Right around a year ago, the future of the coaching position for the Utah Jazz was both unknown and somewhat disheartening. The Ty Corbin era, ushered in with full backing from legend Jerry Sloan after his slightly messy departure, had fallen to shambles in Ty’s last couple seasons. Corbin and his new front office appeared at odds in philosophy to the trained eye, particularly in his final year; he leaned on veterans even late in the season when the playoffs were an impossible task, at times instead of awarding valuable development time to the franchise’s younger pieces. He bristled with media, resisted even the slightest tweaks to his increasingly dated approach, and often made silly and inexcusable tactical errors both within games and in the larger picture.
The crumbling of Sloan’s protégé, coupled with Jerry’s own imperfect exit, left Jazz management and fans in a strange and completely unknown place: uneasy and uncertain about their coaching situation. Not since the late 70s had the job been anything but a lock, a box checked out of second nature. Now the franchise was reportedly considering candidates from all over the place – from legendary European bench bosses to college guys to a former Utah figure who couldn’t even hold it together for more than a couple years up the hill at the Huntsman Center.
And then, in early June, Quin Snyder was hired. To many at the time, he was as out-of-nowhere as any of the other candidates involved; a former college “flame-out” in his own way1 who’d bounced around the league as an assistant and a D-League head man, one with a seemingly equal number of plaudits for his on-court approach and player development as question marks about his personal history and reputation.
So how did he do? Let’s take a look.
Some of this grade, like most in this piece to a degree, will be incomplete. Quin was up front about his desire not to rush his young group schematically, repeating early and often that the primary goal was a mastery of the basics before a leap to anything more complex is attempted. This mantra takes its strongest form on the offensive end, where systems can become complicated in a hurry – particularly for teams like the Jazz making a full-scale overhaul from previous seasons.
That doesn’t mean he did badly by any stretch. The Jazz eked out a league-average offense on the year, and unlike their defense did so mostly from the start of the season despite the learning curve. That they did so with such weak play from the point guard position, along with generally subpar distance shooting and over 2,000 minutes for a highly limited offensive piece in Rudy Gobert, is nothing to sneeze at.
A big part of this was his work with his group on the offensive glass, particularly Rudy and the other bigs. The Jazz were the league’s best offensive rebounding team by percentage and its most efficient following their own misses, per Synergy Sports, and only the Pistons attempted more field-goals of this variety. Teams in this category often sacrifice points on the other end, but Snyder played the other side of this coin perfectly – he stressed transition defense from his frontcourt from day one and was punitive with his punishments, on more than one occasion seeming to pull a guy from a game simply because he wasn’t hustling back well enough. The Jazz gave up the fifth-fewest transition chances in the league, a true accomplishment for a team so aggressive on the offensive boards.
Quin’s in-game play calling was good, if not yet transcendent. The Jazz were also roughly average league-wide in efficiency on plays after timeouts, per Synergy, and while some of this is obviously lesser offensive personnel than many other teams, this lines up roughly with the naked eye. Some of his sets were great, others fell flat at times. This is a tactical whiz we’re talking about, so expect improvement as he continues to increase his comfort level.
Ditto for much of the rest of the offense. This side of the ball is often a longer process than the defensive one, and it wouldn’t be surprising at all to see a gradual development much like the way Utah’s defense came on in the latter half of this season, only with a different timetable. Improved personnel will help, as will an expected willingness to add layers with his group to keep opponents who were growing wise to their mostly vanilla scheme last year on their toes. Snyder should also stress attacking odd-man opportunities in transition more frequently. It’ll be fun to see how much he can get out of this group.
It’s easy to simply say “Rudy Gobert” and move on from this category entirely, but this is a disservice to Snyder’s work. Many already know the stat, but that the Jazz managed easily a league-best defensive efficiency figure over the latter months of the season both with and without the Stifle Tower on the floor is proof enough that more was at work here.
What’s more, the evidence of Quin’s handiwork was visibly apparent to anyone watching the team closely. A core that spent much of the previous couple seasons practicing a number of bad habits came into this year doing much of the same… until they weren’t anymore. Watching them go from a number of talented individuals to a cohesive unit in a matter of months was a sight to behold at times.
