The Utah Jazz are Quietly Disrupting the NBA

In a copycat league where several teams try to follow the latest trend, the Utah Jazz are becoming a threat in their own way as they quietly disrupt the NBA.

You don’t usually hear the names Utah Jazz and Clayton Christensen used in the same sentence. Dr. Christensen is from Utah, he started at Oxford as the center for the men’s basketball team and he was known as an avid basketball player during his student days. But the connection ends there.

As a student, Dr. Christensen was drawn into management studies. Right now, he is an esteemed Business Professor at Harvard Business School. When he speaks, companies listen. He is credited with coining the term “disruptive innovation,” which is a big mantra in the market.

Without going into too much detail, a disruptive innovation is something that displaces established market leaders. The more I watch the Utah Jazz’s body of work, the more I am inclined to draw the comparison between the market concept of disruption and what the Utah Jazz have built.

Back in the day, teams with great lumbering giants once controlled the hardwood. After the 3-point line was installed, the game slowly started to move towards putting more of a premium on the long range shot. As the great big men of the past slowly retired, the game opened up to focus more on pace and shooting.

Currently, that evolution of the game has taken big strides as the premium right now is on stars who can shoot. No one in their right mind would bet against Golden State and their accurate shooting. Most kids at my gym want to be like LeBron James or Steph Curry. I rarely see a post up practiced.

That fast pace and quick shooting may be the latest trend in the league, but how do you disrupt those shots? With length of course.

The Utah Jazz’s starting lineup is capable of switching endlessly.

Enter Dennis Lindsey who took over Jazz in 2012. Since then, he has assembled an incredibly long team. Even before George Hill came in, the Utah Jazz’s starting lineup was capable of switching endlessly. Utah’s starting big men can get out and guard near the three-point line. While we cannot say for sure if assembling a long and athletic team was his vision to begin with, he saw an opportunity (to switch endlessly on the defense) and a way (draft and team culture).

Disruptive innovation begins with such an opportunity. Some visionary sees an opportunity, a gap or an unmet need. The visionary slowly starts to chip away at the opportunity, but not directly competing with the big names. Due to the subtlety of that tactic, the big names do not pay attention to the visionary, because of the nature of the segment or opportunity that they presume to be unattractive.

Then by the time the big names realize that there is competition, it’s too late. The visionary has already amassed a stranglehold in the area. The big names have no way to compete in that way and with the hold, the visionary can slowly move into other areas, and further disrupt the status quo of the big names.

There is one distinct characteristic of disruptive innovation – it presents a different package of attributes, which, at least at the beginning, is not valued by existing competition and existing customers.

But enough of entrepreneurial concepts. Back to basketball.

While everyone was transitioning to a guard-based league, Lindsey saw an opportunity. He wanted to create a long, defensive group of players, who would play the game to their strengths, even though a defensive group who grinds down their opponent is not very valued in the NBA right now (would the NBA rather broadcast UTA vs. MEM or GSW vs. HOU?).

Yet, what is often lost in Golden State’s historically good shooting is their defense. Klay Thompson is very underrated on defense. Dray and Iggy are top notch. Shaun Livingston can guard 1 through 3. With their death lineup, they switched repeatedly and made offenses pay.

What Dennis and Quin did was to take the lineup of death and seek to make it work for 48 minutes.

Just like disruptive innovators, the Jazz began to assemble talent. When Utah started building the team, nobody noticed. I would argue that Jazz management first realized the opportunity after they drafted Rudy Gobert. They saw what Gobert was capable of and already had a defensive stud in Derrick Favors.

Enes Kanter’s injury meant the Jazz finally had a chance to play Rudy Gobert and Derrick Favors together. The rest, as they say, is history. Offensively-talented Kanter was jettisoned, while Rudy emerged as the franchise center.

What we are witnessing right now is the emergence of Gobert as a franchise player. I don’t believe opponents can any longer hide the shorter player on Rudy while having centers guard Derrick. Rudy has taken the star turn, and it is up to the Jazz to build on top of what should be a redefining disruption for the rest of NBA.

What Dennis and Quin did was to take the lineup of death and seek to make it work for 48 minutes.

While the rest of the league was trying to mimic Golden State, Lindsey started to build a team that can switch 1- 5, and oh boy has he done that well. That’s where Favors is indispensable for this team (more on that in another article). While fans clamor for Trey Lyles, and rightly so for his silky-smooth shooting touch, he has a long ways to go on the defensive end.

Almost every team now has a stretch power forward, but Favors is unique in that he can make them pay on the offensive end and bottle them up on defense. Oh yeah, and I should mention that he is just 25 years old and barely entering his prime as a big man.

Lindsey saw a need last year for depth. While the Jazz were versatile and could match up with anyone in the NBA, nobody can plan for injuries. The NBA is a game of matchups, and if you are not versatile, it is difficult to win without a superstar.

So this offseason, Lindsey went all in to build an incredibly deep squad, which has been able to withstand numerous injuries this season while holding on to a playoff seed. He may not be the favorite to win Executive of the Year just yet, but that’s exactly how the market treats disruptors at the beginning.

So, Lindsey took an unattractive segment (grind), saw an unmet need (long players who can switch endlessly), an opportunity (with Derrick Favors and Rudy Gobert), and a way (draft and team culture). That is how disruption happens. The basis of disruption is the opportunity. Unmet needs. With the league trending towards guard-driven pace, the Jazz invested in versatility and length. They felt like they could build with giants walking the hardwood once again.

To be fair, it takes some luck to be disruptive. But then again not everything is about luck. While people can say Utah lucked out with Gobert and Hood, Lindsey’s genius should not be diminished for nonchalant misses from other executives. Lindsey has also created a team culture, akin to San Antonio – a culture where players will be willing to sacrifice for a greater good.

Even with all the players, you need a good coach. Quin often does not get credit, but he changed his offense when he recognized what Utah was building. He modified his fast-paced Euro offense to become the lowest-paced offense in the NBA to fit his players’ strengths.

Steve Kerr was once part of what the exhilarating Phoenix Suns were doing back in the late 2000s. Although they ran into the last great big man in Tim Duncan almost every time, Kerr saw an opportunity with big men retiring. He saw a chance to install a similar scheme with historically good shooters in Steph and Klay. Kerr was a visionary who disrupted the league.

Now the rest of league is trying to be like Golden State or at least to match up with them. GSW did disrupt the NBA for the past few years, but like every big name company that eventually falls, though they improved their strength in the offseason, they potentially made a crucial mistake by weakening their interior defense. They focused on the market forces and bought out the competition in OKC.

Because, in a level playing field, GSW is constructed to eat every single similar competitor alive. But they are not ready for the disruptors.

Does that mean that the Jazz can beat Golden State? Probably not right now. They are not healthy enough to challenge Golden State and Draymond’s unapologetic mouth. But this is still how disruption happens. It starts slowly, takes time and when it is ready, it engulfs the big names in a hurry.

Why do great companies get disrupted? Because they cater to the competition that they know, focus on them and ignore the unattractive segments, where disruptive innovations emerge.

Finally, I do sincerely hope that the Utah Jazz continue their path of disruption and focus on building the team around the team’s collective length and their twin towers, instead of going the path of so many other teams in the NBA. Because, in a level playing field, GSW is constructed to eat every single similar competitor alive.

But fortunately for the Jazz, while Golden State is equipped to defeat any of their imitators, they are not ready for the disruptors.

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