This season it's just felt like the Jazz were a lengthier team. However, I've been unable to identify why.
All season long, during 2009-2010, right into the postseason and beyond, it was pounded into our heads that the Utah Jazz lacked the length to beat the Los Angeles Lakers, a fact born out in painful fashion for Jazz fans as the Lake Show broke out the brooms last spring dropping the Jazz in straight sets in a series that never even felt close or competitive.
Granted, the loss of 6' 11" Mehmet Okur during the first round series playoff series of 2010 against the Denver Nuggets contributed to the difficulties Utah faced against the lengthy Lakers in round two, but let's be honest, Utah wasn't besting L.A. with the Turkish long-bomber anyway.
While every NBA front office and coach worth his salt will tell you it's foolish to build a team to beat any other single team, the Jazz's offseason mission was clearly to add some reach to at least be able to compete with the 20 feet 10 inches the Lakers' starting frontline featured (Andrew Bynum, Pau Gasol, Lamar Odom).
A cursory glance at the Utah roster from last season to this will show that the Jazz did indeed add six inches. However, most of those added inches came in the draft in the form of picks Gordon Hayward and Jeremy Evans essentially replacing the roster spots last occupied by Sundiata Gaines and Othyus Jeffers. These are four players that have had little overall impact from game to game, though (aside from "Sunny D" Gaines' legendary buzzer-beater against the Cleveland Cavaliers, of course).
The acquisition of the 6' 10" Al Jefferson, to replace lost free agent Carlos Boozer, added only a single inch, and if we consider that Jefferson is playing in the spot last year occupied by the 6' 11" Okur and the 6' 8" Paul Millsap playing the position formerly occupied by the 6' 9" Boozer the Jazz appear to have shrunk rather than grown in the place that matters versus lengthy L.A., the paint.
But this is not so.
When we take into account who plays where and when, as well as one key roster swap that didn't actually add any height, but did add a substantial amount of quality minutes over last season in a key spot.
Note: We will be using the roster the Jazz finished the '09-'10 season with, rather than the inconsequential one they started it with (Eric Maynor and Ronnie Brewer were both traded by the Jazz last season), also using the lineups most used/preferred by coach Jerry Sloan, post-trades
2009 Starting Lineup
Deron Williams 6' 3"
Wesley Matthews 6' 5"
Andrei Kirilenko 6' 9"
Carlos Boozer 6' 9"
Mehmet Okur 6' 11"
Total height 33' 1"
2010 Starting Lineup
Deron Williams 6' 3"
Raja Bell 6' 5"
Andrei Kirilenko 6' 9"
Paul Millsap 6' 8"
Al Jefferson 6' 10"
Total height 32' 11", a loss of two inches from last season's preferred starting lineup.
The first thing you'll notice is that swapping Matthews for Bell is a wash, height-wise, however, Bell brings a defensive presence few can match in the backcourt.
The next note that needs to be made here is that Jazz 6th-man, C.J. Miles, frequently enters the game only a few minutes in, for Bell, often playing more minutes than Raja will in a given game (sliding over to the 3-spot when the rest of the bench comes into the game if Sloan is riding his often-hot hand). Miles adds an inch to this lineup, bringing it to an even 33 total feet in collective height, a scant inch shy of last year's starters.
But it's the second unit that this season brings the length lacking from last year's squad.
The Way It Was
Last year the Jazz didn't have the capability to field what could be considered a "lengthy lineup," nor a defensive one, with Sloan playing his best available players the most minutes possible. This often resulted in Paul Millsap being subbed in for the offensive-minded Okur, leaving Boozer to slide to the center position. With the best-case scenario frontline for defense being Kirilenko, Millsap, and Boozer, a total of 19' 2", the Jazz were ill-equipped to handle the Lakers, who were collectively nearly two feet taller, not to mention Memo was unavailable entirely for the playoff series (not that it would have helped --he's simply a poor option in the starting lineup against L.A.).
Kyrylo Fesenko showed loads of promise against Denver in round one, but was badly outmatched by the more physical and quicker Lakers in the round two sweep, so Sloan was forced to field Boozer at the 5 much of the time.
The difference this year is that Sloan starts with Boozer's replacement, Jefferson, at the center-spot and Millsap at the PF rather being forced to slide a 4 to the 5, and can then bring in a towering pair of second-teamers in the 7' 1" Fesenko and the previously mentioned key addition, new-comer 7' 0" Francisco Elson, a combination that's already proven problematic for opposing frontcourts.
It's the additions of Jefferson and Elson, replacing the also-seven-foot, yet inept Kosta Koufos, that's made all the difference in Sloan being able to field an actually-able "lengthy lineup" this year, one that can play the kind of defense that's made the Jazz an elite defensive squad for the first time in at least a decade. And while no one will claim that Jefferson is a defensive-minded player, the vast majority of NBA fans and analysts alike will tell you his defense is better than Boozer's.
'09-'10 saw Utah severely limited, "length challenged," if you will. They had few options if they wanted to field a viable lineup on the floor, sacrificing offense for defense, or vice versa, or even being dominated altogether at both ends by not having many options to work with.
The '10-'11 season sees the Jazz able to mix and match various players at different positions far more effectively, giving Sloan various viable options to work with --something that's extremely dangerous to opposing teams, since he's a master tactician when it comes to finding a problematic matchup for the opposition. (I have to take a moment here to wonder why he didn't stick AK in Dirk's grill in the loss to Dallas?)
And this is without the almost-ready-to-return Okur, as of yet.
Last year Sloan had only three viable options to put on the floor in the frontcourt for most of the season at any given time, with one or another injured and Fesenko seemingly unable to find a niche that worked for more than a couple of minutes at a time.
This time around there are multiple bona fide options to choose from, with Big Al already proving problematic for Pau Gasol, something Boozer never was, and Fesenko finding a niche as a potent combination with Elson. And once Memo Okur brings his 6' 11" frame back into action Sloan will have six full frontcourt weapons to choose from, mixing and matching depending on what the franchise requires at a given moment in time on the hardwood.
So long as the Jazz starters are able to hang with the Lakers', and they've already shown that they can, the second unit may well be able to make hay against theirs, or at least wear down LA's starting unit enough to give them real trouble over say, a seven-game series.
Need a scoring lineup? As usual, they got that covered.
But do you need stoppers and shot-changers, that bring viable length? For the first time in the Deron Williams era, they got that covered too.