About a month ago, Ty Corbin was asked if he planned to name a team captain. His response was that there would be no one captain. “We have 13 captains,” he said. More recently when asked the same question, Corbin’s response was unchanged: 13 Captains. The Jazz would epitomize team play. It would be Rule By the Masses. Democratic Basketball. No one player in charge; the entire roster, top to bottom, to be accountable for every loss and responsible for every win. Everyone getting a paycheck would also get playing time.
Just like actual democracy, this is a great idea in theory. The ideal of the whole being greater than the sum of the parts has a romantic, Constitutional Convention, Whitman-esque appeal that attracts everyone from political speechwriters to corporate team-building leaders to fans of Jerry Bruckheimer movies. The idea–that the land of milk, honey and professional glory is just around the bend as long as everyone sacrifices ego and selflessly works together–drives the philosophy behind a team like this: a team with no All-Stars (not even Paul Millsap) and no clear frontrunner for the Future of the Franchise (not even Gordon Hayward or Derrick Favors).
So a 17-19 team with glaring problems (and a road record (3-13) that would make even the most optimistic of fans wince) appears to be failing the experiment. The team is either not properly “summing” or the parts are so wanting in talent and quality that no amount of togetherness could push them to success.
The team’s failures certainly aren’t related to off-court chemistry problems–and any lack of on-court chemistry is nothing as bad as the B.L. (Before Lin) New York Knicks. On the other hand, it would also be inaccurate to ascribe the mounting losses to a lack of talent, like the New Orleans Hornets. If anything, the Jazz are widely considered one of the most talented, albeit young, teams in the NBA. [Editor’s note: The Jazz have talent, but no star talent. The NBA is a league of stars and a case could be made that the Jazz don’t have a top 30 player.] So if the Jazz aren’t suffering from the two major obstacles to the “Pure Teamwork” Success Model, why are they still suffering? Why are they still losing to the Sacramento Kings and the New Orleans Hornets of this league?
Team basketball! Ten deep every single night! 13 Captains! Working together! So why aren’t they better? Why do we have to endure the pain of following sub-.500 basketball? The problem with this Utah Jazz team is not a problem with a lack of “team-ness” among the players. In fact, just the opposite is true. The problem might be that the current Utah Jazz are too much of a team. Too many players avoid taking the leadership role–to the detriment of the team. The very togetherness that powers the 13 Captains experiment is also often the quality that drives down the level of basketball.
Consider the benefits of playing as a team. As a unit, the flaws of one player can be covered by a teammate. Last year’s champs, the Dallas Mavericks featured Jason Terry, a relatively poor perimeter defender, but DeShawn Stevenson and Shawn Marion are not. Thus, they hide Terry’s poor defense. However, Shawn Marion and is a sub-par outside shooter, but Jason Terry, an excellent outside shooter, can stretch the defense and hit momentum-swinging threes when Shawn Marion could not. Similarly, Dirk Nowitzki could carry the scoring load for the team but could not defend the rim. Tyson Chandler, whose scoring capacity is negligible, could do what Dirk could not: defend the rim. The final product is a team that has a cover for every flaw. The individual shortcomings of each player become negated. Thus, we have a nearly perfect team, if not the perfect group of players.
But what if a team was so close as a unit, that it became one player. What if the boundaries between individuals on a team became so blurred that the team itself behaved like a single player. Then this team, though working together as one unit, would merely be a larger iteration of one player: talented in some areas, flawed in others, subject to the range of human characteristics and emotions. Characteristics like laziness, unpredictability, and inconsistent greatness and emotions like despair, anger, frustration, relief and joy. Though a team is really nothing more than a label for an arbitrary group comprised of individuals, the individuals on this Jazz team have become so intertwined in performance and in feeling that it’s impossible to treat them any longer as a team. They have collectively entered the realm of human expression, and it is likely to their ultimate failure. This oneness of the team will drive it to entirely collapse on difficult road games, where a more fragmented collection of individuals, like the Miami Heat for instance, could ride the strengths of certain players to victory. This team has no such luxury.
To judge this year’s Jazz by wins and losses might be missing the point. We are experiencing the noblest kind of fandom: Affection for that which may fail. This is a team that is both occasionally terrible and frequently lovable, and the 13 souls that comprise the whole should be enjoyed and appreciated.