All fans can reasonably demand is that their franchise works to build a team that matters.
We can’t demand even a single championship.* Too much luck is involved. But we can demand the team builds a team worth caring about, worth cheering for, and ultimately one that is in the small circle of 5-6 teams that matter during a given season.
*This is why I despise Lakers fans so much. Nobody else—except Yankee fans—feels like the universe owes them multiple championships.
When your team isn’t one of those top 5-6, then what you want are signs that they are moving that direction. That’s why there was excitement for fans of the Oklahoma City “Bandits”* last year and hopelessness for fans of the Knicks. OK City won 23 games. NY won 32. But it was obvious that Durrant and Westbrook and company were going in the right direction.
*I vote we call the team from Oklahoma City “Bandits” from now on. Because a) it acknowledges that the team was shamefully stolen from Seattle, b) it’s a hell of a better name than Thunder, and c) Bandits has a wild-west feel that is perfect for Oklahoma.
And that’s why we hated this Jazz team early this season. That’s why we hated the Jazz front office. That’s why I declared the season over after four games. And that is why we HATED Boozer. Our Jazz had been on the cusp of something great when the 2008-09 season started. Hollinger’s formulas picked them to win the West. The Sports Guy declared the Jazz one of the 6 teams with legitimate championship aspirations. They had made it to the peak, we could all feel it. And then the Boozer poison made cheering the team a miserable experience.
And it continued for the first 2 ½ months of this season. Some will say that the Jazz recent turnaround coincides with Boozer playing well. Bullsh**. Ask David Locke what Boozers stats were in November and December, and you’ll see he was still getting the numbers. Yes, when the team finally became in sync, Boozer’s play helped a lot. But Boozer’s play has never, never, never, never, never been a difference-maker.
But the team has changed, recently. Their comically bad loss against the Lakers last week puts them somewhere into stages 4 or 5 (see the stages defined at the bottom for a full explanation). They’re not one of the 5 teams that matters yet. Will they be by the time the season ends? Maybe. Maybe not. But at least they’re a team worth cheering again.
And while Sundiatta Gaines Jughead shot sparked the change, it’s still worth looking at and seeing what about the team changed. It’s worth looking at why the team is suddenly worth cheering for again.
Nothing has been more important to the team’s success than the re-emergence of Andrei Kirilenko. In Boozer Year 1, the team started very well (6-1). Then AK broke his leg, and nothing was salvageable. AK, even with all his quirks and flaws, was that much of the difference-maker. An otherwise improved team went from 42 wins to 27 primarily because of his injury.
It’s funny that, after all this time, we forgot what a difference AK-47 can be. Deron decided to not pass to AK because he wasn’t sure what the hell AK was going to do with the ball. Boozer and Memo became the foci of the offense. AK became a glorified role-player in Deron’s offensive heirarchy. And we all shook our heads, idly wishing the “old AK-47” would appear again.
But AK’s a different sort of player. He never wanted shots. He wanted to play. He wanted to have fun playing. And more than anything else, all he wanted was involvement on offense. He just hated being relegated to standing on the outside corner while everyone else took the shots, set the screens, made the passes, and gave the high-fives.
The old AK never really left. He was pushed aside, and everyone forgot what a difference-maker he could be if he was given minutes, involvement, and allowed to be happy.
And AK has been back. Deron’s giving him chances to shoot and pass and be involved. Sloan’s giving him minutes again. And I’m sitting here, shaking my head and wondering what could have been if happy AK had been allowed to play during the past 3 years.
2. Deron Williams.
The dude has grown up.
He stopped openly pining to be an All-Star so much (the recent success happened when it was still very much in doubt whether Deron would make the team or not). He started trusting all of AK’s awkward quirks. He became more willing to sit back and let everyone else on the team make stuff happen. He started asserting himself at the right times. He’s recognized who’s making things happen on the offensive end and getting the right shots for them.
This year’s mature Ninja, averaging 18 and 9 (and more like 17 and 8 during the good times of January and February), has done more to make this team one that really matters than 21 and 12 D-Will of last year.
