Quin Snyder built the Utah Jazz’s new foundation. Then he walked away, leaving plenty of questions left to answer

Quin Snyder built the Utah Jazz’s new foundation. Then he walked away, leaving plenty of questions left to answer

Quin Snyder was, in many ways, the primary architect of the Zions Bank Basketball Campus.

It was in that building in June of 2014 that Snyder, fresh-faced but fresh off his first hip replacement surgery, was introduced as the Utah Jazz’s next head coach. Almost eight years to the day later, a little more wrinkled and worn and walking with the help of a forearm crutch after a second hip replacement surgery, Snyder sat in that same building to say goodbye.

What would his legacy be?

“I think the building we’re in right now, metaphorically,” Snyder said at one point, fielding the question during a farewell news conference Monday.

It was Snyder who decided that the facility, the practice center for the Jazz, should feel like a home away from home to players. So when the facility was renovated, he planned the structure to cater to their every need — a living room with gaming facilities, a kitchen with a fireplace, a yoga studio, a barber’s chair. He designed the layout to flow with a player’s entrance to practice, so not a single step was wasted.

When it was completed, he was proud of the facility, a physical manifestation of the culture he wanted in Salt Lake City: familial, modern, winning.

“I didn’t lay the bricks. There are so many other people that did that both figuratively and literally,” Snyder said. “But it is something I feel a lot of pride in having been a part of.”

This week, Snyder told the world that he felt he couldn’t build anymore.

Why?

“It’s something I labored over,” Snyder said, “and you never really have clarity over something like this.”

That will leave those around the building asking some version of the same questions over and over in the weeks to come: What happened? And what happens next?

From worst to first

In the weeks leading up to Snyder’s resignation, the coach talked often with team owner Ryan Smith and CEO Danny Ainge — “a lot of conversations about life, basketball, contracts.”

“I think it’s pretty clear we desperately wanted him to stay,” Ainge said.

If Snyder had made a list of pros and cons, there would have been a number of logical reasons to stay put: He’d built a regular playoff contender in a market that doesn’t fire coaches. He had two All-Stars on a roster that earned a No. 1 seed a season ago. And, looking around the NBA, there aren’t many, if any, job openings more appealing than what he had in Utah.

(Chris Detrick | The Salt Lake Tribune) Snyder during a game in 2014.

But it was always more than that to Snyder.

“He gave his heart and soul to the organization,” former Jazz team president Steve Starks said. “It was never just a job.”

After all, he has been known to burn the candle at both ends, to get precious little sleep when wrestling with how best to solve the problem at hand. That’s how he’d helped turn the franchise around. That’s how the Jazz went on to make the playoffs each of the last six seasons, surviving the departure of All-Star Gordon Hayward and rebuilding around Rudy Gobert and Donovan Mitchell.

In 2020, came veteran additions like Mike Conley and Bojan Bogdanovic. The culture Snyder had built at the Zions Bank Basketball Campus was now backed up by the talent to match his ambitions, and in 2020-21, the Jazz set the regular season on fire with a record-setting offense and a league-best record.

But off the court, there were a number of points of upheaval that risked the culture for which Snyder had worked so hard.

First was the budding discontentment of stars Mitchell and Gobert with each other. Their differing personalities off the court meant that they weren’t ever likely to be close, but it was on-court disagreements that led to problems. Gobert wanted Mitchell to pass him the ball more and live up to his defensive potential, while Mitchell wanted Gobert to play his role, respect his talents, and most importantly, not be so obvious about his displeasure.

Snyder worked hard on that relationship and communicated with both stars, especially in the wake of their COVID diagnoses and the impromptu pandemic offseason that followed. And truthfully, his repair job was largely successful — but it also revealed cracks that would later resurface.

Meanwhile, the Miller family’s decision to sell the team surprised Snyder. His relationship with the family that gave him his first NBA head coaching job was strong and they had stuck with him through lean times.

Critically, they trusted him with real leadership of the franchise: Snyder earned the ability to fully control the personnel on his coaching staff, for example. And, well, they gave him the ability to be an architect, in a figurative and literal sense. They made him a real partner in deciding how the franchise would be run, even outside of the court’s lines. The practice facility and arena were clear examples of this, but Snyder had conversations with people in nearly every department of the company, lending a guiding hand here and there.

Sources described Snyder’s relationship with new team owner Ryan Smith as a positive one, too. Still, it was different and newer.

Smith trusted Snyder, but he did want to be more hands-on and wanted to change aspects of the plan to fit his vision of the Jazz moving forward — a vision he spent $1.6 billion to gain control over. Meanwhile, Smith pushed the Jazz forward in a key way: player salaries. The Jazz exploded into the luxury tax in his first two seasons with the team, and at first, it looked like the money was well spent.

