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Center: A 'Fes'tering Problem

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Now, I’ve only been a Jazz fan since Mark Iavaroni was my age (and bringing 4.5 ppg and 3.3 rpg to the table as a starter in 71 games) but we all need to have a talk. This is specifically, the 300 pound gorilla in the room. Actually, more specifically, it is clearly the absence of a 300 pound gorilla. Or Wookiee, or whatever, I’m not picky at this point in time - I just want our team to have a big guy who can bang on the inside and possibly intimidate protocol droids into throwing games of Dejarik. (get well soon @ticktock6) You know, the basic things all teams want from their centers.

Since my time as a Jazz fan I can rattle off a number of solid position players seen in our uniform. Point guard, historically a position of nearly unrivaled Jazz strength, featured: Michigan great Rickey Green; point god John Stockton; the steady Howard Eisley; the big huge jerk Mark Jackson; former All-Star Mo Williams; and this Deron Williams guy. (Honorable mention: Hispanic Heartthrob tag-team of Carlos Arroyo and Raul Lopez) Point guard isn’t the only good spot in our history. For example, we sure do complain about our wings a lot, but teams can do much worse than: Pistol Pete; Adrian Dantley; Jeff Hornacek; Darrell Griffith; Dell Curry; Andrei Kirlenko; Bryon Russell; Matt Harpring; Kelly Tripucka; Blue Edwards and so forth. I’m not going to go over every spot on the floor here lest this become a puff piece. Warm feelings from a trip down memory lane aside, we have a serious problem. And it’s been a central issue of concern for a while now.

Our centers have really, outright sucked.

And when they don’t, they fail at key tasks in their job description. Usually they are effective enough at guarding the paint, but are so abysmally poor on offense that the team is playing a virtual handicap match of 4 on 5 on offense. Alternatively, they may be adept at scoring or passing but not bring much to the table on defense. Sadly, the vast majority of the centers on our roster have just plain sucked at both parts of the game - leaving the coaching staff scratching their heads in attempts to win despite their bigmen, instead of because of them.

Part I: The Top Three Centers in Jazz Franchise History (* from 1987-2010)

Okay, before we look too deeply at this problem let's actually look at what, through the frame of reference of a Jazz fan from the mid 80's, actually constitutes a 'good' center for our team. Here, in a specific order to be revealed as you read on, are the Top Three All-Time Centers in Jazz Franchise History. (Sorry Truck Robinson fans, he's not going to get props here as I never saw him play as I was otherwise preoccupied with learning how to eat and poop back when he was a Jazzman. Also I would seriously doubt the credibility of this bigman list by listing him as Top Three when he is shorter than Gordon Hayward)

Mark Eaton

The best center in the history of our franchise is, with little doubt, the Half-"Mountain Man"/Half-"Man-Mountain" Mark Eaton. He’s been on good teams and he’s been on bad teams. He has battled against the Showtime Lakers and Kareem deep in the playoffs, and he has tasted first round defeat at the hands of Don Nelson (really, who plays crazy lineups of 4 guards and 1 forward on the court in the playoffs). Regardless of how well the team was doing, he was doing his job on defense in the paint. Always solid on the defensive boards his main talent was blocking shots. Once he averaged close to 6 blocks a game for an entire season. More than just blocks, though, are the number of shots that were changed because he (and his towering length) happened to be in the same area code as the shooter. Maybe you don’t have great defenders for team mates and they frequently get beaten by their man – bad news for sure, right? Unless, of course, haughty would-be scorers drove headfirst into a brick wall. The Jazz defensive scheme was to funnel opponents into Eaton. The porous perimeter defense was but a ruse to set up an even more monumental defensive challenge that suffocated half court sets and collapsed game plans. Truly, Eaton’s size added a new dimension to stopping teams as he could not only mark his man, but also protect both a horizontal and vertical expanse of territory as well. He was both an impregnable fortress, and a high reaching SAM installation. Few things took the wind out of the sails of another team’s best scorer more than the recognition that he had been duped into being stuck between a rock and a hard place – in this case, being stuck in no-man’s land in the paint after picking up his dribble while Eaton and Stockton shut down all shooting angles and passing lanes respectfully

