Utah Jazz Off-season Progress: System issues and the dream of continuity

Before D-Will's departure and Sloan going out to pasture, the over-reliance upon one guy was the beginning of the end...

When I advise someone to eat better and exercise more it's not for my benefit. I don't get healthier, but it's just my opinion based upon what I may know. And what actually happens is up to the individuals involved. Take my advice, or leave my advice. I can't do the work for anyone else. I think that being passionate fans you all kind of understand that feeling. We see what's going on, and we all have our two cents. While we may not all be coming from a point of authority (I've never won an NBA title before), I don't think that the collective voice should be ignored.

I think that we all have a lot of good opinions here, and I love that we are having good debates the last few days on a number of subjects. This is precisely what I want this place to be: a home for the fans. A place for Utah Jazz fans to talk about the Utah Jazz 24/7. Now, moving back from 'what I want' to look at 'what I do' -- I think that we all understand my point of view on a few subjects. That does not mean that I'm immune to looking at the good progress made in the big picture.

After all, for me it IS about the big picture. And over the last few years the Jazz have been doing a number of good things. I explore them a bit more after the jump . . .

Off-season progress:

Even more than they let on, the Utah Jazz brass know what they are working with. Duh. While they can't show their cards to the media (or the fans), they do have a plan. Based upon success rate we can argue about what the end goal of the plan is; however, we can't argue that they do not HAVE a plan. They do. And slowly the plan is beginning to provide positive results.

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The Obstacles:

The Jazz seem to be about stability. I can understand why, but I'm not going to go into it here on the record. Stability is good and bad, depending on the situation. I think it is fair to say that the Jazz did not look that hard into (or produced) anything that we could call "continuation". When John Stockton was here the Jazz never got in a young apprentice to slowly get the ropes and be the starter after he retired. John was here for a very long time, but I think we all knew that he wouldn't be here forever. The Jazz did not bring in that apprentice PG, and after John retired -- our PG play was abysmal. The same thing happened in the case of Karl Malone -- no one was brought in to learn the ropes so that when he left the system would still work.

Some of the best organizations do not miss a beat, and we did twice in the last 15 years. The Spurs, if run like the Jazz, would have won those titles with David Robinson and Tim Duncan, and after the original core retired -- they would not have had this seamless transition to the next core.

Part of that is, honestly, due to our rigid nature and desire for stability. We went from Stockton to Malone in 2002-03 to Carlos Arroyo and Michael Ruffin in 2003-04. We went stable, and hard all the way, until those pieces moved on -- leaving us with that gap. That missed beat. We had to start from scratch. And starting from scratch is an obstacle.

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The opportunity:

It is also an opportunity. The Jazz reloaded quickly and brought in some free agents and developed a new core in the Post-Stockton and Malone years. The Jazz could have sucked for a decade like the Chicago Bulls did (or an eternity like the Golden State Warriors) in their post Jordan hang-over . . . but they did not. The Jazz got Carlos Boozer, Mehmet Okur to join the team, and after another bad season had the pieces to move up to get Deron Williams. That said, the skipped beat required a complete record scratch to get back in a groove. The Jazz did the best they could with what they had though. And you can't argue against that. But having cap space and the opportunity to lure in talented players doesn't help with continuity. And if we can learn anything from the Western conference powers that have more rings than us (like the Lakers and Spurs) it's that "always being good, for the sake of always being good" isn't quite as good as fixing system problems every year.

I think that the Jazz ARE fixing system problems. And it started a while ago.

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The Fall-out of the Deron/Boozer core:

After Larry H. Miller opened up the vault to pay everyone big money he was expecting greater returns than one season of 9 playoff wins. Since that magical year the Jazz won 6 games, 1 game, and 4 games in the playoffs in the very next three years. I think the Jazz built very quickly (re-loaded) and cobbled together a talented team that tried to hide the system problems as well as they could.

I think that the biggest system problem that team "fixed" was finally finding out how to run a power forward oriented variation of the Dick Motta offense in the era of changed "illegal defense" rules. In our finals seasons we abused the heck out of that loop hole because of our offense, and because of Karl's dominance and got a lot of free points as a result. After you could zone we were stuck -- until we got Mehmet Okur who could shoot as a bigman. We got rid of that system problem, but created a new one: poor interior defense and poor rebounding.

