SALT LAKE CITY — Monday at Zions Bank Basketball Campus, the 2018-19 Utah Jazz reintroduced themselves in a friendly but perfunctory manner. Much as they like to say it’s a new year, with a different group, this edition is as familiar as an old tweed jacket.
Thus the Jazz met with the media for the first time this season, and the optimism was obvious. They’ve reached the second round of the playoffs in back-to-back seasons. With the only notable difference being Grayson Allen for Jonas Jerebko, it’s easy to envision similar results.
True to form, Quin Snyder is taking nothing for granted.
“Someone the other day said something about picking up where we left off. I don’t want to pick up where we left off … this is a new journey. We can take the experience, we can take the chemistry, we can take the things we’ve learned, but we can’t take February with us. We can’t take the playoffs with us. It’s a new year,” Snyder said. “That realization carries with it — on a fundamental level — the opportunity to improve.”
Considering Rudy Gobert missed 26 games with injuries, and Thabo Sefolosha is returning after missing 44 games, improvement is a realistic goal. But winning a championship isn’t, unless the Golden State Warriors suffer a catastrophic reversal.
“I don’t want us to look at other teams. I don’t want us to be comparing ourselves to anybody else,” Snyder said. “I want us to be as good as we can be.”
That’s not bad. Last year the Jazz tied for the fourth-best record in the West, and are being tabbed by several outlets for third or fourth again.
The Jazz are an anomaly in a league obsessed with perimeter shooting and stretch-fours and freakishly athletic and/or deep-shooting centers. They have some of the above — Joe Ingles finished fourth in 3-point percentage — but they are built around a defensively oriented center, an attacking shooting guard, and a traditional but evolving power forward. That’s what makes them intriguing.
Like a late model Mustang, they’re old-school style with a handful of updates.
Nobody can match the Warriors for talent and production. Houston is the only realistic contender in the West. But were the Jazz to advance to the conference finals this season, it would send a current throughout the league. Prevailing wisdom would be if you can’t have a bushel of long-distance-dialing All-Stars, maybe you can have a defense-first team led by a 7-foot obelisk.
A poorly disguised secret about the NBA is teams are all copycats. If something works for one, others rush to imitate. So the league goes through phases. The Wilt Phase. The Detroit Bad Boys Phase. The Triangle Offense Phase. The Magic Phase.
To its credit, Utah has been building for several years on Gobert’s unusual skill set. Even as training camps begin this week, scouts from other teams are searching the continents for the next Rudy. Hint: They might find him at a sidewalk café on a street beginning with “Rue.”
But whatever they do, they won’t outpace the Warriors or Rockets.
“It’s not like we’re a fast-paced team,” said general manager Dennis Lindsey.
They’ll have their challenges. The gap between the third-best team in the West, and the eighth-best, is parchment thin. Still, the Jazz think they can be even better, without having made a move.
If they are, more teams will jump aboard. Lindsey recounts how a team staffer analyzed successful teams of the past, and what they did to win championships. He found that teams among the top seven in defensive efficiency, with a 4½-point scoring differential were — like last year’s Jazz — highly successful.
“Sometimes,” Lindsey said, “the simplest things are the best.”7 comments on this story
So the Jazz are embracing the formula that worked last year, with the same cast of characters. There are several sayings that endorse that decision. For instance, “If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it,” and “Dance with the one that brung you.” Then there’s this: If you can’t get LeBron, Harden or Durant, get Gobert and Mitchell and a bunch of long-armed and chippy defenders.
Then try to irritate everyone to death.
“I think we’ll be quite an annoying group,” Ingles predicted on 1280 The Zone.
With continued success, other teams will follow. Which brings up one last adage: Imitation is the sincerest form of flattery.