SALT LAKE CITY — A day removed from getting swept by the Golden State Warriors, Utah Jazz head coach Quin Snyder sat at the podium for his exit interview next to team president Steve Starks awaiting questions from the media like he was anticipating a sentencing.
Sporting his signature frizzed hair, Snyder wiped his forehead, picked up his water bottle and took a sip.
To someone ignorant of the team’s success, Snyder might have appeared nervous after the Jazz went winless in the Western Conference Semifinals. But his job, admirably so, had been done and Snyder was simply looking forward to answering the questions — right after Starks took the lead, of course.
The Jazz were on the wrong side of a four-game sweep in which the team lost each game by an average of 15 points. The result was undoubtedly embarrassing, even for the Jazz, who accomplished the task of ending a four-year playoff drought.
Adversity, though, isn't foreign to Snyder.
After a series of scandals that forced Snyder to resign from his post as the University of Missouri’s head coach in 2006, he found himself hitting the restart button in the NBA Developmental League.
Almost overnight, Snyder went from coaching NBA prospects on a world-class campus to coaching unknown basketball rejects in Parque Zaragoza Recreation Center in Austin, Texas, a facility homeless people use to bathe.
Carldell “Squeaky” Johnson, who played at Salt Lake Community College before transferring to the University of Alabama at Birmingham, was in a similar situation as Snyder and would serve as the coach’s primary point guard with the Austin Toros — the San Antonio Spurs’ NBA D-League affiliate.
For both Snyder and Johnson, basketball was basketball, no matter where it was being played.
When he first arrived to the Toros’ practice after being picked in the second round of the 2007 D-League draft, Johnson was in awe of Snyder.
“That’s Coach Q from Missouri, man,” Johnson remembers saying to himself during his first day of practice with the Toros.
Johnson, like most fans of the teams Snyder has coached, had created a reality of what Snyder would be like before he met him — quiet and analytical. But that shifted during practice, where Snyder didn’t mind cursing to get his points across.
It was never disrespectful, though, Johnson noted, and was simply to assert himself as the team’s leader.
After practices were over, the basketball didn’t stop.
Snyder invited Johnson to his home, where he wanted to spend more time reviewing plays with his point guard.
“I mean, yeah — it was kind of weird,” said Johnson about Snyder’s approach. “I never had a coach invite me to their house before. But I knew it was for basketball and it was because he wanted me to get better.”
When Johnson got to Snyder’s home, the coach treated him like a son, offering him almonds — which Johnson had always avoided but was coaxed into trying by Snyder and now considers his favorite snack. Snyder pulled out his laptop and reviewed plays with Johnson. Whether Johnson played 15 minutes or 30 minutes, the coach kept an open invitation to his point guard, offering to study any previous game footage.
Snyder, who graduated from Duke with both a juris doctorate and a master of business administration in 1995, was constantly reviewing footage and drawing up plays, Johnson said. Snyder studied basketball during regular layovers that occurred in the not-so-glamorous D-League, on the airplane once it finally took off and when the team arrived at its destination. His desire to gain a competitive advantage over other teams never ceased.
“It’s not surprising to see him do what he did this year,” Johnson said. “He put in the time. Any time I ever saw Coach Q, he was reviewing game tape and going over pick and rolls. He was drawing up plays the San Antonio Spurs weren’t even running.”
Snyder’s approach to the game extended beyond the court.
Before games, Johnson and his teammates frequently texted on their phones in the locker room, appearing rather aloof before tipoff. Snyder ended the team’s habit by walking into the locker room and giving them a lecture about respect.
“He always wanted our focus to be on basketball,” Johnson said.
But if Johnson or any of his teammates texted Snyder, they could expect an immediate response, sometimes paragraphs in length. To this day, whenever Johnson shoots Snyder a text message — usually on a birthday or holiday — he gets a long response back.
Under Snyder’s tutelage, Johnson’s game blossomed in the D-League, enough to earn him stints with the New Orleans Hornets and Atlanta Hawks. Snyder set a record for most NBA call-ups during his time with the Toros, one of them being Johnson.
“The way I look at it is, we helped each other grow,” Johnson said. “He took our skills and used his mind to create plays that no one else ran. He’s got an amazing basketball mind.”
Snyder’s coaching philosophy and personality have been reflected in every team he’s coached — from the Toros and CSKA Moscow, a professional team in Russia, to his first NBA head coaching gig with the Jazz.
“The growth process for us as a team and organization is exciting,” said Snyder after the last Utah Jazz season concluded. “There’s a unified vision for where we want to go. You can look around and see that demonstrated in any number of ways.”
Snyder usually opts not to answer questions about the growth he experienced throughout the course of the 82-game season, but there’s evidence of the patience and intelligence he’s instilled in the Jazz in the way the team plays.
Despite winning 51 games and snagging the Northwest Division title for the first time since 2008 — back when Deron Williams and Carlos Boozer roamed around Salt Lake City — the Jazz had flown under the radar this past season. And much of that is likely because the team hasn’t conformed to the up-tempo, chaotic style of play other teams have embraced nowadays, which generates interest and fanfare around the league.
The Jazz have preferred to play a calm, patient brand of basketball while integrating modern ideas involving 3-point shooting and defense. Being the second-lowest fast-break scoring team in the NBA, the Jazz play slow and determined, relying on ball movement and half-court offense.
Utah was fourth in passes made in the NBA during the regular season, better than the San Antonio Spurs, Golden State Warriors and the defending champion Cleveland Cavaliers. Without a ball-dominant creator such as Kevin Durant or Stephen Curry, the Jazz operated as a cohesive unit, rarely breaking down and playing one-on-one basketball. Isolation plays, usually a result of an offense malfunctioning, were only a part of Utah’s offense 6.6 percent of the time in the 2016-17 season.
Their machine, so to speak, became even more well-oiled during the team’s run to the second playoff round — a development most of the players on the roster, or at least the core consisting of Gordon Hayward and Rudy Gobert, hadn’t experienced in their respective careers. In the playoffs, the Jazz moved the ball even more, ranking third in passes and second in hockey assists (or secondary assists) in the Western Conference.1 comment on this story
The high pressure of the playoffs and the national stage provided by the league didn’t cause the Jazz to falter, but rather flourish. Winning three games away from home to capture a first-round series win over the Los Angeles Clippers was further indication of how the Jazz, and Snyder, navigate through adversity.
Through it all, the highs and the lows, Snyder continues to remain composed.
“It’s experiential,” Snyder said. “There’s always growth that occurs when you go through something that’s different. There was joy, disappointment and adversity. It pushed me. Those are times not necessarily for reflection, but for taking stock. When you go through challenges, that’s when you examine what you really believe in. That’s happened for me, and it was reaffirming.”