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SALT LAKE CITY — Five seasons ago, taking over as head coach of the Utah Jazz, Quin Snyder did not inherit a job filled with pressure when it came to winning.
The Jazz were committed to rebuilding when Snyder was hired, having jettisoned most of the team’s talent. In essence, there wasn’t much point in grading Snyder’s performance until the Jazz were in position to win.
That time came three years ago, after management acquired multiple veterans to blend with a promising young core. Snyder responded well, guiding the Jazz to the playoffs for the last three seasons.
Still, the Jazz were viewed nationally as a good team with a few decent players that posed no serious threat to any of the contenders in the Western Conference. All that changed over the past few weeks.
After trading for point guard Mike Conley and signing sharpshooter Bojan Bogdanovic as a free agent, the Jazz now are viewed by many as possessing a roster good enough to push for an NBA championship. The amount of pressure now on Snyder and his coaching staff matches the highest expectations the Jazz have faced in many years.
Snyder’s team is much more than a cute story out West. The Jazz had better win in the regular season and have postseason success.
“Once you start winning, I think you feel more pressure as a coach than you do when you’re trying to build a program,” former BYU and Fresno State coach Steve Cleveland said during an interview on The Zone Sports Network. “Now, there’s a lot of angst that you go through when you’ve got a team that is not very talented and you feel like you’ve got to coach every play and be involved in every possession. That takes a toll, too, but I don’t think that you get when there’s a significant expectation.”
Cleveland can speak from experience, having experienced both ends of the spectrum. He coached teams shy on talent, and then also those who were expected to make the NCAA tournament during his time at BYU.
The intensity of the pressure always was equal to the level of expectations, he said.
During the 1997-98 season, coming after BYU won one game the prior year, Cleveland was praised for guiding his team to a 9-21 record. Despite reversing the record six years later, Cleveland needed to get his team in the NCAA tournament to avoid major criticism (BYU did make the tournament that season).
“There wasn’t a great deal of pressure until you turned (the program around), and then there was. I think that’s true at every level,” he said.
“Going through that process, there was a lot of sleeplessness nights and just having a pit in your stomach most of the time. That’s not a lot of fun, but that’s kind of what comes with the territory.”
Snyder, no doubt, could relate.
Once the Jazz were good enough to make the playoffs, Snyder coached them there. Three years ago, they won 51 games and earned the No. 5 seed on the way to upsetting the Los Angeles Clippers in the playoffs, subsequently getting swept by the Golden State Warriors in the next round, basically as expected.
Two years ago, after losing Gordon Hayward and George Hill, the Jazz again got the No. 5 seed and then surprised the Oklahoma City Thunder in six games. It hardly mattered that the Houston Rockets ousted the Jazz in five games in the second round.
Even after the Rockets bounced the Jazz in five games this past season in the first round, the players and coaches faced little pushback. Not anymore.
In a more competitive Western Conference, another five seed and a first-round playoff exit won’t be good enough. The feel-good story this upcoming season only happens after tangible improvements during the regular season and in the playoffs.
Not that any of this would surprise Snyder, who likely relishes the opportunity to coach the most talented team he’s had in Utah. If all goes as expected, this will be his best coaching performance.