Quin Snyder's Russian Detour Made Him One of the NBA's Top Coaches
Sports

Quin Snyder's Russian Detour Made Him One of the NBA's Top Coaches

The Utah Jazz don't have the firepower many NBA teams have, but they do have the philosophy to keep up.
October 2, 2017, 3:34pm

It's December and the Utah Jazz are getting waxed by the Golden State Warriors. Gordon Hayward, Rodney Hood, and George Hill are all out. Kevin Durant, Steph Curry, Draymond Green, and Klay Thompson are all in.

Down 31-9 late in the first quarter, Dante Exum sprint dribbles up the right sideline with Raul Neto and Joe Ingles standing in opposite corners. Trey Lyles and Jeff Withey jog into position on the weak side. As Neto flies up to gather Exum's handoff, Ingles darts toward Lyles and Withey who pose as cinder blocks on the wing. Right when the ball travels from Exum to Neto, Ingles emerges wide open behind the three-point line.

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As the ball pings across the floor, Jazz head coach Quin Snyder sits on the sideline with his hands flat on his knees. He cranes his neck for a better view as Ingles' shot soars through the air. It falls through the net. Snyder clasps his hands, leans forward, and mentally prepares for the next possession. Utah would lose this game, but only by seven points, and not before they outscored Golden State 53-41 in the second half.

The sequence described above sounds mundane, and, to be fair, at first glance it is. But the timing, discipline, and altruism within it are exquisite examples of a methodical system that doesn't bludgeon the defense so much as wait for it to deteriorate on its own. With zero players who are able to create their own shot, the Jazz manufacture a wide open three against one of the best defensive teams in league history.

"I was always curious about basketball over there in the Euroleague," Snyder told VICE Sports.

Five fingers ball up into a fist that is stronger than the sum of its parts. Through meticulous planning and creativity, dead ends turn into onramps. Such has been the serpentine journey of Snyder, whose career has seen its fair share of unscalable road blocks that suddenly give way to euphoric successes. For Snyder, every experience, philosophy, and memory picked up along the way—all across the world—is valuable. Without them, he wouldn't be the leader he is. And the Jazz, a team he's coached since 2014, would not be as formidable as they are.

Snyder's road took a left turn about three years before he landed in Utah, when, as an assistant coach on Mike Brown's staff with the Los Angeles Lakers, he unexpectedly accepted a job with CSKA Moscow, a historically triumphant club that competes in Russia's VTB United League and the Euroleague.

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The Euroleague is second only to the NBA when it comes to global influence and sheer talent. But for American-born players and coaches alike, it remains—perhaps unfairly—more detour than destination. Relatively young coaches who shuffle through the NBA ranks hoping to one day lead a team don't typically flee to Europe in the middle of their ascent.

CSKA Moscow was fresh and unique, a personal and professional odyssey that would help influence Snyder's intellectual approach after the sport he loves led him to various positions all over the country.

By his side during that fateful 2011-12 Lakers season was Ettore Messina, a four-time Euroleague champion who's now an assistant with the San Antonio Spurs. At the time Messina had plans to go back overseas for his second stint as CSKA Moscow's head coach. When he did, he asked Snyder to join him.

"I was always curious about basketball over there in the Euroleague," Snyder told VICE Sports. "I followed the Euroleague for quite some time, and when [Messina] decided to go back to CSKA, he asked me if I wanted to join him as an assistant. So, I don't know if it was difficult as it was unusual to try and think about what that would be like. My wife, Amy, was really supportive. We had two young kids. So on a personal level, we were doing something that was a little unusual, but we were excited to have the life experience, to be honest with you."

Photo by Chris Nicoll - USA TODAY Sports

You can look at moving halfway across the world into a foreign culture with young kids as an unnecessary challenge. Or you can look at it as an opportunity. For Snyder, it was a chance to get up close and personal with a style of basketball that always intrigued him.

