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The Downbeat #1708: The Culture Of The Utah Jazz

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The Utah Jazz are on the cusp of something special.

Quin Snyder teaches Elijah Millsap on the sidelines.
Quin Snyder teaches Elijah Millsap on the sidelines.
Russ Isabella-USA TODAY Sports

It is difficult to deny that something special is happening in the Utah Jazz organization right now.  They finished the end of last season on a hot streak.  The pieces started to fall into place.  The roster is young and the coach fit the model that Dennis Lindsey was had been trying to create.  But all the successes, Rudy's rise, Gordon Hayward's ascension into a Tier 1 player, Alec Burks returning from injury, Derrick Favors being a rock in the post, Rodney Hood's late season improvement, Joe Ingles actually being a legit NBA role player, and drafting Dante Exum, those are just occurrences.  I mean they've happened, and that's great.  But each one individually in a vacuum doesn't mean anything.  Even all those things together doesn't mean anything.  It only means something if the Jazz do one thing.  Win games.

That's what the Jazz were able to do with those changes.  But I'm not going to turn this into a "If you don't win games it means nothing" post.  This is something more than wins.  Because even wins are fleeting.  Ask the Phoenix Suns about the last couple years.  They're almost back to the drawing board.  Wins and making the playoffs doesn't mean anything unless there is something holding the foundation together.

Culture.

The Cusp Of Something More

Dennis Lindsey technically inherited a playoff team.  He had the dream scenario of a general manager.  Taking the reigns of a young team that had just made the playoffs.  Pretty special.  Except it was missing something.  The remnants of the Jazz's play tough and earn your spot culture from the Jerry Sloan days was losing its aura.  In its place a system that seemed, on the outside, to reward veterans over younger players regardless of playing ability or mistakes.

The culture that began under Ty Corbin wasn't necessarily a bad one.  It was a win at all costs culture.  In fact, the Utah Jazz had employed that culture during the last days of the Stockton/Malone days.  Trying to squeeze as much basketball ability out of the veterans before John Stockton and Karl Malone called it quits.  That's not necessarily a bad strategy when it is employed correctly.  But it was initiated at a wrong time.

The Deron Williams trade had sent the Jazz backwards on their developmental and competitive curve, but it seemed that most saw that except those inside the Jazz organization.  It is not known if it was because Ty Corbin's contract and others in operations did not incentivize development and gave extra incentives to winning or because of bottom line team profitability pushing for playoff money.  It could have even been for personal pride with players in the organization, coaches, and front office.  Whatever the reason this culture had diminished the value of development of younger players and the incentive that if a young player worked hard they can get significant minutes and monetary incentive.

That changed over the last two years.  The organization became (from an external point of view) more aligned.  I cannot speak to how contracts were incentivized, but it is possible the Trey Lyles' contract situation was an example of these incentives being more in line with development goals and offseason improvement.

The hard thing with creating a good culture is everybody's best interest must to be aligned.  That's a hard thing to do when a general manager has to think about how the team will look in 5 years, the coach has to think how it will look for the season, and the player has to think about HE will look on a second by second basis in the game.  There can be times when these moving parts are out of alignment entirely.  The Jazz had that situation during Dennis Lindsey's first year.  He had a coach on an expiring contract (possibly incentive laden by winning and making the playoffs), veteran players whose contracts were negotiated when the expectations of Utah were to "win now", and younger players who were drafted as part of a rebuilding process that was stunted because of the prior two situations.  Dennis Lindsey's tenure made the situation even more misaligned as he began to mold the team into his alignment during his first year.

But slowly and surely, the veterans who were not incentivized to be part of the culture were let go.  It was a controversial move that they were not traded, but it is possible that Dennis Lindsey and co. wanted to have players in their organization who aligned with their values and were rewarded for aligning themselves with them.  Not just in minutes on the court but money in their bank accounts.  They allowed Ty Corbin's contract to expire and brought on Quin Snyder who had a history of development with the Atlanta Hawks.  More alignment toward their model.

But that doesn't mean anything if there isn't player buy in.  By January, the Utah Jazz began to see the fruits of the general manager and head coach being aligned not just in vision, but in contract and forward thinking.  Players were improving and at a much more accelerated place.

Those players that did not align with the budding culture were jettisoned.  Enes Kanter was traded to Oklahoma City.  When Enes Kanter panned the Utah Jazz publicly, Utah's new culture defended itself.  Players defended Utah and its system.  They even called out Enes.

