SALT LAKE CITY – Above and below the Utah Jazz in the standings, teams throughout the NBA’s Western Conference made significant changes to their rosters in the offseason.
The Los Angeles Lakers led the way, adding the game’s best player in LeBron James to an improving team. The Houston Rockets, Oklahoma City Thunder and San Antonio Spurs – all teams expected to compete well with the Jazz – will have a different look going into the NBA season. Even the Golden State Warriors, the two-time defending NBA champions, signed All-Star center DeMarcus Cousins as a free agent.
But not the Jazz. They basically stood pat, choosing to return virtually the entire roster from last season with rookie Grayson Allen as likely the only newcomer with a chance to contribute.
“We do have a good portion of our team back,” said coach Quin Snyder. “We have continuity, but this is a new year. Someone told me the other day about picking up where we left off. I don’t want to pick up where we left off. That implies it’s the same group beginning to do something. This is a new journey.”
For multiple reasons, Jazz brass prefers to leave last season behind and focus on the current task. The team exceeded expectations last season after losing their best player, Gordon Hayward, to the Boston Celtics via free agency.
For the second consecutive season, the team won a playoff series before losing in the second round. The difference is the 2016-17 nucleus broke up the following offseason.
Speaking during the team’s annual Media Day this week, Snyder and general manager Dennis Lindsey stressed that last season’s success does not guarantee anything this year. The players are getting the message.
“It’s a new season so we still have to start fresh,” said swingman Joe Ingles. “We’ve got the majority of our team back now, but we’re still starting fresh.”
In addition to avoiding complacency, maintaining last year’s level won’t be good enough this time around. The goal to improve is made difficult by trying to match last season’s 29-6 finish that lifted the team to an improbable playoff berth.
Winning at last season’s blistering pace over the final 35 games might be impossible, but here’s where the continuity becomes a benefit. With all the talent intact, there is no way the Jazz should be nine games under .500 as it was last January.
“Expectations, one way or the other, are external evaluations of our group,” Snyder said. “We can have an expectations that we’re going to be good or an expectation that we’re not going to be good. Neither one of them have any real impact until you start playing. And even then, as we saw last year, when we didn’t play well early, the expectation was that we would continue not to play well and we didn’t.”
The decision to return the same players was not made arbitrarily or without options. Lindsey chose to go this route based on extensive research and off his experience in the league.
Lindsey cited his time with the San Antonio Spurs, with coach Gregg Popovich preferring not to make significant changes to the roster at the midseason trade deadline.
Even with bringing back 14 players from last season, the Jazz probably will have to increase the level of play to earn home-court advantage in the first round. Most of the legitimate contenders have improved, not that the Jazz are concerned about the competition at this point.
“We have to focus on ourselves first,” said point guard Ricky Rubio. “We know that the Western Conference got tougher, but at the end of the day it’s about us getting better. I think last year we did a pretty good job of getting better during the course of the season.
“I think we’re going to do the same thing now. Of course, it’s fun to play in a conference where the level is so high, but that’s only going to get us better because we’re going to work harder and be more ready. It’s about us.”