It wasn’t all good all of the time with Eaton though. For all of his defensive prowess, Mark had the mobility and gait of a Sasquatch with a twisted ankle. Teams that were able to reverse the ball quickly, or featured strong, speedy athletes were able to exploit Eaton’s Titanic-like maneuverability. He did get dunked on, naturally it is the curse of all shot blockers to get dunked on as they actively get in harms way; but one shouldn’t really fault Eaton for being dunked on by a delayed shot clock cutter after shutting down his man, and then also shutting down the first guy his man passes the ball to. What he can be faulted for, on the other hand, would be for being a muscular 7’4 guy that has a career field goal percentage of only 45.8%. One can’t fathom it, nor make excuses for it either as John Stockton, who was 15" shorter had a career field goal percentage of 51.5%. Eaton was a career 64.9 ft% shooter as well, which was more respectable for a big man in the era he played in, but nothing when compared to the current crop of hot free throw shooting bigs like Dirk, Bosh, Yao, Memo, Aldridge, Bargnani and crew. He stayed out of the way on offense most of the time yet still managed more turnovers per game than assists. So on offense he either missed the shot or turned the ball over. It is no wonder why Frank Layden and then Jerry Sloan had him out at the three point line most of the game on offense. Playing 4 on 5 on offense for so many years we Jazz fans just got used to this. So did the coaching staff who devised new tricks to take advantage of this, instead of going out to get a bigman who could be a two-way player.

By keeping Eaton out of the paint on offense, it allowed Karl Malone to get the ball on the low block off a cross screen from a SG or SF and be able to work down low without fear of a weak-side shot blocker. Teams countered this by cheating on Karl before he got the ball. This was then called ‘illegal defense’, kids; which resulted in a free throw and the ball back. If the other team elected to not cheat on Karl then he either scored; got to the line himself; or scored and got to the line for an and one without having to announce it afterward. The boxscore and W/L record did most of Karl’s talking for him. It worked, over and over and over again.

Greg Ostertag

We saw this a lot in the Greg Ostertag era as well. And for good reason, as the Jazz were winning with this formula - winning so much so that they went to the West Finals 5 times in 7 years. (Again, look it up kids) At tip off time and at the closing horn on a lot of the games those great Jazz teams played in had Ostertag on the court. The team was winning with him on the court, and he wasn’t specifically HURTING the team . . . so, through some transitive property of algebra (or was it distributive property?), O-tag is a Top 3 All-Time Franchise center for the Jazz. Ostertag was straight out of Charles Dickens, specifically being the best of times and worst of times – in his own Ostertag way, at the same time. He could dunk on Yao Ming on one play, and then not even lift his arms above his shoulders on the next seven plays on defense. Quantitatively, he was worse on defense than Eaton and – through Ostermagic -- also worse on offense despite shooting slightly better. His brief, shining moment is outplaying Hakeem Olajuwon (if not outright outplaying him, at worst playing the Dream to a draw) in a Western Conference Finals close out game 6, back in 1997. In addition to being the only Jazz center in a major Hollywood movie (Felton Spencer doesn't have his own page like Greg has), the internet also reveals a series of oil paintings of Greg being posterized throughout his career. He was mostly kept out of the action on offense by design; and the Jazz maintained their honor-bound 4 on 5 on offense handicap.

Of course, David Stern wouldn’t let the fun last – and zone defenses were implemented totally screwing the Jazz offense for a few seasons. The Dick Motta forward oriented offense that Sloan ran was one where the Power Forward got the ball down low. It was harder to score when you could just double Karl before he got the ball. Additionally, hanging a center out there near the three point line wasn’t helping at all now that the other team had no penalty for keeping theirs inside. Except, of course, in that one playoff game where Danny Manning --playing center for the Jazz somehow-- hit a game winning three. For the Jazz offense to run well the team needed another tricky ploy to get the opposing team’s center out of the paint. This involved . . . wait for it . . . finding a three point shooting center. Outside of the nightmare realm of that Golden State series where the Jazz got bounced early by Don Nelson’s Jerk Store offense where the guy playing the 5 spot was actually a forward with three point range, the true three point shooting center was actually something Sloan learned about (the hard way) a few seasons later against the Sonics. Back in the mid 90’s when George Karl first took control of the Seattle franchise he would murder Sloan with Sam Perkins at center, wide open at three, as Eaton would be in the paint. Of course, the Jazz could not counter by throwing the ball inside to Eaton because, you know, that’s not how the Jazz did things. Aside from being, you know, honor bound to play 4 vs 5 on offense – the real reason why Sloan could not overcome those Sonics was because Eaton was really bad on offense (again: 45 fg%, 11 Go Rating). There was no counter attack. I give kudos to the Jazz brass for recognizing that in order to maintain their exclusive offensive system that they would need to find this one-in-a-million type of center who could get defensive rebounds and keep defenses honest at the three point line.

