I’m trying something brand new this year. I’m rooting for a sports team, watching as many of their games as I can, but not watching any game to the end. I don’t care if they win. I’m looking for improvement, not results. And I’m having a blast.
I have a theory about team sports. When your team wins all the time, that’s not necessarily a good thing. You tend to become complacent about winning; worse, you get arrogant. When your team loses all the time, that’s even worse. You start to get all numb about fan-ness, cynical, even. I know that being a sports fan is absurd; the fun comes when we really embrace that absurdity. What really builds sports fanaticism is when your team is very good every year, and almost wins. Every year, you root like crazy, there are wonderful moments, but in the end, you’re stabbed in the heart. The best fans, the most informed, most passionate, are fans of the Red Sox and Cubs in baseball, the Browns and Bills in football, the Thunder and the Jazz in basketball. The close-but-no-cigar fans.
I have been a big Utah Jazz fan ever since my family moved out here in 1992. And, of course, as it happens, 1992 was a particularly good year to be a Jazz fan. Year Seven of the Stockton/Malone era. John Stockton was one of the greatest point guards who has ever played the game; Karl Malone, one of the greatest forwards. Stockton the passer, Malone the scorer. Stockton stealing the ball, Malone getting rebounds. And they were both fitness fanatics, and lasted forever. It was fun to watch. Salt Lake City renamed two city streets, so when you go to a Jazz game today, the arena is located at the corner of Stockton and Malone.
And then, finally, Stockton and Malone both retired. And we hung in there for awhile, building a team on guys like Andrei Kirilenko and Deron Williams. But all good things end, and last year’s team was, frankly, pretty hard to root for. They played ugly, losing basketball. A mixture of young, unproved talent, and old, past-their-prime mediocrity. They lost, but what’s worse, they looked bad while losing. The single most fundamental play in basketball (and the play we watched Stock and Karl run to perfection year after year) is called the pick-and-roll. And the Jazz last year could not more defend a pick-and-roll than solve differential equations.
I knew the Jazz were going to be bad this year. But I thought there was a chance they’d be interestingly bad. They got rid of guys like Marvin Williams and Richard Jefferson and Brandon Rush, guys who had never been stars and were now at the tail ends of mediocre careers. It was a youth movement all the way, a team with four rookies on the roster. They also hired a terrific young coach, Quin Snyder. And when hired, he said all the right things. The guys on the team were going to grow together, fail together, learn together, improve together.
That’s why I decided not to care if they won or not. And early this year, they lost a lot. They made a lot of mistakes, threw the ball away, got discouraged, couldn’t score when they needed to. But they just kept improving, especially defensively. They can guard a pick-and-roll. And on offense, you can see Snyder’s influence. Their spacing is better. They’re becoming a good passing team, looking for the guy with the open shot. They’re playing the kind of basketball I love, unselfish ball, with everyone touching the ball, working it around, drive and dish.
My favorite guy on the current team has to be Rudy Gobert. He’s 22, and huge. 7′ 1″, with an abnormally wide wingspan. He didn’t even start playing basketball until 2009, when his friends apparently suggested that a guy like him might have more success playing basketball than soccer. Last year, Rudy was big and awkward and hadn’t the faintest idea what he was doing out there. But he worked hard, kept after it, listened to the coaching staff. This season, you can see him improve week by week, game by game. It’s palpable, his growth, his increased understanding. Last year, he couldn’t catch the ball; this year, he’s got pretty good hands. Last year, he couldn’t shoot at all; this year, he’s got a nifty little hook shot, which usually misses, but looks serviceable enough. (In practice, he’s a deadeye with that shot). Above all, he can block shots. He was the 27th pick in the 2013 draft, and looks like a steal.
A big guy needs a passer, and the Jazz took a gamble in the last draft, taking a flyer on a 19 year old Australian kid, Dante Exum. They drafted him on pure potential. He didn’t have good form on his shot, and you can see how inexperienced he is. But his shot has improved a lot this season, and he’s also grown defensively. Last night, he guarded Tony Parker of the Spurs (a certain Hall-of-Fame point guard), and completely outplayed him. Dante’s fast, quick, tall, a leaper, an athlete. He also doesn’t know what he’s doing, but he’s just a kid. And he’s getting so very good at finding open teammates. He could be outstanding.
Until a week ago, the Jazz had a big center, Enes Kanter, from Turkey. Talented player, good shooter, good rebounder, really improving. And Enes seemed happy enough to be in Utah. But his agent, Max Ergul, was, to put it politely, nuts. Kanter was a good player, but he was not, as his agent seems to have believed, “the most dominant player of his generation.” Uh, no. I watched him play, game after game. And to be blunt, Enes Kanter was a bad defensive player. I saw it, game after game; whoever we played, their center had a career night while being guarded by Enes Kanter. Kanter could score, but obviously that doesn’t help your team when you give up even more points on the other end of the floor. Ergul whined and whined about how the Jazz ‘mistreated’ his client, and finally he was traded, to Oklahoma City. He’ll do well there. And the Jazz haven’t lost since he left. Trading Enes Kanter was a classic case of addition by subtraction.
Add Exum and Gobert to a foundation of Derrick Favors, Gordon Hayward, Trey Burke, Alec Burks, and you’ve got enough talent to compete, and the coach to help them get there. And the team should have two first round draft picks in this year’s draft. I know who I want them to use them on: Willie Caulley-Stein of Kentucky and Justin Anderson of Virginia. They both should be around when the Jazz draft, and they’re both perfect fits for Coach Quin’s system. This team is going to be fun to watch.