Expectations are such an interesting and a tricky thing. One of the keys to a happy life is having realistic expectations, right? You want your expectations to meet with reality so you’re not left disappointed time and time again. If your expectations are in line with reality, you’re good to go.
Expectations are something that we as Jazz fans have dealt with for quite some time: we were used to being a perennial playoff team when John Stockton and Karl Malone were in their prime. Then, when Jeff Hornacek came around, we were a consistent championship contender. Once the window on that opportunity closed, expectations were drastically lower once John Stockton retired and Karl Malone made the short jaunt to Los Angeles. That Jazz team (2003-04) was supposed to be awful: Chad Ford even predicted they would break the NBA’s record for futility. What followed was a surprisingly thrilling brand of basketball, led by Andrei Kirilenko and his do-everything game. Because reality was much better than the low expectations, fans seemed incredibly happy with the product that year.
After a short rebuild, the team returned to playoff contention with the Deron Williams-Carlos Boozer-Mehmet Okur core. Where fans’ expectations possibly became unrealistic was after the Western Conference Finals appearance, which should have had an asterisk by it given that we got the easier team: the 8th-seed Golden State Warriors. But now fans’ expectations were set—and the media fueled it by continuing to refer to the Jazz as the team that needed to return to the Western Conference Finals. The only problem was that the team didn’t get any noticeably better and still had major gaping holes on the defensive end. We kept hearing about how the team just needed more time together. That felt a little flat; it didn’t ring true. The defense was too porous, and even the offense was too limited: Boozer and Okur could only do so much offensively and were easily taken out by longer, taller defenders.
Part of the difficulty for so many Jazz fans, it seemed, when they drafted Gordon Hayward, was that so many had been hoping for–expecting?–a franchise-changing player with the Knicks pick. Similar to how closely Jazz fans followed the Golden State picks in recent years, we followed the Knicks pick, cheering each Knicks loss, knowing it would bring us closer to drafting the franchise-changing player we desperately needed. (Side note: you’d think after the emotional rollercoaster that the Knicks pick-watch offered Jazz fans, we’d have learned better for the Golden State pick-watch; alas, we did not.) I still remember all the booing that happened with the Hayward pick, with Kevin O’Connor asking for fans to give two years before making any judgments on that pick. Given that he played himself into a maximum contract, I think we can agree that Hayward was a pretty dang good pick at #9.
I feel like I got used to really tempering expectations the last several years. I’d get super excited to see the young players play, knowing that we were going any further than maybe an 8th-seed playoff berth as long as Al and Paul were around. But I kept hoping we’d get more minutes for the young guys and see if a defensive foundation could be built. But that promise was never realized and I was disappointed. Unrealistic expectations? Or just unmet expectations?
So now, this year, is finally the year I feel like I’ve been waiting for the last few years. The young guys are going to get playing time. And we’re going to see what they have (or what they don’t have). Hayward will be playing without the stress of playing without a contract; instead, he’ll have the stress of living up to that contract. Burke will be able to play without rookie-and-deer-in-the-headlights sort of a thing. Being a rookie point guard is hard; hopefully his defense and his shot selection will show the improvements you expect 1 in a second-year player, especially one of his maturity.
But where I’m having a really hard time is tempering my expectations for Dante Exum. I know he’s young. I know he’s a rookie. I know he’s just barely 19. 19! I know he hasn’t played against top-level competition yet. But you see glimpses of his game that are tantalizing. We’ve needed someone with that it factor for so many years; is he that guy? Are my expectations unrealistic? And then after Rodney Hood’s fantastic game (following up a poor-shooting one) last night, it’s hard to not get ahead of myself and think, Maybe we can be better than everyone expects this year. Maybe the new coach and offense, mixed with improved players and a couple of talented rookies, maybe that’s what we need to see an exciting brand of basketball that fans can really get behind again. Can Rudy Gobert be the defensive presence that we need? Can Trey Burke and Dante Exum man the point together? Can Hayward live up to his new contract? Will Derek Favors develop a better offensive game? Will Burks break out this year? What will we see from Enes Kanter?
Expectations. Unrealistic, or realistic? Where do you stand, Jazz fans?