(Chris Detrick | The Salt Lake Tribune) Snyder in 2017. Under his helm, the Jazz made the playoffs each of the last six seasons, surviving the departure of All-Star Gordon Hayward and rebuilding around Rudy Gobert and Donovan Mitchell.

Similarly, sources said, there wasn’t behind-the-scenes friction between Snyder and Ainge.

One player, speaking on condition of anonymity, said he never witnessed any animosity between the coach and CEO, describing the latter as a “fly on the wall” who was “pretty much out of the way.” From the players’ perspective, not only were they not unnerved by Ainge’s presence, he said, despite his reputation for shaking up situations he perceives as not working. They welcomed him and his résumé of championship-winning as both a player and an executive, believing he could only help push the team forward.

But the 2021 playoffs were a failure. Snyder took the loss to the Clippers hard, knowing that the Jazz had disappointed — some of which he blamed on himself, some of which he believed to be due to a roster that had contained weaknesses that the franchise could have addressed.

Snyder and Smith talked multiple times in the final weeks of the coach’s tenure. “We really just shared and I tried to articulate a lot of things,” Snyder said. “It was helpful to me in working through all of this to have those conversations.” But faced with perhaps his most difficult decision, Snyder found himself coming back to the same answer.

No way forward

The 2021-22 season never really got off the ground. COVID cost the team the month of January, and they limped into the playoffs in April as a disappointing No. 5 seed.

Snyder fought ferociously against the forces that were leading his team to underperform. When Gobert sent some veiled criticism Mitchell’s way in a January interview by complimenting Phoenix’s Devin Booker on his defense, Snyder intervened, telling Gobert that he shouldn’t publicly criticize his teammates. But as the Jazz faltered, Gobert’s comments made headlines multiple times during the season.

The fourth-quarter collapses throughout the year — but especially in March and April — were another case of frustrating deja vu. At first, Snyder didn’t want to focus on the collapses because he thought they were caused by repairable errors — fix the leak by stopping it at its source. Eventually, he thought it became something akin to a self-fulling prophecy, with the problem exacerbated the more reporters asked and wrote about it.

(Rick Bowmer | AP) Quin Snyder hugs Donovan Mitchell after winning a playoff series in 2018.

He tried to change the conversation about his team. On April 5, Snyder delivered a 19-minute diatribe to the press before a game, defending his team with both passion and some statistics that later turned out to be inaccurate. It was one of Snyder’s final attempts to wrest control back over a situation that had spiraled. Unfortunately, it too was an unsuccessful salvo: The Jazz lost yet another large lead just three days later, getting beat by a 36-13 fourth quarter in their matchup against the Phoenix Suns.

Those collapses followed the Jazz into the postseason. Snyder later regarded the playoff loss to Dallas as a bit unlucky — he would reference the Mavericks’ hot shooting multiple times in series retrospectives, for example. But he also saw his team’s lax defense, their lack of toughness, and how they had fallen to a 2-1 series deficit while star Luka Doncic missed time.

“Obviously, we all had a tough couple of years with falling short in so many different ways. But we all have a lot of blame in that,” said the anonymous player. “He puts so much on his shoulders.”

And after the Jazz’s season ended, Snyder would have seen more disconcerting signs.

He saw the Jazz’s list of 2022 draft assets was bare — they’re the only team in the NBA without a pick this summer. He saw that their cap room was non-existent, that they couldn’t hope to add difference-making pieces. He saw that the team’s core around Mitchell and Gobert was aging: Conley, Bogdanovic, Rudy Gay, Hassan Whiteside, were all well into their 30s.

So Snyder looked, and looked some more, and didn’t find hope. Not in this situation, anyway. On Saturday night, he came to his final decision.

“In the end, I just couldn’t see a clear path forward,” Snyder said.

Snyder saw the wall, and didn’t want to beat his head against it.

(Trent Nelson | The Salt Lake Tribune) Rudy Gobert and Snyder during a playoff game in 2017.

The voicemail, the tweet, and the texts

It’s not hard to imagine Snyder’s circle-framed glasses perched at the tip of his nose, him squinting hard at his iPhone screen, making sure he was selecting the right person out of his contact list to call.

The player on the receiving end that Sunday afternoon couldn’t pick up. So Snyder left him a voicemail, which the player didn’t get to until 30 or 40 minutes later.

In those minutes, ESPN reporter Adrian Wojnarowski put an end to the rampant speculation about the coach’s future. The headline read: “Utah Jazz coach Quin Snyder is planning to step down, sources tell ESPN.”

The player called his now-ex-coach back.

Snyder would subsequently describe those calls with team members as “sincere but not long,” and indeed, when that particular chat was over, the player did not come away with any real clarity on why exactly Snyder would not be coaching him anymore.

