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Andy Larsen: Mike Conley and Rudy Gobert have advanced further than they ever did in Utah — and Jazz fans are happy for them

The Minnesota Timberwolves have made it further than the Utah Jazz have in decades. How are Jazz fans feeling?

Minnesota Timberwolves center Rudy Gobert (27) and Minnesota Timberwolves guard Mike Conley (10) in the second half of Game 1 of an NBA basketball second-round playoff series Saturday, May 4, 2024, in Denver. (AP Photo/David Zalubowski)

Rudy Gobert was beaming on Sunday night. Mike Conley, too.

Were Utah Jazz fans?

The Minnesota Timberwolves stunned the defending champion Denver Nuggets, completing a comeback from a 20-point deficit to move on to the NBA’s Final Four. Jazz fans had their eyes glued to their TV sets — I knew of multiple watch parties here in Utah for a game that didn’t involve the local team. It makes sense. Those guys were your guys.

Now Conley and Gobert are in the Western Conference Finals, deeper into the playoffs than they ever got in Utah.

It’s enough for any fan to feel a range of emotions. Jealousy. Anger. Even betrayal. All would be common in the dramatic world of sports fandom.

But do you know what Jazz fans told me they’re feeling most? Happiness.

I received hundreds of responses on Twitter when I asked the fan base about the Wolves’ win on Sunday night, and by far, the most common sense of one of shared joy.

Shared joy with Minnesota, which has waited 20 years to return to the conference finals since the Kevin Garnett era. Shared joy with the Stifle Tower, who has taken more undeserved hate in his 10 NBA seasons than any other player. Shared joy with Mountain Mike, the two-time NBA Teammate of the Year winner, who endeared himself with the community in Utah more quickly than any player since.

There’s a word for what Jazz fans are feeling: “freudenfreude.” The opposite of schadenfreude, freudenfreude is the German word that means “the bliss we feel when someone else succeeds, even if it doesn’t directly involve us.” To be sure, it’s schadenfreude that gets all the pub, but freudenfreude is by far the healthier alternative.

It’s actually a little bit remarkable that Jazz fans are responding this way. According to the research presented in The New York Times, schadenfreude and jealousy are most common when the aggrieved party is depressed. And believe me, some Jazz fans are down bad right now — in the fan base, there’s massive disillusion about the team’s 8th-worst finish in the NBA, the team slipping to 10th in the lottery, and just an overall pessimism about the rebuild with no end in sight.

One potential reason Jazz fans are staying friendly anyway: a kinship with the Wolves, a fellow title-less club making do in a small-market wintery town. Since the inception of its club 35 years ago, Minnesota has made the second round just twice; the Jazz have done it 14 times in that period.

In order to swap places from those historical norms, the Wolves have worked for years to amass an enviable amount of talent.

The team’s best offensive players are No. 1 overall picks — Anthony Edwards and Karl-Anthony Towns — the result of 19-win and 16-win seasons, respectively. The team had a third No. 1 pick in this era, Andrew Wiggins, who was eventually traded for DeAngelo Russell, who then was swapped for Mike Conley (and the Swiss Army Knife that is Nickeil Alexander-Walker, another former Jazzman).

(Trent Nelson | The Salt Lake Tribune) Guard Mike Conley (10) and center Rudy Gobert (27) as the Utah Jazz host the Brooklyn Nets, NBA basketball in Salt Lake City on Wednesday, March 24, 2021.

Then, the Wolves sent every future draft pick possible in exchange for Gobert — a much-criticized trade for Minnesota at the time that has since paid dividends.

It’s a nearly impossible path to follow. An inadvisable one, too. The Wolves are living off the NBA’s lottery-pick generosity for a decade of past futility and the further mortgaging of a future decade. Utah’s front office, would, and should, like to avoid both. There are no lessons learned here to copy.

But while Minnesota is here and Utah isn’t, there’s a sense that the team up north deserves this moment more. By now, Jazz fans recognize the flaws that the late-era Quin Snyder teams possessed: a complete lack of perimeter defense, a too-rigid coaching staff, limited-to-no depth, and a star player who was talismanic on the offensive end and melancholic on the other. Minnesota’s sacrifices have seen them fix these flaws wholesale — they’re the team with competitive spirit and all-around talent across the roster in a way the Jazz never were.

Conley and Gobert are the beneficiaries here, finally getting the team that they, and their fans, always wanted. Yes, it’s a shame that it’s not happening in Utah, but Minnesota’s team is so far superior that it’s a stark reminder of just how far away the Jazz were then, let alone now.

In that context, and with that distance, it’s easier to avoid the temptations of schadenfreude. Instead, Jazz fans can see the joy of their former heroes and share in it, rooting them on to further success.

The Jazz’s time is still years away, but the Wolves’ time is now. We might as well enjoy it.