Lessons from the Past, Eyes to the Future

Hindsight is, of course, perfect.

In a related way Foresight is imperfect.

Actually that may be understating it. Foresight is like peering through a fog permeated forest, at night, with a new moon, wearing sunglasses. Sometimes you just hope you don't break your nose or trip and dislocate a hip.

Unfortunately our Jazz team is blazing ahead, building a new team, with a new identity, with a new (and yet-to-be determined) leader, reaching for a new peak.

There's going to be a whole lot of foresight in the next couple of years.

My hope is that they can learn a few lessons from the Deron years and avoid some of the mistakes. Some were smaller, a couple were enormous, and one was such an epic failure that it can never be overstated enough.

So, on with the lessons (warning—there are a lot of words that follow):

Lesson 1: The AK Principle

We know all about his contract, but I think the correct lesson is sometimes left unlearned. AK was a very good player. Sublime and truly great at his peak (3 players had a higher PER this year than AK did at his peak). The problem wasn't AK's ability. The problem was his role. Once Boozer came, Memo got in shape, and Deron rose from his rookie doldrums, AK was relegated to a secondary role.

The moral: A team cannot pay huge contracts to players filling secondary roles.

Lesson 2: the Boozer Corollary

This is related to AK's role. Did you know that Boozer and AK had virtually identical true shooting percentages during their six years together—and that AK's was actually slightly higher (meaning that AK was slightly a more efficient scorer)?

Now, Boozer was clearly a superior rebounder. But AK was better at every other aspect of the game: team defense, blocking shots, getting steals, man-to-man defense, passing, setting screens, running backdoor routes, etc., etc., etc.

But Boozer got a primary role, and AK was relegated to a secondary role. Even though AK was always a better all-around player and slightly more efficient scorer. Why? Because Boozer seemed to have a more refined offense repertoire.

The moral: Players who seem to have more refined offensive games get bigger roles than other players—even the other players actually are better and/or have greater potential.

Lesson 3: the Memo/Boozer Duality

Boozer's defensive deficiencies have been well-documented—he was almost poetically dreadful. Memo's have been exaggerated, but he still peaked at perhaps mediocre. There was no way to get over this. Teams can, and have, won championships with a lousy perimeter defender. Magic was truly dreadful, for example. But I have a hard time thinking of a championship team with even a single soft post defender ... let alone two.

There are all sorts of problems you can attribute to the soft interior defense. Too many fouls and free throws given up, too many easy points in the paint given up. Etc., etc., etc. But it all leads to the same issue.

The moral: A team cannot become a championship team with a soft interior defense

Lesson 4: the Paul Millsap/Wesley Matthews/Kyle Korver Factor

Here's the hard truth about the NBA: players get hurt. Teams have to deal with it. I'm not talking about the major injuries—the kind that drops a star for a season. There's no way to overcome that. But with the little nagging injuries—a sprained ankle that keeps a player out for 3-4 games, that kind of thing—those always happen, and they have to be planned for.

The way to handle them is to have role players who can take a temporary bigger role. The guys mentioned above—Millsap, Matthews, Korver—they were all in secondary roles, yet still capable of dropping 20-25 points if needed. And so the Jazz could survive the injuries of 2008, 2009, and 2010. The Jazz had nobody who could do that this year. Nobody. I'm not counting CJ, because he was one of the 5 guys who HAD to score every single game.

The moral: the bench must have guys capable of filling temporarily bigger roles

Lesson 5: the Millsap/CJ/Matthews Theorem

Here are three guys who were overlooked during the drafts, who the Jazz picked up, and then became surprisingly effective players. In 2008, OKC tried to poach CJ. The Jazz said "No," and they were blessed for it. In 2009 Portland tried to poach Millsap. The Jazz said "No," and they were blessed for it. In 2010 Portland tried to poach Wesley. The Jazz said "Yes," and the season turned into a disaster because of it.

I know there are reasons why the Jazz didn't match the Wesley Matthews contract (it's actually related to Lesson 1—had they not been playing a role player $17 million, they could have afforded Wesley). But I believe that just one more effective, dependable all-around player on the team would have changed everything this season. Seriously—everything.

