The Hippin' and the Hoppin'
For years, the Utah Jazz have been synonymous with the Right Way, parading an endless succession of Sloan-approved pick-and-rolls while prizing effort and hard work at the defensive end. So imagine my surprise last spring when the Jazz showed that they could run at the Warriors’ breakneck pace and actually win doing it. My basic assumptions about Utah were therefore thrown into contention. Were they actually exciting? Was their image now inconsistent with their style? And, if so, why would that inconsistency even matter?
It became clear during and after the Western finals that the Jazz remain well-established in Sloanball, but that Warriors series still lingers. The players on this team are talented and versatile enough to play both styles, which, due to the need for every team to develop an on-court philosophy, brings up an important question for the future of the franchise: to run, or not to run? Given that this post appears on this site, it should come as no surprise that I think they should run more often than they currently do. The fast pace of the conference semis revealed untold depths in many of the team’s most important players: Kirilenko relocated his swag, Deron handled Baron with equal parts brashness and savvy, and Boozer molded his physicality to a tempo that would theoretically deny it.
Tuesday night’s opener further validated these impressions; Kirilenko notched a once-customary 5x4, Deron shredded the Warriors for smooth jumpers and gorgeous assists to Ronnie Brewer around the basket, and Boozer once again controlled the paint in non-plodding fashion. But, while the Jazz seem perfectly comfortable playing that style, one can’t help but recognize it as the temporary solution it is. However fast they play in any moment, Sloan will always pull back for stretches, as if to remind everyone that he’s still in control. Imagine, the thinking goes, how effective the team would be if they actively tried to run.
At the same time, though, it’s hard to argue that Utah should have changed their ways in their other playoff series given the results. They did, after all, make the conference finals, and it’s hard to argue that a significant increase in wins would attend a change in style. Furthermore, Sloan likely isn’t the best coach for a running team, and he’s earned the right to choose when he retires to a life of yelling at kids from his porch.
However, changing styles would still be a worthwhile enterprise given Utah’s peculiar status in Salt Lake City. In a league almost uniformly characterized by mainstream observers as having an “urban” culture, the Jazz are one of the few franchises with a relatively clean image, an opinion no doubt colored by their city and fanbase. While that perception might keep Utah out of various State of the League screeds, it undoubtedly diminishes their sway in the free agent market, where players have control over their destinations. With the exception of the occasional Euro (e.g. Memo) or Alaskan (e.g. Boozer), all of Utah’s best players over the years have been drafted by the Jazz. (Hornacek is the obvious exception, but I suspect he was actually born an Alaskan Euro.) When it comes time to add an extra piece, they necessarily choose from limited options.
Playing a more exciting style has the potential to fix that problem. If Utah rebrands itself as a running team, they will instantly gain credibility with free agents looking to play in a system that lets them play freely. The Jazz would no longer have to wait around for a high draft pick and general luck to turn around their fortune in lean times. The franchise now plays the free agent game in shackles; another style might help even that playing field.
But there is still the issue of the Utah fans, an almost entirely white group who’ve (perhaps unfairly) regularly been called racists and xenophobes. Given that perception, there has to be some question as to whether the majority of Jazz aficionados would take kindly to a new style now that they’ve seen success by way of Sloan and his neverending screens. However, any fanbase – even if most of them have names like Todd – approves of winning in any form. Simply put, this current Jazz team will make the playoffs for the foreseeable future regardless of style, meaning that any philosophical shift would be greeted with love.
Team identity, then, carries negligible weight with a fanbase, a group that asks for little more than wins and forward progress. (There is obviously some pride that comes with pulling for an exciting team, but it’s not like fans can’t create elaborate justifications for less thrilling play. In fact, maybe that’s how we got the Right Way in the first place.) Identities, at least as they pertain to perception and not on-court cohesion, serve as advertisements for interested players – they reassure that an individual’s relationship to the franchise will not change overnight. Money obviously plays a big role in free agency, but every legitimate player (let the Brian Cardinals of the world take what they can get) picks a team with which he feels comfortable. Using this model, we can see how Indiana’s recent foray into coach-focused promotion falls flat. In thinking that fans will easily swallow a high-lottery season because the coach truly madly deeply loves basketball, the Pacers’ front office has told the group that most often create successful teams (the players) that they will be abandoned whenever shit gets bad.
The problem with identity’s role as a vessel of reassurance is that NBA teams regularly undergo sea changes with regards to personnel and staff, creating a climate in which players must adapt rapidly to their ever-changing situations. Any identity based on a system, then, necessarily sets itself up for long-term disappointment. Sure enough, if you look at the highest-profile franchises in the league, all of them have an identity worked around something unrelated to on-court style: the Knicks zero in on their place in basketball’s avowed Mecca, the Celtics have broadly defined tradition, the Lakers promote the glitz of Hollywood, and the Bulls simply remind everyone that Michael Jordan played for them. No matter what situations befall those franchises, they will always be identifiable.
Yet Utah’s hypothetical shift to a faster pace need not lead to nothing more than ephemeral relevance. If the Jazz currently appear to be a team of unwavering ideology, then a successful change of style would push them towards the other end of the identitarian spectrum: openness to other ideas and the ability to adapt to league trends. It obviously wouldn’t be an instant reversal, but it would start a necessary process at a time when the franchise’s situation allows it. This situation is one with which all non-cornerstone teams must eventually deal, and it is important that each lays claim to an identity that respects – and, in doing so, often circumvents – the general chaos of on-court activity.