A few years ago I listened to an NBA podcast where Adrian Wojnarowski interviewed new Cleveland Cavaliers coach John Beilein. Beilein had just been hired after a long career of building winning programs at every level of NCAA basketball. He was inheriting a gutted Cavaliers team that Lebron James had just left, a team riddled with the flotsam and jetsam of bloated contracts and asset depletion James typically leaves in his wake.
When asked how he’d go about rebuilding the team and culture, Beilien’s answer was simple: he wanted to make the team a place where players come to get better.
Ultimately he wasn’t able to do that, and resigned before the season was over. Building a winning team at a top level is difficult. It requires not only a good plan and good ideas, but the right systems and supports in place, and the execution to see those plans to fruition.
But that basic idea of being a place where players get better and focusing on development should be a foundational blueprint for RSL. This applies to the recent signings of castoffs like Bobby Wood and Rubio Rubin, but also to the promise of a better pipeline between the academy and the first team.
Maybe this sounds overly pessimistic, but I don’t think there will ever be many talented players who see Real Salt Lake as a destination, the pinnacle they want to reach in their careers. I don’t think they need to. RSL can be a place where Rubin’s and Wood’s come to restart their careers. It can be a place where a talented kid from the academy gets his start before a long career in Europe.
And along the way, if RSL can be an environment that builds players into the best versions of themselves, it creates a reinforcing cycle where the club also becomes the best version of itself.
The main issue with Real Salt Lake over the course of the Dell Loy Hansen era, is that it has too often been a place where talent goes to die. Skilled players like Joao Plata, “Burrito” Martinez, and Yura Movsisyan got worse during their time at the club and contributed to toxic environments on their way out. Promising players on the current squad like Albert Rusnak, Justen Glad, and the departing Corey Baird either stalled out or regressed.
Changing ownership is a great first step in changing the culture. Rumors that new Utah Jazz owner Ryan Smith may be interested in the team are promising, but regardless of who eventually buys the team, looking to the state’s basketball team should provide a model for how RSL can go about improving the environment.
During the Dennis Lindsey and Quin Snyder era, the Jazz have been one of the best teams in the NBA at identifying talent and coaching players up into the best versions of themselves.
Donovan Mitchell was a 13th pick in the draft, Rudy Gobert went 27th. The Jazz have turned both into two of the top 25 players in the world. Joe Ingles was cut by the Clippers and Royce O’neale was undrafted out of college. The Jazz turned both into starting level NBA players. This season Miye Oni looks like another development success, and even Georges Niang has looked like a competent, real life NBA player.
Real Salt Lake has the potential to do similar things. While their careers have stalled out, Wood and Rubin have the talent to be very good players in this league, potentially even stars. Restructuring the Monarchs is going to give young talent from the academy a chance to shine.
There are a lot of things RSL will need to get right as they move into this new era of club history. Creating an environment where players can get better, from the castoffs like Wood and Rubin to emerging talents like David Ochoa, should be the first item of business on the agenda. The structures are being put into place. Now it’s time to execute. Ask John Beilein what happens if you don’t.