We lost in the playoffs because we had poor defense and were 'too small' against the Lakers. It was a limited core, but the Jazz brass recognized a number of the flaws of that core. Changes had to come. (At least we see the on-court changes, we don't know if the brass improves internally, in the off-season).

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The Aftermath:

We moved Boozer for the "best chance scenario to retain being always good" in Al Jefferson, and tried to quickly reload as a contender. Memo getting hurt also limited the final score on "fixing system problems". He couldn't be out there to extend the defense, and he played all of 6 minutes on the court with Al Jefferson. Part of the reason why our "reloaded contender" Jazz team post Stockton to Malone only lasted 4 trips to the playoffs is because they reloaded quickly through free agency. In order to get your core through free agency you need to pay them big bucks to even COME to Utah. As a result we had to get rid of some core rotation guys who would have helped the team win games, and also develop that continuity thing that I mentioned earlier.

We also did not really get a chance to even start our long legacy with this core, let alone develop the guys to take over after the incumbent core moved on. Except, of course, in the case of Paul Millsap. So that is something I see and notice for the Jazz brass. They got that right.

They also moved Deron quietly and quickly. Which is also amazing. I don't know how much hard work it was -- it appears as though KOC just took the best offer left on the table after the Denver Nuggets GM did all the hard work. Smart? Yes. Proactive? Yes. Original content created by KOC? Not so much. It would be like steal someone elses' blog work to put on your website and patting yourself on the back for dodging a bullet.

The biggest issue, even bigger than the system issues that cropped up, was the loss of Jerry Sloan in 2010-2011. That said, this obstacle also turned into an opportunity. After all, in lieu of what the Jazz learned by not having that "continuation of government" planned out after Stockton retired and Karl moved on, the Jazz HAVE been grooming an apprentice for years: Tyrone Corbin.

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Halftime Score:

  • NBA Rule Changes meant running our offense returned increasingly fewer returns. Found new piece (outside shooting big) to make our offense work and be compatible with the new changing NBA. Pre-cursors to this change were seen pre-rule change by the strong play of Antoine Carr, Armen Gilliam, and Danny Manning when paired up with Karl Malone. Boozer would not have been effective without Okur being amazing. Points for the Jazz for recognizing the environmental shift, and dealing with the system problem of our playbook. (Harder thing to do would be to change the playbook and start from the beginning, instead we found the missing archetype.)
  • Quick reload through free agency (and crazy contracts given to Andrei Kirilenko, Carlos Arroyo, and Gordan Giricek all in the same off-season as Boozer and Okur) (not to mention the golden handshake deal to Matt Harpring for $6.5m per) made life tough, and fat needed to be trimmed. This made us a less deep team, and contributed towards having less continuity, and having an ultimately shorter run (only 4 years in the playoffs).
  • Jazz did work towards continuity by having Paul Millsap around forever, and he replaced Boozer with little fuss. Jazz did work towards continuity by having Tyrone Corbin around forever, but there is no replacing Jerry Sloan.
  • New system problems cropped up in terms of interior defense, rebounding, size -- without the benefit of Memo's shooting (due to injuries). Changing everything appears to have been smarter than just finding that one crucial guy who makes the older system still work in the new NBA.

Moving forward with Progress:

Boozer couldn't block shots, and one thing Al Jefferson has been great at has been blocking his man. Al doesn't get a lot of weakside blocks, but in terms of 'face up blocks', he's light years ahead of Carlos Boozer. Al also has a lot more post moves, and while he wasn't mobile enough to get into Deron's pet "pick and roll" play, he could score down low with regularity. Utah went super conservative in getting Big Al. They also tried hard to prolong the run of this 'core' with Big Al. We still didn't make the playoffs in 2010-11. It's not Big Al's fault, and I feel really bad for him, as he came here for the good points of the Jazz' stability. Namely, the playoffs.

I think all of that stability was thrown out the window with the eventual forest fire that happened. This wasn't skipping a beat. This wasn't a record scratch. This was burning the record store down to the ground. This was an epoch change. With that in mind, it's a very positive thing because it FORCES the Jazz to move FORWARD with time. You see what you have better when you have less distractions in your way. You can make smarter appraisals. And you can start from scratch.

