"Sing, Muse, of the wrath of Achilles"
opening of Homer’s Illiad
I’ve noticed in the comment sections lately that a few different people have suggested or explicitly stated that they think the Jazz ought to be in a win-now mode. This strikes me as strange insofar as the team is heading into the season with the knowledge that Mehmet Okur will be sidelined until at least December. This leads me to three important questions: 1) What should we expect from the team in Memo’s absence? 2) When will Memo be back, not just on the court, but back to being Money? 3) What should we expect from the team when everyone is healthy?
In succession, then:
1) What should we expect from the team in Memo’s absence?
With Memo out, the starting lineup will presumably consist of Williams, Bell, Kirilenko, Millsap, and Jefferson. That’s every bit as strong as last year’s starting lineup, which might initially lead us to believe that the team could win approximately 65% of their games even without Memo.
The main problem with this suggestion, however, is that starters don’t play 48 minutes a night- not even under Jerry Sloan. The backup center is Kyrylo Fesenko. The backup power forward is the starting small forward. And if anyone gets in foul trouble, we might have the immortal Francisco Elson thrust upon us.
The second problem is that Al Jefferson might not hit the ground running. As we all know, the Jazz have a certain way of doing things. Whereas learning Mike Brown’s system is like learning to play "Go Fish", learning Jerry Sloan’s system is like learning to play "The Glass Bead Game". (And Vinny Del Negro’s system would be... "Calvinball"?)
My point (and I do have one) that there are going to be some setbacks at the beginning of the season. I think .500 to .550 ball is the most likely scenario until Okur returns.
2) When will Memo be back, not just on the court, but back to being Money?
Fortunately, Okur’s game does not, ahem, rely on athletic bursts and lateral quickness. When he first comes back, he might prefer to shoot more frequently and to pull the headfake-and-drive less frequently... but I suspect I am not alone in welcoming that possibility. The real question will be one of minutes. If he comes back in mid-to-late December, he will not be in condition to immediately step into starters’ minutes. He could, however, begin with 10-15 minutes a game and be up to full speed by the end of January. This presumes that he suffers no major setbacks during the rehab process. Since I believe the team is <em>not</em> in win now mode, I would rather they take a cautious approach. Back on the court at the end of December and back to starters’ minutes by the All-Star break. That said, I’m not the one who would have to pull aside a former All-Star and say, "Even though you think you can go and the team needs you, we’d rather you take it easy for now." All of this is to say, I do think Mehmet will be Money again, and it will probably happen around MLK Day.
3) What should we expect from the team when everyone is healthy?
To my mind this is the most interesting question. We have three bigs who are worthy of a starting position, but alas only two places to play them. It seems neither fair nor plausible that Coach Sloan would ask Millsap to come off the bench; the man has waited too long and works too hard. So who gets the nod at center? Big Al or Big Money? I think the coaches really don’t know at this point. A lot will depend on how well Paul and Al play together the first half of the season. If they proved to be a formidable working pair, it might be hard to break them up. On the other hand, it would be hard to ask Okur to take a seat given his past performance and his dedication to the team.
Nonetheless, I do think that Okur will wind up being the sixth man. For one thing it’s always nice to add a scoring punch off the bench. For another, I think that by the time Memo is at full strength the team will already be settled into a rhythm which Coach Sloan will be disinclined to disrupt. Especially if Okur makes his comeback in stages, there will be a clearly established precedent for him to be the first big off the bench. Finally, I think Okur will be better suited to get heavy minutes when the opponents’ reserves are in the game. His lack of footspeed will be less of a liability against less polished offensive players, and his offensive firepower will cause more problems against less experienced defenders.
All in all, I expect the Jazz to have a very good year and probably finish third in the Western Conference. Unfortunately, I think the Lakers are still better and will continue the tradition of knocking Utah out of the playoffs. There’s always next year. Next year the Jazz will be healthier and more accustomed to playing with one another. Also, next year Kobe will be yet older and Bynum will presumably have suffered yet another knee injury. That’s why I don’t think the Jazz should be trying to win now. I think they should be trying to win a year from now.