"I was looking forward to all the exposure I knew I would get to different teams in the Euroleague," Snyder said. "Whether it's Panathinaikos or Barcelona, Madrid, there's so many high level teams with terrific coaches. Partizan, you name it. There were just lots of opportunities for me to learn, and I relished that chance."

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As a guard at Duke University, Snyder played for three Final Four teams and was an Academic All-American his senior season. At 26, he was one of three assistant coaches on Larry Brown's staff with the Los Angeles Clippers (the other two were current Spurs General Manager R.C. Buford and Orlando Magic General Manager John Hammond). Snyder quickly returned to his alma mater and eventually became Mike Krzyzewski's associate head coach in 1997.

He then spent seven seasons as head coach at the University of Missouri—hired over John Calipari and Bill Self—before a scandal-fueled resignation led him on a harsh and sudden detour down to the NBA Developmental League's Austin Toros (where his salary dropped from $1.015 million to about $75,000 per year) in 2007.

"There's innovation going on with this game all over the world," Snyder said. "And you don't have an opportunity to be a part of that or see it or watch it sometimes because everything from the time change and the fact that we, in the NBA, are immersed in what we're doing."

From that job sprung an opportunity in player development with the Philadelphia 76ers in 2011, followed by the assistant coach position in Los Angeles that helped Snyder form a relationship with Messina. (A pitstop as an assistant with Mike Budenholzer's Atlanta Hawks fills in the gap between Russia and Utah.)

Once he familiarized himself with the numerous differences between FIBA and the NBA, Snyder couldn't stop hunting for new information. He soaked everything up in conversations with new faces who often provided a fresh way of doing things.

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"There's innovation going on with this game all over the world," Snyder said. "And you don't have an opportunity to be a part of that or see it or watch it sometimes because everything from the time change and the fact that we, in the NBA, are immersed in what we're doing."

The one season in Russia shouldn't be weighed as more vital than any other Snyder endured to get where he's at, but the impression it's had on him and, notably, the Jazz, is undeniable.

Snyder spent the 2012-13 season studying matchups, substitution patterns, the way players move without the ball, and how tight half-court action can be executed, in a league that approaches offense and defense differently than the NBA or NCAA. But he also grew as a teacher. He was hands on with players who otherwise had trouble understanding the words coming out of his mouth, physically demonstrating drills on the floor and transferring his own shorthand to guys who were unmistakably unfamiliar.

"I swear to you, he had a booklet of about a hundred three-letter [acronyms] where you'd be like 'What?'," former CSKA Moscow guard Aaron Jackson told VICE Sports. "European players were like 'What is this? What is he talking about?' And he had to explain it from literal scratch."

The entire experience forced Snyder to overcome language barriers when communicating with players who didn't speak English. And to those players who did speak English, Snyder served as a translator for players who had trouble understanding directions from the rest of the coaching staff. The ability to instruct despite a language barrier is extremely valuable, if not required, no matter where you're illuminating professional basketball today. Utah's roster last year and this upcoming season was/is populated by players from Brazil, France, Australia, Ukraine, Sweden, Spain, and Switzerland.

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It's a Spurs-ian approach, one that Jazz General Manager Dennis Lindsey and Snyder have adopted over time, an outflowing of their close ties to the league's most familial and diverse organization.

Photo by Russell Isabella - USA TODAY Sports

"I think in any situation as a coach you try to treat your players with respect, and that, to me, is the most effective way of communicating," Snyder said. "No different than guys I've coached in the D-League or guys I've coached in the NBA. I think if players know that you're trustworthy in some sense and you do what you say, they know there's an earnestness about you trying to help them improve. That's the foundation of the relationship."

Transmitting information in an efficient way is a crucial, oft-overlooked requirement if you want to be a head coach in the NBA. But keen decision-making—the ability to execute tactical adjustments on the fly, and install logical schemes on both sides of the ball, also matter.

Snyder checks all these boxes, and he's helped turn Utah into a program that—even after Hayward's departure in free agency—holds meaningful nightly advantages over its competition.

