It is always risky to base too much opinion on a single game. Yet that is what I'm going to do. Utah lost to the best team in the league, yet they fought and gave themselves an outside shot to win. Here's what I think, right now:
Right now he simply stinks at the flex offense. When he gets the ball in the post with no obvious quick step to score available, it's a disaster. He dribbles, pivots just for the hell of doing something, looks for a pass, but doesn't see anything he can actually handle, etc., etc., etc. Against the Spurs it usually ended up with either a turnover or a lousy shot.
Right now he's actually rather good in pick-and-roll situations. When Deron called Al out away from the post for the PnR, Al ended up with good shots, using his footwork to advance him into strong scoring position, and he scored very effectively. And this was with Duncan guarding him. Sure, Timmy's older than he once was and younger than he'll be (that's not unusual), but we're still talking about one of the greatest post defenders ever. And in the PnR situation, when a shot was set up for Al with only one or two quick steps/dribbles, he was very effective.
The power forward situation
What do you call a guy who's between 6'9" and 6'10", 235 lbs., who has a scary outside shot but is effective inside, who is a great passer from both high and low posts, who isn't quick enough to keep up with a lot of SF's, but has the size and quickness to handle other power forwards pretty well?
He's called a power forward, and his name is Andrei Kirilenko.
Let's face the truth. Andrei isn't as quick as he once was. He gets burned by athletic SF's. I saw it during the Spurs game. He just can't keep up with the wings any more.
Which shouldn't be a problem, because Andrei's also bulked up quite a bit in the past two years and doesn't have the skinny body of 2004. Here's the listed weight of the top PF's in the league: Kevin Garnett's 250. Pau Gasol, 250. Lamar Odom, 235. LaMarcus Aldridge, 240. Josh Smith, 240. Dirk, 245. Blake Griffin, 250. AK's slightly less bulky—but the point is it's slight.
But he doesn't play PF. He's stuck in at SF because ... (a) Paul Millsap also plays PF, and (b) the only other reliable SF is CJ.
AK's slowed down, but it wouldn't be the problem if the front office had gone after reliable SF's instead of stocking up of PF's. It's the Boozer/Millsap problem all over again. Two of our more effective guys play the same position. So the only way to get the two of them out there is to stick one out of position, which puts the defense at disadvantage before the game even starts.
The wing situation
We heard the ESPN dudes bring it up again and again. The Jazz backcourt scored 40 points. 39 by Deron. The only reliable SG is Deron. The only reliable SF's are CJ and AK (out of position). No wonder the team struggles to score at times.
Raja, unfortunately, isn't the Raja Bell of 2006. Not defensively, not offensively. Ronnie will never be more than a hustle guy. CJ will never stop being streaky. That honestly leaves us with Gordon and Jeremy. Like I said ... no wonder the team struggles at times.
It's a personnel issue
Yes, we've seen some attitude problems. Yes, sometimes the work ethic and effort doesn't seem to be there. But, watching the Spurs game, I decided that the team's problems are primarily personnel.
Poor Front Office moves, at least looking retrospectively
The team's struggle at the wing positions is nothing more than failure of the front office. The best SG since Hornacek retired was Raja Bell. And he was lost (though it's hard to blame the front office so much on this one, since Raja simply was given a great offer to start for a great team). The best SG since Raja Bell was Wesley Matthews. We know what happened there (an understandable business decision, but a disastrous basketball decision). Kyle Korver was let go (it didn't seem the team seriously tried to keep him). Raja was brought back, in hopes he'd still be the dude from 2005. But he isn't.
And while they let the quality wings go, they bulked up on PF's. AK, Boozer, Millsap, Al, Memo. The decisions all made sense at the time, but looking at it now it's obvious the team stockpiled one need instead of addressing both.
What I wish, what I hope
Well, there are two ways to go. One is via trade. The other is working through existing personnel.
Please, please dangle Paul Millsap in search of a SF or SG. Whether or not a trade actually happens is, of course, dependent on other teams' needs and demands. The front office can't just "make something happen."
But if they are smart, they'll be pursuing a Millsap trade as hard as they can.
First off, a disclaimer. I love Paul. I was convinced he could replace Boozer. I believe he has done a good job this season. I believe he proved a lot of doubters wrong, regarding whether he could be a primary scoring option (I'm looking past the awful past 6 games). I argued only a week and a half ago that the team ought to go to Millsap more and Al less.
