What kind of team to you dream of for 2011-12?

Let's all assume there is a 2011-12 season. The impending lockout is a topic for another day.

I find myself with a radically different opinion than many Jazz fans, particularly regarding the future. I've already established my opinion that KOC ought to blow up the team and go young. I think it's the only choice that makes any sense.

Of course, it's a direction that a whole lot of people don't like.

Just throw away a top-10 center? Bank the future on guys with potential, but not much production to date (that would be Favors and Hayward). Go balls-out with a 2011 draft all the experts call weak? And what's up with my dislike for a clearly decent PG?

But of course, I want to bring AK back. (I am Yucca Man, after all, and I must always extol my favorite PF/SF)

Well, here's the jist of what I think. I'm attempting analysis. I'm attempting logic. Not my strongest points, I know. Not generally what anyone reads me for.

But here goes:

The current team is a lousy team

That's the basis of everything I'm hoping the front office does. The basis for every decision I hope KOC and company have the guts to make.

The current set of players simply makes a lousy team.

To understand this, you have to look at them after The Trade. Everything that happened before was led by a PG who was playing like an MVP-candidate before his wrist injury, a PG who won Player of the Month in November.

Everything after the Trade reflects what the current team is capable of doing.

  • The Jazz had the fifth worst record in the NBA. Minnesota, Washington, Toronto, and New Jersey did worse. That's it. Even the incredible Cleveland Cavaliers had a better record.
  • If you extrapolate their post-Trade record over 82 games, they were on pace for a 24-win season. Tied with NJ and the Kings for 5th worst in the NBA.
  • After the trade, the Jazz had a -126 point differential. Again, extrapolate that to 82 games, and they would have been -413 for the season. Only Minnesota, Toronto, Washington, Cleveland, and New Jersey had worse point differentials.

They weren't close to being a playoff team. Not one bit. In the Western Conference, where getting to the playoffs sometimes requires winning 50 games, the Jazz were the 14th best team. Only Minnesota was worse. Ouch.

The excuses don't change that they were a lousy team

I know. There are going to be a lot of people rushing to defend the Jazz and their general crappiness after the Trade. They had injuries. They had a coaching change. They had new guys to fit in and learn the system. And so forth.

And the excuses seem legit. They were all real issues the team dealt with last year.

The problem is when I look at them closely, they don't change that the team was crummy and is likely to continue to be crummy in the future.

Let's look at them one at a time.

Injuries

Here's how injuries affected the Jazz top five players during the previous season (again, I'm only looking post-Trade). I'm putting them in order of who I felt like were the expected to fill the biggest, most important roles on the team.

  1. Al Jefferson played 100% of the games
  2. Paul Millsap played 80% of the games
  3. Devin Harris played 70% of the games
  4. AK played 55% of the games
  5. CJ played 95% of the games

Compare this to a previous injury-riddled year, 2008-09. Again the players are ranked according to the biggest roles they were expected to fill:

  1. Deron Williams played 80% of the games
  2. Carlos Boozer played 45% of the games
  3. Memo played 90% of the games
  4. AK played 80% of the games
  5. Millsap played 95% of the games

What really strikes me is the 2009 team lost most games to its two most important players. The 2011 team lost most games to its third and fourth most important players. So the 2009 team should be able to improve the most if the players are healthy. How much better were they when healthy? 6 wins, or 12% more wins. (Comparing to 2008, when everyone was healthy the entire year and they won 54 games).

So if everyone is healthy next year, the team will probably improve by fewer than 6 wins (because less important players were injured most). That's still far, far out of the playoffs.

Coaching Change

I went through every mid-year coaching change in the NBA since the 89-90 season. I investigated whether the team did better after the coaching change or not, whether the second year was significantly better than the first, and whether any huge roster changes could have also been responsible for a significantly better second season.

Out of 86 mid-year coaching changes since 1990, how many teams did worse after the mid-year coaching change, then did better the second year with no significant roster changes?

One.