The biggest problem with letting young studs leave is when the team is over the salary cap. The team is simply too restricted in how it finds replacement players—and the odds of finding one as effective as the guy that just left is very, very small. It's even worse if the team is a small market team, and not a trendy destination for free agents.

The moral: a team CANNOT let its young studs be poached by opponents.

Lesson 6: The Millsap/AK Instability

Here are two guys who lost starting positions and primary roles even though they had the talent to fill them. Neither took it well. Both resulted in serious chemistry problems that limited the success of the team.

And though AK in 2007 and Millsap in 2009 are the most obvious examples, there are others. Brewer responded to the emergence of Wesley Matthews by having his worst season since his rookie year. How did Deron respond to being benched in favor of Keith McCloud?

The moral: relegating a fully capable player from a primary role to a secondary role creates chemistry problems.

Lesson 7: The Giricek Conundrum

Having made the conference finals just a season previous, the Jazz muddled about in mediocrity for a month or so. It was stupid. Boozer had his finest year. So did Memo. AK was recovered from his meltdown and was outstanding. Deron was on his way to an All-NBA team bid. Millsap was king of the bench. Ronnie B. had turned into a legit starter. Their stats were those of a 60-win team.

Yet they muddled about because Giricek got into a month-long fight with Jerry Sloan. One major attitude problem, and a should-have-been great team was suddenly mediocre. And then, of course, came the trade for Kyle Korver and the Jazz went into 5th gear. They only made the conference semi's, but it was the absolute best of the Boozer-Deron-Memo triumvirate.

Every time the team struggled, it was because of chemistry problems. Arroyo suddenly thinking he was king of the world. The problems of 2009 (when Millsap was pushed back to the bench after proving he was a fully capable starter).

The moral: chemistry problems can derail an otherwise good team.

Lesson 8: The Ronnie B. Complexity

When the Jazz traded Ronnie Brewer for pretty much nothing (a protected 2011 pick), it was fully justified. I won't go as far as to call it genius (rolling my eyes at a certain radio personality), but it made sense. Ronnie was having his worst year since his rookie season. Wesley Matthews had emerged as a guy who could do most of what Ronnie did, plus a lot of stuff Ronnie couldn't (like play dynamite team defense and shoot 3's). Because the Jazz also had CJ and Kyle Korver, losing him wouldn't gut the team's depth, but it would save a lot of money.

So the Jazz jumped.

But I don't think anyone realized what effect that trade would have on the team's star and leader, Deron. One of his favorite teammates was traded for absolutely nothing. As far as he could tell, the team was more interested in cutting costs than improving.

Deron completely shut down for four straight games. He didn't even try to play well. For the first time, he mumbled "that's why I only signed a three-year contract." Prior to that moment, Deron was prepared to be a Jazzman for life. It had been the previous summer he lived in Salt Lake during the summer, hung out at Costcos to be around fans, and spent every other week doing some community event or publicity stunt for the team. It's important to remember that was the summer we all thought Boozer was going to be gone—and as far as we can tell, Deron was fine with that.

It was the Brewer trade that changed everything.

He went from being a lifelong Jazzman to someone the front office was afraid would bolt as soon as he could.

The moral: the team star needs to believe the team management is working to put together a great team

Lesson 9: The Ronnie B/Kirk Snyder Vortex

If you're looking at pure talent and athletic ability, Ronnie Brewer was nothing more than a poor man's version of Kirk Snyder. Everything we loved about Ronnie B's game—the athleticism, the baseline cuts and dunks, the steals, the speed—Kirk Snyder could do also. But Snyder also had a normal elbow and could shoot the damn ball.

And yet Ronnie B. was successful, Snyder was not.

I believe it was a simple difference of attitude and hard work. One did what the coach asked, the other fought it. Once realized he had to work hard to earn his place, the other declared himself rookie of the year prior to the draft. One is playing 20 minutes for a 62-win team. The other ... we don't need to go further into Kirk's life.

There are so many other examples. The good: Millsap, Matthews, Hayward, even Derrick Favors. The bad: Humphries, Almond.

