At long last, Utah Jazz overcome small market stigma as impressive culture wins the day

PHOENIX, ARIZONA - MARCH 13: Rudy Gobert #27 of the Utah Jazz is congratulated by Donovan Mitchell #45 after scoring against the Phoenix Suns during the first half of the NBA game at Talking Stick Resort Arena on March 13, 2019 in Phoenix, Arizona. (Photo by Christian Petersen/Getty Images)
PHOENIX, ARIZONA - MARCH 13: Rudy Gobert #27 of the Utah Jazz is congratulated by Donovan Mitchell #45 after scoring against the Phoenix Suns during the first half of the NBA game at Talking Stick Resort Arena on March 13, 2019 in Phoenix, Arizona. (Photo by Christian Petersen/Getty Images) /

The Utah Jazz seem to have finally overcome their long-held stigmas and misconceptions as the team’s culture and prolific roster attracted significant talent to their ranks this summer.

If you know anything about the Utah Jazz, you’re probably aware that luring in top talent in free agency has never been the team’s strong suit. For several reasons, including market size, questionable location (to those unfamiliar with the area), assumptions about Utahns (which are often misconceptions) and lack of championship appeal, Salt Lake City and its NBA team have long been overlooked.

It’s been such a troubling issue that not only have the Jazz struggled to bring players into their midst, but they’ve even had a difficult time keeping hold of their home-grown stars. Look no further than the likes of Deron Williams and Gordon Hayward for prime examples. Both had incredible moments of their career with the Jazz (especially Deron). Both had phenomenal coaches in Jerry Sloan and Quin Snyder, respectively, and played in exciting playoff situations.

But at the end of the day, the perceived negatives of Utah were too steep to allow the Jazz to overcome the allure of larger markets and other brilliant opportunities. When it came to bringing in talent from other teams, the Jazz were usually overlooked, seen as a backup plan, or, in the rare case of Carlos Boozer, simply the lucky highest bidder.

For years, the Jazz organization spearheaded by former general manager now Executive VP of basketball operations Dennis Lindsey has tried everything in its power to change their image and transform into a destination that’s appealing to players. That has taken a colossal effort, beginning with installing a respected and savvy head coach in Quin Snyder and putting together a winning basketball program.

But even victories weren’t enough. Sure, the Jazz managed to lure in an aging Joe Johnson, one of the biggest free agent signings in team history to date, largely based on an opportunity he saw with a George Hill and Gordon Hayward-led squad, but for the most part even a good team hadn’t been enough to attract talent. The summer that Hayward departed, the Jazz were left to dig around the bottom of the barrel for whatever free agents were left.

Sure, some of that had to do with Gordon delaying his decision, but even if he’d stayed or made up his mind sooner, I’m not sure Utah’s fortune would have changed, despite rumors that Kyle Lowry had expressed interest in joining the Jazz and becoming one of the team’s most storied free agent signings.

Even a year ago, after the Jazz had advanced to the second round of the NBA Playoffs after defeating the star-studded Oklahoma City Thunder featuring Russell Westbrook and Paul George, the team wasn’t able to make any major offseason moves. Yes, the organization operated largely under the pretense that it wanted to run things back with its former squad and save up flexibility for the 2019 offseason. I’m certain there was a lot of truth to that. But I’m also relatively confident that such a decision came largely due  to a lack of interest from outside free agents.

However, after yet another year in which the Jazz returned to the playoffs, Rudy Gobert won a second straight Defensive Player of the Year Award, Donovan Mitchell arose as a star on and off the court, in spite of (and to some extent perhaps because of) his small market status, the Jazz chemistry, culture and coaching finally turned some heads.

And Utah had their best offseason ever as a result of it.

That offseason began with trading for prolific point guard Mike Conley, who only furthered the already rapidly improving reputation of the Jazz. As evidenced by winning both the Community Assist and Teammate of the Year Award, Conley will be a perfect addition to Utah’s community and locker room. He’s a guy that other players want to play with. Just ask Jeff Green who signed up to play with the Jazz on a veteran’s minimum largely because of his affinity to Mike Conley, according to a recent article (subscription required) from The Athletic’s Tony Jones.

Green doesn’t represent the Holy Grail of free agent signings by any means. But he’s a valuable and versatile veteran that brings a lot to the table. He had several suitors this summer. But he chose Utah over everyone else. He chose a team chemistry and locker room that is second to none. He chose teammates that want to work hard and win. His choice was on a higher plane than simply picking the highest bidder or largest market size.

The Jazz were also handpicked by another one of their free agent signings Emmanuel Mudiay. Mudiay is even less of a splash than Green, but it’s not so much about who he is, but rather how he chose his destination. According to several reports, Mudiay and his agent didn’t wait for the Jazz to come seeking them, they proactively came to the Jazz. Feeling that no organization or head coach could help Mudiay finally reach his full potential like Utah’s could, he wanted to come to a team where he could blossom.