Detroit in 97-98.

They went from 37 wins to the equivalent of 47 (lockout year). But it is a strange team to investigate. In 98 all the advanced stats were those of a 46-win team. In 99 their advanced stats were those of a 52-win team. So although they improved, they didn't improve as much as 10 more wins suggest.

And there was an extenuating circumstance: Jerry Stackhouse missed 30 games in 98, but only 8 in 99. So really we're looking at three things: (a) the team wasn't as bad as it record suggested in the first place, (b) they had fewer injuries to its most important players, and then (c) the coaching staff had a year of experience plus the benefits of an off-season and training camp to implement its system and philosophy.

Sadly, the Jazz don't perfectly reflect that Detroit team. The post-Trade Jazz advanced stats indicate the team was EXACTLY as terrible as its record suggests.

No, giving Coach Ty an offseason and training camp to put his system in place isn't going bring about the wins necessary to get into the playoffs.

Chemistry

I'm talking about playing chemistry—about guys fitting together and working together as a team. This is what suffers in a huge midseason trade. This is the excuse given when we talk about trying to fit new guys in the system.

Chemistry.

I challenge anyone to find an example where a team made a big trade, got significantly worse immediately, then became significantly better later because they had time to develop chemistry. Just one example in the history of the NBA.

It doesn't happen. If a trade is good, the team improves immediately.

Think back to some of the significant trades and roster overhauls of the recent past. Garnett and Allen to Boston. Boston was better instantly. Pau to the Lakers. Team Kobe was better immediately. Miami was a power as soon as Shaq arrived. Or how about some lesser moves? Memphis was better the instant Z-Bo arrived. Denver was better as soon as Chauncey came. Or how about Hornacek to the Jazz? Or Korver to the Jazz?

Do teams get better as it develops chemistry? Of course. Korver was his absolute best on the Jazz two years later. The Jazz with Hornacek were better the second year. The Lakers were better in year two of Pau.

But the point is this: if a trade is going to help the team, you can tell immediately. The team doesn't reach its peak that first year, bit it does improve immediately.

The Jazz got worse after the Trade. Significantly worse. Time to develop better chemistry may make them not quite so bad, but it will not magically transform the team into a good team.

The excuses ultimately don't change anything

Injuries. Coaching change. Fitting new guys in. These were all legit things the team had to deal with.

But no matter how you look at it, they aren't really the reasons the team stunk. The team stunk because it was a crappy team.

If everything goes right next year—they stay healthy, the coaching staff gets its groove, the chemistry improves—if everything goes right, history suggests we're looking at a team that will probably win 8-10 more games. Thats' 32-34 wins.

That is our team's likely peak. 30-something wins.

So how can the team really get better?

That's the real issue, isn't it. I don't think anyone wants a team stuck at 35 wins for the next five years. Not the fans, not the front office, not the coaching staff, and not the players. We all want the team to get better.

How?

I've already looked at three ways: fewer injuries, coaching improves, and better chemistry. None of them hold any promise. So let's look at the two other ways:

  1. The players themselves get significantly better
  2. Major roster changes

The players improve

A quick pre-thought: I know AK's a FA, and I know the team is still mulling over picking up CJ's option for next year. But for the purposes of this section, let's assume both are back.

Al is 26 years old. His stats post-Trade are pretty much the same as his best pre-injury years. He has peaked.

Paul is 26 years old. His stats last year were virtually identical to the 50 games he started in 2009. He has peaked.

Devin is 28 years old. His stats have declined for 3 consecutive years. His assists, particularly, have gone down a lot. Everything suggests he is in decline.

CJ is 23 years old. I'd suggest there is still a lot to debate about whether CJ has peaked or not. I'd suggest that he has peaked. His defense, his playmaking, his ability to work with the offense, his shot selection, his off-ball movement and screening—I believe they have become pretty good. I also believe they have peaked. I think his shooting percentages can and will improve back to the mid-40's—but aside from that I'd argue CJ has peaked (I'd also argue that he's a lot better than some give him credit for, but that's a different debate).

