How a series of savvy moves, discipline and luck transformed the Jazz into something special

How a series of savvy moves, discipline and luck transformed the Jazz into something special

LOS ANGELES — Seven years ago, the beginning of what turned out to be a massive organization overhaul began with Utah Jazz fans booing a draft pick.

Judging the past of this franchise, which begins its 26th playoff appearance Saturday night at Staples Center against the Los Angeles Clippers, that development should’ve been taken as a good omen.


Boo a fresh-faced kid after he’d been drafted from a mid-major school?

Yes, please.

Nearly three decades after some Jazz faithful greeted the selection of a Gonzaga guard with a smattering of Bronx cheers, the same thing happened at a different draft party when the team used a rare lottery pick to bring a skinny computer-engineering major from a different small school into the fold.

Embrace the lukewarm reaction, Gordon Hayward. Hall of Famer John Stockton got the same treatment.

“I’m really excited to get here,” Hayward said the day after being picked ninth overall by Utah after leading Butler to the 2010 NCAA championship game. “I know it’s going to be a journey, an adjustment and a challenge, but I’m excited to work hard and play at the next level.”

Even if disgruntled fans didn’t share their optimism after Utah shocked many by not picking a big guy — Cole Aldrich, Ed Davis and Patrick Patterson were in the mix — Jazz management felt the same excitement.

Kevin O’Connor, then the Jazz’s general manager, tried to convince Hayward the boos weren’t personal.

“We explained to him that the frustration was … they expected us to take a big guy, and that’s all part of it,” O’Connor said. “We also told him, ‘You go out and play like we think you’re capable of playing and there won’t be any more issues.'”

Hayward’s “dream come true” moment was not spoiled by the less-than-thrilled reaction in Utah.

“I think,” the Indiana native said, “once they (Jazz fans) see what type of worker I am and what type of player I am, and hopefully when I get out on the court, I can change some of their opinions.”

O’Connor was right.

Hayward was right.

Jazz fans were, well, let’s just say there’s a reason why thousands of loyalists wear No. 20 jerseys nowadays and hundreds of Hayward supporters recently chipped in to buy a billboard with the message “STAYWARD” to express appreciation and to hopefully convince their much-beloved All-Star to remain with the NBA family that adopted him as a favorite son after he changed their opinions.

Nobody in Utah boos Hayward now that he has helped lead the Jazz back into the playoffs for the first time since 2012.

“I think,” Jazz point guard George Hill said, “he’s one of the best in the league, hands down, no questions asked.”


Gregg Popovich makes no secret of the fact he wanted to emulate how the Jazz ran their organization when he first started with the San Antonio Spurs back in the mid-1990s.

Makes sense. The Jazz were a model franchise with steady and strong ownership, a legendary coach in Jerry Sloan, and two Hall of Fame pillars in John Stockton and Karl Malone.

“I’ve always been impressed with the Jazz,” Popovich recently said, “from way, way, way back when.”

Two decades later, it’s the Jazz who are trying to take a page from the Spurs’ book, which also makes sense considering Popovich has guided San Antonio to five championships since 1999.

The Miller family respects the Spurs so much, in fact, they hired two former San Antonio products for the two most important jobs in the organization, general manager (Dennis Lindsey) and head coach (Quin Snyder).


Gregg Popovich | Deseret News

It’s no secret Jazz ownership is hoping to bring some of the Spurs’ success out West, which raises the question: How does Pop feel his former pupil is doing three seasons into an organization overhaul?

“Eh, he’s done a decent job,” Popovich said of Snyder. “Not that great. Could’ve done a lot better, I thought.”

Popovich delivered that tongue-in-cheek understated assessment with a straight face while talking about a third-year coach whose team won the Northwest Division title, reached the 51-win mark four years after only winning 25 games, and returned to the playoffs after a five-year absence.

The three-time coach of the year’s true from-the-heart thoughts ensued.

“Quin is a wonderful, wonderful person,” Popovich said, “and a wonderful, wonderful coach.”


