Of all the NBA’s awards, Coach of the Year is the stupidest.
When Phil Jackson, Gregg Popovich, Red Auerbach, and Jerry Sloan combine for … just wait for it … 3 Coach of the Year Awards, you know something is otherworldly wrong with the award. I’m supposed to believe that these 4 guys—on every top-ten coaching lists in the world (and many top-five) were the best coach only 3 out of 78 combined years? Was Jerry Sloan ever—even once—outcoached by Sam Mitchell? Or Doc Rivers? Or Mike Brown? I could go on and on and on.
There’s a reason for such stupidity, of course. We don’t see 90% of what a coach does for his team. We see in-game decisions and that’s it. But even then we don’t know why a coach makes certain decisions. See and understand about 5% of a coach’s work.
And there’s still another wrinkle: how much of any team’s success is due to the coach, how much is due to the players, and how much is due to the front office? The OK City "Bandits" are a perfect example: are they good a) because Scott Brooks’s strategy, preparation, and teaching have made the team click, b) because Durrant is a once-in-a-lifetime talent and the players have developed themselves into a team, or c) because Sam Presti put together the right kind of guys?
And to really investigate what each coach has done over the season, and then make judgements about what those actions have meant to the teams, and then decide which coach’s decisions have been the best that year … well, ask Ross Siler how much time your average sports writer has to investigate all these things.
All the media voters know is that we didn’t think the "Bandits" would be this good, so let’s give Brooks the Coach of the Year award.
Well I want to lay out the case for Sloan. I can’t say he ought to be the Coach of the Year. I don’t know what other coaches have done for their teams. But what I do know is that Sloan has been crucial to this miraculously fun Jazz season. I think the best thing to do is to look at 3 things: relevant team stats, the context, and things we know Sloan has done.
The Team Stats:
- Current record: 50-26, 2nd in the Western Conference, tied for 4th best record in the NBA.
- Won 31 games by 10 or more points (tied with Cleveland for 2nd)
- +6 point differential (3rd in NBA)
- 49% team FG percentage (1st in NBA)
- 44% opponent FG percentage (7th lowest in NBA)
- 27 Assists per game (1st in NBA — by a ridiculous amount)
- +3 rebounding differential (6th in NBA)
- 8.2 steals per game (4th in NBA)
All the stats back up a simple premise: the Jazz are a really, really good team this year.
This is basically the same team Sloan declared to be his most talented ever last season. It is also the same team that dove headfirst into manure at the end of last season.
Boozer repeatedly threw his teammates under the bus in his quest to play for Miami or Chicago—his grandstanding became so obnoxious Pat Riley publicly questioned why he would want a player like that on the Heat.
Jazz started with 5 swingmen. 4 lost several games because of injuries (AK-47, KK, CJ, and Matt Harpring). The 5th (Ronnie B.) played worse than he had in 3 years.
Jazz started the season 1-3: all three losses such horrendous, soul-killing 4th quarter collapses that some fans decided the season was over right then (and it was, by the way. Only a miracle saved this season).
Jazz sat at 19-17 on January 8th. Losers of 6 of the last 9, 9th place in the West.
Boozer (gotta love the guy, right) told reporters at the end of December that the Jazz played better without Deron running the offense—after the Jazz won 1 game with Deron sitting out hurt.
Jazz traded a fan and team favorite (Ronnie B.) midseason—a move that irritated Deron so much that he decided to play like crap for the next 5 games.
They’ve now played 9 of the past 11 games without AK-47 — the guy whose out-of-this-world play changed the team from a pile of talented turd into a winner.
The team roster includes:
- 1 lottery pick
- 2 other first round picks
- 6 second round picks
- 4 undrafted players, including 3 undrafted rookies
So what has Sloan done?
1. Defense. The Jazz have been a disgusting defensive team in the previous 3 seasons—particularly regarding their interior defense. We don’t know exactly what, but Sloan started a new kind of defensive accountability this year, something that comes up in team meetings and practices, and it has completely transformed the team.
Freaking Boozer, despite his occasional lapses, has been rather decent on the defensive end this year. He’s been hustling. He’s banged with people.
Memo’s averaging more than a block per game. Read that line one more time. And again.
I don’t care who the players are, they don’t suddenly play effective defense on their own—not after 5 years of "Memo, help!"
2. Let Deron and AK-47 do their thing. We all know Sloan’s probably ready to combust every time these guys start having a bit too much fun. I wish I could have seen Sloan’s face when Deron did that crazy between-the-legs-no-look pass that went to nobody (because Boozer wasn’t paying attention), and bounced to half-court, giving the Dubs an easy, uncontested layup.
