With the Jazz struggling, how will Will Hardy work to turn the team around?

Tough times call for brutal honesty, vehement accountability.

(Trent Nelson | The Salt Lake Tribune) Will Hardy as the Utah Jazz host the LA Clippers, NBA basketball in Salt Lake City on Friday, Oct. 27, 2023.

Will Hardy has a lot to consider.

The second-year Utah Jazz coach has plays to design, a changing roster, practices to plan, rotations to set, a coaching staff to manage, and games to direct. Especially after a 2-6 start, Hardy’s days are filled with one challenge after another.

It’s simple: no matter how much experience a coach has, there’s nothing that compares to getting a first NBA head gig. Working with Gregg Popovich doesn’t make a cross-country move easier on a young family. Coaching the world’s best with Team USA basketball doesn’t make managing a staff of dozens any less daunting. What does is time.

As the Jazz have began this season, Hardy has been open about sharing more of his coaching philosophy in recent months, both in interviews with The Tribune and in a revealing appearance on the coach-oriented Slappin’ Glass podcast. As a result, we have a good idea of how he will tackle this early Jazz start and try to turn it around. Here’s what’s going on in his mind in various parts of the day.

At practice and shootarounds

Even when Hardy was young, he was known for his “emotional intelligence.” Put simply, Hardy’s best trait as a boss is managing relationships with a wide variety of people — players, assistant coaches, team management, fans, sponsors, you name it.

Last season, he might have approached turbulent times differently — some of his natural tone of voice had to be tempered as he simply learned everyone’s names, who they are, and how they prefer to be interacted with. Now, though, most of the Jazz’s most important players have known Hardy for a year or more, and that means more of an opportunity for the coach to be himself.

(Francisco Kjolseth | The Salt Lake Tribune) Utah Jazz coach Will Hardy talks with John Collins during an NBA Summer League basketball game against the 76ers on Wednesday, July 5, 2023, at the Delta Center in Salt Lake City. At right is former Jazz playerJeff Hornacek.

“I think they all know now that I’m a very sarcastic person,” Hardy said. “And so there are times that I’m just joking with them to try to lighten the mood. Where last year early on if I had been that way they may have taken a lot of things I said seriously.”

But it also shows itself when the team needs a more serious intervention, especially with a rough product on the court.

“If you don’t have the foundation of a relationship, it’s hard to give people that really, really brutal honesty at times because you don’t know where it’s coming from. You don’t know what their intentions are,” Hardy said.

There’s needed to be a lot of that honesty recently, though players say it’s been coming since training camp. “Once you get comfortable with somebody, you can talk about different things and how we approach practice and what we need to do,” star forward Lauri Markkanen said. “I think it’s been more open.”

“We’ve been going a little bit harder in practice this year, trying to take that next step as a team,” Markkanen continued. “I think he’s been doing a great job of pushing us and kind of being a little bit even more demanding.”

Hardy has also been treating his game-day shootarounds much more like practices this week, knowing how much work the Jazz have to do in order to put a cohesive product on the floor.

Planning for the game

Before every game, Hardy and his coaches meet to discuss a game plan and how they’re going to prepare their players.

It’s not necessarily a conflict-free zone.

“I don’t think I have assistant coaches. I really feel like I’ve employed like eight lawyers,” Hardy said. “They’re just constantly building cases that they’re trying to come in and basically put myself and our team on trial every day, which is great because it keeps me sharp and it keeps me honest with myself about what I actually think.”

(Rick Egan | The Salt Lake Tribune) Utah Jazz head coach Will Hardy discusses the upcoming season, during a news conference on Friday, Sept. 29, 2023.

It’s a difficult process because Hardy feels that prioritization is important. In today’s NBA, there’s a veritable cornucopia of information available. Jazz advance scouts identify and diagram out the team’s opposing playcalls. Statistical databases reveal opposing player strengths and weaknesses. Every minute, every second of every game is scrutinized.

But players can’t remember all of that, so the coaching staff — especially Hardy — has to pick and choose what they’re going to present. Different coaches may want to prioritize different things, but the Jazz have to collaborate on choosing the most important things.

