Utah Jazz History Lesson Part I - We've Been Here Before

Sasha Pavlovic: a member of the original core 4. Not Pictured: Raul Lopez, Mo WIliams, Curtis Borchardt - USA TODAY Sports

An in depth look at the historical precedence of the Utah Jazz rebuilding years, and what it might mean for the present.

In the summer of 2003, the Jazz had just cleared close to $30 million in salaries and were a team without any clear leaders and a need for talent upgrades at several positions, most notably the point guard spot. Ten years later, it feels like the Jazz are preparing for a 10 year anniversary remake of 2003, with an all new cast and a couple new directors and producers. But just how much will the Jazz follow the previous screenplay?

2003-04: Taking a "step back"

The previous movie was almost destined to fail with two franchise legends walking out the door; John Stockton retired and Karl Malone sought his fortune in Los Angeles with the Lakers. The Jazz also let 5 other rotation players in Calbert Chaney, Scott Padgett, Tony Massenburg, Mark Jackson, and John Amaechi leave that summer. The Jazz were staring at a bunch of money to use in free agency and a roster that looked like this:

Matt Harpring

Andrei Kirilenko

DeShawn Stevenson

Jarron Collins

Greg Ostertag

Raul Lopez

The Offseason Maneuvers: Throwing around their weight (Tons of Cash)

The Jazz were very thin and short on talent at every position except small forward, and they would prove to be very short at shooting guard. This would essentially become a 10 year problem for the Jazz. During the 2003 NBA draft, the Jazz selected Sasha Pavlovic at #19 and Mo WIlliams at #47 and both ESPN and Sports Illustrated gave the Jazz thumbs up for the picks, even though neither Pavlovic or Williams would stay with the Jazz past their rookie years.

Raul Lopez had been drafted the previous season to become Stockton's eventual replacement, but at the tender age of 23, Lopez was set to make his NBA debut in the fall of 2003. The Jazz were met with the dilemma of either re-signing Mark Jackson to mentor Lopez, or re-signing the younger veteran Carlos Arroyo. Kevin O'Connor decided to go with Arroyo, who would repay the Jazz with his best season to date, starting all 71 games he played and averaging 12 points and 5 assists a game.

Chaney left for Golden State and Massenburg joined the Kings, but Kevin O'Connor demonstrated very early in free agency that he was going to flex his financial muscles when he offered Corey Maggette a six year, $42 million deal. The Clippers had Maggette, Elton Brand, and Andre Miller all as restricted free agents and each was offered a large contract from another team. The Jazz banked on the fact that the Clippers couldn't keep all three and they were right. But the Clips matched on Brand and Maggette and let Miller go to Denver. Strike one.

The Jazz had the veteran Ostertag at center and second year Jazz man Jarron Collins. Curtis Borchardt was also returning "healthy" after sitting out the 2002-03 season with an injury. It's seasons like these that make Mehmet Okur and Al Jefferson look so dominant in the historical comparison of Jazz centers.


From Malone to Clark: How To Succeed at Business Without Really Trying

The Jazz were obviously needing some more players and still sitting on lots of cap space, so they used their financial flexibility to prey on cash-strapped teams. In July the Jazz missed out on using their cap space to sign free agent center Brad Miller, but the Pacers signed and traded Miller and his ginormous contract to Sacramento. The newly indebted Maloofs then traded Keon Clark and two second round picks to the Jazz for a second round pick and a trade exception. So Keon Clark, a man who later admitted to drinking during halftime, and who "never played a game sober," was tabbed to help be Karl Malone's replacement. Keon Clark, a player who started less than 20% of the games he played in his career, was the Jazz's Josh Howard before the Jazz's Josh Howard existed. He played two games for the Jazz, before being traded and leaving the league for good almost immediately.

To complement Clark, et al, the Jazz also signed journeyman Michael Ruffin the next day, who wikipedia states "averaged 1.7 points and 3.9 rebounds per game through his NBA career and is considered to be a defensive presence on the court." Wikipedia also describes Ruffin's greatest NBA accomplishment as the time he helped the opposing team win, by intentionally giving up the ball with seconds left, up by 3 points.


Hey! Are You Going To Use All This Money I Found in the Supply Room?

Luckily, Kevin O'Connor recognized that this Jazz team might struggle, so he offered the Atlanta Hawks restricted free agent guard, Jason Terry, a long term deal. But the dysfunctional Hawks matched that offer sheet leaving the Jazz $8 million under the salary floor, in desperate need to add salary. So before the season started the Jazz offered free agent Raja Bell to a small two year contract.

By now, maybe you realize why this team was almost universally picked to finish last in the West. It was literally a roster filled with no names and second options. There really was no reason that this team should have won even 30 games. Instead Jerry Sloan turned Andrei Kirilenko into an all-star and milked top seasons out of almost every other player. Even Ben Handlogten, who was signed in September, posted a PER of above 17 that season before going down with an injury. Jerry Sloan created one of the most magical seasons in Jazz history while costing the franchise a chance at drafting Dwight Howard. I'll let you decide if that turned out okay. Personally, I'll take the magical season of 2003.

Planning for the Future, While Staying Playoff Competitive

The Jazz did make some important front office decisions that season as well. Right before the trade deadline the Jazz traded young and off court issue-riddled DeShawn Stevenson to the Orlando Magic for Gordan Giricek. The Jazz then traded the expiring contracts of Keon Clark and Ben Handlogten, who were both out with season-ending injuries, to the Phoenix Suns for Tom Gugliotta's $12 million and picks. Those picks eventually became Kirk Snyder, Alex Acker, and Gordon Hayward. The Jazz then made a historic run, taking a junior varsity team, just one game short of the playoffs. The NBA rewarded Jerry Sloan, by giving his good friend Hubie Brown the Coach of the Year Award.

What Can History Teach the Jazz?

Obviously, Dennis Lindsey is making the calls this off season, but we can see what Kevin O'Connor has done in the past with a similar situation. It is telling that he was willing to send a young core of point guards to the proverbial wolves, banking on Raul Lopez backing up the position until he would be ready to take the mantle of starting point guard. But at the same time, O'Connor was set on upgrading the roster by handing out generous contracts to top free agents. None of those offers panned out, but at least they were offered to players who were good players later on. So the Jazz tabbed valuable players and tried to lure them away with large paychecks. It will be interesting if the same plan is implemented this off season.

Young and partially disappointing DeShawn Stevenson was jettisoned for an "upgrade" at the wing. I wonder if this foreshadows a similar deal this off season, perhaps a deal that ships Alec Burks out of town. I'm just wildly speculating, but found the lack of patience in 2004 interesting.

The Jazz also used their financial flexibility to acquire bad contracts and picks, which would also be a possibility this upcoming season. The problem is that Kevin O'Connor did almost nothing with his picks for a few seasons, drafting handfuls of players who would be out of the league or off the team within games of starting with the Jazz. Dennis Lindsey is going to have to do a much better job than O'Connor did, scouting talent.

In short, it was almost impossible for Kevin O'Connor to construct a weaker group of NBA talent as he did. But in the long run, it eventually worked out and paved the way for moves to be made in the future, which will be dissected in part 2 of this column.

Check Back Later this week for Part II of this Historical Review as we look at the summer of 2004 and the eventual season.

Follow Clark on twitter @clarkpojo




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