Unlike a majority of the NBA, European teams don't aspire to revolve around making life easier for their best player. There is no one star who bears heavy responsibility on each possession. Offenses strategize with more egalitarianism. The ball zips around the perimeter. It goes in and out of the post as players whirl around, screening and cutting. It's the same sport played with a different rhythm.

"It's seriously day and night. NBA is so much space, not as many reads," said CSKA Moscow's Aaron Jackson. "It's: a read makes a basket. And in Europe, it's: read, read, read, counter, read, make the basket. Don't give many possessions to the other team."

The gyms are a sensory overload. Flares glow in crowds that sing, chant, and curse, while plumes of smoke waft towards the roof. Jackson has played professional basketball overseas for nearly a decade, and to him the atmosphere, intensity, and passion rival an NCAA game, except the student section is filled with adults who aren't shy about hurling random objects onto the court. Cigarettes are puffed by the pack.

"It's hard to breathe," Jackson said. "After your first two sprints up and down the court, it's literally like you can't even breathe. It's totally different."

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The stands are rowdy, as they tend to be at professional sporting events across the world. On the floor, though, dueling orchestras turn the game of basketball into a series of complex, crafty sequences that vaguely approximate fine art.

"In Europe it's totally different. Basketball is literally from the west side of the court to the east side of the court to the north side of the court to the south side of the court. Every angle is trying to get attacked in a half-court offense," Jackson said. "It's seriously day and night. NBA is so much space, not as many reads. It's: a read makes a basket. And in Europe, it's: read, read, read, counter, read, make the basket. Don't give many possessions to the other team.

"The NBA is more up and down, into the flow, let's get our stars involved, let's get as many possessions as we can. And when I watch European basketball at a high level, like Euroleague, or when I watch the World Championships or the Olympics, it's beautiful to see that kind of basketball. And I think Quin, when he got here he saw it. He kind of appreciated it more when he was here. He realized how it can give teams problems if they do it correctly. Like, I think the Warriors do it perfect. They run off counter reads, read, read, read. But they have great superstars with it that dial in so it looks amazing."

The NBA has different rules, a higher talent level, and Snyder knew long before he journeyed to Russia that, as far as offensive and defensive systems go, there is no one-size-fits-all strategy that's effective regardless of personnel. Players are human. They have strengths and weaknesses that can be maximized and masked. It's his job to compose an appropriate game plan that best suits whoever's on the court.

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"You can't be married to a certain style of play if your players don't fit that style," he said.

Snyder and the rest of CSKA Moscow's staff had a wide array of individual skill-sets at their disposal. There were pick-and-roll maestroes, playmaking stretch fours, and speedy point guards. Viktor Khryapa—a 6'9" forward who was part of the 2006 draft day trade that sent LaMarcus Aldridge to the Portland Trail Blazers (Snyder likens him to Blake Griffin)—was able to bring the ball up and operate in space, so the coaches trusted him to do so.

They had Miloš Teodosić, a Serbian sorcerer with unparalleled court vision who's now on the Los Angeles Clippers. Teodosić is surgical running a pick-and-roll, but he can also attack defenses from the post, so they let him operate with his back to the basket when it made sense to do so. CSKA Moscow methodically worked the ball through former NBA big man Nenad Krstic down low, but also zipped up and down the floor when Jackson was in the game.

It seems obvious to make everyone feel as comfortable as possible, but basketball can be a rigid game where conformity overrules adaptation (go watch almost any college basketball game from the past 10 years if you disagree). Snyder, clearly, is not one to acquiesce the status quo.

One key difference between professional basketball in Europe and the United States is the schedule. Teams in the former only play about twice a week, with games spread between the Euroleague and their own national league. It allows coaches to make dramatic game-to-game adjustments, convenient changes to a starting lineup that sometimes involve transferring a player from one position to another, based on the specific matchup.