Multiple conversations then were had among various teammates, invariably beginning with an expression of disbelief, before giving way to concern for the coach.

“Every text I’ve gotten or anybody I’ve talked to on the phone, it’s just been, ‘Reach out to him, check up on him, see how he’s doing,’” the player said. “‘And if you haven’t talked to him, talk to him, check on him.’ Because he means a lot to us.”

And they mean a lot to him.

Which is why they’re struggling to come to grips with his decision.

The player described Snyder’s resignation as “a shock to us all,” adding that “it just doesn’t seem real,” and, “I think a lot of players are upset about it and miss him a lot.”

Asked if he and others had expected Snyder to be back on the sideline, coaching the Jazz again this coming season, the player was unequivocal.

“Oh, no question. There wasn’t a thought that he’s not coming back,” he said. “… It was just like, ‘I’m sure at some point I’ll be meeting Quin, we’re gonna talk about the season coming up and what we need to improve and all that stuff.’ So it was a surprise to see him go.

“It’s definitely something that we all want to know the answers.”

Walking away

Snyder entered the interview room at ZBBC that Monday, clad in a white button-up shirt, gray jeans, a dark blazer, and his trademark Vans sneakers, aided by the help of that single crutch. He sat at the dais next to Smith and Ainge, made some opening remarks, and submitted to being peppered with questions about how and when and why.

Asked about his line in the team-issued statement that he believed the players “need a new voice to continue to evolve,” Snyder replied, “It was just time. I tried to give voice to that, and it really isn’t any more complicated than that.”

(Francisco Kjolseth | The Salt Lake Tribune) A Utah Jazz player described Snyder’s resignation as “a shock to us all,” adding that “it just doesn’t seem real,” and, “I think a lot of players are upset about it and miss him a lot.”

Queried about his “couldn’t see a clear path forward” quote, Snyder answered, “I just got back to the same place: It was time — time for the Jazz to move forward, time for me to move forward.”

In both the statement and the news conference, he refuted a recent ESPN report that there were “philosophical issues” between himself and the team’s management that couldn’t be bridged.

Not that, not that, not that.

Then what, exactly?

If the Jazz needed a “new voice,” that was a surprise to some in the locker room.

“I don’t think that it was ever a situation where he had lost us, or lost anybody in the organization,” the player said. “I think everybody treated him with so much respect and kept him in high regard. … I don’t think [him resigning] was a reaction to the players or the locker room or coaching staff not believing in him, so to speak. Because guys do.”

In the aftermath, the player has looked back at the season, at the playoff series, poring over moments that may have seemed subtle in the moment and hoping that, in retrospect, one will have manifested itself into bright, flashing neon, displaying the message, This is where it went wrong. He hasn’t found it yet.

“There wasn’t anything, I would say, ‘different,’ you know?” he said. “… There were no glaring signs.”

There may not, in fact be, any singular reason, any proverbial smoking gun.

The Jazz’s path, meanwhile, is not now cleared of detritus simply because Snyder’s resignation has paved the way for that new voice.

Every day brings a report of another name or two added to the rapidly expanding list of assistant coaches around the league being granted permission to interview for the job. Both Ainge and Smith have promised a thorough search. There’s also widespread belief that substantial roster change is necessary, but with the aforementioned shortage of both draft assets and cap space, the only viable route to that change is for Ainge and Zanik to trade away players of consequence.

(Francisco Kjolseth | The Salt Lake Tribune) Snyder discusses his departure from the team after eight seasons during a press conference in Salt Lake City on Monday, June 6, 2022.

A locker room already on edge has even-more-tense weeks coming.

“I don’t know if I’m being traded, if the next guy’s getting traded, who’s coaching. All these are real questions now,” the player said. “Everybody’s kind of waiting and seeing. I still don’t expect the team to be blown up or anything, but I am also preparing myself just like anybody else would in a situation like this.”

But the Jazz’s roster permutations are no longer something to keep Snyder up at night. It’s no longer his problem.

Snyder was asked during that farewell news conference what he hoped his “footprint” upon the Jazz would ultimately be.

He cited the growth of individual players, of the collective team, of the organization as a whole. He reminisced about that Game 7 victory that effectively ended the Chris Paul/Blake Griffin era of the Clippers. He recalled, in awe, the deafening reaction of the home fans when the Jazz knocked off the Paul George-led Oklahoma City Thunder. And then he mentioned the basketball campus he’d helped redesign, the building he spent untold hours inside over the last eight years.

“Having the chance even to be in here … [there’s] a lot of pride that goes into that,” he said.

After giving his last answer, he stood up, fumbled a bit with his crutch, and made his way over to former owner Gail Miller to give her a hug. Then he crossed the room and walked out the door. This time for good.

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