40 at 40: Jeff Hornacek and the urgency to improve

Russ Isabella-USA TODAY Sports

The '88 Jazz led by young stars Stockton and Malone almost beat the Lakers in the 2nd round. Five seasons later they were an easy out in the first around. What happened and what changed? Jeff Hornacek is part of the answer for sure, but . . .

On May 8th, 1993 another Utah Jazz season ended, and a disappointing loss closed the books on a disappointing season. The  1992-1993 Jazz failed to win 50 games, despite amazing seasons by John Stockton and Karl Malone. Fresh off of the 1992 Summer Olympics in Barcelona, Spain, the dynamic duo finished with the following per game averages:

  • Stockton (82/82 games, 34.9 mpg): 15.1 ppg, 12.0 apg, 2.9 rpg, 2.4 spg, and a PER of 21.3
  • Malone (82/82 games, 37.8 mpg): 27.0 ppg, 11.2 rpg, 3.8 apg, 1.5 spg, 1.0 bpg, and a PER of 26.2

They were in their domination peaks. Karl played over 3,000 minutes that season, shot 55.2 fg%, went to the free throw line 10.2 times a game, and made 74.0 FT%. John finished with a 3.71 assists to 1.00 turn over ratio, shot .486 / .385 / .798, and was #1 in total assists, #1 APG, #3 in total steals, and also #3 SPG. They played great. And the team still only won 47 games.

On May 8th they lost a Game 5 (that was a "Game 7" situation as the First round of the playoffs was only 5 games back then) to the Seattle Supersonics on the road (winning 47 games in a season has you playing without home court advantage in close out games, guys). The season before the Jazz went to the Western Conference Finals, and their two best players were Olympians.

But it takes more than two great players to win, even if they were both future Hall of Famers.

And this point was proven quite obviously by this 1992-1993 season, a disappointment, that ended in the fifth First Round Exit of the Stockton and Malone era. (As an aside, today head coaches and star players alike don't get five "do overs" like our guys got to enjoy.)

Against the Sonics those 5 games were the microcosm of the previous 82 games. John and Karl were both double double machines, The Mailman averaged 24 and 10, Stock had 13 and 11. But it wasn't enough to beat a team with just two players. The third best player on any given night was either Jeff Malone, Tyrone Corbin, or Mark Eaton.

  • Jeff was a scorer, he made shots. He got to the line. He was somewhat reliable, but also predictable. He was so very dominant handed that he was easy to scout and gameplan for in the playoffs. He was a shooting guard who also could not, it would be revealed, shoot the three. Against the Sonics this scorer ended up scoring 67 total points on 65 total shots. On the opposite side of the ball Rickey Pierce wasn't have a great scoring playoff series either, but at least his 14 / 3 / 3 / 1 helped his team more than Jeff's 13 / 3 / 1 / 1 did.
  • It's just sad trying to theorize a situation where one of the possible "Big Three" for the Jazz included Ty. The '92-93 season had the 30 year old Corbin playing over 30 mpg, and finished with him scoring 11 ppg and 6 rpg. (No wonder he thinks Richard Jefferson is having a great season?) He maintained those numbers (even rebounded better, actually) in the playoffs, and played the third most minutes in the playoffs that year for our team. But in reality a 11 and 6 guy is a nice starter who isn't a focal point. Under the brightest lights Corbin was steady, but not superb.
  • And well, this brings us to Mark Eaton. For about a decade he was in the Big Three for every Jazz team, even before Stockton and Malone were in the NBA. Eaton's health became a bigger and bigger concern and he played in only 64 regular season games for the Jazz in '92-93. In the playoffs his now chronic injuries limited him in ability, range of motion, and opportunity. Eaton would play in only 23.4 MPG in the 5 game series, his lowest MPG value for the playoffs since his first trip there, a decade ago. During the regular season Jerry Sloan was forced to go to more of Mike Brown and Larry Krystkowiak -- but both were not options when the game, and season, was on the line. Mark did his best, but was completely taken advantage of by George Karl on the other side of the floor. Karl started Sam Perkins for Game 5, and the stretch big hit big three after big three and our proverbial Bismarck was sunk.