Mehmet Okur

This is why the Jazz went after Mehmet Okur as a RFA. And this is also why he got a contract extension, when Carlos Boozer did not. Boozer could be replaced way easier than replacing Memo because there are more guys Carlos’ size with a similar game out there than there are three point shooting centers. And here is proof: over the last few seasons we had been grooming Boozer’s eventual replacement with Paul Millsap and picked up future starting center (but actually a PF) Al Jefferson for Kosta Koufos and some draft picks. (Supply and Demand, I guess) Originally a converted PF, Memo is a clutch player who makes big shots, gets big boards and hits his free throws. More importantly, he maintains the floor spacing integrity this offense needs – especially in those lean years where we started AK (’05-’06) or Brewer (’07-’09) at SG. Memo’s defense is clearly much better than Boozer’s, after all, it was Memo who was defending Yao Ming straight up in that Houston series – we missed him a lot in the last two Lakers’ series on offense AND defense. While he is the most complete player we’ve ever had at center, he is still flawed. He was not a guy who defended the paint in the same way that we were used to with Eaton and Ostertag. Shot blocking and shot changing were secondary to him when compared to playing strong position defense and not letting your man set up where he wanted to. However, it must be said that he averaged more than a block per game this past season – shot blocking is still a part of his game that is evolving, and no where near as integral as it was for the guys sized 7’4 and 7’2. This interior intimidation was something we all missed these last few seasons. It’s also something opposing coaches focused on as well, as guards recognized that if they could get by their man they could score with impunity in the paint as there was no bigman to lay down the law of the jungle on them. (Would it not have been satisfying to have Rafael Araujo step on the court these last few seasons in the playoffs and through incidental contact have Andrew Bynum break his knee or give Gasol a real reason to act like he was shot on one of his usual flops?)

Until the NBA Fun Police changes the illegal defense rules again, we’re going to need a center who can stretch the defense. A smarter idea would be to change our offense, but you and I both know that’ll never happen. While there are a ton of guys Boozer’s size who can get close to a 20-10, getting a Memo is rare. There are only a few guys who have that type of game: Dirk Nowitzki, Andrea Bargnani and theoretically Kosta Koufos (at least in college). In addition to being super injured right now, Memo is also one of the most important players on this team right now because of his three point ability. If he can bounce back after rehab, and the stars align, I would not be hesitant to give him the #1 Spot in the Jazz Franchise Center Pantheon. To quote he, who hath taught Memo how to speak English back when he was a monobrow’ed rookie, "Ball Don’t Lie". Eaton gave his body for the Jazz, has the recognition from his peers, but averaged 6 ppg and 8 rpg. Memo got a ring before coming here, but plays hurt, and had what could have been a career ending injury this past playoffs that’ll stop him from playing for his country while they hold the World Championships, while giving the Jazz 16 ppg and 8 rpg. Eaton’s blocks make up the difference, but a few more years of vintage Memo and the spot will be his.

I was not around in the Truck Robinson days (would he even be a center today?), and everyone else who played center for us regularly sucked. Having to choose between Jarron Collins, Felton Spencer, James Donaldson, Mike Brown, Officer Olden Polynice, John Amaechi, Armen Gilliam, Eric Leckner, Mikki Moore, Todd Fuller, Luther Wright and the rest of those guys I am naming off the top of my head is like having to choose which type of fatal disease you want to die from. If there was a 15 man rotation of the All-Time Jazz, Eaton, Okur and *gulp* Ostertag would represent the pivot for us. The talent and ability here is arguably weakest out of the 5 traditional positions.