3. Jerry Sloan.
I don’t know why he was in a funk, but he was. Back in the day, he’d happily bench Stockton and Malone if they were playing like crap. Why wouldn’t he bench Boozer? Why wouldn’t he give minutes to the guys he always would have in the past: AK, Millsap, Ronnie P.—the guys busting their butts every practice and every game? Hasn’t that always Sloan’s rule? You don’t earn playing time by playing well in the game. You earn playing time by working hard in practice and playing your guts out every minute you’re in.
What happened to Jerry Sloan?
Well, there was a lot that happened. The deaths of friends and mentors. I don’t know if that had an effect or not, but something wasn’t right.
But Jerry’s been back. He’s playing the secondary guys who deserve the minutes: Millsap, Matthews, Yatta, and Ronnie P. (I’m ignoring CJ over KK for right now). He’s let AK become a dominant player on the offensive end. He’s jumping up and down when the role players make big plays, he’s going on and on praising the guys who do the little things. He’s sitting Memo a lot more. Look at how much harder Boozer’s been playing defense. After 5 years of making fun of his “Memo, help!” D, I will never believe Boozer suddenly changed all by himself.
The old Jerry Sloan, like the old AK, has come back, and it’s made a huge difference.
4. Millsap and Matthews.
90% of the players in the NBA who were as good and contributing as much as these two would be bitching about the number of shots they get and their playing time. But these two guys don’t. They quietly do everything they can, take advantage of the opportunities when they come (see Millsap’s games when Boozer was out). It probably makes a big difference that Sloan’s been back to his old self. It’s a lot easier to calmly earn your role when you trust that it can actually be earned.
And their play has left gaggles of Jazz fans like myself aching for what they’ll be able to do next year …
He’s not the same player he was. He’s not shooting his 3-pointer with nearly such care-free panache and confidence. He’s relying on his unbelievably slow, un-athletic, awful drive to the hoop WAY too much. He’s not rebounding nearly as much as I wish he was. I curse the extension to his contract almost every day.
So why is he on this list?
Because nobody’s playing time has been more affected by Millsap and AK, and Memo’s been the good soldier. He’s not complaining. If Boozer’s PT and number of shots had been cut, there’s no way the team doesn’t fracture and die. Thank you, thank you, thank you, thank you Memo for not being Boozer.
Now just shoot the open three when you have it, abandon you’re dribble-drive to the hole, go after rebounds like you can, and consider you’re new hook shot a post move (rather than the afore-mentioned hopeless dribble-drive move) and everybody will be happy.
6. Ronnie P. and Yatta
They’re accepting their roles and playing their roles correctly. Yatta’s a backup PG who runs the offense. Ronnie P.’s an energy guy who supplies a nice spark. They’re just doing their jobs and nobody’s misusing them (including themselves). Ronnie P.’s no longer being asked to run an offense like D-Will does. Yatta’s not expected to come out of nowhere and slam in offensive rebounds. They’re filling their roles exactly right.
And that’s why we are enjoying this team again. And that’s why the team seems to be going in the right direction: the guys making the biggest difference are, 1) making positive differences, and 2) the guys who are in the long-term plans and likely not to be cut for financial reasons. Boozer’s going to be gone next year. So what? His play hasn’t been a difference-maker. Brewer might be gone next year. I like the dude, but that’ll be okay. KK and/or CJ may be gone. Again, fine.
There are still some problems with this team—defensive rebounding, anyone? But still, there’s a future. There wasn’t one two months ago. And please David Locke, Kevin O’Connor, and Greg Miller, don’t think the Jazz recent success had anything to do with you or keeping Boozer. It didn’t. It was a lucky break brought out by Yatta’s miracle shot, and sustained by AK, Deron, Jerry Sloan, Millsap, Matthews, Memo, Ronnie P., and Yatta.
Where to go in the future?
I see three major weaknesses to the Jazz right now: defensive rebounding, inside defensive presence, free-throw shooting. Any changes should focus on those 3 elements, without disrupting what has made the team so much better lately.
So here’s my fantasy (it’s not realistic, but use it as a prototype—an example of the next step done well): Trade CJ for Joakim Noah and let Ronnie B. and Boozer walk as FA.
F - AK-47
F - Millsap
C - Noah
G - Williams
G - Matthews
Post Sub: Memo
Wing Sub: KK
Backup PG: Gaines
Energy Guy: Ronnie P.
Why Joakim Noah?
