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How a January Loss to the Hawks Turned the Jazz’s Season Around

Utah was taking on water, it couldn’t keep its franchise center on the floor, and the team was watching the Western Conference pass it by. Then, after losing to the worst team in the league, the Jazz managed to turn it around. Ask the team and everyone points to one man (no, not Donovan Mitchell)—their cool, calm, collected coach, Quin Snyder.

Getty Images/Ringer illustration

When Utah got Rudy Gobert back in January, the Jazz were in bad shape. That tends to happen when you lose your franchise center and one of the best defenders in the league for long stretches. Gobert was out for 11 games after suffering a bone bruise to his right knee in early November. Then he missed another 15 games after spraining the PCL in his left knee in mid-December. Not long after he returned the second time, the Jazz went on a three-game road trip. They lost the first one to the Hawks in Atlanta, which is not the kind of result you want when you’re trying to salvage your season.

Falling to Atlanta dropped Utah to 19-28. The Jazz had played more than half their season and were five games behind the Denver Nuggets for the final Western Conference playoff spot. In late January, FiveThirtyEight gave Utah just a 20 percent chance to make the playoffs and predicted it would finish 38-44—the same record that was forecasted for the pre-Blake Pistons and four wins shy of the Clippers’ estimate. It was grim.

“For me, at this point, I was looking at the standings,” Gobert recalled, “and I was like, ‘OK, there’s no way we can make the playoffs. There’s no way we can win that many games. We lost to Atlanta.’”

Maybe Quin Snyder could sense that things were going sideways, or perhaps it was just one of those moments when the head coach tells his players to just keep after it. Whatever the impetus, after the loss to Atlanta while the Jazz were on the way to Detroit, Gobert said Snyder instructed his team to purposefully ignore the standings and the external noise. “I remember him telling us to just play,” Gobert said. “Don’t even worry about the rankings and all that. Just come out and compete.”

It might sound like boilerplate coach talk, but Gobert insisted there was was more to it than that. He said it snapped him and his teammates out of a woe-is-us funk that involved a lot of time spent watching scoreboards from around the league. The Jazz played the next game in Detroit. They needed some late-game Joe Ingles heroics to tie things up in the fourth quarter, then pulled out a tight 3-point win in overtime. And that was it. They were off.

“It was definitely a turning point,” Gobert told me while the Jazz were in L.A. over the weekend. “After playing that bad game in Atlanta, if we lose that Detroit game, it’s probably a different story. But we kept fighting. We did what [Quin] said. We just played.”

It didn’t go down like it does in the movies. No one kicked over a table or gave a fiery speech. But it was a crisis of confidence and a moment that led to an unlikely midseason correction. That’s when the fun started.

After the Jazz beat the Lakers on Sunday in Los Angeles, they clinched a Western Conference playoff spot—a remarkable feat considering how bad things looked not that long ago. Not many people expected them to reach the postseason. I certainly didn’t. As recently as mid-January, I would have happily taken any odds you offered and bet against them pulling out a playoff run.

Since that Pistons game, the Jazz are 28-5. They’ve compiled winning streaks of nine and 11 games. Along the way, they beat a coterie of playoff teams including the Raptors, Spurs, Blazers, Pacers, Pelicans (twice), Warriors, and Wolves on the road, and also beat the latter two at home. Utah has won five in a row and seven of their last 10. Going into their penultimate game of the season Tuesday, they’re 47-33 and have a shot to finish as high as third in the conference. And since Gobert returned in mid-January, the Jazz lead the league in defensive and net ratings.

Over the course of roughly two and a half months, the Jazz have somehow morphed from a team no one worried about to one no one wants to play. After rookie guard Donovan Mitchell put up a monster line against the Lakers at Staples Center—28 points, nine rebounds, eight assists, one steal, and one block—he sat in front of his locker and did what a lot of us have done lately: shrug his shoulders and marvel at the Jazz’s transformation.

“It’s a complete 180 I guess, with the streak,” Mitchell said. “That’s the sign of a well organized and coached team. We know each other and how we want to play.”

As a result, Snyder is getting a lot of attention these days after not getting nearly as much as his guys thought he should have. “People look at the wins,” Gobert said, “and usually they give more credit to the players. But he’s definitely played a big part in that.”