Part II: The NBA and the Jazz - Two differing doctrines on the center position

Okay, so in the world the the Jazz our three best centers are a two time Defensive Player of the Year; an All-Star who averages 16 & 8 in nearly 500 games played; and the third guy averages 1.8 blocks per game in only 20 minutes of burn. On paper this looks like a really strong center rotation. And on paper it appears like asking for more is just me being greedy. [That link is off the hook, check it] Off paper, and on the court we need to focus on the fact that two of those three guys had close to single-digit Gestalt Offense Ratings (Ostertag at 12.711, Eaton at 11.608) while playing around 30 minutes per game with two Hall of Famers on the floor at the same time. Let's not kid ourselves, They were very bad on offense that they were kept almost entirely out of it (handicapping the team). The third guy is light years ahead on offense, and the only two way player we've had there in my entire history as a Jazz fan. Go head, take another good long look at the stats.

We've built a heritage around winning despite our men in the middle, so much so that we're actually incapable of really appreciating Memo because he doesn't block 2 shots a game nor miss his three throws. He just does not fit into the schema of what a traditional Jazz center is supposed to be. As great as my new found appreciation for Okur is (when all is said and done, he should finish his career as the best Jazz center in franchise history, provided we can get past the 2nd round anytime in the next 5 years), he alone does not make up the difference between the centers for our club and that of other teams. Let us, perchance, look at some of the other franchises in the NBA, as see what they anchored their respective paints with:

The Lakers had Wilt, Kareem and Shaq. The Celtics with Russell, Parish and Garnett. The Sixers had Wilt, Moses Malone and Mutombo. The Knicks had Ewing, Reed and Harry 'The Horse' Gallatin (HOF F/C). Even the upstart Miami Heat (somehow destined to by a greater franchise than our beloved Jazz) have had Shaq, Zo and super ex-Pro Volleyball player turned super club DJ Rony Seikaly. (Not the mention they just dropped the Z Bomb) Plenty of teams have had way better talent at the pivot than we have had. Furthermore, plenty of other teams use their bigmen as real bigmen -- not just offensive outcasts or people allergic to the paint. (All three of our guys spend a lot of time on offense around the three point line, or setting screens around 18 feet out)

Not surprisingly, other teams have had success by using their bigmen in the paint on defense *AND* on offense. Teams that are big inside and capable inside win titles. No one is bigger on your team than the center. Therefore . . . it's best to plan our attack around a guy smaller than the guy he is being defended by, right? Just out of curiosity, can you name the last NBA team to win a title where their PF was their main offensive weapon? As much as I hate to admit this, but the answer "should be" Pau Gasol (he’s a way more efficient player on offense than Kobe or the Triangle sets) – but the real answer is actually ‘never’. No team has done it. Dick Motta isn’t regarded as a Coaching Guru, and despite the best efforts of recent Hall of Famer Karl Malone, working inside with your power forward will always be second best. (What about Tim Duncan? Sorry, if you are 7’ tall you are a center, especially if you are only playing the 4 because you were drafted onto a team with a HOF 7’1 guy already on the team)

I don’t want the Jazz franchise to be a second tier team, I am tired of being second best. I’m glad that it took Stockton and Malone’s entire careers for the team to pony up the talent to eventually play 5 on 5 on offense instead of 4 on 5. I wonder how long it will take for the Jazz to actually use their biggest guy on offense in the paint. Whether or not it was their plan ‘all along’ we’re going to see a lot of this "center as a first option inside on offense" doctrine early on with Al Jefferson starting at the 5 while Memo rounds back into shape. For all his presumed qualities and faults we don’t know how well this experiment will go. What we DO know is that making Paul Millsap the first option inside did produce a team that won games. (but that’s the topic of another blog post)

Effectively the Jazz are going to go to war against other teams with the starting bigs of Jefferson/Millsap. Memo should come off the bench and back both of them up when he’s healthy. Which means that, as of right now, our center rotation right now is limited to just Al Jefferson. Kosta Koufos is now in Minnesota trying to find a good gyros place, Jarron Collins is a Phoenix Suns player (for something, I don’t really follow his career) and Kyrylo Fesenko’s people and the Jazz aren’t even close to a deal right now (according to Ross Siler’s twitter). Pall Jeffersap is going to be fine against the teams out there that load up on some crazy Darko/Beez lineups, (or even a Noah/Boozer). Unfortunately, it’s not the bad teams we have trouble with in the playoffs. It’s the teams that play a traditionally sized center at center. (Damn them for not playing by the same honor code as our Jazz teams – why don’t they use their bigs as three point shooters and passers into the paint?)