(Or something to that effect)

Yes, if you do an autopsy on the 1992-1993 Jazz team you end up finding a lot of similarities between this team that just got dumped out of the playoffs to a number of other previous Utah Jazz teams that, sadly, also got dumped in the first round. As great as John and Karl were, they needed more help. Take a look at the next four best guys on each of the Jazz teams from this '93 Sonics loss and the four seasons before that one. (For the non-collegiate crowd: The five years between the 1988-1989 and the 1992-1993 seasons)

Sorted by season, and then MPG for that season:

Per Game Averages BARPS
Player Season PER G MPG PPG RPG APG SPG BPG / G / MPG
1 Mark Eaton 1988 1989 10.5 82 35.5 6.2 10.3 1.0 0.5 3.8 21.8 0.61
2 Thurl Bailey 1988 1989 15.6 82 33.9 19.5 5.5 1.7 0.6 1.1 28.4 0.84
3 Darrell Griffith 1988 1989 12.3 82 29.0 13.8 4.0 1.6 1.0 0.3 20.7 0.71
4 Bob Hansen 1988 1989 9.7 46 21.0 7.4 2.8 1.1 0.8 0.1 12.2 0.58
5 Thurl Bailey 1989 1990 13.4 82 31.5 14.2 5.0 1.7 0.4 1.2 22.5 0.71
6 Mark Eaton 1989 1990 10.6 82 27.8 4.8 7.3 0.5 0.4 2.5 15.5 0.56
7 Bob Hansen 1989 1990 8.5 81 26.8 7.6 2.8 1.8 0.6 0.1 12.9 0.48
8 Blue Edwards 1989 1990 10.7 82 23.0 8.9 3.1 1.8 0.9 0.4 15.1 0.66
9 Jeff Malone 1990 1991 14.4 69 35.7 18.6 3.0 2.1 0.7 0.1 24.5 0.69
10 Mark Eaton 1990 1991 9.5 80 32.3 5.1 8.3 0.6 0.5 2.4 16.9 0.52
11 Thurl Bailey 1990 1991 12.5 82 30.3 12.4 5.0 1.5 0.6 1.1 20.6 0.68
12 Blue Edwards 1990 1991 10.4 62 26.0 9.3 3.2 1.7 0.9 0.5 15.6 0.60
13 Jeff Malone 1991 1992 15.1 81 36.1 20.2 2.9 2.2 0.7 0.1 26.1 0.72
14 Blue Edwards 1991 1992 13.7 81 28.2 12.6 3.7 1.7 1.0 0.6 19.6 0.70
15 Tyrone Corbin 1991 1992 13.6 69 27.0 9.0 5.8 1.6 1.0 0.2 17.6 0.65
16 Mark Eaton 1991 1992 9.1 81 25.0 3.3 6.1 0.5 0.4 2.5 12.8 0.51
17 Jeff Malone 1992 1993 13.7 79 32.4 18.1 2.2 1.6 0.5 0.1 22.5 0.69
18 Tyrone Corbin 1992 1993 14.4 82 31.2 11.6 6.3 2.1 1.3 0.4 21.7 0.70
19 Jay Humphries 1992 1993 10.5 78 26.1 8.8 1.8 4.1 1.3 0.1 16.1 0.62
20 Mark Eaton 1992 1993 8.7 64 17.3 2.8 4.1 0.3 0.3 1.2 8.7 0.50

Yes, Mark Eaton used to be quite okay. And yes, the season in question ('92-93) the next best player after John and Karl had a PER of 14.4. In fact these older days of basketball shine well in our memories because we didn't have advanced stats. If we did, more national people would adore John and Karl, but the Jazz fans would hate the rest of the team that much more.