It seems certain that outside observers are finally noticing what Kevin Durant recently pointed out on The Bill Simmons Podcast: “Utah is good” and “Quin Snyder is one of the best coaches I’ve seen since I’ve been in the league. He’s incredible.” All of a sudden, Snyder’s name has become a big part of the Coach of the Year conversation. I still have Dwane Casey at the top of my list, with Snyder and Brett Brown in the tier right below him. But if Snyder won the award and bested the competition—a wide-open race that also includes Mike D’Antoni, Brad Stevens, and Gregg Popovich, among others—could anyone really argue against it given Utah’s ridiculous turnaround?

That Snyder has reached such lofty coaching company in his fourth season with the Jazz is all the more impressive when you consider where he started and how high he had to climb. At 32, he was the bright, young thing of the college coaching scene, leading the University of Missouri Tigers. Then, he resigned in 2006 amid various NCAA investigations and scandals. After that, he was banished to coaching in what was then known as the D-League for a few years. He spent one season as an assistant with the 76ers and then one with the Lakers before taking a gig in Russia as an assistant with CSKA Moscow. It wasn’t until Atlanta brought him back to the States and he served one more year as an assistant with the Hawks during the 2013-14 campaign that he was free of whatever stained his career. The next season, the Jazz hired him to take over the team, completing one of the longest and most circuitous success stories in recent coaching memory.

“Quin’s a great coach,” Lakers head coach Luke Walton said before Snyder’s guys smacked his. “The way they play. The way they move the ball. The way that they defend as a team. And then, obviously, they were pretty far out of the playoff picture. And then Gobert came back from that injury and they’ve been winning at a pretty crazy rate since then.”

Crazy is a good way to describe the season Utah has had. Weird, too.

“No,” Snyder said, “weird is an understatement.”

There aren’t a lot of people around the Jazz who want to talk about Gordon Hayward, for obvious reasons. When the best player the franchise has had since Deron Williams broke up the band decided to go play in Boston over the offseason, it was initially devastating. After reaching the second round of the playoffs last season, it looked like Utah wouldn’t be back in the postseason anytime soon. One member of the organization told me “I thought we were done. Like, for a while.

General manager Dennis Lindsey had other plans. He re-signed Ingles, traded for point guard Ricky Rubio, and somehow spun Trey Lyles and Tyler Lydon into a deal with the Nuggets for Mitchell. They were good moves, but they also left Snyder with big-picture questions. He said, “We liked our team from the beginning, what Dennis did,” but admitted there was “a lot of the uncertainty that we had around what our team would look like.” Snyder knew “we wanted to be grounded defensively, but we lost Rudy. That’s harder to do without him.” He also had an idea of how he wanted to play offensively, but it took time to figure out who would fill which role.

As Snyder noted, when the Jazz faced the Lakers in Utah shortly after the season started, Donovan Mitchell wasn’t a phenom leading the team in scoring, he was just a rookie coming off the bench. Meanwhile, Rubio—who has never been known for his shooting, but has consistently been among the league leaders in assists throughout his career—got off to a slow start and averaged just 4.9 dimes per game through December. Even worse, over the same stretch, he was coughing up the ball to opposing teams at an alarming three turnovers per game. With Gobert out, December got particularly bleak. Utah won just five of 15 games that month.

“You get into December where you know that we have the toughest schedule of any month of any team in the league,” Snyder recalled before playing the Lakers, “and about December 18 … you start looking at how you’re struggling, particularly without Rudy. There’s been a lot of challenges.”

The biggest challenge for Snyder was rotations—who to play and when. The Jazz were always going to be a defense-first team—they’re second in defensive rating for the season despite Gobert missing 26 games—but finding the right mix overall took some tinkering. Utah has tried 31 different five-man combinations for at least 20 minutes this season, according to NBA.com/Stats, but the best lineup is the one you’d probably expect: Rubio, Mitchell, Ingles, Gobert, and Jae Crowder. They’ve played 187 minutes together, and the Jazz have an eye-popping plus-24.6 net rating with that group on the floor.

Before Crowder came along, Derrick Favors played quite a bit with that unit. It made for a clunky lineup with Gobert early on that clogged the floor offensively and didn’t leave the Jazz with nearly enough shooting. When Gobert went down the first time and was out 11 games, Favors flourished and averaged 30 minutes, 16.5 points, 9.3 rebounds, 2.5 assists, 1.5 blocks, and nearly a steal per game, while shooting 61 percent from the floor. In the stretch where Gobert returned between injuries, Favors fell off; his minutes dropped to 24 per game and the rest of his numbers cratered. Then Gobert went down for the second time, at which point Favors minutes and stats ballooned once more.

