There is no sugar-coating a 50-point loss.
Utah Jazz coach Will Hardy knows as much, which is why in the immediate aftermath of Wednesday’s 147-97 annihilation in Dallas, he candidly and now-infamously referred to the game as “a masterpiece of dogs---.”
After holding a noon practice Thursday at the Zions Bank Basketball Campus, Hardy jokingly lamented his word choice, albeit not because he was walking the sentiment back.
“I’ve got an English degree that I’m really putting to good use,” he quipped. “That was not my finest moment.”
First, he acknowledged the need for some perspective and patience.
He and players and media and fans need to keep in mind that Lauri Markkanen, Jordan Clarkson, and Kelly Olynyk each missed the game due to injury. That Walker Kessler is navigating the growing pains of having opponents gameplan for him. That Keyonte George is a 20-year-old playing point guard for the first time in his life, and doing it Wednesday not against G League competition, but across from Kyrie Irving. That this year’s team is not the same as last year’s, and expecting it to be is a fool’s errand. And that the Mavericks played an excellent game, sometimes doing exceptional things, rather than simply having all of it handed to them on a silver tray.
All the asterisks and caveats having been duly noted and addressed, Hardy touched on what the Jazz lacked in that game, and what they have lacked in general in the early going of a season that’s seen them drop to 1-10 in road games.
The biggest problem, he explained, both Wednesday specifically and overall this season, is that the Jazz are trying to establish new habits, and they’re simply not habitual yet.
“I don’t feel like I’m being blindsided by where our team is right now. Coming into the season, I felt like we were a team that had hit the reset button 15 months ago. We want to become a championship team. And with that comes some pain, with that comes some hard moments and some tough lessons, and some crashing the car a little bit to learn how to win at a high level,” Hardy said. “… We’re in a phase right now trying to get the baseline parts down and make those consistent before we can move to the next step.”
On Wednesday, the players did not begin the game with the requisite physicality and intensity, he explained. They allowed the Mavericks’ offense to move around too easily, to get into their sets without much resistance. And that’s all that the likes of Irving and Luka Doncic need to get rolling.
Even if the Jazz did ultimately adjust their level, the floodgates already had opened, and it was impossible to gain any ground back.
One of the most problematic areas he is trying to address is perhaps more difficult.
Coaches can teach players every scheme, every play in the world. But getting them to go against their nature is an uphill battle.
This has manifested itself in two primary ways.
The first is that there sometimes has been a leadership void, which is all the more apparent and amplified on a night when the likes of Markkanen, Clarkson, and Olynyk — all longtime veterans, respected presences on the court, and, frankly, primary cogs — are all missing from the game.
“We do have a lot of guys on our team who throughout their careers, especially in the NBA, have been role players, and hierarchy is a big part of any team dynamic — you know who’s going to set the tone,” Hardy said. “And I think there have been certain nights this year where it feels like we’re all sort of looking at each other waiting for somebody to step to the forefront and set the tone, instead of people taking that initiative themselves.”
The team dynamics are “fragile,” he added, because that sense of hierarchy matters, as does how everybody fits together.
There have been too many nights where people have been reluctant to take more on, afraid of overstepping, or concerned about upsetting the balance of the locker room.
That issue is exacerbated by the players’ other battle against their nature.
Throughout myriad losses this season, they have many times set the blame at the foot of poor communication, and quite often, they’re exactly right. So — it has been asked after the umpteenth time the players have used that reasoning — why don’t they simply start communicating more and better?
The roster is populated by introverts, and telling them to open their mouths and speak up on the court is frequently butting heads with ingrained tendencies to let someone else do the talking.
“These guys are human beings, and personalities do impact the ecosystem of the team. And I think when you do have a bunch of guys who are not used to being super-outspoken on the court together, it’s something that takes a lot of focus to say, ‘Hey, I have to use my voice more than is comfortable for me,’” Hardy said. “That’s stuff we’re working on every day at practice, because it’s not a quick fix. It’s not a quick fix on the court, just like it wouldn’t be a quick fix in your life if we asked you to change something about your personality.”
Which goes back to the issues of perspective and patience.
No matter what outside expectations or perceptions of the team are, the reality is this team has taken a step back in order to, at some point, take some big ones forward.
What they did last season is irrelevant. That team and its unique dynamics are gone. So those who are left are trying to do things a new way.
Sometimes they succeed. On Wednesday, they failed miserably.
The caoch believes it is within his players’ capability to not allow another outcome such as that.
“It’s always gonna be about our approach and how we do what we do. If we go into a game and we compete with maximum effort and we play with as much physicality as we can, and we try to play as a team offensively, and the other team makes more shots than we do, I can sleep at night,” Hardy said. “You guys know me — I’m extremely competitive, I hate to lose; but losing that way, to me, is as acceptable as it can get.”
Against the Mavericks, there was not maximum effort. There was not enough physicality. There was not enough playing offense collectively and cohesively.
And so, hours after flying back from Dallas to Salt Lake City, Hardy had the team back at ZBBC, going through the baseline parts again.
There was no yelling, no losing his cool, no big speech, no pithy, memeable phrases that make for funny T-shirts and disappointed English professors.
He made his point, the players took it in, and then they got to work in a practice that “was really competitive, a little bit chippy in a healthy way.
“… Our ultimate goal in Utah is to win a championship, and building the foundation, and building the habits, and building the core tenets of our program, what we want to represent, takes a lot of work and takes a lot of focus,” Hardy said. “And that doesn’t mean that there won’t be ugly games and ‘growing pains.’”