But here’s the thing. Sloan’s letting Deron be the Ninja. He’s letting Kirilenko be AKWSUA. And the team is looser, faster, unpredictable-er, more fun, and just plain better because of it.
3. Let CJ play. How many times did we call CJ an idiot a month and a half ago? How many times did we want to beat Sloan on the head to bench CJ and let KK take all the minutes? Hell, I even created the CJ theory to explain how the Jazz offense stagnates when someone starts thinking he’s a superhero and takes a bunch of crappy, off-balance, contested 3’s.
Well, CJ got to play through it, and now we’ve got a 3-headed-swing-man monster (The Doe-Sweet Wesley-Korgasm) that trusts each other, believes in itself, makes good decisions, and has earned the complete trust of Deron. These 3 guys are the Jazz X-factor this year.
4. Trusted OMSW. And speaking of wings—Sloan gave an undrafted rookie a lead role. Read that line again. Sure, he was forced to at first, but nobody forced Sloan to keep trusting Wesley Matthews after CJ and KK got healthy again. Nobody forced Sloan to keep trusting Wesley Matthews when he played like crap the first half-dozen games after the Brewer trade.
5. Let the Millsap/Boozer issue work. This can’t be underestimated. We have two starting power forwards, both making starter money, both ready to be The Man, and it’s worked. No ego problems. No backbiting. How much of this is Sloan? How much is because Millsap’s the good soldier? How much of this is Boozer’s attitude? We’ll never know. But my gut tells me at least part of it is how Sloan handles the guys behind closed doors.
One thing I do know for sure—Boozer’s not the guy making it work (Mr. I’m-the-starter no matter what).
6. Play Ronnie Price. I don’t care how much of a fan favorite he was, Ronnie Price was a terrible backup PG at the start of the season. Great energy guy, but terrible backup PG. He could not run the offense at all.
Well, Sloan stuck with him. Even though Deron would have enthusiastically played 48 minutes per game if asked. Even though Yatta could run the offense better at first.
And now Ronnie’s become a great backup PG. How many times have the Jazz built a small lead during the 1st quarter, only to have the lead blow up into double digits in the early 2nd, when the benches are playing? Who’s the guy running the offense then? Who’s the guy getting KK and CJ and Millsap good shots? Ronnie Price.
7. Actually run an offense. Cleveland beat Milwaukee two nights ago on a play designed by … LeBron James. That’s great LBJ’s got that kind of basketball IQ, but why didn’t Mike Brown design the play? Because Mike Brown doesn’t have the team run an offense. And neither does the majority of the NBA. Just a bunch of iso’s, pick-and-rolls, and drive-and-kicks.
There’s a reason the Jazz have the best FG% and most assists in the league. And now that Sloan (grudgingly) lets the team go after more 3-point shots they’ve become almost ridiculous offensively.
8. Little decisions. Having Deron guard Brandon Roy. Playing Fess more—at the right times (not to mention kneeling right in front of Fess during timeouts to get him to pay attention at least 68% of the time). Moving AK back to the starting lineup. Calling timeouts to interrupt opponents’ momentum (I think Sloan’s done this about 5000% more this year than ever before).
9. No Chemistry Poison. No Boozer/Millsap incidents. No "not enough minutes" meltdowns from CJ, KK, or OMSW, or AK-47. Deron's little fit over the Brewer trade lasted only a few games. No "we're sick of the petty back-stabbing comments" histrionics sent to Boozer. Only 1 or 2 stupid comments from Boozer all year. No "I want the ball more" complaints to the media.
There have been several perfect opportunities for the team to implode, and they haven't. Why?
Because the players have matured a bit? Probably. Because the coaching staff intelligently and honestly handles playing time, egos, and game-time-involvement? Definitely.
10. Enjoying the ride. Watch Yatta’s miraculous game-winner again. Sloan, he of the bad knee and back, nearly jumped up and down in excitement. We haven’t seen that kind of joy from him in a while. I don’t think it’s a coincidence that now we’re seeing that kind of joy from the players too.
* * * * *
You can’t say the Jazz are good just because of Jerry Sloan. The players have done a hell of a job too, developing, getting better, and figuring each other out.
But Jerry Sloan has done a great job this year. I really wonder if Scott Brooks, Scott Skiles, or any other name boinked about the blogosphere and pundits for Coach of the Year have done nearly as much to make their teams good. Especially when you think about how awful the year started, how good they are now, and how much of that change can be linked straight to what Jerry Sloan has done.
* just a bit more: Sloan eats dinner in the press-box with the beat reporters each game. He comes out of the l ocker room within 5 minutes of the game's end to talk to the reporters, just to help them get their stories done by the deadline. How cool is it to have a guy like that coaching our team?