Their rotations, often uncoordinated and bordering on useless under Corbin, became tight and purposeful as the year wore on. Snyder dialed back the pressure from his bigs in most pick-and-roll situations2, building an inside-out group that ran teams off the three-point line3 before terrifying them at the very idea of penetrating the paint.
The foundation has been laid for one of the league’s dominant defenses for years going forward. Snyder is smart and ruthless on this end, good with individual matchups and more than willing to toss an unexpected wrinkle – say, a full-court press, something the Jazz did as well as any team in the league4 – into the mix. Assuming personnel remains similar and he stays behind the bench, this group will be suffocating teams for the foreseeable future.
Snyder’s calling card before signing on with the Jazz was his development of talent, and he succeeded nearly everywhere. His greatest accomplishments might be with the depth on his roster; the Jazz were riddled with injuries to their wing rotation much of the year, but there were times one would hardly notice it. Guys like Joe Ingles and Elijah Millsap were “rookies” in an NBA sense, but at their advanced ages could hardly have been expected to progress much skill-wise – but both did, and they weren’t alone.
Quin also gets huge credit for his frontcourt, Derrick Favors in particular. Derrick’s work offensively in the pick-and-roll was good before this year, but he added dimensions like a short roll free-throw-line jumper that kept defenses from simply sitting on his rolls to the hoop. He improved as a passer and more generally as a thinker on the floor, more in tune with schemes on both ends. Snyder deserves some of the same credit with Gobert’s game, though he has more work to do going forward in that regard.
He takes a bit of a hit for his point guard spot, unsurprisingly. Trey Burke was a major disappointment in his second year, although it’s pretty clear at this point he’s just a limited player overall. Some of his more “coachable” elements – things like court awareness, shot selection, and defensive positioning – either stagnated or even backslid some. Snyder gets more of a pass on Exum, but it’ll expire in short order if the young Aussie doesn’t show quite a bit more on the offensive end within the next year or two.
In a cumulative sense, however, it’s hard to be anything but pleased. Quin will have even more to work with talent-wise moving forward, and if he continues to see the sort of leaps several guys made this year on a consistent basis, fans might be forgiven for dreaming of a Finals berth before the decade is up.
What’s higher than an A+? Can we create a new letter just for this occasion, perhaps?
Snyder was a sensation among die-hard Jazz fans almost from the beginning. His death stare became the stuff of legend around the league within a couple weeks, and his generally animated demeanor on the sidelines endeared him to a fanbase that’s, shall we say, often similar from the stands.
The same was true with his players. To a man, guys went out of their way to praise his work and mention him in scrums – we’re not talking run-of-the-mill coach support here, but something well beyond that. His ability to make himself relatable and fun to play for was well-known before he arrived in Salt Lake City, and he showed it to be far from an undeserved reputation. It’d be hard to find many examples in any sport of a guy who presented himself with such class and respect after coming into his situation with question marks almost exclusively focused on personality-based issues.
Sappiness alert: On a personal level, Snyder’s approach meant something to me as well. This was the first year I found myself lucky enough to attend Jazz games as a credentialed media member, and without question the part of the process I looked forward to the most on a regular basis was the first task of a given game – Quin’s pregame scrum.
In a sporting world where athletes and coaches shaming reporters5 is becoming a vogue practice, Snyder is cut from a different cloth. No question is too silly, no line of thought too outlandish. He looks you in the eye and gives you a thoughtful response no matter what, and furthermore will go for days on my preferred tactical subjects. I honestly can’t remember a single time, injury questions and such aside, where he downplayed a question or attempted to show someone up in even the slightest way. As I mentioned in a separate ode to the man, this is someone who’s almost assuredly the smartest person on the subject matter at hand in any room he walks into in Energy Solutions Arena – but you’d never know it for a moment.
The Jazz have their man for the future at the helm. Quin Snyder is the complete package, with the on-court smarts and progressiveness to lead a team in today’s NBA and the mental stamina and personality to succeed off the floor as well. There’s no telling how far this group can go if they’re willing to follow him every step of the way.