It’s hard out here for everyone. The struggles are specific from person-to-person and the peril sharper for some than others, but consciousness is a curse, every day takes figuring out all over again how to live, and some 320 million folks from Hawaii to Maine are living under the blood-streaked sky of an election that has turned getting out of bed in the morning into a political act. Did you see? A Presidential candidate gathered an ex-President’s alleged sexual assault and harassment victims as props in a Lynchian take on a press conference, then spent the following week denigrating a procession of women who accused him of harassing and violating them. Or have you been in the living room with an axe through your TV and a white noise machine thundering and every blanket in your dwelling duct taped over the window frames, pretending you’re back in the womb?
Society gets to be too much for all of us and we need things, perhaps especially in these acutely disquieting times, to feel okay about. We can’t be saved but we can be delighted and distracted, for a few minutes or a few hours. For example, there’s a Twitter account that periodically sends out scientific paintings of fruit. It’s pretty soothing. Look at this strawberry! If it’s necessary to engage with the modern world’s horrors so as to make an effort to beat them back into the sulfur-stanking holes they crawled out of, it’s also necessary we not turn ourselves into sobbing lumps in the process. On the one hand, America is currently cleaved by a psychic fissure that has even Yahweh fumbling through his cosmic first aid kit for a bandage large enough, and on the other, someone who lived a century ago spent a considerable amount of time and effort trying to get the seed-freckles on a picture of a strawberry just so and that’s wonderful.
The Utah Jazz are about as pleasantly low-stakes as basketball teams get. Every couple of years there’s a team like this, with a young core who figure to improve game-by-game, a clever coach who knows what to do with them, vague championship promise that no one involved is yet under much pressure to make good on, and a slight chance to go on some hierarchy-topplingly deep playoff run.
This sort of team stands out from the rest of the NBA, where everyone else is either navigating a crisis of some scale or another, or they’re one five-game slide away from one. The worst franchises are waiting uneasily, hoping one or two seasons of abject badness will land them a 20-year-old star who will buoy them, but there are no guarantees: lottery balls can be unkind, drafting is educated guessery, and some drafts lack a single transformational talent. Title contention is more fun, but just as anxiety-inducing. Every team, no matter how great, has its shortcomings—they lack rim protection or could use another shooter off the bench—and those flaws take on a dire quality when they could the reason the squad loses the Finals in six instead of winning it in seven. And then there’s a broad swath of doomed strivers and postseason chum: teams giving everything they can, with no room to grow, who top out at 52 wins; teams with robust rosters and competent coaches who nevertheless can’t hang with their conference’s elite; teams that have probably missed their window but are still running out the same rapidly dilapidating starting five; teams that don’t know whether to enact a teardown or keep plugging away; teams with clogged caps headed nowhere.
The Jazz inhabit a narrow space where they’ve just recently gotten quite good and the novelty of that goodness hasn’t worn off, but they’re not yet on the verge of accomplishing something big, so they don’t have steep expectations to disappoint. We don’t fully know who they are, and we’re eager to learn more about them. On the face of it, at least, they figure to be interesting. Rodney Hood is entering his third season and looks like he could be the Western Conference’s answer to Khris Middleton. Rudy Gobert is like a silent film star, a mix of unwieldy gangliness and unlikely coordination. Joe Johnson, it turns out, isn’t charmless in small doses. Gordon Hayward is, endearingly, forever trying to ascend to first banana-dom. Derrick Favors handles the game’s boring labor as adeptly as anyone else in the league. George Hill is better than he’s ever been given credit for. Dante Exum remains theoretical; maybe this will be the year he blinks into the corporeal realm.
There is just so much to like about the Jazz and so little to complain about. Humans have a fascination with processes and growth. It’s why we keep gardens, mark the increasing heights of our children on our walls in pencil, and watch time-lapse videos of skyscraper construction. What the Jazz offer is the opportunity for us to enjoy a team’s growth without worrying too severely about where they’ll end up. This is one of those in-between seasons from an in-between team on the rise. They should be better than they were last year and better at the end of this one than they are at the beginning. This is a small thing, but there’s satisfaction in it. Amid lives blighted by terror and worry and pain and threat, the ostensibly unimportant stuff that pleases us is actually essential. We have to get through the day. The Utah Jazz can help with that.
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