Utah Jazz coach Quin Synder wasn’t fazed when he found out that starting point George Hill’s toe injury would keep him out of Thursday’s Western Conference semifinal against the Golden State Warriors. After all, what else is new?
The Jazz used 23 starting lineups during the regular season because players missed 168 games with injuries, and both All-Star Gordon Hayward and top center Rudy Golbert missed time in the first-round 4-3 series win against the Los Angeles Clippers.
“I think the constitution of the team includes resilience,” Snyder said. “I think on a fundamental level that’s something that we’ve talked about. You hate to say that practice makes perfect, but we’ve experienced it so much that I don’t know if it’s as discouraging because we’ve overcome it.”
Utah’s mounting injuries has made it even more impressive that Snyder has guided the Jazz, a young team with no superstar, into the second round of the playoffs, where they trail the Warriors 2-0 in the best-of-7 series entering Saturday night.
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Snyder, who rehabbed his career partly through stints in the NBA Developmental League and the EuroLeague, has plenty of experience with resilience. The Jazz franchise and their current coach have followed the same path over the past 20 years — constant success, followed by hard times, and then a remarkable resurgence.
While the Jazz were a perennial playoff contender in the 1990s and early 2000s, Snyder was a rising coaching star in college basketball, first serving as an associate head coach at Duke and then leading Missouri to four straight NCAA Tournament appearances (including an Elite Eight) in his first four years leading a program. Snyder’s name was almost always included in stories about possible successors to Mike Krzyzewski.
But as the Jazz’s fortunes turned, so did Snyder’s. The Mercer Island, Wash. native was fired after missing the NCAA Tournament for three straight years, and Missouri was then charged with multiple NCAA violations that occurred under his watch.
Mockingly nicknamed GQuin because he was presumed to be more style than substance, Snyder was forced to start anew as a coach with the D-League Austin Toros, followed by stints as an assistant with CSKA Moscow, the Philadelphia 76ers and the Atlanta Hawks.
Meanwhile, the Jazz hadn’t won a playoff game since 2010 and bottomed out with 25 wins before Snyder took over before the 2014-15 season. Snyder has increased the win total each year from 38 to 40 and now 51.
Of course, Snyder, 50, took a lot from his experience under Mike Krzyzewski at Duke, where he played from 1985-89 and coached from 1993-99, especially when it came to his relationship with his players. He said the main lesson was to have “vigorous communication … even when it doesn’t appear you need to, and to do it in a way that’s sincere and effective.”
Jazz forward Rodney Hood, who spent two years at Duke, saw similarities between his college and pro coaches.
“They’re similar as far as their attention to detail,” Hood said. “They never have an off day — they bring the energy. X’s and O’s, it’s different, but as far as intensity they’re about the same.”
The attention to detail was also what Utah starting forward Joe Ingles said was a defining trait in Snyder.
“If you catch the ball a foot over from where you’re supposed to, a lot of people think it doesn’t matter,” Ingles said. “But he’s so driven by those details, for us being a young team it’s what we needed early on.”
Coincidentally, Snyder is now coaching against Mike Brown, who is leading the Warriors while Steve Kerr recovers from complications following back surgery. When Brown was coaching the Lakers and looking for an assistant, Brown’s good friend Danny Ferry recommended Snyder, Ferry’s former teammate at Duke.
“(Quin) is a great communicator,” Brown said. “His demeanor is great, guys are drawn to him, and he knows his stuff. They execute very well, they have very few bad possessions, spacing is terrific, guys all seem to want to play for one another, and all that usually comes from the foundation that the coach lays.”