The Utah Jazz aren’t very good this year. In fact, they’re bad — they’ve got the worst record in the Western Conference, they rank 25th among 30 NBA teams in points scored per possession and 29th in points allowed per possession, and they’re hurtling headlong into the draft lottery. Most people figured this was going to be the case, including us. They have had some redeeming moments, though. Take this past Saturday night, for example, when the Jazz dispatched the Orlando Magic by snatching victory from the jaws of defeat thanks to a closing-seconds 3-pointer from rookie point guard Trey Burke off a feed from third-year swingman Gordon Hayward:
While many Jazz supporters were thrilled by the Michigan product’s late-game derring-do, a certain segment of Utah fans likely offered a minor grumble. After all, at this stage of the season, another win — especially to a team with an even worse record, like the also-bad Magic — just makes it that much more difficult for the Jazz to finish with as bad a record as possible. That reduces their odds of landing the highest possible pick in the 2014 NBA draft. That makes it less likely that Utah’s front office gets the pick of the litter when it’s time to select what fans hope will be the transformational talent who propels the Jazz back to title contention.
Given the lottery structure, and given Utah’s mathematical elimination from the playoffs, the argument goes that there’s very little compelling reason for them to win any more games. By extension, then, there’s very little compelling reason for Jazz fans to be excited by wins at this stage of the season … even if those wins happen to be exciting. This, of course, is part of “the tanking debate.” If you’re an NBA fan, you’ve no doubt heard at least a little bit about it recently.
But while it might be rational for NBA decision-makers to sink to the bottom in pursuit of a faster future come-up, and it might be reasonable for fans who know their team’s going nowhere to hope for a crash-and-burn finish in hopes of striking ping-pong-ball gold come the lottery, it’d be unreasonable to expect players to be cool with being received coolly for actually notching one in the win column. Burke and (to a lesser extent) Hayward don’t seem to appreciate the theoretical lack of appreciation, according to Jody Genessy of the Deseret News:
Should fans cheer for the Jazz to win for pride, fun and lessons learned? Or should fans hope the Jazz lose so they can acquire more pingpong balls for the lottery? [...]
“I think that’s just selfish for a fan. We play hard, practice hard every single day. Why would we want to go out there and try to lose?” Burke said. “Wherever we do land in the lottery, that will be great for us, but to try to tank games and lose games, I think, is just absurd.” [...]
“You want to win. Obviously, every night you want to try to win,” he said. “I’m sure if they were in our shoes and experienced the losses we’re experiencing, they would want to win as well. I just think it’s just absurd.” [...]
“As a player, that kind of sucks that they’re kind of rooting for us to lose,” Jazz captain Gordon Hayward said. “But you see where they’re coming from. We’re mathematically out of the playoffs. Fans just want to be better for the coming years.
“But as players, we’re trying to win every game. That’s what we go out to do. We can’t think about stuff like that.”
No, they can’t. Hayward, Burke and their teammates are paid pretty handsomely — in Hayward’s case, not as handsomely as he’s probably going to be this summer — to do whatever’s in their power to win as many games as they possibly can. The job description of players and coaches is to focus on the short term, the day-to-day, the minutiae of competing and getting better and striving for victory.
For fans, though, it’s different. As I’ve written before, the point of being an NBA fan is to enjoy watching NBA basketball. And, frankly, as Kurt Kragthorpe of the Salt Lake Tribune wrote after Utah got blown out by 20 on their home court by a bad Detroit Pistons team, the Jazz haven’t given their fans very many reasons to enjoy what they’re seeing this season:
This is a forgiving, appreciative sports market, but Utahns never should have to endure another season like this one. There’s a strategy in place to keep that from happening, starting with a high draft pick in June and the development of young players who have shown intermittent promise.
The Jazz have asked a lot of their fans this season, and they’ve stuck with the team to a remarkable degree. Even if the 2013-14 attendance will be the lowest in the 23 seasons of ESA’s existence, an average crowd of 18,000-plus is impressive to me.
