For fans, Training Camp time is a time for hope. It's a time for dreaming, for playing through our minds all the scenarios, all the whatifs, all the maybes that could turn our team into champs.
It's right now that we can talk ourselves into just about anything. T-Wolves fans convince themselves that a frontline of Darko and the KOOF will bring them to the promised land. Knicks fans convince themselves that Amare can channel the essence of Willis Reed and play with the toughness and defensive intensity to match his nifty dunks.
And we Jazz fans do the same. We've been convinced CJ will be MIP for about 4 straight years now. We've been talking ourselves into Boozer playing defense for even longer.
So I'm writing about hope. I'm going to go through all the guys, one at a time. I'm going to try to keep it within the bounds of reality (so no article wondering if Fes has secretly been working out with Kevin McHale and Hakeem every summer, just biding his time until he could let it all loose the season before becoming a free agent and landing himself a 4-year, $500 million offer from Portland. Sorry. I'm not writing that).
I wanted to start with AK-47. But I think everyone's AK'ed out for a bit. So I'm starting with CJ.
Gordan Giricek, lousy basketball, and the CJ Theory
Right when the Sloan/Giricek catfight reached its apex, Larry Miller talked about Gordan. He said that Giricek was the most talented guy on the team, but he just wouldn't stick to Sloan's offense. He wouldn't run the prescribed routes or set the prescribed screens. Instead, Giricek would see a hole in the defense, an opening, and go to that open spot in an effort to get decent shot off.
This drove Sloan nuts. It was bad enough that Giricek was first benched, and then shipped off to Philly so we could enjoy 2 1/2 years of Korgasms. Sometimes multiple Korgasms on a single night.
Back to Giricek, though. What was the problem? Isn't it good for a player to go to the open spot? Isn't it good for a player to find a hole in the defense and exploit it? Was it really as bad as Sloan insisted? Are Sloan's sets and routes and screens really that important?
The answer is: YES
I watched way too many Jazz games this summer making my Deron Williams video. While watching them, I noticed a little pattern of crappy basketball. Of course it didn't happen a lot (I was focusing on the awesome final 4 months, after all), but it still happened.
Whenever the defense broke down, whenever the opponents suddenly went on a run of easy layups, wide open threes, and generally ran amok — almost every time this happened, the Jazz went through three or four possessions of crappy offense first. The defense didn't break down until AFTER the Jazz did a couple Nuggets-style-random-basketball impression.
You know what I'm talking about: stupid contested 20 foot jump shots with 17 seconds on the shot clock, stupid passes, stupid 1-on-1 "I'm a hero" play, nobody setting screens or making cuts.
The worst example I saw was the Indiana game last year. What killed the Jazz wasn't Danny Granger's career high 44 points (most of Granger's points came about after the Pacers went on their initial runs). No, it was crappy offense, followed by a total defensive collapse leading to bunch of easy buckets that sent the Pacers from a 12 point deficit to a 5 point lead in 4 minutes.
The offense died first. Then the defense became hopeless.
When I realized this, I appreciated Sloan's offensive game plan even more. Because it turns out that it's about more than just getting good shots. It's also about preventing long rebounds to the opponents guards who are all by themselves. It's also about preventing turnovers from launching fast breaks. And it's also about having rebounders in position when the shot goes up—so that even if the other guys get the rebound (which of course they usually will), they had to fight for it. This prevents fast breaks. It gives the other Jazzmen just 1 or 2 extra seconds to get back and get the defense set. It forces the opponent to running their half-court offense, which the Jazz could defend decently (10th best defensive effectiveness last year—even with You-Know-Who "patroling" and "enforcing" and "protecting" the paint).
Which brings us to CJ Miles and the CJ theory.
Last season, sometime after the Ronnie Brewer trade but before Smart CJ showed up, when Dumb CJ was at his apex, I created the CJ Theory. It goes:
When a Jazzman abandons the offense and chucks up stupid shots, the team's offense will inevitably stall and suck for the next 2-3 minutes.
My theory, of course, was named after our favorite chucker of stupid shots at the moment: CJ Miles himself.
And so here's the danger with a dude like CJ: all he needs to do is revert to his seemingly natural inclination to random basketball—channeling his inner Tracy McGrady if you will—and it will sabotage first the Jazz offense, which then leads to a total collapse of the defense.
