LOS ANGELES—There's an undeniable attraction we feel to a rising young roster, a magnetic pull that seduces like a siren song. In 2010, we fell for Oklahoma City; in ’12, it was Indiana. These teams existed in a climate of ideal expectations. Successes were celebrated, while failures were dismissed as growing pains.
That’s Utah in 2015. The Jazz—average age: 23.3—are America’s upstart. They have won 12 of 15 games since the All-Star break, the latest an 80-73 win over the Lakers on Thursday, and have an outside shot at finishing the season above .500. They don’t have anyone over the age of 27 and run out a starting five so young Gordon Hayward (age 24) is the greybeard. The first unit is a mix of high-lottery picks (Hayward, Derrick Favors, Dante Exum) and late-round gems (Rodney Hood, Rudy Gobert) mined by general manager Dennis Lindsey and molded by head coach Quin Snyder.
At 31-37 the Jazz aren’t planning any parades. But Snyder says team expectations coming into the season were based on how quickly—and how much—it could improve, and Utah’s storm to the finish line is evidence of significant development.
Consider: Last October Gobert was a big kid with a cool nickname (The Stifle Tower), a fascinating physical specimen—he has a 7’9” wingspan—but hardly a can’t-miss prospect. Today he is the anchor of the best defensive team since the All-Star break. It’s Gobert who made Enes Kanter expendable, prompting the Jazz to ship Kanter to the Thunder last month for little more than a protected first-round pick.
It’s pretty easy to connect dealing Kanter to Utah’s sudden surge in the standings, though the Jazz are quick to napalm that narrative.
“We don’t see it as being some sort of pivotal moment,” Snyder says. “I think what has happened is our players have gotten better. Our team has gotten better. There is a connectivity that we have now and a defensive mindset that was bubbling beneath the surface. The habits were there; the intensity was there. Things have just clicked.”
Adds Hayward, “I don’t know if much has changed. Things are starting to click a little but more. Our defense has locked up and we’re trusting each other and holding each other accountable.”
O.K., but moving Kanter—who Utah had no interest in paying premium money to this summer anyway—has had an impact. Favors feels it. A Favors-Kanter frontline looked nice on paper, but the two ball-demanding bigs were never going to work. Instead of sharing post touches with Kanter, Favors now lines up alongside Gobert. It has liberated Favors offensively while offering badly needed defensive support.
“[The trade] helped me work on my game a lot,” Favors says. “Enes was the first option in the post. Since the trade, it’s always been me. It’s helped me work on my game and made me better for it.”
A Favors-Gobert frontcourt would seem to create a spacing problem, with neither equipped to step out beyond 10 feet or so and both better suited to playing in the paint. But the Jazz do a remarkable job of keeping the floor balanced, relying on screening and ball movement to mask a lack of shooting. It’s a nifty piece of coaching from Snyder, and far from the only one. Snyder came to the Jazz with a reputation for player development, having rebuilt his image after a scandal-plagued end to a successful run at Missouri with stints in the D-League, Russia and as an assistant in Philadelphia, Los Angeles and Atlanta. And he has lived up to it. In Utah, Snyder has empowered his players to play through many mistakes.
“It’s incredibly important,” Snyder says. “It may be painful at times, but that is how we get better. That’s how we process things, even the losing. Take in the larger context and stay focused on the process. Sometimes if a guy makes a mistake enough times, he may never make it again. In a lot of things the only way to learn is through experience.”
Like the Thunder and Pacers before them, Utah has an enviable roster, one both smartly built and sustainable. Sure, drafting Exum was easy, and Favors was the price the Nets were willing to pay to extract Deron Williams in 2011. But Gobert could have been had 26 times in the ’13 draft before Denver scooped him up and shipped him to the Jazz for the bargain-basement price of a second-round pick and cash. And Hood, drafted 23rd last June, is averaging a season-best 11.6 points in March. Privately, Utah officials are positively giddy about Hood’s future.
There is still plenty to be done, and a hot month comes with no guarantee of future success, especially for a team still developing. “I think some of the growing pains we have experienced, we are going to experience them again,” Snyder says. “I want to be realistic about youth. There are going to be ups and downs. The main thing for us is how we handle them.”
Exum needs to mature physically. Trey Burke must discover an identity. The bench must improve before Utah can contend in a brutal Western Conference.
But these are problems for another day. Today, it’s about wins, it’s about charging toward .500, about clinging to the team’s faint—but still mathematically possible—playoff hopes. It’s the honeymoon phase for a team on the way up, and the rapidly rising Jazz should revel in it.