"He did what he always does. He got his stats. He didn't defend. He took an L (a loss)."

- Trevor Booker, Utah Jazz

The culture had taken hold.  But it is still young.

Culture is not Identity.

Let's not confuse it.  The Utah Jazz's culture is not hard nosed defense and playing a slow tempo offensive game.  That's not who they are.

Quin Snyder doesn't get into the huddle and yell, "HOW WE GOING TO PLAY??"

"SLOW!"

"WHO'S GOING TO SCORE?"

"NO ONE!"

The Jazz's culture from an external point of view is one of internal improvement through incentives and accountability in order to win.  That might sound like every team's goal but it's not every team's culture.  Culture requires buy in and alignment.  Goals just require a poster, a catchy phrase, and a cute picture of a kitten.

What culture also allows is an adaptable identity.  It allows an organization to change.

Take the San Antonio Spurs as an example.  They have been known as a defensive team who wants to slow the game down to a 67-70 finish one year then an offensive juggernaut the very next season.  They have been highly adaptable.  Their culture wasn't about defense.  It was their identity some years, but their culture was one of internal improvement through incentives and accountability in order to win.  So they changed their entire offensive structure to win when they didn't have the parts necessary to comply with their defensive identity.  They changed.  Completely.  Teams without a good culture cannot do that on a dime.  Not enough has been written, said, or praised for their ability to adapt.

The Utah Jazz's current culture is delicate.

One point that I haven't made on this site yet about why the Jazz should not sign or trade for a big name player is the topic of culture.  The Jazz have a culture that is built upon the hard work of its current roster.  Does that mean I am against the Jazz bringing in free agents or other players through trade all the time?  No.  It means the Jazz have a chance to create a culture that could be just as concrete as the Jerry Sloan culture of the 90s/00s.  That is something special.  That would help the Jazz far more than a one year blip in the playoffs.

One more successful year of improvement in this system has the chance to set this culture as the standard.  Last season the sculpture was made, this season it will be bronzed.  If the Jazz were to bring any big name players or even just a few veterans in there is a chance for disruption to occur inside the system.  Think about how much disruption is caused by hiring a coworker in your organization.  Now what if that person leapfrogged a lot of current employees?  It doesn't matter what their pedigree is, it causes disruption, jealousy, and damages the current culture in your organization.  Sometimes that's a good thing when the environment is toxic.  But when it's successful, disruption can make the culture toxic.

Now do I think a veteran would be a bad egg in the Utah Jazz's organization?  Not necessarily.  But it would cause the fear of being replaced if injured.  That could cause mistrust between the players and the organization and put the organization out of alignment.  It can be overcome and most good organizations can overcome it.

What Dennis Lindsey and company would, and I dare say should, ask themselves is, "Is it worth it to disrupt 2 years of momentum for a minimal upgrade a point guard?"  I say minimal because any major upgrade is expensive and most likely not available on the trade market.

Velocity

In Apple Tim Cook's buzzword is "velocity".  He will ask many project managers and VPs if their current initiatives have "velocity".  It's not enough for the project to be on pace.  Is it picking up speed?  He absolutely hates when things fall behind.  That doesn't mean fall behind deadline.  He means falls behind what he thinks should be its velocity.  Velocity also means is it becoming something special?  Is there buy in to the task?  What is the project's perception?  It is so hard for a project to regain that velocity once it's lost.

The Utah Jazz have a culture that is gaining velocity.  Players staying in Salt Lake City to train together.  Chatting on twitter together.  Gordon Hayward inviting Jazz players to train with him in Indy.  General Management making good personnel decisions and getting foreign investments to play in the United States.  The coaching staff is able to have players stay on track with development in the offseason.  There is tangible velocity.  Adding an additional high profile player would cause disruption.  Disruption is not always a bad thing, but in the current case of the Utah Jazz it is an unnecessary thing.

The Utah Jazz are trending up.  They're gaining velocity.  This forward momentum is not because they're young, that they have a good coach, or because they have a good general manager.  Sometime during the next year, pundits will talk about how something special is happening in Utah.  They'll compliment parts of the organization.  But they'll be missing the mark.  It'll be a result of all those elements being aligned and working for each other.  The Utah Jazz will have developed a culture and that will be more valuable to the Utah Jazz and its fans than any player, coach, or general manager ever could be alone.