If you look at that same selection, no longer group them by season, or minutes per game, and just look at how "good" they were (by PER) you get an good indication about how good the talent was around John and Karl:

Per Game Averages BARPS
Player Season PER G MPG PPG RPG APG SPG BPG / G / MPG
1 Thurl Bailey 1988 1989 15.6 82 33.9 19.5 5.5 1.7 0.6 1.1 28.4 0.84
2 Jeff Malone 1991 1992 15.1 81 36.1 20.2 2.9 2.2 0.7 0.1 26.1 0.72
3 Jeff Malone 1990 1991 14.4 69 35.7 18.6 3.0 2.1 0.7 0.1 24.5 0.69
4 Tyrone Corbin 1992 1993 14.4 82 31.2 11.6 6.3 2.1 1.3 0.4 21.7 0.70
5 Blue Edwards 1991 1992 13.7 81 28.2 12.6 3.7 1.7 1.0 0.6 19.6 0.70
6 Jeff Malone 1992 1993 13.7 79 32.4 18.1 2.2 1.6 0.5 0.1 22.5 0.69
7 Tyrone Corbin 1991 1992 13.6 69 27.0 9.0 5.8 1.6 1.0 0.2 17.6 0.65
8 Thurl Bailey 1989 1990 13.4 82 31.5 14.2 5.0 1.7 0.4 1.2 22.5 0.71
9 Thurl Bailey 1990 1991 12.5 82 30.3 12.4 5.0 1.5 0.6 1.1 20.6 0.68
10 Darrell Griffith 1988 1989 12.3 82 29.0 13.8 4.0 1.6 1.0 0.3 20.7 0.71
11 Blue Edwards 1989 1990 10.7 82 23.0 8.9 3.1 1.8 0.9 0.4 15.1 0.66
12 Mark Eaton 1989 1990 10.6 82 27.8 4.8 7.3 0.5 0.4 2.5 15.5 0.56
13 Mark Eaton 1988 1989 10.5 82 35.5 6.2 10.3 1.0 0.5 3.8 21.8 0.61
14 Jay Humphries 1992 1993 10.5 78 26.1 8.8 1.8 4.1 1.3 0.1 16.1 0.62
15 Blue Edwards 1990 1991 10.4 62 26.0 9.3 3.2 1.7 0.9 0.5 15.6 0.60
16 Bob Hansen 1988 1989 9.7 46 21.0 7.4 2.8 1.1 0.8 0.1 12.2 0.58
17 Mark Eaton 1990 1991 9.5 80 32.3 5.1 8.3 0.6 0.5 2.4 16.9 0.52
18 Mark Eaton 1991 1992 9.1 81 25.0 3.3 6.1 0.5 0.4 2.5 12.8 0.51
19 Mark Eaton 1992 1993 8.7 64 17.3 2.8 4.1 0.3 0.3 1.2 8.7 0.50
20 Bob Hansen 1989 1990 8.5 81 26.8 7.6 2.8 1.8 0.6 0.1 12.9 0.48

Yikes. Only twice did a player even surpass the default average threshold of 15.0. Jeff and Thurl did score a lot, and were good secondary options. But they didn't do much that wasn't already created for them by John and Karl. And compared to the actual value of their contributions, they were found lacking (most of the time a sub 15.0 PER value).

The sad footnote here is Mark Eaton. His brilliance was best seen on defense, and was increasingly becoming a problem as the changes to the game, the evolution of stretch bigs, and his own injuries, made playing 4 on 5 on offense less of a gamble, and more of a death sentence. The 1992-1993 season would be his last, and his PER score was trending closer and closer to the Bobby Hansen level with each passing season. I would have hung it up too.

More important than the obvious lack of talent on the team, or more important than the over-all issue of the '93 Sonics series being the fifth first round exit for John and Karl -- in my mind -- was the fact that these five years were very critical to me, as a Jazz fan.

