In the midst of a trying portion of Utah’s preseason, speaking with media ahead of a loss to Oklahoma City that later that night would serve as a jumping off point for maybe his most passionate and impactful monologue since taking over as head coach, Quin Snyder made a simple statement that nonetheless captured much of his approach to this profession — and to everything he does.
“I think in anything, if you’re trying to improve or grow, there has to be room for failure.”
To many, this probably sounds like recycled coach-speak. Platitudes on intangibles like hard work and sacrifice are standard in every pro sport, and it’s easy enough to dismiss anything down those lines as rah-rah jock talk intended only to give the media something to chew on for a few days. With Snyder, though, you have to dig a little deeper.
Talk is cheap, but how many coaches would be so thoroughly comfortable embracing their own words, particularly within just their first few weeks at the highest level in the world for their profession? Snyder’s own predecessor wasn’t, in all honesty.
That’s exactly what he did, though. No one expected a gigantic overnight turnaround when he arrived; a smart fan base understood it would take time. Still, even the most patient supporters were tested. Utah’s 6-19 record in mid-December precisely mirrored that of the previous ugly year, the excitement of an unexpectedly positive preseason and Gordon Hayward’s buzzer-beater over LeBron’s Cavs in early November quickly wearing off. You’d never have known it the way their coach handled the pressure.
“The results may never come the way that we want them to,” he told Salt City Hoops as training camp wound down a year later. The sentiment could have simply been an echo of the dozens of times he made similar statements during the team’s tough run to open his tenure. Snyder was building something from the ground up, embracing the “skip no steps” philosophy that’s become synonymous with the team’s ethos. Jazz fans were introduced to a new approach — process and attention to step-by-step progression stood out above all else.
Things started to click around the new year… and then they really started to click, in a way that very few, even Snyder, could have anticipated. The way the Jazz closed the year would have seemed crazy for a group that lost nine straight and 12 of 13 just a couple months prior. Had Quin’s bunch flipped a switch from laying groundwork to building skyscrapers in such a short time?
“I think execution is part of the process,” he said before listing off the steps. “Knowing what to do; being able to do it; and then being able to do it against competition; and then competition on the highest level. I think that is the process.
“A lot of time’s there’s no way to force that. You can only grow so fast.”
Grow they did, as individuals and collectively. It’s easy to forget that teams this young aren’t just evolving as basketball players — they’re growing up as men. For most in Utah’s locker room, this was their first chance to do so within such a productive culture. All the analytics in the world will forever struggle to account for the sort of self-realization that took place when the puzzle pieces begin to fit.
“To approach something a certain way, and to philosophically understand how you want to do it, gives you the greatest opportunity to see those things happen,” Snyder said.
Personal connections began to foster amid a greater cumulative progression. The dynamic with guys who’d been around in previous years felt newer, fresher. He’s just “Quin” now when most players, especially team veterans, mention him to the press. Things aren’t always hunky dory, of course — Snyder’s lengthy practices when he’s unhappy with the group’s progress are quickly becoming infamous around the team — but the interplay between coach and player is symbiotic.
“There’s just a general relationship that evolves, not just between you and individual players but between you and a team collectively,” Snyder said. “I think they’re accustomed to some of my idiosyncrasies, whether those be some emotional outbursts or reactions to things they think are less important than I do… [They understand] my approach to adversity and trying to be a stabilizing force for them.”
“I think he’s a little more trusting in us,” said Gordon Hayward when describing the flip side of the coin.
Their mettle will be tested here in what might be the franchise’s most important season since Jerry Sloan sat on the bench. Success like what the Jazz accomplished to close last season puts a target on your back while simultaneously raising expectations; the floor looks a lot further away when you’re trying to scrape at the ceiling.
Nothing at either extreme end of the spectrum will pull Snyder from his methodical approach, though. He waxes poetically surprisingly little for a guy more adept at conjuring a shockingly useful metaphor out of thin air than any of the writers who cover him; “You caught me at a point where I’m not ready to psychoanalyze myself,” he laughed when I tried feebly to pry some deep life lessons from his time in Salt Lake City1.
His strong statements last week after a loss to the Thunder were just a more forceful way of maintaining what’s been his approach all along. Getting wrapped up in a whirlwind of hype isn’t productive for anyone, even if it’s deserved. Staying grounded, both during successes and failures, is the trick.
His group has mostly been able to do that, but far be it from Snyder to credit some sort of secret sauce only he’s in possession of.
“There’s no magic formula,” he said of the culture he’s helped foster. “There’s a commitment that our players have made that, hopefully, we can continue to build on… I know what we believe in: we want guys that work hard and are unselfish.”
The expectations for the Jazz have grown higher than nearly anyone could have expected when Snyder took the reins. Not only are they receiving the sort of national attention that over-zealous fans seem to covet so badly, they’re so many experts’ “sleeper pick” that a natural backlash has even begun. Is a team even a “sleeper” if everyone is picking them? Has a 30-game stretch created unrealistic expectations for a group without a single core player over 25? Are we all getting way too ahead of ourselves? These are fair concerns, and ones Snyder himself addressed vocally.
Regardless of what he said, though, he’s the most powerful individual counter the Jazz have to that line of thinking. Not on his watch will any of his players rest easy or grow a fat head. He has the tactical chops to weather the inevitable pushback from the rest of the league, and the tenacity to focus his group on every little detail even when things are going well and they’re comfortable.
At a time in NBA history when the importance of coaching is better understood than ever before, the Jazz have their man in Quin Snyder. There’s no telling what another year might bring.