Jazz Basketball ... musings on the ideal

Real Jazz fandom, for me, began with this guy here - Christian Petersen

In Friday's DB, Moni asked a terrific question. A question that got a lot of response, a question that sent many down memory lane:

... imagine that you are a baby in the world of sports fandom. Could you see yourself becoming the Jazz fanatic that you are now with the current incarnation of this team--ownership, front office, coaches, players, and all?

My answer is: No, I can't.

Like Amar, I think a better thing to do is to look at why. And so here is a short history of my Jazz fandom:

The beginning

I loved the Jazz growing up because I was from Utah. I also did it because I identified with John Stockton, because I wanted to be the one who went against the Laker bandwagon (two of my friends were Laker fans ... thus the Lakers were THE bandwagon of my childhood).

But I was a hopelessly ignorant fan.

I couldn't tell you anything about what made the Jazz different from other teams. I knew Stockton got a lot of assists, and he was always an All-Star. I knew Malone scored a lot and was similarly a perpetual All-Star. But I couldn't tell you what made Stockton different than, say, Rod Strickland. I couldn't explain why Malone wasn't Derrick Coleman.

I was so pissed in 1992 that Scottie Pippen made the All-Star team but Jeff Malone didn't. They scored about the same amount, so they were equally good as far as I was concerned. I couldn't, for the life of me, figure out why the 1992-93 team was so much worse than the teams one year before and one year after (a topic I could wax eloquent for 5,000 words today).

There is no way I could have explained what made the Jazz unique, what the Jazz way was, or anything of the like. They were Utah's team, I was from Utah, and that was mostly it.

I short, I followed the team but knew nothing.

Andrei Kirilenko

The real point at which I feel like I became a Jazz fan, the point that I could point specific things that made the Jazz something unique and special — it came with Andrei Kirilenko leading that 2004 team to the brink of the playoffs.

They had no business being that good. I knew it. You knew it. Everyone knew it. They just played hard, every game. And they were led by a guy who did everything ... which was important, because mostly nobody else could do anything.

And I was lucky because there were some stark contrasts going on at the exact same time. You had the 2004 Lakers that fell apart because they couldn't get along. You had Melo pout that Andrei made the All-Star game instead of himself. And you had the 2005 Lakers that won 30-something games, even though there was far more talent than the Jazz 2004 team.

And all those contrasts made me see Andrei, and basketball, in a whole new way.

You see, much like Pippen on the '94 Bulls, Andrei was the best Jazzman at basically everything. He was the team's best scorer, best passer, best rebounder, best defender, best shot-blocker, best ball thief ... everything. He was the best screen-setter, the best cutter, the best help-defender. You can look at any skill needed for basketball, and Andrei was pretty much the best at it ... and it wasn't particularly close.

And Andrei only put up 16.5 points per game. He also didn't lead the team in assists.

That astonished me then, and it astonishes me now. It may be the single most impressive couple of statistics I have ever seen, for what they tell us about Andrei, about the Jazz, and about over-achieving.

You see, most of the time when a player thinks he's so much better than everyone else he goes into hero mode and demands the ball in his hands at all times. Like Kobe in '04-06 Lakers. Like Melo.

Andrei was exactly the opposite. He relished playing with his teammates, despite their shortcomings. He didn't have to shoot it all the time. He didn't even have to be the one assisting all the time. He set screens, he blocked shots, he grabbed rebounds, he stole the ball with equal gusto, regardless of how many shots he got.

His unselfishness elevated his teammates and led the Jazz to far more success than they should have had.

It was at that point that the Jazz meant something to me more than just my local team. The Jazz mean hard work. The Jazz meant working together. The Jazz meant unselfishness. The Jazz meant great players elevating others to play better than they probably ought.

Post-2004

Later versions of the Jazz solidified this for me.

I still remember when Boozer first came to the Jazz. In the first three games he put up 27, 16, and 30 points. And the 16 points were in a blowout win in which Boozer played fewer than 30 minutes. I remember talking to other fans, and we all had visions of him duplicating the Mailman's scoring.

And then Jerry Sloan was quoted in the papers, saying that they would rather the team learn to spread the points around more, to not become so reliant on one guy. And I realized that the unselfishness I loved in Andrei was just as much a part of Jerry Sloan. Share the ball, help your teammates get good shots ... that was Jazz basketball.

Only then did I start to look back to those Stockton/Malone/Hornacek teams and understand what made them so good. Yes, Malone shot a lot ... but he also (a) scored at a freakishly high rate and (b) threw out four assists per game. Stockton and Hornacek shot less than they probably deserved, and dished out 17 assists per game between them. But at the same time, they elevated lesser players to levels they never ought to have reached ... guys like Adam Keefe, Bryon Russell, Shandon Anderson. I invite you to look at these guys' stats and see how much better they played, and how much better their stats look with the Jazz.