The moral: draft guys with the attitude and ethic that will make them likely to succeed

And last, but most importantly

Lesson 10: The KOC Fence-sitting Experiment

When Deron signed a 3-year extension instead of the full 5 years, the team was put on notice: create a team he believed in within three years, or he would leave.

And everyone was fine. Deron didn't crave brighter lights, a bigger market, or anything like that. He liked Utah. He was married and had kids. He wasn't going to bolt just to be in New York or LA. And the team seemed in great shape. They had killed the league the previous year (after the Korver trade), losing in an epic series against the Lakers (they were outscored over the 6-game series by only 16 total points).

The Jazz looked to be one of 5-6 genuine contenders for the 2009 title. But the year went badly. Starting with Deron's ankle sprain, compounded by Boozer and his untraceable particles in his knee—the season did not go so well. But during January and February the Jazz did really well. Deron was healthy and killing it (22 and 11). Memo was chipping in 20 ppg.

But the real story was Millsap: 17 ppg and 9 rebounds as a starter. And though he may not have been Tim Duncan, defensively, he was a hell of a lot better than Boozer. When Boozer returned, killing the team's chemistry, the management made a decision:

Forget Boozer, his phantom injuries and phantom defense—the future was Deron, Memo, and Millsap.

The team was ready to let Boozer bolt and gave no sign of interest in trying to resign him. Boozer, of course, didn't end up opting out of his contract. But the team still had control. Boozer wanted to be gone, the team wanted him gone, he was a valuable commodity and other teams were willing to trade for him ...

The first step to building anything new—whether it's restructuring a business, making improvements in the yard, teaching a kid to read, or building a basketball team—the first step is to assess what you have now.

The Jazz needed to know what a full season built around Deron, Memo, and MIllsap would be like. They needed to know what AK would contribute with a bigger role. They had ideas, they had guesses, they had hopes—but they didn't KNOW.

And they needed to know—at least if Deron was going to stay after 2012. They only had three years to build a team that had him satisfied.

What kills me is they had the perfect situation. Three years. It could follow an easy plan: Year 1: Assess what they had. Year 2: Make an big change deemed necessary. Year 3: make minor changes as deemed necessary.

And their roster situation was perfect. Millsap was signed for cheap. Memo was an expiring contract. AK's contract would expire in just one more year. Even if things didn't work out—Millsap, with that contract and putting up the same numbers from the year before—would be a desired commodity. Memo would be desired by the plethora of teams trying to get expiring contracts for the Summer of LeBron.

Seriously, everything was there for a perfect Year 1 Assessment and Year 2 Major Adjustment.

But ...

The Jazz stalled. They decided to go with Millsap, then didn't follow through. They sat on the fence, brought Boozer back regardless of the chemistry problems. They tried to work for the future team and keep the past team at the same time, even though everyone knew the past and future were different.

And then they made it worse by extending Memo without bothering to assess whether a Memo/Millsap frontcourt would be good enough.

Basically, they postponed assessment until Year 2. Which would have been fine had Deron signed a 5-year extension. But he didn't. They only had three years, and they completely wasted Year 1 trying to hang on to the past even though the future was a different direction.

So Year 2 came, and suddenly they tried to do major adjusting (bringing in Big Al, replacing Raja for Wesley, etc.) without doing the initial assessment. Which meant they were stuck assessing in Year 2. Which was bad because they had no time for further major adjustments, and the roster they were assessing didn't have time to show how it would do once the kinks were worked out.

Everyone panicked. Jerry resigned. Deron was traded. The End.

It was as if I assessed a student's reading ability for the first time in April, the kid performed poorly, and then I freaked out because the end of level test was in May. "I don't have time to help this kid before the school year's over!" Well no kidding! I would have had time if I had first assessed in September—when I was supposed to do it.

The moral: once you decide on a direction for the team, do it. Don't stall. Don't wish-wash. Don't cling to the past and postpone the inevitable future. Just follow through with the decision.

* * *

Lessons 8 and 10, of course, absolutely kill me. The Jazz had one of the 10 best players in the world. He liked it here in Utah. He liked his teammates. The owner was willing to pay the luxury tax to have a championship caliber team. And the team's roster gave them the perfect opportunity to build a truly great team around him.

