The Jazz aren’t looking at wins and losses in black-and-white terms this season
The Jazz are less worried with results and more concerned with what they can learn from every single game, no matter win or lose
If a team is winning they are playing well and if they are losing, they are playing poorly, right? Well, that’s not really the way the Utah Jazz see things. Not this season. There’s a lot more gray when it comes to winning and losing, and the Jazz have found themselves motivated by that gray area.
It seems like every year, right around this time, there is a general feeling of malaise about the NBA regular season. The 82-game long haul is grueling and the playoffs are so much more exciting that it makes sense to have some mental fatigue about the grind to get to the good stuff.
There’s always excitement in the first week of games after being without basketball through a long offseason, but there’s a drop off after that. It’s not just from fans. Players, coaches, reporters, analysts, broadcasters and fans alike are all pretty much just biding their time until we get to the games that actually matter.
As early as Nov. 7, when the Jazz were in Orlando, Jordan Clarkson was chatting with fans next to the Jazz bench saying that he was ready for the playoffs. That was less than a month after the season began.
But the Jazz aren’t a team prepared to say that the regular season doesn’t matter — a mantra that seems to gain more and more steam every year. Rather, the Jazz have found a different way to approach games.
Whether win or lose, the Jazz are more interested in the details, nuances and subtleties of how they played in any particular game. They’re looking at each contest as a building block. The eventual property they’re aiming to construct is one that houses a team prepared for all situations, one that is built to weather any storm.
In order to build that, the Jazz have to be a team that is willing to examine their performances more intricately and willing to take criticism after wins. That’s where the players find themselves this season, and for Jazz head coach Quin Snyder, he welcomes that approach and feels that the willingness is as important as anything.
“It shows a level of maturation,” Snyder said. “Being able to really target certain things, even though we’re winning and to have an audience. To have them understanding that the way to get better is to not be satisfied with the fact that you’re winning, but to continue to look for ways to improve.”
This shift in how they evaluate games has been a new way of looking at the game for most of the players. Even Mike Conley, in his 15th season, said that it’s the first time in his career that he’s been a part of a team where the result of a game hasn’t been the point of emphasis.
“I honestly can’t say that I’ve been a part of a team that’s felt that feeling. In Memphis I feel like we were grinding for every win that we could get,” Conley said. “It was stressful. But here we get an eight-game win streak and we weren’t thinking about it at all. … Then we lost two and we’re not worried about it because we’re really honestly trying to get better each day, whether that ends in a win or a loss.”
That was the feeling shared by the other All-Stars on the Jazz roster following the team’s eight-game win streak that lasted from Nov. 27 to Dec. 15.
Maybe in years past, when the team was still trying to prove something during the regular season, a long winning streak might have meant something different. And it’s not that the regular season games don’t matter to the Jazz or that wins don’t matter. It’s that the Jazz are trying to dissect every game, no matter what ends up in the win and loss columns so that when the regular season is over and the playoffs are knocking on the front door of the building that they worked so hard to stabilize, that they’ve done everything they can to improve and be prepared.
“We’ve got a lot more to do. I think an eight-game win streak is nice, but we have to keep going,” Donovan Mitchell said. “Because we’ve done this, you know? We’ve been the best in the regular season, we’ve played successfully. So now we’re looking at little things. We want to be great, but we want to be great in every facet. We don’t want to just have the best record. How can we be great in every single facet of the game?”
Figuring out the answer to that question requires a level of honesty from every player on the team. They have to be able to take criticism but also be critical of themselves while holding each other accountable.
None of this means that the Jazz aren’t trying to win games. These aren’t mutually exclusive ideas. Instead it means that they can’t rely on wins to define them. That could lead to them becoming relaxed and content with how they’re playing. It also means that there could be some games where the result doesn’t tell the whole story.
“There might be some games where we play really well and we might not win, there’s going to be games when we don’t play well but we’re going to win,” Rudy Gobert said. “So it’s all about the mindset and getting better every night.”
Following that win streak the Jazz lost back-to-back games at home to the San Antonio Spurs and Washington Wizards, then they beat the Charlotte Hornets. But in that Hornets game they gave up a 21-point lead and needed a fourth-quarter rally to win. Each game provided a lesson for the Jazz that they’re grateful for. The losses to the Spurs and Wizards each came with their own challenges.
First, the Spurs made them pay with a mid-range game that the Jazz will need to figure out how to defend better before the postseason. The Jazz then played the Wizards without Conley, which isn’t ideal, but they have to be able to prepare for all possibilities, including not being at full strength. Those games give the Jazz film that they can dissect so that down the road they’re better in those situations.
“We’ve been the best in the regular season, we’ve played successfully. So now we’re looking at little things. We want to be great, but we want to be great in every facet. We don’t want to just have the best record. How can we be great in every single facet of the game?” — Utah Jazz guard Donovan Mitchell
Against the Hornets, it might be easy to look at the squandered lead and think the Jazz weren’t playing well, but the Jazz just had a cold shooting night, and outside of a couple of mistakes that are easily fixable, their offense was working just as it should, generating open looks in all the right spots.
As the Jazz move through the rest of the season, there are going to be subtle tweaks to their offense and defense as they continue to dissect each game, win or lose. Those tweaks can come with growing pains and things aren’t always going to look perfect. But the goal is to tweak and refine things enough over the next few months so that when the postseason begins, the Jazz won’t have any lingering questions about what more they could have done during the regular season to prepare.
“If we find ways to take things from certain games, we’ll prepare ourselves for what’s to come, where matters most, which is in the playoffs, where we plan on being and plan on being successful,” Conley said. “We’re learning about ourselves in these games that we win or lose.”
While the wins and losses will matter and they will determine playoff seeding, as they always have, the Jazz don’t believe that it’s all black and white. They believe that the work they put in, between each win and loss, based on what they learned from one night to the next, is what will separate them in the end.