That's what Jazz basketball meant to me now: hard work, over-achieving, unselfishness, and great players leading by elevating the others to their level.

Of course the team fell short of this for a couple years. Even the 2007 team that made the playoffs again fell short. They snipped at each other, shut people out, kept them down.

The best of the Deron Years

But then things came back alive. 2008 and 2009-10.

I could see things working. I saw AK come back alive. I saw Deron lead the team on the court. I saw camaraderie that I still believe is rare ... remember Deron going on the All-Star break vacation with several teammates and their families? Remember Deron throwing a birthday party for two role players (Ronnie and CJ) and then inviting the fans to come too? Remember Masha and her ridiculous Kyle Korver shirts sold at her store in the Gateway?

And on the court ... oh my.

I still say those teams, looking at the offensive side of the court alone, may be the most perfectly constructed lineups I have ever seen. The passing was unreal. The teamwork was insane. The way players knew their roles, filled their roles, and helped each other overachieve in those roles remains my vision of perfection.

Quick trivia question, of the major guys on the Jazz those years (Deron, Boozer, AK, Memo, Brewer, Korver, Millsap, CJ, and Wesley Matthews), how many had the most effective scoring seasons of their career between 2008 and 2010?

Every singe one.

That was what teamwork, chemistry, hard work, and everybody elevating everybody else's game looks like. Everybody has career years and the team kicks butt.

I really felt almost like a basketball hipster those days. I was enjoying the most astonishing wonderful basketball I had ever seen, and most of the basketball-watching world had no idea. The "Jazz are boring" stereotype was just too strong.

But I know what I saw, and what I saw was simply magical.

The fizzle

Well, we know how it ended. Injuries, defensive problems, a personal issue blowup, and the Millsap-Boozer thing kept it from achieving as much as it should have. The mind-numbing brilliance was limited to two stretches over two different seasons. It's kind of sad, but they never even put together a single beginning-to-end great season. Not one.

But for sustained flashes, they showed me basketball at its most ideal. They showed me what Jazz basketball was about ... not just then, but what it had been about ever since Sloan and Layden prowled the sidelines, and ever since Larry Miller had owned the team. Those teams led by Deron, Memo, and AK are the reason I appreciate the Stockton and Malone teams from my teenage years so much.

And I suppose that's why I still feel such strong emotions regarding the guys on that team:

  • Andrei is my most beloved player because he was the embodiment of basketball at its most ideal.
  • I cheer for Deron because he showed what happens when a player stops fighting the ideal but embraces it. And I feel sad that he's fallen so far since then.
  • Millsap is exempt from all my frustrations for this current team, because he did the hard work, he let himself be elevated by the ideal ... and not only earned my loyalty, but turned himself into the only genuinely terrific player of Corbin's favorite vets
  • I still follow Wesley, Ronnie, Kyle, and CJ.
  • I think Memo ought to have his number retired.
  • And Boozer ... well it's complicated with Boozer. Because he poisoned the Jazz and kept them from their potential twice — in the '08 playoffs and that awful 2009 off-season that killed the team's chemistry for two solid months. Destroying the ideal ... destroying what Jazz basketball meant ... and doing it those years for those teams ... it's absolutely silly, as fan emotions often can be, but that is unforgivable to me.

Today

So no ... today's team doesn't leave me satisfied. It doesn't even compare to what Jazz basketball means to me. Were I a basketball virgin with no ties to Utah, the 2012-13 Utah Jazz would be complete afterthought.

The ownership appears short-sighted ... dedicated to getting that 8 seed every year because it guarantees profits and trying for more is just too risky. The management appears to value the wrong kind of players. The coach appears to be moving away from the kind of basketball that I believe is ideal. The main players appear to be incapable of playing the kind of basketball I love.*

But to be honest, this is just perception, and it's just a snapshot of today. Those 2005-07 teams were nothing like the ideal, and they wouldn't have inspired anyone to devote themselves to the Jazz either.

Things change. And I'm still hopeful. I'm hopeful that the owner can move past the horror of the 2011 balance sheet (and it was a disaster) and show its dedication to building a truly great team, risks be damned. I'm hopeful our new GM will not duplicate the Josh Howard/Randy Foye mentality of roster moves. I'm ... hopeful is probably too strong, perhaps wishful ... that the coach will get back to the kind of basketball I love once the wrong guys for it are gone. And I'm very hopeful for the young players.

So I'm hopeful that the 2013-14 or 2014-15 Jazz teams will rediscover what Jazz basketball is supposed to be about.

* Note that I'm talking about appearances here. Not even whether I actually think this describes our team ... but what kind of appearances I'd see as a casual fan looking at this team right now, in a vacuum.

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