Here's a stat nobody talked about last season: The Jazz had the 5th best record in the NBA after the All-Star break. They ripped off an 11-3 stretch to begin the second half, eventually going 19-10. Over a full season, that's a 54 win team.
But they self-admittedly say they had no epiphany. Nothing incredible happened to spark that run. As always, there's nothing to see in Utah.
"We haven't figured anything out," first-year coach Quin Snyder said of their scorching run following the break. Well, they could have fooled me. Their suffocating defense seemingly improved by the day, and they had a margin of victory that rivaled the Warriors and the Cavs.
Pretty good for a team whose starting lineup isn't even the oldest of the basketball teams in Utah, right?
Take a look at what the Jazz did this season, and this summer and it looks like they are intentionally trying to be the underdogs. Their GM Dennis Lindsey is a former Spurs student, and the Jazz show a lot of Spurs-ian qualities. Hang around Utah long enough, and one will hear all the Spurs phrases that have spread around the league. With teams like Atlanta and Philadelphia, there's an emphasis on "the program" and "the process," consdering that both of their coaches, Mike Büdenholzer and Brett Brown are former Popovich assistants. Utah GM Lindsey is similarly influenced by San Antonio, and the culture has spread down from the GM's office, to the coach, and then to the players.
Looking back on Snyder's resumé, it's not hard to pinpoint why he buys into the mentality of an underdog. After his tenure as a Duke point guard wrapped up in 1989 he became a Duke assistant until 1999, when he accepted the head coaching position at Missouri. Snyder was hailed as a sensation upon his arrival at Missouri. He took an undermanned team to four straight tournament appearances, confirming his status as a great coach, and building a reputation as a strong recruiter.
Yet he was forced to resign in 2006 amidst NCAA allegations of illegal recruiting techniques, and a three-year probation being given to the Tigers. After suffering a humiliating 26 point loss to Baylor in Februrary 2006, Snyder resigned mid season. He's spent the last 8 years trying to raise himself up from the ashes, with stints as an assistant for the Sixers, Lakers, CSKA Moscow, and the Hawks. He even coached a D-League team for four seasons.
His hiring was met with positive reactions from many players who had worked with Snyder. DeMarre Carroll said, "I have to give a shoutout to coach Quin. This is the first year a coach really worked with me on my footwork, my shot, spent time with me. That's a credit to coach Quin. That shows me that he cares about me as a person, cares about my career."
The Jazz players went into the season knowing they had a coach they could put trust in. After four seasons with the immortal Ty Corbin, Utah's young stars were relieved to have a strong leader.
Utah was not supposed to be this good. They blew up the team after the 2013 season, letting stars Al Jefferson and Paul Millsap walk in free agency. Electing instead to build around youth with a long-term goal, they locked up Gordon Hayward, Derrick Favors, and Alec Burks to long-term deals. In addition to signing their young guys, Utah agreed to take on a boatload of unsavory veteran contracts in return for future draft picks. They added a bunch of foreign talent to fill out the depth chart, and had four rookies on the roster last season.
What sparked the Jazz run last season may have been addition by subtraction. They dumped Enes Kanter and Steve Novak in exchange for Kendrick Perkins, Grant Jerrett, the rights to Euro center Tibor Pleiss, and 2017 first and second rounders. While the future picks are important, the trade was all about freeing up Frenchman Rudy Gobert and giving him more minutes.
The second-year center is nicknamed 'The Stifle Tower,' a fitting name for a man who locks down the paint with his 7'2'' height, and cartoonish 7'9'' wingspan. In the 29 games after the All-Star break, he averaged 11.1-13.4 in 34 MPG, with an elite 2.6 blocks per game. Advanced stats love Gobert too, as he had the best block percentage, and third best defensive rating in the league. Most importantly, he's led the NBA in opponent's field goal percentage at the rim. Per SportVU player tracking data, opposing players shoot just 48% within six feet against Gobert. Those same guys shoot well over 60% within six feet when anyone other than Gobert is defending them.
Gobert allows Utah's other players to get away with more cheating on defense. He's a great team defender, as Quin Snyder quickly recognized.
"What [Gobert] does is unique. He gives guys confidence, but there is so much more to that whole group than just Rudy," Snyder said. "I’m really proud of what these guys have put into it. We’re still so young but I think you are seeing the beginning of a team that says, ‘Hey this is how we can be successful."
Watching the Jazz in the latter part of the season, their style of play was reminiscent of the Indiana Pacers. All five guys can defend aggressively, and they have an incredible 7'2'' rim protector patrolling the paint in case anyone slips by the perimeter defenders. That's a recipe for success, especially as the rare bruising defensive team in a Western Conference full of offensive masterminds.
After years of great hype, Derrick Favors has seemingly faded into the woodwork. Ironically, he's finally living up to his lofty expectations, if anyone would notice. He averaged a 16.0-8.2 on 53% shooting, and his 21.9 PER was 9th amongst all power forwards and centers. Favors finished 4th in the league in made FGs from 0-16 feet, and shot a higher percentage on these shots than the players ranked 1st and 3rd. His bruising play in the paint gave Utah a bona fide post threat, and he delivered with a huge season.
Gordon Hayward plays the Paul George role offensively for the Jazz. He is tasked to be their go-to perimeter threat, while also playing passively at times. Hayward can be seen as a creator in isolation, but also a catch-and-shoot player a la Danny Green. He was thrust into this role before the 2013-2014 season, and struggled mightily. He suffered a huge dip in his FG% and 3PFG%, and it looked like Utah may have overestimated Hayward's ability to be a marquee player in an offense. But this season he's shining in his expanded role. He averaged a career-high 19.3 points, and finished third amongst all starting SF's in True Shooting Percentage, at an outstanding 56.7%.
The Jazz offense is hardly a finished product, and are full of the flaws one would expect from a young team. They play profoundly slow, finished dead last in the NBA in pace, both before the all-star break and after. Additonally, young PGs Trey Burke and Dante Exum frequently turn the ball over, and the Utah offense is widely one-dimensional. They excel in throwing the ball into the paint and getting second-chance looks. Utah scored the 10th highest percentage of team points in the paint, and were 2nd in the league in second-chance points. While capable in the paint, Utah needs to make strides from the perimeter to climb the ranks next season.
"We want to try to get good shots, that’s the best way of looking at it,” said Snyder. “Whether it’s fast or more deliberate, you try to adapt to your personnel. To me, we just want to be efficient.”
Utah will need to rely on players outside of Gobert, Hayward and Favors offensively. Much of their production will be tied to the development of Dante Exum, who at 19 years old showed flashes of greatness last season. If one can learn anything from the trajectory of Favors, it's that young players often need 4-5 years to live up to any part of the hype. But considering Utah's passive approach to the offseason, they're betting that their rookies will develop sooner rather than later.
Considering they were a 50 win team during the second half of the season, I think it's a fair bet that Utah's approach will pay off. And their fast ascent will undoubtedly be tied to the resuscitation of Snyder, and leadership of Hayward and Favors.
“I think we really are buying into what Coach is telling us,” Exum said. “Even though he has opinions about the game, he’s an understanding coach, and that builds a respect."
For a formerly disgraced player's coach like Snyder, it's welcoming to see the progress he's been able to make so quickly. Hopefully he can extend this run into a playoff berth.