Check out his energy on both ends of the court. Check out his defensive presence and rebounding. Check out how little he cares about getting lots of shots and how much he enjoys doing little things. Check out his FT shooting. Noah (or a player like him) addresses the Jazz’s weaknesses, while adding energy and team play. That’s what they need.
Memo off the bench?
Memo’s a team player, and he doesn’t need to score a lot to stay happy. I think his abilities would work well off the bench, but his limitations (like rebounding, athleticism, and defensive presence), won’t be as big team liabilities.
Why keep Matthews and KK over CJ and Ronnie B.?
Brewer’s supposed to be the athletic, hustle, good defense wing guy. Matthews hustles more, plays better team D, is almost as athletic, rebounds at a similar rate, and has a much superior outside shot. I trust KK more than I trust CJ. Plus KK’s not nearly as bad defensively as his rep would indicate, but he is a much better rebounder. Plus, who do you trust more at the FT line: KK and OMSW or Ronnie B. and CJ? Who do you trust to take and make intelligent 3’s: KK and OMSW or Ronnie B. and CJ?
Shouldn’t the Jazz trade for a shooter?
The Jazz offense purrs when they focus on layups. Jeff Hornacek didn’t fit so well because of his 3-point shooting (he only took about 3 per game). He fit because of his cuts to the basket and ability to take little floaters, hoppers, cutting and back-door layups. The 3’s were a bonus, but they weren’t end-all and be-all of Hornacek’s game.
Getting a guy who’s going to jack up 15-18 jumpers a game won’t be as awesome as some think it would. In fact, nothing kills the Jazz on offense like getting jump-shot happy. Watch what happens when CJ starts jacking up crappy 3’s. The offense dies. It doesn’t matter if he makes them or not, the shots’ effect is killing the hum of the offense for extended periods of time.
The outside shooting they need is more the Steve Kerr, Bruce Bowen type: consistent, intelligent, and in limited numbers. I’d like to see if KK and OMSW, as a secure tandem and with consistent playing time and situations, can provide this before making any trade for a shooter.
I’m hopeful for this team again. It’s not perfect, but it’s fun to cheer for and seems to be heading in a good direction again. I’m just hoping they make good decisions about how to build the team from here on out.
Appendix: The 7 Team Types worth Cheering for.
As I see it, fans are happy as long as their team fits one of these profiles. If their win-loss record matches one of the profiles, but the characteristics of the team don’t, the fans despair: see Knicks fans during the past decade, Jazz fans from March 2009 to January 2010.
1. The 2002-03 Denver Nuggets stage. Record: 17-65. Yes, the team was dreadful, BUT they had just cast off all the solidly mediocre guys that had mired the team in solid mediocrity for the past few years, there was a draft class coming up that was to die for, and at least the guys played hard.
2. The 2008-09 Oklahoma City “Bandits.” stage. Record: 23-59. Not a great team, but it already has the right parts in place. They’re playing teams much tougher than the record indicates, and their fans get to sit back over the next few years, knowing that their ascension to becoming a team that matters is as guaranteed as you can expect.
3. The 2003-04 Utah Jazz stage. Record: 42-40. Much better team than expected, surprising role-players turn out to be major difference-makers worth keeping (like Raja Bell), the team’s in great shape financially, team leader’s a hoot to watch, and all it’s missing is a few pieces.
4. The 2006-07 Utah Jazz stage. Record: 51-31. Made it to Western Conference Finals. The team arrives. It makes surprising noise in the playoffs. It shows it’s a playoff team and will have to be dealt with for a while now. The team is still inconsistent: varying between off-the-charts good and really sucks, but it’s still young and mostly needs some maturity.
5. The 2007-08 Utah Jazz stage. Record: 54-28. Loses in second round to the Lakers. The team is on the cusp. The guys have matured, they’re playing together, they’re trusting each other, and they’re hungry. The next year just may be it.
6. 1994-1999 Utah Jazz stage. Average 60 wins/year. They’ve made it. They are one of the top 5 teams. Every talk about potential champions has to include them. Whether they win it all or not now depends on only which way the breaks go. They’re at the pinnacle of what a fan can demand.
7. 2000-2003 Utah Jazz stage. 55-45 wins/year. Fallen from the pinnacle, but we can still send the guys off with a resounding thanks.