DENVER (AP) — A year ago, Mike Conley Jr. was on a team mentioned as a championship contender. This year, the Utah Jazz aren't in that conversation.
That doesn't change Conley's approach.
“We're trying to win every day," Conley said.
So far, the Jazz are winning more days than not. And two weeks into the NBA season, there are some surprises — some good, some bad, with the Jazz finding themselves on the more fun side of that ledger.
Conley and the Jazz are off to a 6-2 start after Monday's win over Memphis. Gregg Popovich and the San Antonio Spurs are 5-2, which matches the team's best start since they were 6-1 on the way to winning the NBA title in the 2013-14 season.
If the Jazz and Spurs are tanking, they’re definitely doing it wrong.
Not even the lure of landing the winning lottery ticket that will provide 7-foot-3 French teen Victor Wembanyama — who has skills often compared to Kevin Durant, Giannis Antetokounmpo and Dirk Nowitzki — is enough to get the Jazz and Spurs to try and not win. Quite the contrary. They're playing hard, playing the right way, playing defense and it's working.
“They’re young enough they don’t know any better,” Popovich said of his squad. “They just keep playing hard. ... They’re pretty much obeying the basketball gods, doing all the simple things that help win games.”
They should be feeling pretty happy in a couple other cities, too. Cleveland was 5-1 entering Monday, as was Portland. On the flip side of the surprise coin — Brooklyn was 2-5, the Los Angeles Lakers started 0-5 before getting their first win, and Miami is 2-5 entering a game Tuesday against Golden State. The reigning champs aren’t exactly setting the world ablaze either, off to a 3-4 start.
It’s early. There’s almost a whole season left to go. But San Antonio and Utah are surprising just about everybody so far — well, everybody except themselves.
“We just do our job,” Conley said. “At the end of the day, it doesn’t matter what people say.”
It wasn't uncommon to think the Jazz and Spurs might be among the teams that vie to be among the odds-on favorites for Wembanyama (the bottom three teams each have a 14% probability to land the No 1 pick). The Spurs are extremely young and feature a lineup consisting of hardly household names. The Jazz spent the summer trading away three of their biggest pieces in Donovan Mitchell, Rudy Gobert and Bojan Bogdanovic.
“For some reason, the league goes, ‘Oh, Utah is tanking because they got rid of Donovan and Rudy and Bogdanovic,’” Nuggets coach Michael Malone recently said. “Tell Mike Conley that. Tell Jordan Clarkson that. Tell Lauri Markkanen that. Those guys are NBA players and have played in a lot of big games. They’re playing hard. They’re getting out and running and they’re defending.”
Credit should go to Utah coach Will Hardy, who was mentored by Popovich. Among the lessons Hardy picked up from Popovich — his former boss in San Antonio, before Hardy spent last season as an assistant in Boston — was the art of fostering relationships.
“He taps into that human element very, very well,” said Hardy, who spent 11 seasons with Popovich and the Spurs, including five as an assistant coach. “For all of his greatness from an X's-and-O's standpoint or an in-game coaching standpoint, it’s all the stuff he does in-between games, on the human side, that for me separates him.”
Hardy's team has quickly picked up on the building cohesion part. An illustration: The Jazz all recently gathered in a room in New Orleans during a trip and “just chilled, and had fun,” explained Malik Beasley, who was acquired as part of the massive deal this offseason that sent Gobert to Minnesota. On plane rides, they've been known meet in a group to chat and break down game film.
“We have a great vibe," Beasley added. "It’s going to be fun to go to where we want to go to.”
Which, so far, is north in the standings, not south.
“We’re tired of people being surprised,” Beasley said. “We’re a good team, too."
The Jazz remain a huge longshot to win the NBA title this season, according to FanDuel Sportsbook. The same applies to Orlando, Oklahoma City, Indiana, Houston, Sacramento, Detroit and San Antonio. All of those clubs are the ones expected to be in the running for the No. 1 pick and the chance at Wembanyama.
Not that the Spurs and Jazz have been paying any attention. Or caring what others believe. Popovich has a bunch of kids playing like seasoned vets.
“I don’t think they even know what the capital of Texas is,” Popovich cracked. “But I don’t care."
Added Spurs guard/forward Keldon Johnson, who was part of the team that won Olympic gold at the Tokyo Games in 2021: “We’re playing great team basketball. We’re making each other better. It’s fun playing basketball that way.”
AP Basketball Writer Tim Reynolds and AP freelance writer Mike Cranston contributed.