In other words, as part of Lindsey’s culture revival, he made sure that the Jazz became reputed for their ability to develop players and expand their game. Assistant coach Johnnie Bryant deserves a lot of the credit there, but of course it’s a well-rounded effort that heavily involves Quin Snyder as well.

23-year-old Mudiay didn’t see Salt Lake City as a sleepy town with nothing to do outside of basketball. He saw it as a place where he could go to work and refine his craft. He chose development and growth on the basketball court over passing pleasures other markets could offer. Once again, the Jazz culture won the day.

The Jazz also added Ed Davis, who no doubt had plenty of suitors as well. While his story for joining the Jazz may not come to light until he’s officially signed, what we do know for certain is that he’s reputed as a solid locker room guy and an outstanding contributor in the community. Those two things are what the Jazz are all about.

He likely saw that and knew he’d be an immediate fit and that this Utah group would provide him with all the opportunity he’d need to play a major role on a competitive team. Fit, competitiveness and opportunity ruled the day.

Most impressively of all, the Utah Jazz added one of the biggest free agent signings (arguably the biggest) in their history in forward Bojan Bogdanovic. Though he’s somewhat under the radar among most NBA fans and probably most of Jazz Nation, he’s an incredible talent that should fit the Jazz seamlessly as a third scoring option behind Mitchell and Conley.

But Bogey is far from just your average third scoring option. He’s a guy that led his former team, the Indiana Pacers, to the playoffs in the wake of an injury to their star Victor Oladipo. With Oladipo sidelined, Bojan dropped over 20 points per game and showed a variety of skills on both ends of the floor in the process.

The fact that Bogdanovic chose to sign with a small market isn’t all that surprising. He’s a reserved, low-key guy who just wants to win. In fact, his initial preference was to stay with the Indiana Pacers where he’s coming off the best two years of his career.

But ultimately, the Utah Jazz won him over, snatching him away from the incumbent favorite. How did they do it? Not by promising glitz or glamour. Not by showering Bojan with tales of by-gone championships or a storied history. No, they convinced him to join because what the Utah Jazz offered spoke for itself – a brilliant roster made up of winning guys and an excellent culture, an incredible coach, and a chance to do something really special.

In a recent conversation with the IndyStar, an outlet that covers Bogdanovic’s former Pacers team, Bojan expressed as much with the following meaningful quotes:

"“I really treated Indiana like my home. I spent a great two years over there. I played my best basketball there. I was with Indiana always. Then the Jazz, with the roster, was big for me.”“It was close. Indiana really treated me well. The organization, the GM, the president were pretty cool with me. We had a great team. I really wanted to stay there (but) then, when I see the offer from the Jazz, and then I saw the roster and the opportunity that I would have here it was big-time for me. That’s the reason why I left.”"

In other words, Indiana did everything right. And to their credit, they’ve built a similar culture as the Jazz in that they have an excellent chemistry and they go to work. That reputation landed them a formidable player of their own in Malcolm Brogdon.

But at the end of the day, for Bojan, it was the Jazz that won out. As he stated, one look at the roster, the opportunity, and the caliber of guys Utah could allow him to play with, and he was sold. (And, of course, the fourth year guaranteed on his contract obviously didn’t hurt either).

Lastly, in describing his decision to choose Utah, Bogdanovic added the following:

"“Seeing that we have Conley, Donovan Mitchell, and Rudy Gobert – that’s the best defensive player in the league – that was huge for me to decide.”"

Again, it has taken the Jazz a while. It took losing a star in Hayward, sinking to the ultimate pit of despair, then replacing him with a new star in Donovan Mitchell and rising to heights that didn’t go unnoticed by the rest of the league, but Utah finally achieved a roster, mentality and organization that attracted impressive talent.

At long last, the Utah Jazz’s culture arose victorious.

Another thing that Bojan touched on was the defense of Rudy Gobert and in essence, the defense of the team as a whole. The defensive end has been a calling card for the Jazz for several seasons. And players that want to go to work and defend hard have found that appealing.

When speaking on Bogdanovic, Dennis Lindsey recently stated that defense is a non-negotiable to play for the Jazz. Bojan obviously knows that, and he’s a far better defender than he gets credit for or than many Jazz fans likely know. I expect that will only improve during his time in Utah and Dennis is obviously confident of that as well.

Bogdanovic wasn’t pulled away in free agency to a team with a large market or that was adorned with All-Stars. He went to the one that focuses on defense, plays basketball the right way, and has a well-rounded roster, a team-first approach, and a loaded first and second unit that can compete for a championship. He chose the team that provided the best opportunity imaginable for him.

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The summer of 2019 has certainly been a memorable one for the Utah Jazz. And no matter what the next few years have in store, I have a feeling that it will long be remembered as the summer where the Jazz turned over a new leaf.

The summer where the culture that the entire organization has toiled so long to build finally paid off. Where they were finally able to overcome the onslaught of stigmas surrounding them and burst through to attract meaningful talent.

It could very well prove to be a summer that changes everything for the franchise.