I had only recently switched over to being a Jazz fan from a Lakers fan in that '87-88 year and amazing '88 playoffs. (As an aside, okay, c'mon, I was introduced to the NBA by living in Los Angeles in 1984, I think I had a legit reason to be a Lakers fan) Stockton and Malone were great. They were young and reaching their primes. The Jazz took The Showtime Lakers to a Game 7 in the second round, and then in the next five seasons they would go one round father once, while going one out one round earlier three times.

I absolve the first two first round exits of Stockton and Malone. They were young, and the team over matched. Then they led the team to within a few baskets of knocking out the Lakers in seven games. The front office clearly knew they had someone great here, and how did they build around that core of Stockton and Malone?

That's the big question.

Because after that seven game series, when the iron was at its' hottest and needed to be struck then and there, the team went back and started losing in the first round again. In my first season as a Jazz fan the team won 6 playoff games. In the next 5 seasons they would win 17 more. (For the non-math people out there that's averaging 3.4 wins every year in the playoffs, which is effectively of what they got in the first year)

Instead of taking a step forward it seems like the Jazz, while not exactly taking a step back (They did get to the WCF in '92), did put the gear in neutral. Instead of building around Stockton and Malone they coasted to see how far these two guys would take them. It's no surprise that Karl Malone was vocal with how other teams were getting better, and he suggestion that the front office only gave him lip service to his requests to upgrade the roster.

The third best player to complete that big three just didn't exist for a long time. Some organizations are happy to keep floating out there a job opening, and interview people, but never really intend to fill that position. It seems like that's how the Jazz felt about that vacant third best player since Eaton's body started to fall apart, and the team was capable of making the playoffs every year with John and Karl and 10 other scrubs.

Here is a list of all of the major transactions made by the Jazz since losing to the Lakers in '88:

  1. June '88: Mike Brown (Trade with Charlotte Hornets for Kelly Tripucka)
  2. June '88: Eric Leckner (Draft pick Rd 1, #17, 1988)
  3. June '89: Blue Edwards (Draft pick Rd 1, #21, 1989)
  4. June '90: Jeff Malone (Three Team trade, giving up Bob Hansen, Eric Leckner, and three future picks)
  5. June '91: Eric Murdock (Draft pick Rd 1, #21 1991)
  6. August '91: David Benoit (Free Agent)
  7. October '91: -- (Waived Darrell Griffith)
  8. November '92: Tyrone Corbin (Trade with Minnesota Timberwolves for Thurl Bailey)
  9. June '92: Jay Humphries, Larry Krystkowiak (Trade with Milwaukee Bucks for Blue Edwards, Eric Murdock, and a future pick)
  10. September '92: John Crotty (Free Agent)

The Utah Jazz went entire seasons without making any moves at all beyond adding a new rookie every June. I mean it. Sure, I didn't include every single time the Jazz signed and then waived guys like Jim Les and Andy Toolson -- but the team made 10 moves since taking the Lakers to the limit and the few months after losing to the Sonics in '93.

This was a team that wasn't improving the roster, and I can understand and respect the frustration expressed by Karl Malone. After the Barcelona Olympics he had to look forward to playing against the Phoenix Suns squad of Kevin Johnson, Tom Chambers, Danny Ainge, Danny Manning and crew -- and they just added Charles Barkley in the off-season. Other teams did get better, but the Jazz did not.

They didn't strike when the iron was hot. And the best guys we had in those 5 years after that LAL season to help John and Karl (when Bismarck Eaton was sinking) were Blue, Jeff, and Ty. The front office coasted long enough, and in the June after the playoffs were over made a few really solid moves:

  1. June '93: Luther Wright (Draft pick Rd 1, #18, 1993)
  2. June '93: Byron Russell (Draft pick Rd 2, #45, 1993)
  3. June '93: Felton Spencer (Trade with Minnesota Timberwolves for Mike Brown)
  4. August '93: Tom Chambers (Free Agent)

Yeah, Luther was a miss, Chambers was a good pick up but his performance was limited, and Spencer could have been solid if not for injuries. The Jazz really did try to do something, which is more than the years of the Jazz not trying to do anything. The throw-away guy here is the 2nd round pick. I didn't list second round picks in the previous bullet list, but I think we all know and appreciate what Russell did for this franchise.