When Gobert came back for good, Snyder had to figure out how to get the best out of two players who don’t quite fit together. He also had to soothe some sore egos. Team sources told me that Favors, who will be an unrestricted free agent this offseason, wasn’t exactly thrilled at times with his yo-yoing role. But from mid-January to now, Snyder has found a combination that worked for everyone, stabilizing Favors’s minutes at around 28 per game and turning him into a solid contributor.

Those weren’t the only tricky issues Snyder had to navigate. Offensively, he knew the Jazz “needed to be really balanced and we needed to attack collectively.” Rodney Hood and Joe Johnson initially had other ideas, according to some people familiar with how it played out. With Hayward gone, Hood figured he would be the main scoring option, and after Johnson helped them mightily in the postseason last year, he thought the same. It created tension between Hood, Johnson, and the rest of the team.

Things got even more awkward when Mitchell emerged as the clear no. 1 offensive option. That’s part of why no one was surprised when Lindsey sent Hood and Johnson packing at the trade deadline. Since then, the Jazz have jumped from 12th in net rating to tops in the league.

It was pretty obvious pretty quickly that Mitchell was an excellent scorer and could help the otherwise sluggish Jazz offensively; he dropped 22 points in the second week of his first NBA season against the Lakers. Now he leads the team in scoring (20.5 PPG) and usage rate (29.1). But understanding that he’s got a lot of future potential and making him the main option on offense in his first season are two totally different things.

“It just shows the amount of trust he has in me, and trust even when I make mistakes,” Mitchell said about Snyder. He described his head coach as “stern” and “real firm on what he wants” from his rookie, but Mitchell also said he prefers that approach and credited Snyder for helping him realize that the NBA is a lot different in April than it is in October. “I don’t look at myself as a rookie anymore.”

There’s a reason coaches are generally hesitant to make rookies the focal point. It’s typically tough to let a young guy cook without torching your record at the same time. Only four rookies in NBA history have led their teams in scoring and had more wins than Mitchell and the Jazz do right now: Wilt Chamberlain (49 wins), David Robinson (56), Kareem Abdul-Jabbar (56), and Larry Bird (61). To put it in further context, LeBron James scored 20.9 PPG as a rookie and the Cavs won 35 games. Blake Griffin scored 22.5 PPG and Clippers won 32. Kyrie Irving scored 18.5 PPG and Cavs won 21. It’s not an easy call to make, and it represented something of a calculated gamble on Snyder’s part.

In theory, taking Hayward, Hood, and Johnson off of Utah’s canvas should have made the team considerably uglier, which is yet another testament to Snyder’s artistic vision this season. Like Popovich in San Antonio and Stevens in Boston, Snyder keeps painting pretty pictures even when he’s working with seemingly depleted supplies and a limited palette.

“Those are some pretty astounding numbers and some company that’s probably not fair to [Mitchell],” Snyder said. “To say that he’s in that group, you’re talking about some of the best players to ever play the game. Although we love him, some of those guys are on a level that you can’t even really talk about. I’m really proud of him and what he’s done and how he’s taken all the responsibility and been fearless. And I don’t want to put pressure on him beyond that. What he’s done is significant.”

After the Jazz secured their postseason spot, Snyder stood outside the visitors locker room at Staples Center and said the same thing about the rest of the team and his staff. He lauded them for “dealing with a lot of adversity and change” and climbing out of a hole that had them nine games below .500 not even three months ago. But just when it seemed like he might take a moment to pause and enjoy the achievement, the inner coach simmering inside came bubbling to the surface: “I think we can feel good about that and still get on to the next game.”

They’ll close out the season against the Warriors at home on Tuesday and the Blazers on the road on Wednesday. Snyder said the Western Conference playoff picture comes with a lot “if-then statements,” which is why he’s trying to avoid any talk about seeding. He’s not paying attention to the other race that affects him, either. When someone asked whether he hears his name now in the Coach of the Year conversation, he made the predictable pivot to how it’s really a reflection of his players and staff.

“You’re not supposed to ask me to psychoanalyze myself,” he joked. The way he sees it, coaching is about learning, and not just for the players. He said every year you make mistakes. Then, “if you’re self-aware,” you realize it and try to do better the next time. Except the next time isn’t always next season. Sometimes the opportunity to fix something comes sooner than you or anyone else expected. “No different than our team,” he said. “We’re all a work in progress.”