Last year, the young core that makes up the bulk of the Jazz experienced something few teams in franchise history have known: a 25-win season. In fact, they were one of only four Jazz teams in history to win so few games.
It was a mark that stuck in the craw of forward Derrick Favors. “I did not like it, and I did not think many of the guys liked it, either,” Favors said.
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Neither did the front office. They were not about to begin preaching patience to fans, giving a long line of excuses for losing and hoping to pile up draft picks to show just how much they’re really trying to win. You might not know it by watching teams on the East Coast, but it is possible to rebuild in the NBA without a tank job.
Ask the Jazz.
Favors, for one, did not want to be any part of a tanking bunch, and he knew it would be up to those who were designated to lead the team to ensure that did not happen. New coach Quin Snyder put much on Favors' shoulders to begin the year. “I put myself in there,” Favors said. “I have been in the league for five years now, so coaches were adamant that they would be looking to me to help lead the team.”
It has paid off. In fact, much of what the Jazz have been doing in the last couple of years is paying off now. After a brutal start to the year that saw them endure a nine-game losing streak and a 6-19 record, Utah has been among the best teams in the league in the last six weeks. Dating back to February 7 they have, amazingly, gone 14-4 and offered a very encouraging glimpse at the future to their fan base.
Last year, the Jazz had to accept a certain level of losing. This year, that tolerance is gone, and that’s been a key to their turnaround.
“Still got a lot to learn, but the losses hurt a little bit more this year,” Favors said. “Hopefully in the future we can continue to get better and learn from these experiences and in the future be a much better team.”
While tanking has become a common M.O. around the league, the Jazz never indulged in that route. Last year was bad, but Utah was a combined 10 games over .500 the previous two seasons, and rather than piling up losses to ensure high draft picks, they simply made wise draft picks. Then, once they recognized which players they wanted to go forward with, the Jazz paid them — despite objections from the outside that they were gambling and overpaying.
They did it with Favors, granting him a four-year, $47 million extension in 2013. He has shown drastic offensive improvement, becoming a much better midrange shooter and averaging 16.3 points on 53.6 percent shooting, both career highs.
They did it with Gordon Hayward, matching Charlotte’s max offer despite the concerns that he could not handle the load as a No. 1 offensive option. The Jazz did not flinch in paying out for Hayward, and they have been rewarded: He’s averaging 19.7 points, 4.2 assists and 4.9 rebounds, while shooting 45.5 percent from the field.
They took a chance with French big man Rudy Gobert, too, and that could be a turning point for the franchise. They shipped out Enes Kanter for a future first-round pick, acting on the surety that Gobert would continue to grow into a defensive monster. He has. As a starter this year, Gobert has averaged 9.4 points and 12.3 rebounds, blocking 3.2 shots per game.
While Favors and Hayward are star material, Gobert — acquired from Denver as the No. 27 pick in the 2013 draft — could wind up defining the Jazz going forward. His ability to shut down the lane with his dominating length has made Utah the toughest defensive team in the league in the second half of the season. Over the course of their 14-4 stretch, Utah has allowed just 83.9 points, holding opponents to 39.8 percent shooting and 31.7 percent from the 3-point line.
It is not, perhaps, the most thrilling style of play — Utah ranks last in pace, and averages only 94.7 points per game. The Jazz will still need to sort out their guard issues, too, with neither rookie Dante Exum nor second-year man Trey Burke separating himself as the lead guard of the future.
That will come, as will further development from Hayward, Favors and Gobert. The Jazz’s incursion into epic-level losing was brief. Maybe there’s a lesson there for the league’s tankers.