“We try to get to the point with the film. ... The guys can’t retain the 13 keys to win this game,” Hardy said. “The first two better be the ones you really care about, because no human being can retain all of that.”

“If we walk through nine of the other team’s plays ... well, raise your hand if you know nine of our plays,” Hardy said. “I would rather hold them accountable, vehemently accountable, to two things than be just kicking and screaming about 10 things — and they don’t even know what really matters to me anymore.”

Internally, the coaching staff can handle more detail — and they’re finding no shortage of problems right now. But Hardy wants to prioritize specific things where he can have the greatest impact on a game.

In the game

Then, it comes time to apply that work to a game with 18,000 fans watching live, with hundreds of thousands more around the world. Hardy “blacks out,” he says, while pacing on the sidelines, thinking about what’s going on while ignoring the noise of the crowd around him.

At the end of the day, Hardy knows that the Jazz’s success or failure has more to do with the players on the court than his direction. “In one of our games there could be five things, 10 things, 15 things that happen, maybe because I told them to do that,” Hardy said this preseason. “There are also 100 things that happen that they did on their own, that I had nothing to do with.”

The best time to make an impact with coaching decisions comes at the end of the game. Hardy says there are two kinds of coaches: “You’re either going into it with the mindset of: I’m going to make them adjust to us; or I’m looking at what they have and I’m trying to adjust,” Hardy says.

Former Jazz head coach Quin Snyder was usually the former: The Jazz stayed big when other teams went small; they typically played drop-big defense even when the opposing team had a pull-up midrange threat.

Hardy’s different. “I’m a counter-puncher, I’m trying to adjust best to what they’re doing,” he said. He noted how the Jazz have played a switching man defense, a drop-big defense, a trapping defense, and a zone defense at the end of various Jazz games last season, depending on the lineups the Jazz and their opponents had on the floor.

This season, though, the Jazz haven’t even usually had a chance to get to a close game late. Utah has only had two close games this season, and while they’ve won one and lost the other, the loss came after a significant comeback in clutch time.

Utah Jazz coach Will Hardy watches during the first half of the team's preseason NBA basketball game against the Los Angeles Clippers, Tuesday, Oct. 10, 2023, in Seattle. (AP Photo/Lindsey Wasson)

In order to get to more, he’ll need better play throughout the first 42 minutes of a game. And during those times, what’s his first thought?

It’s about how his team’s offense is running. Hardy thinks offense is the primary currency of the NBA game.

“My first thought is about offense. Offense, to me, is the lifeblood of the team, whether we like it or not,” Hardy said. “Most guys’ brains think about offense first, and if they feel comfortable and they feel good on the offensive end, they’re more likely to give better effort defensively. If the offense is clunky and it doesn’t quite make sense and we’re not getting any good shots, it’s hard to dig in and just get like five stops in a row.”

So Hardy asks himself: “How is our flow offensively? Is this group vibing right now?”

If it’s good, Hardy keeps it rolling. While he typically stays to a planned substitution rotation in the first half, in the second half, Hardy is much more flexible about who plays and who sits, and when. In the team’s early-season game against the Denver Nuggets, for example, Hardy played his starting lineup together for an 8.5-minute stint as they made a comeback, an eternity in NBA time.

That’s been rare in the early stages of this season, though. The more difficult questions come when the offense isn’t rolling.

“Is this something we need to change what I’m calling? Or do we need to change the group? It could be one or the other,” Hardy said. “It’s not always ‘oh, this group stinks, let’s sub these guys out,’ Hardy expanded. “Before I just start subbing people out and quote-unquote blaming them, is it because I need to call something different first? So that’s honestly the internal dialogue I’m having the whole game: Is it them? Or is it me?”

And it’s going to take them, and him, to turn this season around.

“This is no one person’s fault. I told the team this is not their fault. This is all of us. This is me. This is our staff. This is them,” Hardy said. “Everybody has to be willing to take something and put it in the middle and say like hey, ‘I’m willing to give this up.’”

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