This means don't try to make short cuts to "always be winning because we've always tried to do that". That's not a good enough reason. I think our team has learned from the abortion that was our "four years total in the playoffs" contending team that was built so hastily, essentially over the span of 14 months, and mostly from free agency. The Jazz took the short cuts (again the hare, not the turtle), kept the same artifacts from the previous offense, and when that one crucial guy was out -- it all fell apart. Our star player became a problem, and our top scorer wanted a raise, regardless. (Btw, the quality of the player can be questioned, but in Boozer's case, we should have been more worried with the quality of the man inside the jersey)

It's not all doom and gloom. It's frankly the opposite right now. We had the cleansing forest fire. And we're a team that is fixing things, fixing our system problems.

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The system problem of a non-evolved offense:

Tyrone Corbin isn't Jerry Sloan. And Jerry Sloan isn't Dick Motta. And all three of those guys aren't Dr. James Naismith. The game keeps changing -- especially if the actual RULES to the game keep changing. And you need to change with those rules and the rest of the league. If you do not change with the rest of the league you lag behind -- or are left behind. Tyrone Corbin has Sloan's playbook. He has ALL of it from being an assistant under him, from having to teach it every summer league, to having had playing under Sloan from that very playbook. He's also played for other coaches, and seen the changes the league has made. He's also less hesitant to be stubborn about things (I hope). The plays which we ran during 'crunch time' during the D-Will/Boozer years were too contingent upon a) either individual ability, or b) finding those loop holes that required a guy with Memo's unique talents to pull off. No Sloan. No Memo. No Boozer. No D-Will. Necessity is the mother of invention, and under Corbin things HAD to be different, out of necessity. Now we're winning games where the point guard finishes with 5 assists (not ideal), our primary ball handler down the stretch is a second year small forward (wouldn't Andrei have loved that?), and our big man plays "in da paint" (what a novel idea from Boozer's midrange attack and Memo's outside attack).

We're even getting to the free throw line more (not uniformly, but over-all). The offense is different. The quality of the guys running it is different. But the backbone is still the Motta offense Sloan ran. But now we're removing system issues that had over reliance upon the delicate, fragile ecosystem of expensive players with high regard, or insane combination of skill sets (7 footers who shoot 40% from deep, in the clutch). After all, we won almost all of our games this year when Big Al was excused from games because behind him we HAVE younger guys who play in the paint too! (Lo! We have the nascent beginnings of continuation too!)

This system problem is being resolve. And I have trust that it will continue to get better over the next few years.

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The System problem of rebounding:

We were one of the worst teams in the NBA at the whole rebounding thing in 2010-11. The Jazz were #26 overall, out of 30 teams. We were #28 on defensive rebounds. I don't think the Jazz have been that poor at rebounding ever. So this wasn't just a problem in the concept of that singular season, but a problem within the continuum of Utah Jazz teams. Sure, we lost Carlos Boozer, but this isn't just on one guy. With Boozer on the team we had rebounded poorly too -- #24 over all (#26 offensive) back when we were Northwest Division Champions in 2007-08. It was a system problem. And I guess a big part of the system revolved around what guys did on the floor. Our best guys at rebounding were not in rebounding position a lot, and the 'rest of the guys' did not do their part on the glass.

Does anyone really remember Ronnie Brewer rebounding, ever? Maybe he wasn't allowed to rebound (Boozer rules), but he should have been getting more than he did here. His per 36 min stats show this clearly. And what about offensive rebounds? Are they easier to get when our big guys are taking the majority of their shots from 18-24 feet from the rim? Systematically the Jazz were sub-optimal on the glass. They were during our 'contending years' with D-Will and Booz, and we were really really bad in Big Al's first year.

Things dun changed. This past season we were #3 over-all in total rebounds, and #3 in offensive rebounds. Of course, maybe part of that is due to having a less than perfect offense (where there are more misses to have). Another part of that is by having all of your guys crash the boards. I bet this was drilled into the team all year long: rebounds, rebounds, rebounds. Hayward went hard on the glass. Alec Burks had a ton of crazy offensive rebounds. Paul Millsap has crunch time rebound dunks around the basket (he was around the basket a whole lot more on off the ball moves this year). Big Al was active, and we had a lot of help from Derrick Favors and Enes Kanter. It wasn't just numbers, or attitude -- it was a systematic change on what the team did on the floor.

