way [at tanking],” said Conley.
That remains to be seen.
But this is nothing if not a team of true believers.
And some of them believed very, very early, with Horton-Tucker boasting on Monday night, “Pretty much after the second or third day of camp, we kind of knew we’re not going to be bad.”
No one else was going quite that far, or at least admitting so to a group of reporters.
Olynyk reminded everyone that on Day 1, “No one knew anyone,” and so chemistry and cohesion and learning how to complement one another’s games has been an ongoing process.
Conley echoed that sentiment, noting that at one point the Jazz were effectively “14 guys who’d never played together before,” but that he’s been pleased by how quickly the group has jelled, while conceding that even they are admittedly surprised by how quickly they’ve coalesced into a symbiotic unit.
Jordan Clarkson said it was in the team’s preseason slate that he first started to have an inkling that this team might be good. He never doubted their ability to score, believing there were simply too many guys with a talent for putting the ball in the hoop for that to be an issue. But he had doubts about their ability to stop opponents from doing the same, now that they no longer possessed their rim-protecting security blanket, and would be shifting towards a more amorphous, switching, long-limbed, haranguing, chaotic, turnover-generating system.
And once he saw them pull that off in stretches, he had the thought: “Man, we can really do this.”
The key to maintaining their happiness and good vibes — and their on-court success — Clarkson added, is pretty straightforward: Carry out the tenets that Hardy has emphasized — move the ball, make the extra pass, shoot when you’re open; that way, everybody has the opportunity to make plays.
The point guard, asked about surprisingly being first in the West, emphasized that if they continue to prioritize the process, they can live with whatever the results happen to be.
“Obviously we know what our record is, but that’s not the end-all, be-all,” said Conley. “It’s about how we play and play together throughout a game, and just taking those moments to get better. And if we win, we win, if we don’t, we don’t, but we’re going to give everything we’ve got every game.”
Hardy has seen them do just that.
And so it is that even a head coach predisposed to never being fully satisfied can nevertheless express some appreciation for what his group has done.
“There’s a lot of things that we can get better at,” he said. “But I am very proud of our team to be in the position that we’re in at this stage of the season.”