The year is 1996. The San Antonio Spurs are coming off a successful season where they won 59 games and lost in the Western Conference Semifinals to the John Stockton and Karl Malone led Utah Jazz. They’ve been to the playoffs for the past 7 years and are not a team willing to give up on a season ... then the basketball gods struck.
David Robinson, who had already missed 18 games that season with back troubles, breaks his foot, and is forced to miss 6 weeks. Speaking of his injury, David Robinson talks about the team’s injury troubles, ''It seems like we've just been snakebit,'' he said.
David Robinson ended up being held out of much of the year and the Spurs finished the season with a very disappointing record of 20 wins and 62 losses. Only the Vancouver Grizzlies and Boston Celtics tallied more losses. The San Antonio Spurs won the lottery, formed the twin towers, and the rest is Spurs Dynasty history.
The first part of this history should feel familiar.
“It seems like we’ve just been snakebit.”
The Utah Jazz for the past two season have been battling injuries like a termite infestation that’s made its way to the foundation. Last year, the Utah Jazz survived the injuries through Gordon Hayward’s All-Star season, Joe Johnson finding the fountain of youth, and Contract Year George Hill™️.
This year, the Jazz’s talent well has run dry. With injuries to key players Joe Johnson and Rudy Gobert, the Utah Jazz are struggling to compete with any team on any given night. Their trademark defense still shines through, but the offense is anemic and a cure is not found on the roster. Add in injuries to potential in waiting Dante Exum and now Ricky Rubio ... and the point guard position has suddenly been thinned out to a level not seen since 2015-2016. Quin Snyder himself said there’s no “silver bullet” for this season.
But there could be a silver bullet for next season: a one year tank.
But before we talk about a tank, let’s talk about how Utah left the door open for this scenario after the Hayward decision.
Utah knew—because it was impossible not to know—that attempting to re-sign Hayward meant going all in. They were willing to go far above the salary cap and into the luxury tax to keep Hayward—not just by signing Hayward, but George Hill and Joe Ingles. While George Hill rebuffed the Jazz’s extension offer before the playoffs began, the Utah Jazz signed Joe Ingles to a pretty substantial sum. In place of George Hill, they traded for Ricky Rubio. The Utah Jazz even traded up twice in the NBA Draft to snag Donovan Mitchell and Tony Bradley. They were all in.
Now it’s easy to go right back to the table and try to win it all back which is what the casino wants. That’s the sunk cost instinct in all of us. We are valuing the past that can’t return rather than reevaluate the present with a fresh pair of eyes. So what did the Jazz do when Hayward, their first choice, was gone with Rudy Gay and Otto Porter Jr. out of reach? They reevaluated their position.
Instead of compounding an unlucky hand with a series of bad mistakes, the Utah Jazz consulted the new face of the franchise, Rudy Gobert, who wanted to go all in on the Jazz’s defensive vision. The Utah Jazz front office knew that this would be an experiment and made sure it could not bleed into another season if it proved to be unsuccessful. They didn’t trade their expiring contracts for players on extended contracts, the players they did sign were only on 1+1 year contracts with Utah controlling the team option. They would go all in on the new face of the franchise’s vision, but if the Frankenstein experiment got out of hand, they could pull the plug.
Now let’s get back to the present. While the Jazz’s Frankenstein can defend (currently ranked the 6th best defense in the league), it can’t score (5th worst offense in the league). Now the limbs are falling off the creature with injuries mounting, and the creature left the castle on its first extended road trip. Not only that, waiting for the creature at home are foes of greater strength and abilities. It’s a tough December stretch that leads right to the trade deadline.
Dennis Lindsey who practiced patience in not overreacting in the offseason must now seize on the moment. Good General Managers make smart decisions when things go sideways; great General Managers steer the ship around the obstacle before it ever has a chance to hit the iceberg. Lindsey, after all, was with an organization with experience in this area: the San Antonio Spurs. A lot of what Dennis Lindsey has done with Utah has its origins in San Antonio:
- Hiring a coach that you can have for the long haul.
- Finding players in the late lottery and end of the 1st round that exceed their draft position value.
- Being aggressive in the draft for the players you want and not being content with best player available draft strategy.
- Investing heavily in player development.
- Investing in player health (training facilities, training staff)
- Bigger reliance on analytics
In fact, Dennis Lindsey has already performed the one year tank strategy once before. He allowed the expiring contracts of Al Jefferson and Paul Millsap to slide off the books and he let his inexperienced roster led by Gordon Hayward and Derrick Favors take their lumps. Adapting his strategy to the conditions he’s surrounded by is Dennis Lindsey’s M.O.
So what would a Jazz tank look like? Well ... luckily for Utah a tanking strategy would not involve a massive gutting of the roster. The Utah Jazz already have an incredibly difficult schedule from now until mid January that would make even a full strength Utah struggle to win 5 games. Undermanned, this team is going to struggle with extended road trips against playoff caliber teams.
The real key is going to be once Utah begins to return to full health as the schedule eases up. In a challenging Western Conference, by the time January rolls around, Utah could be all but officially eliminated from the playoffs because of just bad luck. Like Quin Snyder said, there’s no magic bullet for this season, but there is one for next season.
All of Dennis Lindsey’s moves in the offseason were made with an escape hatch. Ricky Rubio? His contract becomes an expiring deal this summer right as free agency hits. They can help teams escape their salary cap hell with his contract. The same goes for Alec Burks. At the trade deadline, the Utah Jazz can offer Derrick Favors or Joe Johnson to a playoff contender looking to dump salary and add a piece to their run ... but at a premium.
Most importantly, there might come an ethical question of resting players for Utah. Greg Miller over the summer said that he just didn’t find tanking ethical—which I believe. It’s not in this franchise’s blood. But if in January Utah is looking at the potential of being in the mix for Michael Porter, Marvin Bagley, or Luka Doncic ... well ... they might change their tune.
Dennis Lindsey’s offseason deliberately postponed any decisions that would affect the franchise longterm; that was deliberate. This entire franchise wants to be able to show this fanbase that they can make it up to them. This offseason, daddy came home from the store without the toy we wanted for Christmas. They want to make it up to us. Is Utah willing to do what it takes to get this franchise back on its upward trajectory?
I believe Dennis Lindsey is willing. It’s just a matter of getting the fanbase, the ownership, and the players to buy into the vision of taking one step back to take two steps forward. The visible intentions of tanking might not be seen until January or February, but the Jazz opened the door to this possibility months ago.