One Theory on Utah’s Struggles: Not Enough Fun

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It is no secret that the Utah Jazz have gotten off to a slower start than many in Utah and around the league had anticipated. Beyond that, it’s more than just the 9-12 season record that have fans frustrated; it’s the way the Jazz have played.

The team has been sloppy, with 7th most turnovers in the league. Those turnovers have also resulted in the third worst mark for opponent points off turnovers at 19.1, behind only the struggling Atlanta Hawks and Phoenix Suns.

Another concern is that the team was the best defensive team in the league last year and brought the gang back together to unlock the benefits of the much-touted “continuity,” and yet the elite defense hasn’t continued into the first 20 games. Heading into their matchup with the Brooklyn Nets on Wednesday night, the Jazz have an almost perfect average defensive rating, at 108.3.

But why?

Analysts and pundits are scrounging for answers about the slow start and there are numerous theories, some of which hold water. Sure, the Jazz are losing games because they are playing worse defense, or are poor in getting back in transition, or are sloppy with the ball or lack three point shooting. The Jazz are only middle of the road in overall three point attempts, but are sixth best at getting wide open three point looks. However, they are second to last in three point percentage. The mind boggling part of this is that the Jazz were 12th in the league in three point percentage last season with nearly the exact same team!

Like I said, there are numerous theories but I will offer a single theory now: the Jazz are simply not having fun. The age-old chicken and egg argument could be made, of course. “The Jazz are not having fun because they are losing!”

But look at this way. The Jazz had very low expectations, at least externally, after the 19-28 low point of the 2017-18 season. No one outside of Quin Snyder, Donovan Mitchell, Rudy Gobert & Co. really thought the playoffs were realistic at that point, let alone a first-round victory. Playing without that pressure led to the Jazz playing very loose.

Winning probably does help, after all. After a close overtime game in Detroit, that the Jazz probably should have lost, they hit a turning point. They were happy to have Rudy back. Donovan was thrilling everyone. The laughs and smiles were there and the wins piled up. But that overtime win gave them a burst of excitement. “Hey, winning is fun!”

Pressure isn’t all that fun

Move to start of this season. The Jazz were one of the most talked about and hyped up teams coming into the year. Multiple writers and pundits were ready to thrust on the Jazz the mantle of being among the West’s best, outside of Golden State. Houston’s apparent drop-off and roster changes had some pegging the Jazz as high as No. 2. Mitchell was supposed to take a leap and Gobert had the pressure of maintaining his crown as the league’s premier paint defender. Rather than a push to be the best, Gobert already was the best. The point is that this changes things.

They have no chip on their shoulder, nothing to prove, and they aren’t having fun. Honestly, they haven’t looked like they’ve been overjoyed on the court at all this season, outside of a few smiles and jokes here and there. The Twitter joking that happened among the team through the summer has mostly tailed off. It’s still there, but the volume is lower. This is partially due to the busy season schedule, but there is just less outward playfulness than there was a short time ago.

In 2012, former Iowa State women’s basketball star Lindsey Wilson gave some advice to athletes. “Play for the love of the game,” Wilson said. “Play only for the love of the game.”

She goes on to compare the grind of competitive basketball with practice and training to the free and fun-loving play of kids playing driveway hoops.

“A funny thing happens when you play with a love of the game: you play better. When you focus less on results, and more on the process of playing and your love for the game. Nerves disappear, the weight of expectations falls away, and the burden of playing for a scholarship or scouts ceases to be an issue. I call it taking the backpack off. The backpack of all these unnecessary emotions and thoughts comes off and you play free and light and have more fun than you ever thought possible. Just like you played as a little kid in your driveway.”

If the Jazz can let go of the expectations and the hype and start to play free, they may be able to show a glimpse of the team they were expected to be. Until then, it seems like they may just be a shell of their former selves.

Tyler joins Salt City Hoops for the 2018-19 season, having previously written at The J-Notes. Tyler grew up in Utah watching the Stockton-to-Malone Jazz. He now lives in Brooklyn, NY and is an active tweeter at @tjcranman.

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