The key point to do things is that it sets a chain reaction towards doing more things. And finally the Jazz made a move that wasn't just trading a ham and cheese sandwich for an egg salad. The team upgraded the roster with this move:

  1. February '94: Jeff Hornacek (Trade with Philadelphia 76ers for Jeff Malone)

HOORAY! 2,106 days since being eliminated by the Showtime Lakers in the playoffs the Jazz made a proactive move to improve the roster in an attempt to help their two Stars win more playoff games! (Sorry, random trades for bench players with the Wolves and Bucks don't count in my books. And they didn't count in the W/L record either.)

Hornacek was a former All-Star, and the principal guy the Suns traded away in order to get Barkley, a Hall of Famer. In six seasons with the Suns (468 regular season games) he was a 14 / 4 / 5 / 1 guy in 31 mpg, who shot .510 / .390 / .854. In two seasons with the 76ers (132 regular season games) he was a 18 / 4 / 7 / 2 guy in 37 mpg, who was shooting .464 / .359 / .868. This was a guy who could help our team and be that guy to fill that vacant "third good player" spot that the team's front office was incapable of filling for half a decade (wasting a quarter of John and Karl's career at their peak, but no one is keeping score).

If you add Jeff's 7 seasons in Utah to that list of the "best" talent the front office put around John and Karl from '88-'93 it's pretty obvious how much better he was compared to the off-brand talent we used to play 30+ mpg with.

Per Game Averages BARPS
Player Season PER G MPG PPG RPG APG SPG BPG / G / MPG
1 Jeff Hornacek 1997 1998 19.3 80 30.8 14.2 3.4 4.4 1.4 0.2 23.6 0.77
2 Jeff Hornacek 1995 1996 19.1 82 31.6 15.2 2.5 4.1 1.3 0.2 23.3 0.74
3 Jeff Hornacek 1996 1997 18.8 82 31.6 14.5 2.9 4.4 1.5 0.3 23.6 0.75
4 Jeff Hornacek 1994 1995 18.6 81 33.3 16.5 2.6 4.3 1.6 0.2 25.2 0.76
5 Jeff Hornacek 1998 1999 17.8 48 29.9 12.2 3.3 4.0 1.1 0.3 20.9 0.70
6 Jeff Hornacek 1993 1994 17.6 27 30.6 14.6 2.5 3.9 1.2 0.1 22.3 0.73
7 Jeff Hornacek 1999 2000 16.3 77 27.7 12.4 2.4 2.6 0.9 0.2 18.5 0.67
8 Thurl Bailey 1988 1989 15.6 82 33.9 19.5 5.5 1.7 0.6 1.1 28.4 0.84
9 Jeff Malone 1991 1992 15.1 81 36.1 20.2 2.9 2.2 0.7 0.1 26.1 0.72
10 Jeff Malone 1990 1991 14.4 69 35.7 18.6 3.0 2.1 0.7 0.1 24.5 0.69
11 Tyrone Corbin 1992 1993 14.4 82 31.2 11.6 6.3 2.1 1.3 0.4 21.7 0.70
12 Jeff Malone 1992 1993 13.7 79 32.4 18.1 2.2 1.6 0.5 0.1 22.5 0.69
13 Blue Edwards 1991 1992 13.7 81 28.2 12.6 3.7 1.7 1.0 0.6 19.6 0.70
14 Tyrone Corbin 1991 1992 13.6 69 27.0 9.0 5.8 1.6 1.0 0.2 17.6 0.65
15 Thurl Bailey 1989 1990 13.4 82 31.5 14.2 5.0 1.7 0.4 1.2 22.5 0.71
16 Thurl Bailey 1990 1991 12.5 82 30.3 12.4 5.0 1.5 0.6 1.1 20.6 0.68
17 Darrell Griffith 1988 1989 12.3 82 29.0 13.8 4.0 1.6 1.0 0.3 20.7 0.71
18 Blue Edwards 1989 1990 10.7 82 23.0 8.9 3.1 1.8 0.9 0.4 15.1 0.66
19 Mark Eaton 1989 1990 10.6 82 27.8 4.8 7.3 0.5 0.4 2.5 15.5 0.56
20 Jay Humphries 1992 1993 10.5 78 26.1 8.8 1.8 4.1 1.3 0.1 16.1 0.62
21 Mark Eaton 1988 1989 10.5 82 35.5 6.2 10.3 1.0 0.5 3.8 21.8 0.61
22 Blue Edwards 1990 1991 10.4 62 26.0 9.3 3.2 1.7 0.9 0.5 15.6 0.60
23 Bob Hansen 1988 1989 9.7 46 21.0 7.4 2.8 1.1 0.8 0.1 12.2 0.58
24 Mark Eaton 1990 1991 9.5 80 32.3 5.1 8.3 0.6 0.5 2.4 16.9 0.52
25 Mark Eaton 1991 1992 9.1 81 25.0 3.3 6.1 0.5 0.4 2.5 12.8 0.51
26 Mark Eaton 1992 1993 8.7 64 17.3 2.8 4.1 0.3 0.3 1.2 8.7 0.50
27 Bob Hansen 1989 1990 8.5 81 26.8 7.6 2.8 1.8 0.6 0.1 12.9 0.48