AK is 31 years old. He's in decline, and he's likely to miss about 15 games due to injury.

Raja is 34 years old. He's obviously declining.

Gordon Hayward is 21. He's going to be improving a lot over the next 2-3 years.

Derrick Favors is 19. He's going to improve tons over the next 2-3 years.

So any improvement from current players is going to be from Favors and Hayward. That's it. Nobody else is going to get any better. Some will continue to play at their peak for 3-4 years (Millsap, Al, CJ). Others will probably be worse (AK, Raja, Devin). All hope for improvement is on Hayward and Favors.

The problem

And this is huge for me. No matter how much Favors and Hayward improve, it will not help the team that much if they aren't also given big, major, leading roles. Hayward has a better shot at a bigger role, because there is nobody else really in his way at the SG spot.

Favors, of course, is doomed to 20 minutes per game as long as Al and Millsap are on the team. Unless Millsap gets benched and demoted. It's what a lot of SLC Dunkers want. I don't see it going well—not when Millsap has worked so hard to prove himself as a starter. He already proved it during the 50 games of 2009. Then he was benched again. How did that work out for the team's chemistry? (See last 20 games of 2009 and first two months of 2010). So now he got the chance to start again, proved he could do it, proved he was a top-10 PF — and now he cheerfully goes back to the bench and plays 10-14 fewer minutes a game? Really? This is going to go well?

The only way Favors gets a bigger role is if the team kills their chemistry and demotes a guy who worked his butt off for the chance to start and then proved he deserved it.

So forget Favors' improvement having a big effect on the team's wins. No way. If the team stays the same, we're going to be here next April and May, having the exact same freaking debate about whether Favors is ready to be a starting PF or not, whether Millsap would accept a demotion or not, etc.

And I'm very wary of Hayward's improvement having a huge effect. Hayward was most effective last year when he was a major playmaker. But Al and Harris seem incapable of playing without holding on to and/or dribbling the ball for half the shot clock. Add in MIllsap's shots and CJ's (if he starts), and suddenly there aren't many touches or shots left for Hayward. Even if he suddenly plays like a superstar, it won't make a huge difference in the team's record if he only gets 7 shots a game, and 2 seconds of touches in a possession.

Roster changes

I don't believe health will drastically improve the team, nor coaching, nor chemistry. Nor do I believe there's much hope that the players will get better, and thus the team.

Which leaves one option to improve: change the roster.

How to change it, of course, is debatable. A comment the other day mentioned another "Andre Iguodala is available" rumor.

I don't think that's the way to go. Trading young players and/or picks for a good-but-not-great, pricey, overpaid player in his prime makes sense if you are already a very good team trying to find the one right piece to put you over the top. This kind of trade would make a lot more sense for the Jazz before The Trade.

But for a crummy team, it is a terrible idea. It puts them over the cap for longer, binds their roster for more years, limits options for the future, etc., etc., etc. all for the pipe dream of winning 45 games and barely making the playoffs for 2-3 years before Al, Millsap, and Co. inevitably decline.

That isn't the answer.

The only answer for a crummy team is to get rid of the older, expensive players who have no chance of getting better and build around younger, cheaper players who WILL improve over the next 2-3 years. It's even more important to do this if the older, not-improving players are in the way of the younger players' playing time and rate of improvement.

Clear the dead weight so the young kids have room to grow. At this point, we don't know how good Hayward and Favors are going to be. We don't know how good any picks (and the players drafted with those picks) will be if the Jazz trade Al, Millsap, Harris, and Co. for them. We don't know how good young kids will be if the Jazz dangle Al, MIllsap, Harris and Co. as trade bait.

But what we do know—or what all the evidence suggests to me—is that a team built around Al, Millsap, Harris, and Co. is a crummy team and not worth trying to preserve.