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This is common practice in the NBA playoffs, but not so much the regular season, where lineup changes are more the result of rest, bumps, bruises, and organization-wide mandates than to gain any strategic advantage. But Snyder is as flexible and proactive as any coach in the league. During last year's playoffs, it took exactly zero minutes for him to realize Boris Diaw made no sense in Utah's starting lineup for its second-round matchup against the Warriors, even though Diaw started all seven games in the first round against the Los Angeles Clippers. (Diaw was replaced by Joe Johnson.)

In his war against convention, Snyder is also unafraid to use strategies that are fairly outside-the-box to give his team an edge, or even flip teacher-student hierarchies on their head.

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"One of the most enjoyable times I had [with CSKA Moscow] was learning from the players themselves," Snyder said. They discussed different ways to guard the post, stifle pick-and-rolls, and attack switches." It was daily access to priceless details his colleagues in the NBA either weren't familiar with or couldn't seek out for themselves.

But above all else, that one season reinforced a staple long held by successful franchises, programs, and clubs all over the world: Ball movement is boss. It's the most identifiable similarity between those European teams and today's Jazz, a squad that's shaded against the NBA's white-knuckled obsession with speed, spacing, and the three-point shot. Some of that has to do with who they employ.

Utah's stanchion is Rudy Gobert, a 25-year-old perennial Defensive Player of the Year candidate who strikes fear as one of the game's great rim protectors. The best way to enjoy his impact is to keep opposing teams in a half-court setting. The best way to keep teams in a half-court setting is to deploy a structured offense that carefully stalks healthy looks at the basket while preventing the opposing team from attacking in transition.

The Jazz finished the 2016-17 regular season third in defensive rating and last in pace. According to Inpredictable, Utah isn't in a hurry regardless of the situation, whether they just grabbed a defensive rebound or forced a turnover. Their offensive possessions are patient and calculated, a choreographed five-man marathon that takes place inside a 47-foot long sand box.

"I think just more on a macro level, wanting to see the ball move," Snyder said, when asked if any specific principles from Moscow have been implemented in Utah. "If there was one thing that I think just, philosophically, that we want to do and believe in, is ball movement and man movement. At least to the extent that that makes sense from a tactical standpoint."

In Snyder's first two seasons with the Jazz, they finished first in passes per game. They were fourth this year. Utah hovers near the top of the league in the percentage of their attack that's devoted to hand-offs and cuts, progressions that stab defenses from all sorts of angles and through various avenues.

Per data provided to VICE Sports by STATS, the Jazz also led the league in ball screens, averaging 74.2 per game during the 2016-17 regular season. They had several large humans (Diaw, Derrick Favors, Gobert) who could erase on-ball defenders from their teammates, flip screens, utilize decoys, and forever make the opposition over think itself into a panic.

The Jazz finished 12th in offensive rating, which is spectacular considering how much easier it is to score early in the shot clock as opposed to against a set defense that's able to communicate and execute their scheme. A league-low 8.4 percent of Utah's shots were launched with 22-18 seconds on the shot clock (deemed "very early" by NBA.com). On the other side of the spectrum, 10.5 percent of their shots came with four or fewer seconds left, which, unsurprisingly, led the league.

It's impossible to know what the Jazz would play like if Snyder had not spent that season in Moscow, but the degree to which he's actualized the experience makes the impact clear. On one hand, the Jazz have gone against the grain. On the other, they're simply functioning inside a system that accentuates their strengths.

Either way, Snyder has helped re-establish the Jazz as one of the NBA's most resourceful franchises, a respectable outfit that's headed in the right direction. Hayward—Utah's leading scorer and lone All-Star a year ago—is gone, but the team's identity is not lost. Snyder is adaptable, yet also embraces a style that not only best suites his current roster, but has timeless value in a trend-happy league that's filled with constant player movement.

Now Snyder is 50 years old. In 2016, he signed an extension that locks him in for the foreseeable future. Salt Lake City is a long way from Moscow—geographically, and culturally—but Snyder's time in Russia still helps dictate his approach to leading the Jazz. The curious path that led him to an NBA head coaching job is one few will follow. But for Snyder and the players who've evolved beneath him in a distinct environment since his first day on the job, nothing beats it.