Sometimes, a season can seem really rough for a team and its fanbase. This season has been one of those for the Utah Jazz, in more ways than one. A lot of losses piled up early, rookie point guard Trey Burke was injured in the preseason, and Utah looked a lot like a team without any identity.
Now, more than halfway through the 2013-14 NBA season, the Jazz look as if they’re a team with an identity, even if they’re still losing plenty of games. So what creates an identity for a team, and why is that such an important thing?
For starters, look at any of the recent NBA champions. The Miami Heat, Los Angeles Lakers, San Antonio Spurs, Boston Celtics, and Detroit Pistons all had a strong identity when they hoisted the Larry O’Brien trophy above their heads. The Pistons were the Bad Boys, the Celtics were the original Big Three, and the Heat were pretty much Marvel’s Avengers.
All of these teams were successful because they understood what it was about their team that made them successful. Once the players realized that, they wer unselfish enough to play within a system that fostered their special talents, and resulted in winning the NBA championship.
With Utah in rebuilding mode, developing an identity for this team is absolutely key. Think back to the years of Deron Williams, Carlos Boozer, and Mehmet Okur. Those Jazz teams were known for their brilliant execution in the halfcourt offense, and for hardly ever losing at home. During the 2007-08 season, Utah sold out every single home game, Boozer was an All-Star, Williams was a rising star, and the Jazz went 37-4 in Salt Lake City. When visiting teams stepped into the EnergySolutions Arena during that season, they knew what to expect.
That identity carried Utah to plenty of playoff appearances, only to have their post-season runs thwarted by the Los Angeles Lakers. But those Jazz teams were tenacious, full of fight, and tough to beat on most any given night.
This current Jazz team, with a core comprised of Burke, Gordon Hayward, Alec Burks, Enes Kanter, and Derrick Favors, needs to find its own identity. These players need to find a game plan that works for them on most any given night, and do their absolute best to play that way every single night.
One way to do that is by getting wins against the bigger teams in the NBA. A couple weeks ago at home, the Jazz managed to topple the Oklahoma City Thunder. Kevin Durant scored 48 points, but Utah still pulled out a very improbable victory. This win is incredibly important, for a number of reasons.
Hayward had the game of his NBA career that night, scoring 37 points on 13-16 shooting. Burke, Favors, and Burks all had huge contributions as well, and the team as a whole looked more together and on the same page than they have all season.
Wins like that give a team something to build on. After a tough loss, the Jazz can always look back to that win at home against the Thunder and feel good about their effort, regroup, and move on to the next game.
That manifested itself in San Antonio last Wednesday when Utah rallied in the fourth quarter, losing only by four points in the Alamo City, a place that’s been notoriously difficult for the Jazz to win in this century.
That marquee win against Oklahoma City almost seems as if it blew new life into the season for Utah. They proved that they can hang with the big boys of the NBA, and beat them when their game plan falls exactly into place. For a young team looking to develop its starts, that’s huge.
I think there’s a lot to be said for the Jazz adopting a sort-of underdog mentality. They’re currently a team without one dominant star, and may stay that way depending on what the draft in June brings. But either way, playing with a bit of a chip on your shoulder is never a bad thing. If Utah can adopt a permanent attitude, and make a statement simply by stepping onto the court, that would do wonders to speed along the development of the young talent.
Last season, I drew comparisons between the Jazz and the Memphis Grizzlies. Despite Memphis’ recent struggles, I still think that comparison has merit. The Grizzlies have two great big men in Marc Gasol and Zach Randolph, and both of those players have found a way to work together in the starting lineup, and their play has really given Memphis a ‘grit-and-grind’ sort of attitude.
The Grizzlies are a grind-it-out, hard-nosed group of players, and that attitude is what helped them make the Western Conference Finals last season, and take the Thunder to a thrilling seven games two years ago. Gasol has been injured for a good chunk of this season, which amounts to why the Grizzlies have slipped so far down the Western Conference rankings.
Add to this comparison that Burke could very well end up as a better shooting version of Mike Conley, and the case for adopting Memphis’ attitude becomes even stronger.
Success in the NBA comes down to being willing to sacrifice for the better of the team, playing your heart out every single night, and finding a will and desire to win at all costs. Once Utah figures that out and adopts an attitude that helps them play after that fashion, this team with all its talent will be very difficult t beat.