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Utah’s continuity plan has undone last season’s success

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This isn’t the first time the franchise has tried continuity, and it didn’t work last time either

NBA: Boston Celtics at Utah Jazz Russ Isabella-USA TODAY Sports

Continuity.

That’s a word that every single Utah Jazz fan knows by heart and has heard a thousand times, parroted by the front office, coaches, players, media and fans (SLC Dunk is certainly not excepted in this). It was the PR department’s ace-in-the-hole and we ate it up.

I’m going to talk a lot about continuity in a moment, but first I’d like to paint something of a picture for you to truly set the scene.

Story Time

Heading down the back stretch of the season, the Utah Jazz were quickly establishing themselves as a team in the Western Conference that nobody wanted to meet on the court. After a highly disappointing early season, the Jazz had shuffled the roster at the trade deadline and managed to create a truly suffocating defense.

So good was this Jazz defense during the post All-Star stretch that the difference between their league-leading defensive rating and the second-best defensive rating was equal to the difference between the second and 19th. The contrarian frontcourt of Rudy Gobert and Derrick Favors was a meat grinder for opposing offenses and questions about whether they could play together seemed to melt away.

Complimenting Utah’s terrifying defense was a young, up-and-coming offensively-gifted wing and a surprisingly good Joe Ingles. Add the injection of Dante Exum into the main rotation and the Jazz had a long-term championship foundation to build on. Sure, the season ended with a fairly disappointing loss to the Houston Rockets, but the future was bright.

With the framework already set after the mid-season trade and ensuing late-season dominance, Dennis Lindsey and Quin Snyder did very little in the offseason. Why would they? Practically everything was set in place. The team would add a piece in the draft to give them more depth and improve from within. And so, the Utah Jazz entered the following regular season with minimal roster changes.

Have a good mental picture? Awesome, you now have a fairly decent representation of the 2014-15 post All-Star Jazz what led up to the start of the 2015-16 season.

Yep. There’s your first surprise of this article — the Utah Jazz have been in this situation before, and in the not-so-distant past to boot.

To be fair, there are plenty of differences between the two situations. The 2014-15 Jazz didn’t make the playoffs, finishing the season at 38-42. Joe Ingles was not the rotation staple he is today (he was a rookie in 2014-15) and Dante Exum tore his ACL between the ‘14-‘15 and ‘15-‘16 campaigns.

But many similarities remain. Gordon Hayward was just 24 years old and finally had his first efficient season as the number one offensive option for a team. The team had a defensive rating of 97.6 through the last 29 games of the season and the fifth-best net rating in the league over the same span of games.

What went wrong?

Do you remember the 2015-16 season? Maybe, maybe not. It ended unceremoniously with a 40-42 record and a fourth straight season missing the playoffs.

Likewise, this year’s Jazz are rounding second base on the way to a disappointing season — almost disastrous considering the lofty expectations set in the offseason (I was in the camp that thought Utah could be the two seed in the West).

So, what exactly went wrong in these scenarios? Well, where the Jazz expected continuity, instead they got complacency. The front office and coaching staff assumed that keeping the core of a team together and not mixing things up will help them avoid signing the wrong player or unwittingly a glue guy leave the team. It’s a conservative and sensible approach.

The conservative approach isn’t inherently bad, but it has its fair share of negative side effects. The positive is that usually, teams don’t implode. In fact, the 2015-16 Jazz had a better record than the previous season despite some injury trouble with Rudy Gobert. And even with Utah’s current dilemma, they probably won’t be significantly worse than last season.

The problem with the “continuity” route is that it provides very little room for true improvement and leaves the door wide open for complacency. It also lulls everyone into the harmful line of thinking that everything that went wrong in the last season will get fixed while every good thing will carry over to the new season.

There’s also one more thing that most of us seem to forget: the NBA changes. If you don’t adapt, you get left behind. The Jazz aren’t the only team learning this the hard way. Philadelphia, Boston and Houston are also being taught the same painful lesson. Meanwhile, Toronto finally figured out that its continuity wasn’t getting it anywhere and ditched its coach and brought in Kawhi Leonard — and look where it’s gotten them.

Who gets the blame?

Everybody. This isn’t something that gets put on the shoulders of one or even two players or coaches or general managers. Everyone gets a share of the blame. The players get their share because they aren’t executing. Snyder gets a share for not adjusting properly to the altered NBA landscape, and the front office owns a share for thinking the team was already good enough without more help.

With this discussion of blame, though, it’s important to note that this poor start or the underwhelming 2015-16 season does not mean that the players, coaches, front office personal, etc. are bad and/or deserve to lose their job. For every right decision on the path to building a championship team there are 10 wrong paths, and sometimes you can only pick the right path by pure, blind luck. As for the players and coaches, well, the saying “nobody’s perfect” comes to mind.

What happens now?

The Jazz have to adapt. Even if Utah were to correct its current course back to what it managed to do late last season (which is still very possible given how much of the season is left), the team would still fall well short of the ultimate goal.

Perhaps Lindsey knows this and is playing the long game, waiting for the offseason. After all, a couple of well-timed free agent scores and a solid draft pick can do wonders for a franchise like the Utah Jazz. Maybe this past offseason just wasn’t the right time and the best potential pick-ups will become available in the next round of free agency. But if Lindsey and Snyder intend to ride the present iteration of Jazz as long as possibly, it will only end poorly.

I’m not saying there has to be a huge shake-up like a blockbuster trade or major free agent signing. Just look at some of Utah’s recent good moves like signing George Hill and Joe Johnson, drafting Donovan Mitchell, and trading Rodney Hood for Jae Crowder.

These minor moves had significantly positive impacts for the team. None of those moves upset the “balance” or “chemistry” of the team. They were smart basketball decisions that made the team better.

Along with personnel changes, there has to be a change in mentality. One of my biggest fears going into the season was that Utah would lose the massive chip on its shoulder it had all of last season. The whole team took it personally that the league was ignoring them and assumed they wouldn’t make the playoffs. The Jazz had bulletin board material all year long.

In the absence of league-wide skepticism of the Jazz, the team no longer has the same underdog mentality and have instead adapted the entitlement attitude which might be the worst thing for a team that lacks the upper-tier talent of teams like the Warriors who can actually justify their entitlement.

Hopefully losing by 50 points and starting the season 7-7 humbled the Jazz and taught them something, and hopefully they actually do something about it or this is going to be a long season.