Ballin’ with the Utah Jazz

All artwork by Brian Kraker/Tuesdays With Horry

Having literally birthed the Cool during sessions toward the turn of the decade, Miles Davis subsequently descended into hell, fighting depression with a legendary heroin addiction. After a lengthy battle to kick the addiction, the trumpeter took his quintet to the Newport Jazz Festival in July 1955, putting on a comeback performance capitalized by a performance of “Round About Midnight.” By that October, Davis was at a crossroads in his already esteemed career and had to act quickly to form what would become his first great quintet, one featuring the landscape-altering saxophone wizardry of John Coltrane. Together, Davis and Coltrane, along with Red Garland, Philly Joe Jones[1], Paul Chambers and, later, Gil Evans, created some of the decade’s, and jazz’s, most enduring music, culminating in the era-defining modal record Kind of Blue.

After nearly breaking the core apart before it achieved anything, the Utah Jazz matched the Charlotte Hornets’ offer sheet for Gordon Hayward in the summer of 2014. Prior to this season, the team re-signed rim-protecting center Rudy Gobert through 2021. Along with George Hill, Derrick Favors and a resurrected Joe Johnson, as well as the contributions of heady, heavy vet Boris Diaw and Australian swingman Joe Ingles, the Jazz have charged their way into a second round date with presumptive title favorites the Golden State Warriors, slaying a maligned dragon on the way to becoming fan-favorite underdogs.

Long held to be a tragically uncool locale – the Warriors are sad not to be able to take advantage of the Los Angeles nightlife, for example – Salt Lake City suddenly has the hippest game in the NBA. With critically acclaimed but crucially underrated art from Brian Kraker inspired by the classic records from labels such as Impulse!, Atlantic and Blue Note, let us walk back on Utah’s journey to the brink of excellence, two basslines conflicting and confiding in one another.

Acknowledgement

The last time the Utah Jazz made the playoffs was in 2012, when Ty Corbin led a 36-30 team to the eight-seed in a lockout-shortened season. Of that team, only Hayward, Favors and Alec Burks remain on the roster. Paul Millsap, Al Jefferson and DeMarre Carroll are all long gone. Corbin was relieved of his duties in Salt Lake City at the end of the 2014 season and subsequently bounced from Sacramento to Phoenix.

The evergreen San Antonio Spurs swept the Jazz in their first round series in 2012. For the most recent time the team won a playoff series, one must go back to 2010, when the team was still under the expert tutelage of Jerry Sloan and featured the likes of Millsap, Kyle Korver, Andrei Kirilenko, Wes Matthews and Deron Williams. It had been a long seven years in Utah.

A three-year mid-aughts low period aside, the Jazz had made appearances in the playoffs every year from 1984 through 2010, and then again in 2012. Even in a post-Stockton and Malone world, Utah had managed to stay competitive after it gave the keys to the likes of Carlos Boozer and Williams, who once was looked at with similar reverence to his 2005 draft class contemporary, Chris Paul.

“Pursuance”

Williams was dealt at the trade deadline in 2011 in a deal that netted Derrick Favors, adding to the seeds the team had already begun sowing for the future in the previous year’s draft, when it selected Hayward, the mop-topped former Butler Bulldog. Three years later, in 2013, the Jazz used the 27th pick on Rudy Gobert, a 21-year-old seven-footer with a 7’8.5” wingspan[2] who’d already played three years of professional basketball for Cholet Basket in western France. 2014 brought Dante Exum and Rodney Hood via the draft, the team brought in former Atlanta Hawks assistant Quin Snyder as head coach, the producer who would direct and corral the players, providing them with the landscapes and textures for hardwood improvisation.

Initially, the Jazz struggled against the backdrop of an historically great Western Conference, failing to make the playoffs for four consecutive seasons. Even failure begat growth, however; in contrast to the Philadelphia 76ers’ “Process,” which is its own radical free jazz experiment, averaging just under 19 wins per season since 2013-’14, Utah endured only one season in which it won fewer than 38 games.

Even beyond the wins, it was obvious the Jazz was getting better, tighter, more focused and prone to flashes of excellence. The team’s net rating improved each season from 2013-’14 through last year, a pace which has slowed only slightly this year. Coincidentally, this year’s team posted the franchise’s highest offensive rating since the aforementioned 2010 team, the last to win a playoff series.

“Blue in Green”

Hayward and Gobert, of course, are the twin linchpins of Utah’s emergence, the former having graduated to a sleek haircut and an All-Star nomination for the first time this season while the latter racked up a number of excellent nicknames[3] while leading the league in blocks as a candidate for both Defensive Player of the Year and Most Improved[4].

It took Gobert four seasons of significant NBA play to get to averaging a double-double; he’s 24 and managed 2.6 blocks per game this season while also leading the league in true shooting percentage, block percentage and defensive win shares[5]. Though Gobert manages fewer than 10% of his shots outside the restricted area (courtesy of NBAsavant.com), he has become a versatile offensive power, one capable of drawing a double team and making the smart pass to escape it. His length gives him an advantage over other big men in terms of the literal question of what to do with the ball; sheer physicality enables his decision-making to become that of the guy that you know who dares you into shots[6] you wouldn’t totally believe you could make on your own. Sometimes, third-party belief is all you need.

Gobert signed an extension at the beginning of this season to keep him in Utah through 2021. Assuming his length doesn’t atrophy, he is one literally gigantic piece of the Jazz puzzle, a physical specimen whose basketball IQ grows by the day. The French Rejection has established himself as a shot-blocking rim protector of the modern variety, one who understands that to stay in the game, he must work outward. 

