LOS ANGELES — As Sunday was winding down and the Utah Jazz’s season was officially coming to an end with a final game against the Lakers, it was notable how happy the Jazz players, coaches and staff were.

“I never want any player to dread coming to the gym, and I think we were able to accomplish that this year. I think our team played with a tenacity and a competitiveness but they also played with a level of joy, and we had a lot of laughs along the way.” — Utah Jazz coach Will Hardy

There were no disgruntled players hanging their heads in the final minutes of the game, and there was no air of uncomfortable tension in the locker room, even though the Jazz had just lost.

Instead, there were bench celebrations for well-executed plays, and in the locker room there were smiles and laughs and jokes and a lot of guys excited about the future.

“Our goal from the outset was to try and create an environment that our players wanted to be in every day,” first-year Jazz coach Will Hardy said.

“I never want any player to dread coming to the gym, and I think we were able to accomplish that this year. I think our team played with a tenacity and a competitiveness but they also played with a level of joy, and we had a lot of laughs along the way.”

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Watching the Jazz players say their goodbyes, it was hard not to think about an incident that happened a couple hours earlier, nearly 2,000 miles away, at the Target Center in Minneapolis — an incident that put into perspective just how different things are for the Jazz after a year of change.

Last April, the Jazz were bounced from the playoffs by the Dallas Mavericks following a season that was clouded by tensions and uncertainty.

The last few years for the Jazz were marked with disappointment and a failure to meet expectations. Once a team full of joy and promise and a sky-is-the-limit attitude, the Donovan Mitchell, Rudy Gobert and Quin Snyder era ended unceremoniously for the Jazz.

With a new coach, new roster and absolutely zero expectations, the Jazz embarked on a journey that began with a rebuild

If you aren’t aware of what happened in Minnesota on Sunday afternoon, here’s the short version of events: The New Orleans Pelicans were on the road, playing the Minnesota Timberwolves in a game that had seeding and playoff implications.

In the second quarter during a timeout, Gobert, who was traded from the Jazz to the Timberwolves last offseason, got into a heated exchange with teammate Kyle Anderson.

It concluded with Gobert reaching over teammates to punch Anderson, then Taurean Prince getting up to push Gobert out of the huddle before coaches and staff separated players.

The heated exchange between Gobert and Anderson reportedly continued in the locker room at halftime before Gobert was sent home by the team and did not finish the final game of the season.

But that wasn’t all.

Defensive Player of the Year candidate and breakout Timberwolves player Jaden McDaniels was walking into the tunnel at halftime and punched the wall, fracturing his hand and ending his season.

In short, it was a really bad day for the Timberwolves.

Meanwhile in L.A., a depleted Jazz roster that was already eliminated from postseason contention was giving the Lakers a run for their money.

The Jazz eventually lost 128-117, but they had a ball doing so. Lauri Markkanen, Walker Kessler, Collin Sexton, Jordan Clarkson, Talen Horton-Tucker and Rudy Gay were all in street clothes and cheering for the young squad on the court.

Jazz owners Ryan and Ashley Smith laugh at something head coach Will Hardy said during Jazz-Nuggets game.
Jazz owners Ryan and Ashley Smith laugh at something head coach Will Hardy said during the game as Utah and Denver play at Vivint Arena in Salt Lake City on Saturday, April 8, 2023. The Jazz provided some quality entertainment this year in what was obviously a rebuilding season. | Scott G Winterton, Deseret News

Every dunk by Udoka Azubuike, every clean pass by Kris Dunn, every impressive move by Luka Samanic and Ochai Agbaji elicited a standing ovation from the Jazz bench, who were the team’s biggest fans on Sunday. 

Even when rookie Agbaji was ejected from the game in the fourth quarter for tossing a basketball with some angst toward one of the officials (followed by some choice words), the Jazz’s mood couldn’t be brought down.

“He decided to wait until the 82nd game to get a bad-boy image,” Hardy said with a smirk, shrug and a laugh.

“Ochai is like the nicest kid on the team beside Walker, and he gets thrown out in the last game of the year, so you know, just add it to the list of wacky things that have happened with this team this season.”

It’s impossible not to look at how things are playing out in Minnesota and think about how much more joyful things are in Utah with the Jazz.

Gobert and Mike Conley are headed to the Play-In Tournament with a team that has underwhelmed since the offseason trade that landed Gobert from the Jazz. There are expectations that are now draped over that Minnesota team along with a cloud of doubt and worry following the chaotic events on Sunday.

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The Jazz were already looking like the team that was on the winning end of the Gobert trade, which gave the Jazz multiple first-round picks (including Minnesota’s first-round pick this year), Kessler and a haul of other players that have been dealt and flipped since.

Now, it seems that the Jazz are not only the winners of the trade, but are bigger winners this season considering the shift in tone and mood around the team.

Rather than things feeling depressive and disappointing, the Jazz feel like a team built on joy and hope.

“I learned this year that that you can be competitive, care about winning, compete every day, dig in and enjoy it,” Hardy said.

“I’ve watched over the last like five years in the NBA, and there seems to be a certain level of unhappiness around the league and there’s pressure and expectations and all those things and I totally understand that, but you know, you are allowed to enjoy this.”

It’s not hard to think back to a time when the Mitchell and Gobert Jazz were also a joyful and happy team that was aiming for sustained success, but it eventually fell apart and broke down.

This iteration of the Jazz is going to try to break that cycle.

“If you harp on everything and make mountains out of molehills then you put extra pressure on yourself that you don’t need and on your team and on the expectations,” Kelly Olynyk said.

“Everybody plays better in a free and easy atmosphere … the goal is to keep that mood while you get better and better and continue to succeed … I think that’s what the goal is here, and I think that they’ve done a good job.”

There’s no guarantee about where this Jazz team will end up or how much it will accomplish along the way. Jazz fans are well-versed in teams that both exceed and fall short of expectations, and at some point, every NBA team does one or the other.

What is certain and guaranteed is that for at least this 2022-23 season, the Jazz were a fun team that was weird and chaotic in all the right ways.

They went into the season not knowing what to expect, and while there’s still uncertainty about the future, the players and coaches left with smiles on their faces and hope about building up to something special. 

It might seem a little impudent to say so, but if you’re a Jazz fan and you think about the Jazz team that came before this one, or look at the Timberwolves team that played on Sunday, you’re probably feeling pretty good about things in Utah.

I mean, they could be a lot worse.

Utah Jazz forward Kelly Olynyk, left, shoots as Los Angeles Lakers forward Anthony Davis defends during game Sunday, April 9, 2023, in Los Angeles. The Jazz folded up the tent with a loss to the Lakers to end the season, but they still had a good time doing it. | Mark J. Terrill, Associated Press