The fans in the building obviously care about winning, even when the Jazz stand to gain from losing. They moan about missed shots, buzz when a 3-point attempt floats through the air and celebrate victories, although there’s no comparison to the atmosphere of the old days — like, six years ago. [...]
It’s different now, on the court and in the stands, although Monday’s announced crowd (17,595) was decent, considering the opponent. And most of them were surprisingly tolerant of such a lousy effort, staying longer than they should have and hardly booing at all.
And to be honest, as Amar over at SLC Dunk notes, some of those fans would be well within their rights to jeer the Jazz — for misplaced priorities, if nothing else.
It feels like a missed opportunity for the Jazz to have allowed head coach Tyrone Corbin to devote more time during a clear rebuilding campaign to featuring not-in-the-future-plans veterans like Richard Jefferson (who harbors no false illusions about the way the NBA works) and Marvin Williams than to focusing on chemistry among the five guys between the ages of 21 and 23 intended to serve as the core of Utah’s future — Burke, Hayward, Derrick Favors and Enes Kanter, a five-man unit that’s shared the floor for just 65 total minutes this season. Ditto, to a lesser extent, for finding on-court development time for shot-blocking 21-year-old Rudy Gobert, who’s gotten all of 391 minutes in 38 appearances this season.
To be fair, there were legitimate basketball arguments against going all-in on the all-youth movement. The Favors-Kanter frontcourt has mostly been awful, having been outscored by 17.5 points per 100 possessions in 609 minutes. They’ve been especially bad on the defensive end, where lineups featuring the young duo have allowed opponents to score at a rate that would make the offenses of the Miami Heat, Portland Trail Blazers, Oklahoma City Thunder and San Antonio Spurs jealous.
Utah’s offense has unquestionably worked better with Jefferson (42.6 percent from 3-point range this season) and Williams (36.2 percent) on the floor alongside one of the young bigs to provide spacing in the post and driving lanes from the perimeter. Gobert’s so raw offensively as to be the kind of player defenses barely need to guard. Plus, there’s something to be said for young players being forced to earn their minutes rather than merely awarding them because, heck, somebody needs to play them, and there have been some positive Corbin-sparked developments this season, especially when it comes to ever-improving scorer/ballhandler Burks.
Still, it’s difficult to justify giving what will wind up being more than 3,500 minutes to players like Jefferson and Williams who were never part of the big picture when you’ve got younger foundational pieces (in this case, Kanter and Burks, although it’s more a matter of him playing the two alongside Hayward at the three) who would likely benefit from a healthier helping of those minutes. Plus — and this is where we get back to the fans — “watch the young guys run up and down!” is one of the very few things that a team can dangle in front of its fan base to keep them engaged during a season that everyone expects to be bad. Jazz fans haven’t even really gotten much of that this season.
When the present is a bummer, fans will always look toward the future for a glimmer of hope, a reason to believe that one day soon, it’ll all get better. Of course you shouldn’t want to be booed for winning, Trey and Gordon, and if I actually believed that many Jazz fans — some of the league’s most passionate supporters of the hometown team — were giving you sneering, sarcastic attaboys for making a game-winner, I’d support you telling them where to cram it. But as so often seems to be the case in “the tanking debate,” what’s really going on is probably a bit different than what’s been railed against.
It’s not absurd for fans to want something more exciting than the fourth-slowest pace in the league, Kanter sitting on the bench while Marvdawg provides more reliable spacing, and loss after loss after loss. If a lame-duck coach unlikely to stick around beyond this summer isn’t going to provide it, they’re going to look for something else, like the potential ecstasy of landing a top draft pick who can make thrilling plays … like, y’know, mad-dash drive-and-kicks for game-winning 3-pointers. I didn’t hear very many Energy Solutions Arena denizens booing that, did you? The organization’s strategy is predicated on bringing in another one of those guys this summer. Fans are excited about that. The players aren’t wrong for going all-out, but the fans aren’t wrong for wanting something worth going all-in over, either.
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