‘Our team’s got heart’: How the rebuilding Utah Jazz stunned the NBA with a 3-0 start to the season
Jazz coach Will Hardy really couldn’t have asked for a better start to a career as an NBA head coach than the one he’s had, especially considering the team he was given.
Utah Jazz head coach Will Hardy walked into the postgame interview room on Sunday, after the Jazz won in overtime against the New Orleans Pelicans, and looked at the reporters in front of him.
“Are you guys having fun yet?” he asked.
He’s certainly having fun. He’s hoarse, and his nerves are being challenged more than they ever have been, but Hardy really couldn’t have asked for a better start to a career as an NBA head coach than the one he’s had, especially considering the team he was given.
The Utah Jazz do not have a superstar.
They do not have a player on the roster who is going to routinely be expected to take over and win games.
It is not clear, down the stretch of a tight contest, who is going to be the person to take the final shot, as evidenced by the fact that it was none other than Kelly Olynyk who scooped in the game-winning bucket that earned the Jazz an overtime win over the Pelicans and an improbable 3-0 start to the season.
“That’s just how this team was built,” Mike Conley said. “Every night it could be any one of five or six guys and we’ve got to do it with the collective.”
And it is exactly that fact — the Jazz do not have definitive top-end talent and are instead a collection of role players who have no choice but to work together — which has given credence to the belief that this team is probably not destined for the postseason, while also making them an unpredictable and tough opponent in the early days of the 2022-23 season.
“We are perfectly imperfect at times, but the guys stick together,” Hardy said of his team after an overtime win against the Minnesota Timberwolves. “The collection, the sum, can be greater than the individual parts, if that makes sense. The way they fit together, the way they play together, they’re capable of playing winning basketball.”
There are probably a lot of reasons for the Jazz playing with the amount of determination and competitive spirit, energy and effort that led to them winning their season opener against the Denver Nuggets and consecutive overtime games against the Timberwolves and Pelicans.
“That’s just how this team was built. Every night it could be any one of five or six guys and we’ve got to do it with the collective.” — Jazz guard Mike Conley
First of all, the Jazz players know what everyone thinks about them. They know that everyone believes that they are a team that has been set up to fail. And there is certainly some truth to that (we’ll have to wait for the rest of the season and potential other roster changes to see how this is all going to pan out). But, quite frankly, they don’t care.
The Jazz players have absolutely nothing to lose.
“We fight,” Jordan Clarkson said of this iteration of the Jazz. “We’re ready. Everybody down the line, we’re ready to go, ready to prove something, ready to play. It’s a fun, energized group, and I think we’re all just ready to go get it.”
If any player on this team is capable of contributing to scrappy team wins against Western Conference playoff powers, they will do one of two things. They’ll either raise their own profile and value, which could lead to them being traded to one of the many contenders in the league, which could then lead to another contract and extended career; or they will prove themselves valuable enough to the Jazz front office that they deserve to be a part of the future Jazz team that will be set up for success.
With that knowledge, and with Hardy practicing what he preaches about the team taking priority over the individual, this Jazz team stunned the NBA world in the opening week of the 2022-23 season.
Hardy deployed four different closing lineups through the first four games of the season. He’s put the ball in the hands of every player who has been in the rotation in key moments of games. The team has rallied under the proverbial banner of “us against the world” in a way that has shown up in the box-score, in the way they play, in their facial expressions and in their body language.
There are already, after just four games (the fourth being a loss to the Houston Rockets on the second game of a back-to-back set), teams around the league that are looking at the Jazz roster and wishing they had just a little bit of what the Jazz have right now, and they are salivating at the potential for future deals. Players that could be a big help on teams that have struggled in the opening days.
Things have certainly been helped by the fact that there is no scouting material to be had on this Jazz team. Sure, players like Conley, Olynyk, Lauri Markkanen and others on the roster have been in the league long enough to know what some of their tendencies are. But, there’s no intel on how the Jazz are going to use them, who they will be paired with, what kind of offense Hardy is going to run, and how they’re going to defensively scheme against teams.
The Jazz have the element of surprise on their side right now.
That’s of course a shine that is eventually going to dull once teams wise up to how the Jazz play. And once teams around the league with more top-end talent have had some time to settle into form, it will be a lot harder for the Jazz to win on pure grit and determination.
But for now, the players are fully bought in.
“Our team’s got heart,” Hardy said. “We’ve got some stuff to clean up, we’ve got some things that we’ve got to continue to work on, on both ends of the floor. But, we’ve got heart for sure.”
Heart might not be enough to build a championship contender. That still requires a certain level of talent and experience together. But this is a good starting point for a team that is rebuilding from the ground up.