I have had a hard time being a Jazz fan these past couple years. I didn't feel like the team's decisions matched what great teams do. And this made it hard for me to really enjoy the past couple seasons.
I feel kinda bad about this now. I've never believed in the "win a championship or you're a loser" philosophy. While I would have loved a title, I don't regret any moment of cheering for the Stockton/Malone teams. Likewise, the majority of the Deron/Boozer/Memo/AK teams were a blast to follow. We all remember the 42-win 2004 team so fondly.
So why was it so hard to enjoy the Al/Millsap era? There was something good about their relationship on the court. Making the playoffs two years ago should have been an unexpected joy—sweep be damned.
I can't answer for everyone, but I can answer for me:
I had a hard time feeling joy for the team because I never believed that the front office would have the courage to do what it has done this offseason.
Last summer I wrote about all the expiring contracts and why it concerned me. If the team didn't start finding long-term pieces quickly, then they'd see no options this summer except resign our own expiring guys. And that meant perpetual mediocrity. That meant more of the same.
Because while I don't believe in the "championship or you're a loser" philosophy, I do believe in the "go for a championship as hard as you can, with the best pieces you can get and let the end result be whatever it is" philosophy.
And so the last two years were hard. They were never going to win a championship. Which is okay. Neither was the 2004 team that we all love. And yet I also saw little sign that they were going to really give their best effort to win one. Which is not okay. Not to me, anyway. So when I heard the "just be grateful you have a team that isn't the Bobcats" rhetoric, or "the Jazz will go bankrupt if they have a losing season" BS, or the "you gotta let go of the past: the Stockton/Malone or even the Deron/Boozer eras ... they were lucky, and they aren't coming back" lie ... well, it all looked like a team that was afraid to try to be great.
And so every minute the Al/Millsap era continued appeared to be cementing the likelihood that the Jazz would just resign most of them due to lack of other options once the mass free agent exodus hit this summer.
* * *
And I was wrong.
The Jazz showed me they have courage after all. I don't know many teams that would have done what the Jazz did this offseason. And they're doing it at the risk of having a lousy team if none of the young players breaks out as a genuine star. Obviously, I think one or two or maybe even three will break out, and thus my expectation for 35-40 wins. But I know it's not guaranteed. 20 wins are a possibility. And I'm thrilled the Jazz are willing to risk 20 wins ... because honestly it's the only way to become a great team.
You have to take risks. Ideally a team will be smart about the risks, and I believe the Jazz have been brilliant about the risks this offseason—brilliant regarding both who to stake the risk on and the timing. And ultimately in two or three years, we'll know if the risk-taking paid off.
The front office is also revising the team's vision to match what a championship team looks like: strong defense, good rebounding, and dynamic scoring. We don't know if the players will be good enough yet ... but at least they are the type of player that matches the profile.
* * *
And so I wish to thank the Jazz front office for being bold. I want to thank them for having the courage to do what I never thought they would have the courage to do. I'd like to thank them for giving our five lottery picks the chance to prove they can be stars. Writing it out, it sounds odd to even articulate it ... but as little as a year ago, I didn't believe the team had the courage to do so.
I'd also like to express my regret that my disbelief got in the way ... that it stopped me from enjoying the past couple of years as much as I could have. I wish now that I could have appreciated Al Jefferson & Co. more than I did.
And at this point, all I ask from the front office is one more thing: prove to me, within the next year, that you understand what a good coach is. I understand the reasons for keeping Ty Corbin on as coach ... and I know that putting him with a totally different type of team and expectation for the season could bring out the best in him. I hope so. But if he's still bad, then let him go.
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A bit on on the "you're never getting another Stockton or Malone" crap. Did you know that since 2000, every team except the Bobcats have had at least one All-NBA player? Most have had two or more. So here's the reality: the Jazz are likely to have All-NBA players, and it's even reasonable to hope for more than one. So the real key is this: the team has to find the right guys who sustain that level over many years, rather than just one or two ... and then the team has to sustain them, support them, help them develop their skills, and match them with the right kind of terrific support from coaches, elite talent, and role players.