Wow. Jeff's worst season when his body had failed him, and forced him into retirement, was still a better season than the best season of Thurl Bailey (the best individual season during that time when the Jazz front office shifted into neutral). Sure, he didn't score as much as Jeff Malone, but no one passed the ball better, stole the ball better, and while it's not listed here, shot the deep ball better. (Griff in '89 wasn't the shooter Horney was in the mid '90s. But Griff was a great shooter in his peak.)

Hornacek worked really well for the Jazz, and was a great component fit with John, Karl, Jerry Sloan, and Larry H. Miller. I want to say that getting a little horney had an affect on the Jazz front office. While they did make a bunch of small moves, like signing Howard Eisley, Chris Morris, and Antoine Carr as free agents; and drafting Greg Ostertag (key parts of their NBA FInals teams) -- none of these moves were homeruns. None of them had the same impact as the Hornacek one. None of these moves put the Jazz over the top, and sadly the moves we talk about most are the ones that didn't get made. (Derek Harper, Rony Seikaly...)

You can argue that when the urgency to "win now" is most, when you should go all out to get better, SHOULD be during the years you are a finals contender. The Jazz front office did not feel urgency back when John and Karl were young and almost beating the Lakers in the playoffs by themselves. I hope they felt urgency when they went to the WCF five times in seven years. The results of the moves the team made during those late 90's seasons speak either of a) the urgency the front office felt to keep improving the roster, or b) the inability of that same front office to get the job done.

John and Karl and Jeff left it all out on the floor. The worry is if the people in the front office were working as hard as the people on the hardwood.

This has nothing to do with anything, but how the heck did the Jazz let Dikembe Mutombo slip out of their hands. Deke played college at Georgetown (In Washington D.C.), and was a rookie for the Denver Nuggets, where he played in the snow for five seasons. In the summer of 1996 he was a free agent, and signed with the Atlanta Hawks. I don't know if the Jazz offered him a contract or not, but that would have been an example of "going all out". (For the record, the Hawks paid him a billion dollars, and he did want to move closer to Africa and Atlanta is a big Delta hub...)

Mutombo-fantasies aside the Jazz front office did a great job by getting Jeff Hornacek. He was a true talent and legit upgrade for our roster. Without him the team would have floundered for years, like they did when the front office put the team in neutral and wasted years of John and Karl's careers.

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