Things have certainly progressed since Lindsey was hired in August 2012 to take over a rebuild project started by his GM predecessor after the franchise proactively traded away Deron Williams, not knowing if he’d stay in free agency, following Jerry Sloan’s surprising midseason retirement in 2011.

O’Connor was a bridge from the glory days of the Sloan-Stockton-Malone-Larry H. Miller era, but in 2012, after a nice run, including a Western Conference appearance in 2007 with the Williams, Carlos Boozer, Andrei Kirilenko and Mehmet Okur crew, he was ready to hand the torch over to a man who’d helped Houston and San Antonio have tremendous success.

Both O’Connor and Lindsey knew a monumental task was ahead for a franchise that had had limited success with Tyrone Corbin as head coach and Al Jefferson and Paul Millsap as its centerpiece players.

Limited success, they determined, wasn’t good enough for an organization and ownership that craved a championship.

“Kevin was really honest with me,” Lindsey recalled. “He was like, ‘Hey, look. I couldn’t do this.’ It wasn’t in his general nature to rebuild.

“But as we evaluated things he said, ‘It’s the right thing to do.’”

So Lindsey and O’Connor decided to start over with young prospects Hayward, Derrick Favors, Enes Kanter and Alec Burks.

First, they let Big Al and Millsap head elsewhere after being swept from the playoffs in four games by the Spurs in 2012, and then just missing out on the postseason in 2013. The following year — after a miserable 25-win start-from-scratch season and an ongoing struggle between allowing proven veterans to play to get immediate results vs. developing younger guys for the future — Lindsey decided to part ways with Corbin (and, essentially, the Sloan era).

“At a certain point and time,” Lindsey said, “we were headed in two different directions.”

It was time to start fresh.

New direction. New coach. New and/or improved players. New era.

Lindsey had the ongoing support of O’Connor as an adviser and the backing of ownership. The new general manager, in his first NBA job outside of Texas, was buoyed by a quick, simple conversation he had with then-Jazz CEO Greg Miller shortly after being hired.

“Dennis, I want to reiterate, we’re not traders. We’re not looking to flip the team. We’re not looking for small, incremental bumps,” Miller told Lindsey. “We’re operators.”


Utah Jazz head coach Quin Snyder talks with the media in April 16, 2015. In the background is Utah Jazz general manager Dennis Lindsey. | Deseret News

Lindsey admits he would have capitulated if the Millers had been thinking about short-term gains, but he was relieved to find out that he’d been hired by a family that values long-term stability, success and a do-things-the-right-way mantra.

“It allowed me to take a deep breath,” Lindsey said. “The rebuild, whether you liked it or not, and the stability around it is frankly a credit to the Miller family on how they operate.”

That’s how the former Baylor basketball player had seen it work with the Holt family in San Antonio as highly respected GM R.C. Buford’s assistant from 2007-12, and that’s how he obviously preferred to conduct business in Utah.

“It starts with owners and then it quickly goes to Tim (Duncan) and Manu (Ginobili) and Tony and David Robinson and here Karl and John and now Gordon and Rudy (Gobert),” Lindsey said. “Because there’s no way to X and O your way around a lack of cornerstone talent. So again, getting back to fundamentals and value-based …”

Lindsey interrupted himself.

“I know this isn’t really sexy for an article.”

Sexy might sell magazines or get internet clicks, but it’s not a requirement for rebuilding a franchise.

Popovich understands that. He sees the Jazz doing the right things to return to being a perennial power: develop young talent, infuse the team with solid veterans, get everyone to buy into the system and, of course, win.

“I couldn’t be more thrilled for what (Quin) and Dennis and the group have established here,” said Popovich, who worked closely with Snyder, the Spurs’ former D-League coach.

“Just class all the way around. Day-to-day dedication. Consistency. Creating standards and everybody living up to them. It’s been like that a long time around here since the Coach Sloan days,” Popovich continued. “But Quin persevered and demanded a lot because he knew that it was what would build the program to where it is now and brought in people who knew how to buy in and accepted their roles and made a couple of changes, made a couple of moves and now you see the result of that. I just couldn’t be happier for him. He’s a class act in so many ways.”