A part of me would die if Paul was traded.
But it's the best option. His PER is in the 20's. His salary is very reasonable. He's shooting 54%. He's developed a very nice 18-foot jump shot.
Simply put, if the Jazz dangle him about he would be a VERY desired asset. Teams will want to acquire him. I believe he's by far the best trade chip the Jazz currently have.
And I believe that trading Millsap makes sense for two reasons: (a) AK is also a power forward, and (b) AK's particular skills are much harder to replace than Millsap's. Remember my critique of Al as the post-dude in the flex offense? Terrible? Well AK would be great.
Seriously, when do you want to strangle AK? When he comes off curls or sets up for a 20-footer/3-pointer, right? When does AK make you want to cheer? When he's at the high post, his defender close (so an awful jumper won't be going up), hands raised, looking for the cutter to the basket (And AK found that cutter 4-5 times against the Spurs). Or when he's at the high post, then he makes a quick move to the basket, because he's probably either going to get a decent shot up or get free throws. Or when he's in the low post and makes a snappy interior pass.
Seriously, put AK at the PF spot and the stuff that drives us nuts gets minimized, while the stuff that we love gets maximized. Then make AK the primary post guy when the team's running its flex offense. And make Al the primary PnR guy. Because Al would be just as awesome off an AK interior pass as he is off a Deron PnR pass. When he's going to the basket, when a great shot is only one or two steps away ... Al's footwork makes him unstoppable. It's when he's given an entry pass and has to figure out what to do with it that he struggles. And that happens to be where AK shines.
Plus AK has the length/bulk/quickness to battle everyone from the David Wests of the NBA to the Pau Gasols.
It just makes so much sense.
So, as much as I love Millsap, as much as it would kill me to see him go ... dangle Millsap and see if you address the team's awful wing situation via trade. Millsap for OJ Mayo. For Iguodala. For Crash. If these guys are really available, then I hope the Jazz are at least giving it their best shot—and Sap's their best shot. Or Millsap for Wesley Matthews (I think my head would explode). Or Millsap for Kevin Martin (I'd wet myself). I don't know. My hunch is that there are guys available, and Millsap would at least make the teams seriously consider it.
Whether it's a SF or SG that is brought in, slide AK over to the PF spot and the team will improve.
Other trade options
There are, of course, other guys to dangle. AK and his huge expiring contract. Memo and his sort-of expiring contract. CJ Miles.
But I think the Jazz will get the best guy in return for a Millsap trade, and I think losing Paul/keeping AK is better for the team in general than losing AK/keeping Paul.
But for the love of all that is holy, can the front office please address the team's roster understanding that AK is, for all intents and purposes, a PF now, and that both SF and SG are enormous weaknesses because of this? That AK would be a better defender against PF's than Millsap, that in some ways AK is actually a better offensive PF than Millsap (in terms of passing, NOT in terms of 18-foot jumpers). Please can they make roster moves with these basic bits of information at the front of their minds?
And if no trades pop up
There are a lot of reason trades may not happen. The Jazz are notoriously conservative regarding them. Sloan likes continuity because the offense is complex, and therefore improvement happens in terms of years, not weeks.
But, most importantly, it takes two (or more) to tango. The other team has to want the guy. The Jazz have to really want what's offered in return. I'm sure Orlando would love to trade a future 2nd round pick for Millsap—but let's hope that's not what the Jazz want in return.
So how could they improve with their existing personnel? What would I love to see?
Well, here's the starting lineup I'd love to see sometime: Al, AK, Jeremy Evans, Gordon, Deron. Why not? Can't be any worse that what we saw on the road trip. And in terms of roles, Jeremy makes more sense as a SF than AK. He's got the body, the quickness, the hops that fit the position. Yeah, it'll never happen. But a guy can dream.
Other than that, we need to see a lot of the Earl/Deron backcourt. Earl's a good PG. Deron's by far the best SG we have. We need to see a lot of AK at the PF spot. We need to see Gordon and Evans have more playing time, to see if they can step into bigger roles and succeed better than the pitiful standard set by the current wing guys.
The season's not lost. I still think the team will probably make the playoffs. But there are some changes that would be very helpful for the team's success.