In reality, there's no problem -- not even minutes -- when these three guys totaled 89.614 mins per game last season. That leaves little more than 6 minutes to play with at the PF and C spots for the Jazz. So the good news is that when everyone is healthy, everyone of these three guys should get a fair amount of playing time. Of course, we can't suppose perfect health. Jefferson has an injured past. Memo is coming off what used to be a career ender. Lastly, Millsap seems to break down when he has a big load to carry. In the short term, the concept and doctrine of playing 5 on 5 basketball on offense will live and die with these three guys.

The bad news is, of course, none of these three guys a 7 footers. None of these three guys are particularly heralded as guys who can routinely shut down opposing 7 footers. (Man, I miss those days when Karl Malone would shut down David Robinson in the playoffs before they tanked and got Duncan) As it stands, height and lack of defense happen to be the main reasons why the Jazz have been stopped in the playoffs the last few seasons.

Of course, it has to get worse. Opening day? We're probably going to rock a line up of 6'8 and 6'10 against the rest of the league. That's a step in the wrong direction from LAST opening day.

Part III: An actual 300-pound Gorilla

I try to be rational, balanced and often play the devil’s advocate in my NBA discussions here and (more usually) on twitter. I’m not a homer, furthermore, I’m not a company man. I’m (mostly) realistic in my ideas about this team; and honest in my appraisals of their qualities, talents, potential and flaws. Except, I think, in the case of Kyrylo Fesenko. I love this guy. His pre-draft, post Phoenix Suns workout interview remains one of the Top 250 Non-Double-Rainbow Related videos of the Internet age. His ease of speaking, unique diction and natural charisma reminded me of how crazy those old Andrei Kirilenko sound bites used to be (back when he was happy and would talk to the press all day long, unguarded). To me he sounded Malone-like (or I guess now it’s de rigueur to say Jefferson-like) in the simple country boy expressions he used and his desire to not just speak, but attempts to actually say something. The fact that he makes jokes all the time (doesn't Jerry?) and listens to techno music could only endear him to me even more, off the court. For us Jazz fans, love him or hate him, he’s like that foreign exchange student that you’ve basically adopted. Fes is strong like an ox, but with the mind of a puppy. Obviously my analysis of him is clouded by my naked support of him. I want him to succeed. I always liked him better than The Koof. (This is where @TheShums blocks me on twitter) More than any of that, he CAN be pretty impressive at times!

Before we break it all down let’s look at the timeline. Somehow the Jazz found out about Fes. This is probably because of all the attention he gained from being a legit 7’1 banger working out at IMG (David Thorpe’s academy) and all the associated attachments that brings: being signed by LSR, hence the constant Kings speculation; Thorpe’s pre-draft laudation of him during chats before their eventual falling out; etc. The Jazz traded the rights of Herbert Hill to the Sixers for the rights to Fes back in the summer of 2007. (Herbert Hill, people!) If you trawl through web archives of the main SLC papers you see that the original plan was to draft him, and stash him. (The classic cost cutting move of the LHM era) When the Jazz brass actually got him in Utah and worked with him they got into action. Now this is pure speculation, but there is something fishy about all of this. Specifically how quickly this all went down and that Mark Eaton, who has no current connection the Utah Jazz save as a former player, knows how to pronounce his name better than a lot of NBA people out there. After these secret double-probation work outs the Jazz then had to pay money (an assurance) to the Cherkassy Monkeys club in The Ukraine to allow him to play in the Rocky Mountain Review, and as far as I can remember, bought him out, outright later that summer. This is very rare for a 2nd round draft pick who was drafted with all intentions of leaving him in Europe and forgetting about him. A point often over looked is that this 3 year NBA vet would have technically been a rookie last season; so he’s actually ahead of the curve by original projections.

Obviously, the Jazz recognized that his combination of size, rawness and potential were better served being developed at home in Utah instead of in Europe where his improvement would be unfocused and he was not getting much playing time as the seniority system in Europe often under plays junior members of that club. [Pause here for irony] They wanted to keep a close eye on him, and tailor make development. Just for a point of reference, this is a guy that the coaches anchored to the bench during the middle Lakers series (Playoffs 09) when Memo was out so Jarron Collins could start on Bynum. What needs to happen is figure out what went wrong from "Oh Gosh this guy is good, we need him NOW" to "Jarron Collins gives the Jazz the best shot to win" (direct David Locke quote to me on Twitter).