And then sucky basketball ensues.
So we need Smart CJ
Who is Smart CJ, anyway? My favorite moment was in a game thread last year. Smart CJ showed up. He hit a nice 3-pointer that was really needed. A comment went up: "See CJ, if your feet are set good things happen." Reply: "If your feet are set AWESOME things happen." Reply: "If your feet are set the shots go in." And that final reply received about 10 rec's instantly.
Smart CJ runs the prescribed routes. Smart CJ sets screens. Smart CJ shoots shots within the flow of the offense. Smart CJ makes sure his feet are set and his body is square before chucking. Smart CJ works to get more layups than outside shots.
But Smart CJ does something else. I remember this play vividly, though I can't remember the opponent. CJ got the ball at the 3-point line. He was covered. But he was covered too tightly, so CJ made a little dribble move, got around his defender and was on his way to the paint. He had a nice 12-foot floater available now. But his drive to the paint drew a defender off AK. So CJ did a nifty little pass to AK, who was in position for a layup. But Millsap's defender noticed this, rushed to disrupt AK's shot, so AK did an easy pass to MIllsap for an uncontested dunk.
CJ passed up a crappy shot, put himself in position for a good shot, but then passed to AK who had a great shot, who passed to Millsap for an impossible-to-miss shot.
That was Smart CJ. That is who we hope comes to play this year. A guy who uses his athleticism (and he has a lot of it)—not to pull off impossible moves or crazy shots—but to get himself better shots, to create great shots for his teammates, and to help the entire offense generate impossible-to-miss shots, without any worry for who ultimately gets the points and assist.
Is there More than just Smart CJ? Can we demand the Moon also?
Of course we can want more.
I invite anyone to go back and watch last year's games from January to March. You know, when AK was put back in the starting lineup and the team immediately went 20-4 and vaulted to #1 in Hollinger's power rankings. When Henry Abbot wrote a bunch of random True Hoops articles about how the Jazz were simply awesome to behold.
Watch those games and ask yourself:
Why was the team so stinking good?
When you look for it, the answer is obvious. I'll write a whole lot more when I go over AK, but here's the basics: the Jazz defense suddenly got really, really disruptive. They got deflections, disruptions, blocks, created loose balls, and then went balls-out to get those loose balls. This led to a ridiculous number of fast breaks and transition buckets, a suddenly much faster game pace, and the Jazz scoring 130+ on the road while blowing opponents out by 20. On the road (that fact is worth mentioning twice).
There were three guys primarily responsible for these disruptions. AK, Millsap, and Wesley Matthews. It started with them. And then the other guys started picking them up—letting the awesomeness seep into their brains as if by osmosis.
So what does this have to do with CJ? He wasn't one of the disruption catalysts.
Fast forward to the playoffs. Back when I was throwing fits about Wesley Matthews possibly leaving the Jazz, I praised his defense against Melo and Kobe again and again. I wouldn't shut up about it. It started annoying people. But I'll say it again—Melo and Kobe were forced into some terrible, terrible shots—shots where they were off balance, falling the wrong way, and there was nobody around and no passing angle to save themselves. Of course Kobe and Melo usually made the shots, but they were still terrible shots. And Wesley was doing it without a double team help. He could hold his own and let everyone else stay on their guys.
And so what if Kobe and Melo could still score like mad. That's what they do. What I was drooling over was the possibility of that kind of defense played consistently, against all wing players this season. Because there are only so many Kobe's and Melo's. Most guys, most teams, will be helpless. That kind of defense, played with that intensity consistently, played with single coverage and leaving nobody open, could add 4-6 wins a year.
Well, Wesley wasn't the only guy guarding Kobe and Melo.
CJ also got the call. And CJ was doing the same kind of defense. CJ had learned from Wesley, and they both got some nice pointers and hints and manhood questioning by Matt Harpring.
And so that's what we can hope for, even beyond a solid year of Smart CJ. We can hope for the total disruption, consistently tough defense CJ hinted he was capable of during the playoffs last year.
Really, we don't ask for much from you, CJ.
Just a guy scoring 12-15 points per game, playing within the offense, facilitating great shots for others, who also plays tough, rough, disruptive defense for 32 minutes a game against every opponent, whether they're big names or Miscellaneous Yahoos.
It's all we're hoping for.