This rebuilding project has been productive. Going from a measly 25 victories to 38 to 40 to an impressive 51, becoming the first-ever NBA team to hit four new decades of wins in successive years like that is proof.

“Our record over the past three, four years — from 25 to 38 to 40 to now — that’s really what it represents to me,” Snyder said, “is that there’s been a growth process that we’ve committed to and tried to embrace through wins, losses, injuries, successes, failures, and to the extent that our program and our players are improved, that’s the part that I like.”

But it hasn’t been a mistake-free process.

Even Lindsey, without going into detail, admits that imperfections have occurred, although truth serum might get him to concede that not adding veteran free agents in the 2015 offseason was an understandable-but-misguided move; that letting Millsap, now a four-time All-Star, leave the franchise was a mistake; that errors have occurred in a frustrating search for a stable and productive point guard, including how trading two first-round picks for Trey Burke didn’t pan out as hoped; and that giving Kanter away to rival Oklahoma City for pennies on the dollar wasn’t ideal (even if the move did open the door for Gobert), among other things.

“There were a bunch of decisions to be made,” Lindsey said. “Would we do some over if we could because hindsight is 20-20? Sure.”

Things really started to click when Lindsey hired Snyder, whom he’d worked closely with in San Antonio from 2007-10.

They think alike. They work well together. They like each other. They have similar goals. They’re obsessively detail-oriented. They believe in building a team around defense, passing, dictating pace, competitiveness, success-producing habits, hard work and character.

Count Warriors coach Steve Kerr, who played against Jazz teams back in the franchise’s heyday, among the crowd of impressed peers.

“They’ve done an amazing job with all of the injuries. I’ve known Quin for a long time. It doesn’t surprise me. He’s rock solid. He’s a really good coach,” Kerr said. “Watching them on tape, they’re innovative. They play together. They defend. They’re just a smart, tough basketball team. Quin deserves a lot of credit for that. He’ll probably get some votes for coach of the year, which he deserves.

“I’m really happy for him and happy for their franchise,” Kerr added. “They’ve done a really good job over the last few years of rebuilding and putting together a good roster, a good coaching staff and, I guess, not surprising considering the success that the franchise has had over the long haul.”


The Jazz’s leap into the middle of the Western Conference playoff pack from recent doormat status can be traced back to a move O’Connor made 13 years ago.

As the franchise transitioned from the Stockton and Malone era to the brief-but-successful Williams, Boozer, Okur and Kirilenko period, O’Connor made a trade that didn’t exactly seem like a blockbuster at the time.

On Feb. 1, 2004, the reloading Utah franchise acquired Tom Gugliotta, some cash and a few future draft picks from Phoenix (via New York) while giving up Keon Clark and Ben Handlogten.

The most important part of the transaction — and the part that makes the deal one of the best in franchise history — was acquiring the Knicks’ 2010 first-round pick.

Six years later, O’Connor used that selection to nab a spindly sophomore who’s blossomed into a muscular, well-rounded All-Star.

“Gordon’s a great player,” said Knicks coach Jeff Hornacek, the former Jazz player and assistant who was instrumental in Hayward’s early pro development. “He’s improved every year in the league. … The game has slowed down for him. It seems very easy for him. He knows exactly what he’s doing out there in pick-and-rolls, where to get his shots, whether to take the big shots.”


Utah Jazz forward Gordon Hayward (20) is presented his All-Star jersey by Greg Miller prior to the Jazz and the Blazers playing at Vivint Smart Home Arena in Salt Lake City on Wednesday, Feb. 15, 2017. | Scott G Winterton, Deseret News

This rebuild, however, hasn’t just been about Hayward’s ascension.

Gobert’s quick rise to the top echelon of NBA centers has been equally important. Their pairing has been a jackpot in a non-gambling state and has helped the franchise overcome a disappointing Kanter experiment and an injury-plagued season by Favors.

Admittedly, the Jazz didn’t even expect the highly driven, competitive and freakishly long and athletic Frenchman to explode onto the scene like he has.