And now KOC can present a seminar that combines the two lessons: How to totally screw up building a championship team, drive a popular superstar out of town even though he liked it there, make a great and passionate coach no longer want to fight, and turn a proud franchise into a lottery team—all in two years or less.*

* * *

And so we come to today's team. The front office has to be smarter. They need to learn the lessons of the previous six years. And they need to make roster decisions accordingly.

Let's be clear about the team's situation:

By trading Deron for Favors, the front office decided to build a team for the future. Winning now is not the priority. Building a team that is great within two to three years is the priority.

Refer to Lesson 10: Once a choice is made, follow through with it. Everything now must be about that team we hope to have three years from now.

The future is Gordon Hayward and Derrick Favors. When drafting Hayward KOC even asked fans to not judge the pick until after two years. He was always about the future anyway.

We don't know how good Hayward and Favors are going to be. We do know their ceilings are higher than any other players on the roster. If anyone has a chance of being one of the top 15 or so players in the league, it's Favors and Hayward.

At the same time, I think it's pretty clear that Millsap and Al are as good as they are going to ever be. I'm not trying to knock them. They are very, very good. I believe they both make sense as the third-best player on a championship team. But not any better than that. And that must be remembered at all times.

If Hayward and Favors don't end up better than Al and Sap, then something screwy will have happened. And if the Nets pick doesn't end up better than Sap and Al, then the pick will be a flop.

So Al must be traded.

Refer to Lesson 1: A team can't pay a secondary player huge salaries.

If Hayward, Favors, and the Nets pick all end up better than Al, then he is no longer a primary player. Or worse—he's filling a primary role even though he's not one of the three best players. Either way, he's the fourth best guy on the team. You can't pay the fourth best guy $15 million. I'm not sure you can even pay the third best guy $15 million.

Paying secondary players too much inevitably leads to further problems: Like Lesson 5: letting young studs get poached by other teams. Or it can bring about a problem with Lesson 8: trading players in pure salary dumps, just to cut costs, leading the stars to think the management isn't interested in building a good team. And it often leads to problems with Lesson 4: not having quality secondary players capable of filling temporary larger roles when minor injuries and such hit.

Plus Al poses another problem: he seems like a more refined scorer than Favors. So even though Favors is obviously the future, even though Favors obviously has a higher ceiling—the temptation will be to keep Al in a primary role because he seems more refined and Favors seems more raw. See Lesson 2: players with seemingly more refined offensive games get bigger roles, regardless of who is actually better.

And the emphasis is on the word "seemingly." AK was actually a slightly more efficient scorer than Boozer. Young, obviously raw, Favors was a more efficient scorer than the post-move guru Al Jefferson. Look up their true shooting percentages, and you'll see it's true.

But Al seems more refined. So Hollinger opines that Favors will best serve as the defensive doppelganger to the offensive-minded Al. This will only perpetuate and get more infuriating as time passes. Favors is the future. He has the higher ceiling. And as a raw rookie he was already more efficient than Al. So let's learn something from Lesson 2 and adjust accordingly.

And speaking of trades, Millsap also has to go.

It's a sad, sad truth ... but it's the truth. I love Sap. A part of me will die to see him on another team.

But when you make a choice, you can't hold on to the past. Go with the choice. No fence-sitting.

First of all, Millsap's got the same problem of seeming to be more refined on offense, yet Favors has the higher ceiling. That's going to be a inhibitor to Favors' development, just like Al.

But there are other issues. He plays the same position as Favors. I hate calling Sap soft, because he's not, but he isn't big enough to handle guarding the Gasols and Tim Duncans of the NBA, and he's not quick enough to handle guarding the LeBrons (or even the Al Harringtons). Lesson 3: a championship team can't have a soft interior defense. Favors is a defensive demon. Sap isn't.

But bring Millsap off the bench! That's the answer, right?

Come on. He's worked his butt off to earn the right to start. He was one of the 10 best PF's in the league this past season. He's only 26 years old. He's in his prime. There's no indication that he can't keep up this production for the next five years. And that's the problem. Lesson 6: when a player is moved from a primary role to a secondary one, even though he's fully capable of producing as a primary player—chemistry problems ensue. And that is a HUGE problem, because of Lesson 7: chemistry problems alone can derail an otherwise great team.