Hayward’s trajectory is a bit more muddled. Always a sharpshooter, Hayward took the long route to becoming an NBA superstar, creeping toward the fringes of preeminence over the course of his first six seasons in the league through savvy, exceptional gym rat tendencies and a perpetual propensity to be deemed “underrated” by, well, those who don’t care or wish to see him grow to be as good as he is.

After going for 16-5-5 in 2013-’14, enviable totals by any measure even in a contract year, Hayward continued prying, upping his scoring and opening doors for those around him, even at the expense of his own traditional box stats. His usage rate hit 26.2% the following season and peaked this year, while his turnover percentage has fallen to the single digits. He rebounds as well as ever by any measure, and though his raw assists have fallen, that’s as much a result of the playmaking ability of his supporting cast as of his own ability to knock down tightly contested shots.

“So What”

Throw in a vastly improved George Hill, the Gil Evans of the operation, and the Jazz enjoyed their best season in some time while continuing to look toward an uncertainly promising future. Hayward and Gobert enjoyed career years, at least thus far, and they will continue to develop. As a Miles Davis quote goes, “don’t play what’s there; play what’s not there.” The key to jazz is innovation. Surely, nobody understands this notion quite like Quin Snyder, currently staring down a 1-0 deficit to the acknowledged best team in the NBA.

Sometimes, to move forward, one must look back, even as every notion and impulse obliges us not to. Seven-time NBA All-Star Joe Johnson, a man so prone to otherness and dragged down by the “overrated/underrated” quality of his formerly upper echelon salary that FreeDarko saddled him with the quality of standing for “The lost brotherhood of only children” in The Macrophenomenal Pro Basketball Almanac (Bloomsbury 2008, or wherever the only books that matter are sold), saved the Jazz in the first round for just long enough for another prodigal son, Derrick Favors, to pour in 17 points, 11 rebounds, one steal and three assists in a +15 (!) outing. Johnson is averaging six points more per game than in the regular season, on an exorbitantly higher usage rate, but also: Johnson’s true shooting percentages in both the regular season and playoffs are near, if not the, best of his career, perfectly encapsulating how easy it is to write someone off who earned a paycheck without batting an eyelash toward the dotted line. He is the embodiment of the Marlon Brando ethos, having never confused the size of his paycheck with the size of his talent, even at nearly 36 years of age. It was the rest of us who mistook that.

Adding Boris Diaw, a noted coffee maven and veteran of a championship San Antonio Spurs squad, was a major coup; that Diaw is an aspiring photographer and noted admirer of burgeoning trends in caffeine, as well as a rotund tool of the modern NBA who defiantly treats the ball like most English-speaking humans allegedly react to the word “moist” works in Snyder’s favor, as he is the ideal veteran presence for a team of upstarts, the kind of players who need not adhere to what literally anyone is saying outside the locker room. Where is Salt Lake City? What more is there to do than gander at the infinitely colorful abyss? Pass me that tiny espresso cupami, and I’ll show you. Afterward, we can indulge in the finest red wine. I know a guy.

Tactically, if the Jazz are to stand any chance in this series, or even just to make it reasonably competitive, it’ll have to be through Hayward and Gobert primarily, with the latter leaning on help from Favors and high pick-and-roll actions that allow for something resembling favorable switches. Draymond Green proved in Game 1, as he’s proven for the better part of three seasons now, that he can guard anybody, but a Gobert/Favors two-headed monster in the post may disrupt Golden State’s defensive schemes if they can figure out a way to deal with JaVale McGee, which is an incredible phrase to type in 2017. Career-best series from at least three of Utah’s players might not even be enough; Coltrane would’ve advocated for prayer at that point.

Hayward is a free agent this summer. Hill, enjoying the best season of his career, faces the same tribunal. In defeating the Los Angeles Clippers, the Jazz gained exactly the kind of streetwise credibility for which artists of its namesake strive. That Jazz was playing at the Clippers funeral is nothing short of laughable basketblogger poetic justice, if Twitter feeds of the last half-decade are to be believed. Still, Golden State players saw fit to bash Salt Lake City for its lack of nightlife, prompting a San Francisco Chronicle “but wait – context!” rebuttal and, in any case, casting the Jazz as an afterthought.

Another Miles Davis quote goes like this: “Man, sometimes it takes you a long time to sound like yourself.” Coltrane broke off the Davis quintet in rather chaotic fashion in 1960 because he was tired of Davis’ iron-handed ways. Davis once called Coltrane “a greedy man.” Coltrane had to leave Davis to become Coltrane[7], and somewhere along this path, the Utah Jazz could become the Oklahoma City Thunder.

It would seem fit to get pedantic and tell the Jazz to keep this particular band together, despite not knowing what the short-term future holds. Utah certainly has all the promise, inherent quirkiness and improvisational brilliance to pull off its own Kind of Blue[8], but then many people hold Giant Steps in higher regard. Sometimes the grass really is greener, even on the bluer side.

*     *     *

[1] Who, according to some, originally suggested Davis approach Coltrane

[2] Setting an NBA Draft Combine record which would be broken a year later by current Cleveland Cavalier Walter Tavares (7’9”); Gobert still holds the record for standing reach (9’7”).

[3] The French Rejection, The Stifle Tower, The Gobert Report and, amazingly, the worst of the basketball-reference buffet, Gobzilla.

[4] An award, by the way, he already nearly won once before, having finished third in voting in 2015.

[5] In order: 68.3%, 6.4% and 6.0, with the next-closest in the latter being Draymond Green at 5.4. See you at the awards show on June 26th.

[6] Pickup basketball, or at the bar: in either case, it’s always shots

[7] “#LETCOLTRANEBECOLTRANE” – jazz Twitter in 1960

[8] There is certainly a linguistic parallel to be drawn here with the Memphis Grizzlies, given Davis’ proclivity toward chopped album titles: Workin’, Steamin’, Cookin’

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