Keeping AK

I suppose it's expected since it is me writing this—but I'd keep AK if the team has the guts to go for total rebuilding. I'd do it because (a) he's been a Jazzman for 10 years and he likes it here, and he has more history with this team than anyone else since Stockton and Malone, (b) unlike the other vets, his contract would be neither huge nor stifling, and (c) he's already made his peace with filling a smaller role.

That's what I want from the veterans on a team rebuilding around young players.

I also think back to the preseason games I went to last October. AK was getting this crazy thrill from passing into the paint and giving Fes outrageous opportunities to look good with easy shots. AK honestly looked like he was on a mission to make Fes look as dominating as possible.

I think he'd do the same on a young, rebuilding team. He'd accept a smaller role, accept coming off the bench, and he'd get a silly thrill using his 20 minutes per game making the young kids look as great as he can make them look. He's got the skills (passing, defense, off-ball movement) to do it, and he's got the personality to enjoy it. And I think he has the realism to accept that his time is coming to an end.

So yes. Barring a crazy offer from the Nets (who are the only team I'd think would offer a ridiculous contract to him), I'd resign AK.

Developing young players

This kills me. I read it all the time: keep Al and Millsap while the team develops Favors. Or now, as Brandon Knight seems a real possibility from the draft—developing him behind Harris for a few years.

Come on.

Nobody "develops" sitting on the freaking bench. Nobody "develops" by watching Al hold the ball for 10 seconds, pivoting, pump-faking, looking around, and finally throwing up an off-balance push shot from further away than where he started. Nobody "develops" by watching Harris dribble up the court, taking a screen, driving inside, pulling out when the opening isn't there, and then dumping the ball into Al in the post.

Players develop by playing. Sometimes a young kid has an ego, and he needs to learn to work hard and earn the playing time. That I get. But does that sound remotely like Hayward, Favors, or Knight (if the Jazz draft him)?

They will reach their peak and reach it quickly ONLY if they get as much playing time as possible. And don't even mention developing from practice—they call "practices" during an NBA season a "shoot around" for a reason. They aren't real practices.

The truth is if a player is going to be great—if he has the talent to be a star you can tell 99% of the time in the first and second seasons. No "development" is necessary. They simply have what it takes.

Of course they don't reach their peak in their first or second seasons. But you can tell that their peak is going to be very, very high by just watching them during their first or second seasons.

If Hayward and Favors have what it takes, we will see it next year—especially if they are given starting spots and primary roles. Same with Knight (or whoever the Jazz pick).

If the Jazz ought to rebuild around a young team—and I believe they should—then give the kids primary roles sooner rather than later, so we can tell if they are going to have what it takes sooner rather than later.

But the Jazz will stink if they throw the keys to the kids

Let's say KOC goes crazy. He trades Al, Sap, Harris, and CJ and gets some picks for this year and next in return, along with some second-year players with potential.

The Jazz will lose. A lot. They will be a worse team than had they kept the core together. I don't doubt that for two seconds, I don't argue otherwise. Depending on the players they get in return, and whether any picks they get are in this year's draft or the next—the team's wins will probably be in the 20's, and maybe in the high teens.

But I'd argue that all we'd lose is the joy of watching a non-playoff team win 30-something games.

And I'd much, much rather watch a team that wins 20 game with young kids still improving than a 35 win team at its peak that can only hope to sustain its mediocrity for a couple years before inevitably getting worse.

So what kind of team do you want?

I want a young team with lots of potential and likelihood of getting better over the next 2-3 years. I don't mind if they are a crummy team next year. I care if they have a shot at becoming a good team.

I don't think building around Al, Millsap, and Harris has any hope. I can't see them making the playoffs, and I can't see them getting any better.

I think continuing to send out Al, Millsap, and Harris delays rebuilding. I think it puts off playoffs even longer. I think it delays Hayward, Favors, and whoever the Jazz pick in the draft this year from reaching their peak.

Trading the vets and going young, to me, is giving up a 35-win team that has peaked for a 20-win team that is going to get better.

I'd rather watch that 20-win team.

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