If Utah had known Gobert was capable of becoming one of just 12 NBA players ever and the first Jazzman to amass 1,000 points, 1,000 rebounds and 200 blocks in a season while also being in the top two in the league for defensive and offensive efficiency and evolving into the league’s most stifling player, the front office would have moved a boatload of its precious assets to vault to the top of the draft order in 2013.

No team saw The Stifle Tower coming — even though he’s 7-foot-1 with a 7-foot-9 wing span — or he certainly wouldn’t have fallen to the 27th spot late in the first round. (The jersey number of the 24-year-old, who’s always looking for new ways to find motivation, is 27, by the way.)

Lindsey laughs — only because he can now — when discussing where the Jazz have been lucky and where they’ve been intentional in their rebuild.

Adding a disciplined, well-respected seven-time All-Star like Joe Johnson to the mix through free agency and getting big results?

Intentional.

Trading for a savvy point guard who can shoot, nicely distribute the ball and play gritty defense like George Hill can?

Intentional.

Dealing for a veteran with a high basketball IQ who can help teammates learn how to share and be a positive influence on and off the court like Boris Diaw?

Intentional.

Building a roster with enough depth and talent so that it could even produce 51 wins in a year when injuries ravaged nearly the entire team at different points after the same scenario kept the team out of the playoffs in 2015-16?

Intentional.

Jumping on the waiver wire to snatch up a wily and well-traveled international player who can shoot lights out from 3-point range, play surprisingly good defense, crack jokes with the best of them, and make his teammates better like Joe Ingles?

Intentional and, yes, lucky.


Rodney Hood | Deseret News

Even watching Rodney Hood, a shooter the Jazz coveted and desperately needed, fall to them at No. 23 in the 2014 draft was a combination of intentionality and fortuity.

But Lindsey and the Jazz continue to pinch themselves about Gobert, who has used being slighted in the draft, being sent to the D-League and playing sparingly as a rookie, getting overlooked for individual honors, and even random tweets from fans, critics and media to fuel his uber-competitive fire.

“It was intentional that we wanted to have a big, long team because we wanted to have a defensive backbone,” Lindsey said. “What was luck was that we took this young prospect out of France with these unique tools and he has an unbelievable mindset towards his work and competitiveness. Those things accelerated this astronomical growth.

“If we would’ve known that, we would’ve given up a lot more assets to move to the very top of the draft,” Lindsey admitted. “I think we’ve got to call a spade a spade and be humble when we need to be humble. We liked him, but we’re very fortuitous that he’s developed the way he’s developed.”

Sometimes it’s better to be lucky than good.

It’s always best to be lucky and good.

They’ll need to be both lucky and good to make the next move — winning a playoff series against a dangerous Clippers team that is loaded with talent like Chris Paul, Blake Griffin, DeAndre Jordan, JJ Redick and Jamal Crawford.

“Every year, there’s that team that you just know is ready to take that next step. I think Utah was that team and they made that step. All of their guys have improved,” Griffin told HoopsHype.com.

“Gordon Hayward is playing extremely well. Rudy Gobert has taken such a huge step forward. They’ve added some great pieces, too. George Hill has been great for them. They’re a really good team. They’re really well-coached and they play hard. Those are the teams that are really fun to play against because, when it comes down to it, it’s just basketball. We have a lot of respect for them.”

Building a team worthy of earning that respect from a fierce opponent didn’t happen overnight.

But it’s finally happened. Utah once again is home to a playoff team with a bright future.

“I’m happy for our fans. I’m happy for the Miller family. I knew over time if we just kept pressure and doing the right things and moving in the right direction, eventually we would break through,” Lindsey said. “In my most honest vulnerable moments, I wish I could’ve figured out a way to do it a lot quicker because it’s hard. It’s hard. Competition’s hard. I think we’re changing the narrative.”

The first chapter was about rebuilding a team that would work its way back into the playoff mix. That’s what the past three-plus years have been about.

The next chapter is about helping that rebuilt team elevate its level in the playoffs. That story begins Saturday night.

Welcome back to the playoffs, Jazzland.

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Published at Sat, 15 Apr 2017 00:25:00 +0000