Here’s something I’m sure you’ve heard about the Utah Jazz this season, they’re young. It’s true, with an average age of 25.3 years, only seven teams have a younger roster.
Something else most NBA fans are familiar with is the concept that experience wins championships. Last year, of the four teams that made the conference finals, only the Indiana Pacers were younger than the average NBA team.
In fact, the last team to make the finals while younger than average was Oklahoma City just two years ago. But a team younger than league average hasn’t won the finals since 1990-91 when Michael Jordan and the Bulls broke through for the first time.
What a young team needs to succeed, besides time to age, is a veteran leader or two to help keep the team focus when times get tough. While nobody expected the Jazz to play like the 90’s Bulls or the Thunder from two years ago, they’ve looked to vets to perform this season.
When I asked head coach Ty Corbin what kind of impact vets like Marvin Williams and Richard Jefferson performing well had on his team, he said it was huge.
“It’s a calming effect for them because those guys have been through it,” Corbin said. “They watch and see where situations get intense and they relax and just make plays.”
When the pressure is turned up, not only are the vets able to perform, but they will talk to the young players and help them understand how to handle the situation at the end of games. When the Jazz pulled out their first win against the New Orleans Pelicans, it was in large part due to the play of Diante Garrett, fresh from the D-League. After that game Garrett said Jefferson did a lot to help him stay focused.
“Richard Jefferson came up to me almost after every timeout in the fourth quarter and said, ‘we need you to be aggressive, to be in the right place,’ so I’m like, OK” Garrett said.
John Lucas III has also been a great mentor to Trey Burke as Burke goes through his rookie season.
“I’m always in [Burke's] ear,” Lucas said. “I try to help him see little things and point out the subtleties of the NBA game.”
No win will come easy for the Jazz this year, but the vets make them attainable. As much as Jefferson helped the youngster stay focused during the Pelicans win, he and Williams led the Jazz not just emotionally but with their play in the win against the Chicago Bulls on Monday.
Williams led the way with 17 points and nine boards. While he was on the court, the Jazz outscored Chicago by 14, the best differential for Utah. Jefferson threw in 15 points during his 38 minutes of action. It wasn’t just the vets, Trey Burke had a tremendous outing despite a few errant shots in the fourth and Gordon Hayward played well even though he couldn’t get his shot to drop going just 5-15 on the night.
The longer a player is in the league, the more likely they are to understand how to play well at the end of the game. Corbin recognizes this and believes sticking with experience down the stretch doesn’t only give the Jazz a better chance to win, he thinks it helps his young players see how to handle clutch situations. Corbin even rattled off a list of things the old guys do that the young players can pick up on.
“They get to their spots. They come off hard. Defensively, how they can get into guys and how when the game is on the line how the change in the refereeing of the game happens,” Corbin said. “How much more physical you can be, how much more in tune you can be, you have to be to win those types of ball games.”
In the two wins the Jazz have pulled out this year, Williams and Jefferson have done all those things in the fourth quarter to elevate Utah. The duo scored a combined 22 points in the two fourth quarters of games that Jazz won, or 42.3 percent of total fourth quarter points in the wins.
If experience does indeed correlate to wins, then the Jazz will be improving soon. Andris Biedrins practiced at full speed for the first time on Wednesday. That means even though the Jazz are the eighth youngest team in the league, they’ve been playing with a much younger roster during the first fifth of the season. Biedrins is excited to get back on the court and help out the younger guys.
“I can always talk to them and make sure they’re doing alright,” Biedrins said. “Obviously if they have a bad stretch they can’t put their heads down. (I can) just make sure they’re going to stay focused and play as a team.”
While this year has accurately been pegged as a youth movement in Utah, veterans are necessary for any team to succeed. The real fun in being a Jazz fan is seeing young players grow towards their potential, but having a few veterans help seal a victory or two along the way feels pretty good too.