We got players who have a nose for the ball. And we played them close to the basket. The last time I remember Carlos Boozer getting an offensive rebound was in Game 7 against the Rockets, in 2006-07. (Wait, didn't he have one against Portland after that?) All of our bigs on the team NOW have had memorable offensive rebounds all in the last season.

While the fixing the system of the playbook is always going to be a work in progress -- this is clearly a system problem that appears to be completely fixed. For more on rebounding, talking to Alec Lam.

And this doesn't mean worst rebounding team of that year (we were #26 total in the NBA), but worst rebounding team in terms of Jazz history.

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The former system problem of Blocks:

We never had to worry about blocks, because we had Mark Eaton, who was super huge. Then we traded down for Greg Ostertag after Mark retired. Then we got freak athlete Andrei Kirilenko. Blocks weren't a problem, ever, because we just had the longest damn guys out there. Bereft of a super freak blocks went away. Especially if you had Carlos Boozer and Memo guarding the paint. (I could swear I almost heard someone whisper the name Fesenko . . . )

This was also a size problem. We lost a lot of size from our 7'4 zenith to our Boozerian nadir. Boozer would get abused in the playoffs by Lamar Odom, and would get trashed by Pau Gasol and Andrew Bynum. We beat LA in LA, and Gasol/Bynum with our new size and length. Al Jefferson was previously mentioned for his shot blocking prowess. Kanter is super big, and can't be ignored inside. Favors has all the length in the world and the athleticism to be out of this world. Jeremy Evans and Gordon Hayward also send them back. I wouldn't be surprised to see a post-P3 Alec Burks be able to get some D-Wade style blocks in the next season.

We went from relying only on freaks for blocks to having no blocks. And now we've gone from having no blocks to having ALL of the blocks. This wasn't a system issue solved purely by the 'new guys' (the fallacy of the quick fix / band-aid solution). Our bigs are actually protecting the paint in the right way. Sure, we don't funnel guys into the paint anymore (another example of a playbook system problem that relied on a magical player to solve -- like an Eaton), but guys are challenging a lot more shots. And this is something you learn on defense. You're tough on defense if you challenge shots. If you don't challenge shots you aren't effective. Sloan was a hard nosed defender, but when was the last time Sloan protege Matt Harpring challenged a shot? System dun changed, and changed for the better. (Defense moved from trying to do all the defense before the player starts to shoot towards baiting the other team into our traps -- leading the shooters into bad shooting zones where there is no hope for escape, just not against the Spurs though.)

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Blocks, Rebounds, and moving past over-reliance on super players:

I think its' safe to say that these are things that we worked on each off-season. Progress from each off-season. We do have problems still, but I'm satisfied with our front office's ability to see the problems and try to fix them. Just like we fixed the issue of going 4 on 5 on offense in previous years. There are a number of things that the Jazz need to fix, and I think they know it too. We need to do better on pick and roll defense (it's easier when the bigman defender is mobile, hint hint). We need to work on our free throws more. We need to get more consistent and effective three point makers. We need to maximize our strengths (eg. if Kanter can score on his man, post him up; if Burks can get to the line, make him get better at FT%; etc). That takes time. Getting to know your strengths individually and collectively takes time, it takes continuity.

That's what the Lakers and Spurs have. It's what we didn't have when we rebuilt from crashing to the earth post-Stockton and Malone in the span of 14 months. It takes not making band-aid solutions. It takes patience. It takes a look at the big picture. Yes, it takes 'internal improvement' first and foremost.

And I think the Jazz have what it takes.

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Just don't be the hare again, losing great players and losing Sloan has forced the Jazz brass' hands. But don't be the hare and try to patch up system problems. Do the hard work to FIX the system problems. And as long as the Jazz keep finding their system problems, and fixing ONE system problem a year, our youth core should be young enough so that when we fix everything we'll still have a window of opportunity to have a continuous playoff streak again, as a contender. And I'll take that.

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