Will Hardy has done a lot of lineup and rotation experimenting this season, and it’s paying off
As Jazz coach continues to tinker and experiment with the lineup, the wins are coming
Athletes are incredibly habitual. It’s true that the mark of a great athlete is an ability to adapt and adjust, but make no mistake, they really like it when things are routine and predictable.
The problem is, sometimes when things stay the same, they can grow a little stale.
“There’s definitely things that we did from a lineup standpoint that maybe weren’t on the bingo card at the beginning of the year. I think sometimes when you’re forced to do things, it can definitely reveal solutions that you wouldn’t have maybe gone to.” — Jazz coach Will Hardy
At the beginning of the 2023-24 NBA season, the Utah Jazz had a group of players starting that had mostly played with each other last season. The familiarity was a source of comfort for many of the players on the team.
Obviously with John Collins and the incoming rookies, the Jazz were trying to incorporate some new members of the rosters and they were going through some of the normal growing pains that come with that. But there were also issues cropping up that couldn’t be attributed to acclimation of new players.
There were spacing issues that were clearly an issue of fit, there was stagnation and more often than not after losses everyone mentioned how communication needed improvement.
Jazz coach Will Hardy is not afraid of change or experimentation, but also understands that the ecosystem of a locker room is delicate. So, one of things he really wanted the team to buy into, especially as he saw that things were a little off, was that everyone was going to need to be flexible.
The memo was clear — nothing is set in stone. That goes for starting lineups, closing lineups, rotations, length of playing stretches, positional use and number of minutes from one night to the next.
So Hardy started to tinker with the lineups and rotations, initiating some of the experimentation that has been so prevalent this season. He implemented a number of different types of defense, forcing the players to ramp up how much they were talking on the court. Then a slew of injuries hit the Jazz, one after another, and experimenting with rotations and lineups became a thing of necessity.
The silver lining was that even though Hardy was forced to try out a lot more than he had anticipated, he found a lot that worked along the way.
“There’s definitely things that we did from a lineup standpoint that maybe weren’t on the bingo card at the beginning of the year,” Hardy said. “I think sometimes when you’re forced to do things, it can definitely reveal solutions that you wouldn’t have maybe gone to. I think also it’s just created a level of buy-in from the team.”
Regardless of contract size, duration, level of experience, or any preconceived expectations, Hardy will field the best players for the moment in an attempt to give them the best chance at winning, and it does feel like there has been buy-in on that philosophy from the players.
“I think it just shows our depth and that we can win in a lot of different ways,” Collin Sexton said. “You’ve just got to be ready when your number is called.”
Easier said than done. The Jazz have had 12 different players on the roster featured in the starting lineup at some point this season and have had 15 different five-player combinations play at least 30 minutes combined this season.
As a result, the players have sometimes struggled with the unknown and have had to really think on the fly. But even that fact has a silver lining, as some players have pointed to it allowing them to learn and grow in ways they wouldn’t have expected this season.
Hardy is willing to accept that his decisions aren’t always going to be the right ones and he’s the first to admit that he doesn’t have everything figured out. But with the recent success that the Jazz have had — winning 11 of their last 15 games after Monday’s victory over the Bucks — there is a feeling that maybe all of the retooling and tinkering might have led them to a good spot.
All of that being said, Hardy knows that he can’t expect his players to forever live in the unknown. After all, that natural, habitual nature will creep in and tug at players eventually.
“I think changing things up is always good,” Hardy said. “Being able to be flexible mentally is always good, not only for the players but for the staff too. But there is a balance. I’m not trying to create chaos for us.”
Rather than being a team that is constantly changing, where players aren’t able to really sink their teeth into a role, Hardy hopes that his team is one that finds some familiarity and comfort at times, but can also be willing to change without it hurting the feeling of togetherness.
“I want our team to be used to change and understand that this can be a strength of ours,” he said. “That may be abnormal, but that’s what works for us. And I think we have total buy-in from the group and part of that is because we don’t hide from it. We talk about it openly with them so that they understand what the thinking is behind it.”
There are times when there are disagreements and there are times when players wish that things could be different, but everything is done with a lot of communication so there is rarely any confusion.
Maybe on the first day of the season Hardy didn’t think that he would start a rookie eight games in. Maybe he wouldn’t have started Kris Dunn and Sexton next to one another. Maybe he wouldn’t have played Walker Kessler, Kelly Olynyk and Jordan Clarkson off the bench, or played Collins primarily at the five.
But in doing so, the Jazz have been able to put together more wins in the last three weeks than they had in the first two months of the season. So even if there are some disagreements or some learning curves, the results speak for themselves.