There's nothing about Sap's game that's wrong—it's just that Favors could be one of the top two PF's in the league within a couple years. Favors will just be better, and there's no other position that Sap can play successfully.

This isn't a bring Manu Ginobli off the bench, situation, either. There was never any doubt Manu was one of the main guys on the Spurs. The starters were guys like Bruce Bowen and aged/no longer effective Michael Finley. The kind of guys who ought to be coming off the bench behind Ginobli. Putting Manu on the bench was a strategy, not a demotion to a secondary role.

Millsap to the bench would be a demotion. Anyone who pretends otherwise is kidding themselves.

Sap has to go. It stinks, but it's just how it is. His salary is reasonable, he could be a 3rd best player on the team. But his size, position, and Favors' presence simply won't allow it to happen.

* * *

And what about the others? Lets' be honest: Elson and Watson should go. They make sense as 9th or 10th players on contending teams, not rebuilding ones. Price and Fes would simply be filling out the 12th and 13th spots on the roster. It'll either be them or other guys with similar abilities.

AK and Raja. If you want savvy vets for their locker room presence, to teach the young kids tricks, to be the leaders—these are the guys. They're both past their prime, plus they were already filling secondary roles, so they don't deal with the issues of demotion like Millsap would. AK would have the advantage of still being a strong contributor—a great secondary role kind of guy. His versatility, his defense, his passing—I'd love him back. I'd also love him off the bench. I think his body would hold up a bit better, and it is the perfect situation as he starts the latter years of his NBA career. And I think he'd be fine coming off the bench. He hasn't had issues with that for almost five years.

CJ and Devin.

I'll be honest. I'm a much bigger fan of CJ than I am of Devin. I think CJ is very good both defensively and offensively (his shooting is wildly inconsistent, but that's only one aspect of offense. Passing, screens, cuts—those all matter too and CJ's pretty good in those areas). He teetered this past year between a secondary role and a primary one. I don't know if he'd feel demoted to have the offense based primarily on Favors, Gordon, and Draft Pick 2011. But his salary is awesome for a big secondary role. Depending on the draft, I'd keep him and plan on starting him at SF.

Devin ... I don't know. After watching Deron for five years, it was hard for me to become enamored with Devin. He seemed to keep the ball in his hands a lot more. I noticed it during the last two weeks. I wanted Gordon to have the ball, but Devin seemed to dominate it. It was hard to complain about Ninja's 15 shots per game when he also dished out 10 assists, scored so effectively, and played so well with the ball in others' hands. But watching Devin's inefficient 12 shots per game and only 5 assists ...

I wasn't enamored. He's fine, but for $10 million it would be nice if he was better than fine. Between his salary, his limited efficiency, and that he's about the 6th or 7th best player on the team—I'd be just fine if he was traded. Even if we got some random Joe to replace him. I think the offense will run better via Gordon than Devin.

But that's just me.

* * *

Honestly, I think a future built around Hayward and Favors is brighter than one around Deron. Mostly because they're both probably going to become better players than either of the #2's that were going to be Deron's sidekicks (Memo and Millsap).

And a lot depends on the lottery. There are some pretty crazy scenarios and options that will come up, depending on where the ping pong balls fall.

Regardless of what happens, I hope our front office can learn from the past. Some mistakes were small. Most became apparent only via retrospect. A few were astonishing disasters.

Lets not make the same mistakes again.

* I mocked KOC with my seminar bit. And most of these lessons revolve around personnel mistakes. That said, I do think Kevin O'Connor is one of the best GM's in the league. Most of the mistakes were only clear looking back with perfect hindsight. Seriously, who wasn't thrilled when Boozer was coming?

The only mistake that was obvious at the time to me was bringing back Boozer when the team had obviously decided that Millsap was the PF of the future. I wanted the team to trade Boozer for my infamous can o' tuna—just get him out so we could see how good a Millsap/Memo frontcourt would be—just get him out so the team could use three years of team building before Deron's opt out instead of two. It was a terrible idea to bring him back from the beginning.

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