For 35 years, the Utah Jazz stayed true to a set of principles colloquially known as "Jazz Basketball.” The franchise's philosophy was instituted by former NBA executive and coach of the year Frank Layden, and developed by legendary coach Jerry Sloan. It glorifies energy, toughness, structure and hard-nosed play. “Whether it's a cut, a pick or running the floor, they do everything with great energy and always have,” said Gregg Popovich, who modeled his small-market organization after the Jazz. “It seems to be in the water in Salt Lake City.”
When Sloan stepped down, Ty Corbin, a Jazz assistant for seven years, sought to implement much of the same style as his predecessors. But after 25 more losses than wins in his two-plus-season tenure, Corbin was let go.
Enter Quin Snyder. An assistant for four professional teams over the past four years, Snyder is the first head coach the franchise has hired from out of town since the Jazz first moved to Utah in 1979. His first order of business? Fundamentally changing Jazz Basketball.
“As we’ve heard and seen what Quin’s philosophy and proposal is,” team president Randy Rigby said, “it’s the right time for Jazz Basketball to move to this style.”
Out, then, is the Jazz’s methodical half-court approach, generally favored by the team since the days of John Stockton and Karl Malone. The Jazz played at the fifth-slowest pace in the NBA last season, out-walked only by the much older Heat, Knicks, Bulls and Grizzlies. Even the ancient Nets ran more often than Utah did last season, despite the Jazz having the third-youngest roster in the league.
In is a new philosophy, explained by Snyder as "playing with a pass, playing with pace, and playing with purpose.” In short, it's a much more modern approach: The Jazz will look to bend the opposition's setup using quick ball movement, push the ball as quickly as possible in order to take advantage of holes in the defense and space the floor with intention. As Jazz GM (and former Spurs exec) Dennis Lindsey explained, “Any time you get defenses to change body position, usually there’s somewhere inside the defense that there will be a breakdown. Then, the integrity of the lines of the defense can be compromised through penetration, whether it be with a dribble or with a pass.”
It remains to be seen whether the Jazz have the personnel to implement this sort of system, which will require good 3-point shooting to implement effectively. The team was 25th in the league in 3-point percentage last season, and its best outside performer, Richard Jefferson, has signed with Dallas.
Snyder, though, has been eager to show off how it can work. The first-time NBA head coach held an open scrimmage for fans before the Jazz’s summer-league team traveled to Las Vegas this season, taking the time to explain to an attendance of over 10,000 the X’s and O’s of the new system they'd be seeing on the court.
Then, before training camp began last month, he held a practice with the media on the court, running the assembled TV, radio, newspaper and Internet hordes through the offense -- slowly, with no defense, in five-man groups. We were rotated through stations explaining different bits of the offense: how the Jazz plan to play in flow, how players' floor locations bend while running a side pick-and-roll, and even a triangle-esque "gaggle" double-screen play.
As each of us tried to follow along, Snyder and his staff of coaches showed off their communicative skills, and somehow never lost patience with a large group of clueless newbies. "I can tell there were a lot of dedicated journalists out there on the floor," Snyder said with a laugh. "I think it's fun for the media to get an idea of what we're trying to do.
Snyder's teaching skills are a large part of what the Jazz liked about him when searching for a coach this offseason. He won the job in Utah in large part through his player development expertise that has left a wave of vocal supporters among the players he's coached, including former Jazzman DeMarre Carroll, who after spending the 2013-14 season with Snyder in Atlanta told The Atlanta Journal-Constitution, "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."
So far, the Jazz’s players are turning in rave reviews as well. Enes Kanter couldn’t help but compare Snyder to previous Jazz coaches. “It's so different than with my other coaches before,” Kanter said. “He's just like a big brother. He's not like, 'Oh, I'm the coach, I know everything.' He's asking players 'What should we do, what should we not do?'"
Trevor Booker, a new signing with Utah this season, agreed: “Coach Q’s like a basketball genius. I mean, he knows the game so well. He’s trying to incorporate the offense and defense, and at the same time point out little things to the players and make sure we see it from his perspective on why we’re doing this and this. He’s great so far.”
The emphasis on player development is a necessity given Utah’s young roster. The Jazz have extended over $27 million in contracts next season for Gordon Hayward and Derrick Favors. The 24-year-old and the 23-year-old count as Utah’s “veteran” leaders. Beyond them, Utah’s core rotation of Kanter, Alec Burks, Trey Burke, Rudy Gobert, Rodney Hood and Dante Exum is between 19 and 23 years old.
Utah’s front office knows that not all of the Jazz’s youth will pan out. “I can’t stand here and tell you today which players will develop and which won’t,” Lindsey said. “but we’ll make sure to put all of our time, energy and resources into each player, and in time we think that will make a good team.”
With all of the changes and inexperience (not to mention a tough Western Conference), the Jazz won’t be expecting to put up a winning record next season. Instead, success will be measured by the progress made by individual players, and how well those players fit within the revolutionized Jazz system as implemented by Snyder.
For his part, Snyder’s not worried about the tall task ahead of him. When asked if his team can learn to win right away, Snyder responded, “Sometimes that comes a little later … but there's a long time for later with this group.”
After 35 years of the old Jazz Basketball, fans in Utah won't mind waiting to find out.
Andy Larsen writes for Salt City Hoops, part of the TrueHoop Network. Follow him, @andyblarsen.