Will Hardy has done more work in less time than any NBA coach, ever.
It’s a bold claim, I know. But look: Hardy, believe it or not, had the highest winning percentage of any coach in NBA history at the start of this week. He’s pushed his new team, the Utah Jazz, to the upper echelon of the Western Conference in a matter of weeks — drastically above where they were expected to perform. It’s been just six weeks since training camp began, and that short time is even more impressive when you consider that, as the youngest head coach in the NBA, he’s perhaps less experienced at preparing such a schedule than any of his peers.
How is this possible, what Hardy has done so quickly? Heart-wrenching locker-room speeches? Herculean man-hours at the office? A hyperactive zeal for getting every detail right?
It might be just the opposite. Hardy’s brilliance is not necessarily in what he does with his time, but in what he allows others to do with it.
At the gym
There’s an undeniable looseness to Hardy’s practices.
As one practice last week began, and players start to file into the gym, Hardy was in one corner playing a game of keep away with an assistant coach. The meat of Hardy’s practices is filled with competition: more scrimmages, more 5-on-5 gameplay than most coaches use. And at the end of the time: shooting competitions, while a neon-light speaker blasts music for all to enjoy. Hardy himself has an ongoing free-throw battle going with two of his players, Simone Fontecchio and Leandro Bolmaro.
Hardy’s practice philosophy is about flexibility.
Rather than rigid practice times, he wants to change them up, keep players fresh and engaged during an 82-game season. Practice, he said before the season began, doesn’t always need to be 90 minutes long. Sometimes, 30 minutes might do.
And rather than rigid practice rules, Hardy’s been willing to change when circumstances dictate it. Take one story, as relayed by ESPN’s Tim MacMahon: When Hardy became head coach, he wanted to implement a “no jewelry” rule at practice. But then guard Jordan Clarkson unexpectedly showed up to training camp with new diamond grills on his teeth, there to stay. Rather than debating if that violated protocol, Hardy just decided it was easier to scrap the rule about jewelry entirely.
This go-with-the-flow mentality doesn’t mean that Hardy is a pushover. He’s working to build a culture of extremely hard work, and he certainly stops practice at times to make an expletive-laden point if he sees something that doesn’t fit that. But the small stuff — he doesn’t sweat it.
It was his experience as an assistant coach on Team USA that led him to that discovery.
“The worst thing that we can have as coaches is infinite time, because we can go all over the place and we can come up with 100 different things we can go over as a team,” Hardy told Jamison Christian on The Last Call podcast. “I think that experience challenged us every day, where we don’t have unlimited practice time before these games. It was fun to be in those coaches’ meetings and be part of the group trying to distill it all down to these are the 2-3 things that are most important.”
Their time was limited — so Hardy made the most of it.
The Utah Jazz have a pretty unique coaching staff.
Hardy’s at the helm, and brought a few familiar faces with him to Utah, like assistant coaches Evan Bradds and Sean Sheldon. But the bulk of Utah’s staff is filled with those who worked under Quin Snyder. All three of the Jazz’s front-row assistant coaches are holdovers from previous seasons: Alex Jensen, Lamar Skeeter and Bryan Bailey. Irv Roland still maintains an important role. Jeff Hornacek has probably spent more time with the Jazz than anyone: first as a player during their finals run in the 90s, then as an assistant coach under Ty Corbin, and now as a coaching consultant for the team.
It is extremely rare, if not unprecedented, for a newly-hired coach to retain so much of the team’s previous staff. Hardy hadn’t worked with those assistants before — but he had met them a few times, in the back hallways of NBA arenas, at summer league, at camps.
“The guys that stayed, so to speak, were guys that I knew,” Hardy said. “I had never worked with them, but I knew the people and we were really focused on trying to put together the best group of people that we could.”
Perhaps no one other than Hardy would have turned those short meetings into working, quality relationships so fast. Warriors coach Steve Kerr said that, even over the course of a few weeks at the Olympics and Tokyo, that Hardy and the rest of the team’s coaches had developed a lifetime bond.
“It takes pretty special people to build those kinds of relationships so quickly,” Kerr said.
That’s a skill Hardy’s been able to develop with his players in a short period of time, too. Collin Sexton’s been unexpectedly asked to come off the bench this season, but still supports Hardy. Why?
“His energy and just how much he believes in all of us. He has a chip on his shoulder as well, in his first year, so we’re going to go in and play pretty hard for him each and every night,” Sexton said. “When you have a coach who is willing to fight for you, you’re going to fight for him.”
“As coaches, sometimes we can get caught up in the technical, tactical side of the game,” Hardy said. “But at the end of the day, our role as a head coach is managing the players and the staff as human beings first.”
On the court
Perhaps Hardy’s most critical relationship this season has been with his starting point guard, Mike Conley. The pair are about the same age (Conley’s three months older, to be precise), but all of the pre-season conversation was about how old Conley was, and how young Hardy is. So Hardy started an ongoing joke with Conley about who was experiencing more back pain each day.
Developing this relationship has paid dividends in managing the most important clock for any basketball coach: the one on the floor.
“We only have 24 seconds. So to stop, and I call a play, then he has to tell everybody else — we’re just wasting time,” Hardy said. Instead, “We have a conversation between the two of us about a couple of different things that we like and the reasons we like them. Then he has the freedom to make those calls as he’s going.”
The Jazz make the absolute most of the 24-second clock. They push the ball quickly up the floor in transition, looking for early offense. If it’s not there, they reset quickly, and play a 5-out system built around motion and spacing. They run less pick and roll than most other teams, and instead set a lot of off-ball screens for one another. You’ll see a Jazz big man — Lauri Markkanen, Kelly Olynyk or Jarred Vanderbilt — have one, two, three players zoom by for hand-off options. It’s beautiful to watch.
The idea is simple. By fitting as much as possible into those 24 seconds, the Jazz give themselves more opportunities for easy baskets. Without a superstar-level player who can take the game over, they need to rely on each other to create good looks at the hoop. They do.
Perhaps that’s been the case because Hardy’s been flexible in yet another way: who’s on the court. In their close games this season, the Jazz have changed up their finishing five repeatedly, with eight different players and configurations out there. The Jazz’s starting lineup has played for only a total of 100 minutes all season long, the second-most commonly played lineup has only played 22 minutes.
“He has a very good feel for the game, what the game is dictating and who needs to be on the floor and how much and when,” Olynyk, one player who has both in and out of Hardy’s late-game lineups, said. “Letting people play through some things and then changing it up when we need a change.”
Remarkably, the Jazz’s offense even stays fluid at the end of games. Clutch minutes are so often dribbling slogs, where one player will isolate, or force a switch and then attack. These Jazz, though, are passing the ball around quickly even at the end of contests — and their 5-1 record in close games at the start of this week shows how successful that strategy has been.
It’s just yet another way that the Jazz aren’t adhering to the schedule. Expected to be too young, too inexperienced, too discontinuous to make any waves in the NBA, the Jazz instead have shocked the league by arriving early.
To be sure, the majority of the season remains. An 82-game schedule will bring its hardships. At some point, adversity will hit this team harder than it has to this point.
Yes, there’s still a lot of time left in this season. But Hardy appears to be just the man to manage it.
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