The first thing is that we never heard about his great work ethic, so we infer that he did not have one. Alternatively, we did hear that he was not serious enough. That automatically puts you in the doghouse with Jerry. Heck, when he dyed his hair one off-season the Jazz franchise was scandalized! Naturally, dying your hair and working hard on defense were mutually exclusive of one another. Next, depending on which guy he had to guard and which refs were running the show, he had the penchant for picking up fouls like Wilt picked up girls. Fesenko’s NBA experience so far has been short, sporadic and disappointing. No one expected him to be a double double machine, but his playing time has had more ups and downs than Linsay Lohan’s stardom. Lastly, I sometimes hear him criticized for very rarely playing for the Utah Jazz summer league team, instead, going back to play for the national pride of his homeland. It’s very easy for Americans who love to chant U-S-A! U-S-A! to have automatic, Pavlovian derision towards someone else being patriotic. We used to bag on guys like Shaq and Kobe bailing on Team USA (that’s why our teams weren’t so hot for a few years, because we were sending Vin Baker out there to defend our honor), but at the same time, people are bagging on Fes for being an NBA player who cares about his nation? Very silly. I’m sure splitting time with Kevin Lyde the last few off-seasons would have been the missing piece of the puzzle that would have transformed Fesenko into a monster. For what it is worth in the EuroBasket qualifying tournament that just finished up he more than held his own in just about the same amount of playing time as he would have gotten with the Jazz – but instead of 5 games (Orlando Summer league), he’s been playing basketball all summer long from July through to his last game on August 29th. In addition to crashing the boards and sending back more than a block a game (in only 17 mpg) he also has been dishing out nearly 2 apg and getting almost 1 spg. Of course, it’s not like he’s doing this against NBA talent. There are only so many 15/14 games you can hang up on Latvia before they stop meaning anything. His work in America, on the other hand, does leave something to be desired.

You can’t avoid the numbers. At the NBA level he has shot really poorly from the free throw line, even for a center, despite being much more average in Developmental league or International play from the stripe. Greg Ostertag finished his Jazz career shooting nearly 60% from the free throw line. Kyrylo has admitted that confidence, not concentration, is the problem for him. Of course, young players don’t get confidence sitting on the bench, you gotta play him more for his game to normalize. But you and I both know that’s not going to happen. His rebounding and shot blocking numbers are lower than you’d want also. But let’s not forget that he was under the "rebounding doctrine" of letting Carlos Boozer inflate his rebounding numbers by stealing rebounds from other guys. This even happened in the playoffs, and it was funny to see. With Boozer gone, and a more neutral doctrine for rebounding, his per minute rebounding numbers should increase. Shot blocking is always going to be a funny thing for us Jazz fans. As stated earlier, we’re not happy with anything less than 2 blocks a game. In the FIBA Europe qualifying tournament that just ended last month he was #4 out of all players in blocks per game (a block and a half), despite playing only 17 minutes a game. For the record, the only times he HAS gotten legit minutes he HAS blocked 2 a game – but the final straw is that his minutes – not his games – are the real bug-a-boo to his stats. Let me explain:

Kyrylo has "played in" 79 total NBA games in the regular season. He has played in only 22 regular season games in his entire career where he has played 11 or more minutes in that same game. Thus, 27.8% of his NBA career has him actually playing legit back-up center minutes. On the flip side, he has played more than HALF of his career (in terms of games played) being on the court for only 5 minutes of action (over 40 of those 79 games). Thus, whatever ‘good’ he manages to do in those rare games where he’ll get a good 15 minutes of run in are completely mitigated, nay, obliterated by all those games where he plays "screw your per game average" numbers of minutes. Let’s actually forget those "regular season" stats because they aren’t valid enumerations of his contributions – his handling and up and down playing time by the coaches (and his own efforts) have seen to that.

Part III, uh, and a half: Fesenko when playing more than 11 minutes a game

Etiquette suggests that the correct social response would be to say "Boom Bitches" here. But what I really want is for the numbers to do the talking for me. First of all, by only picking the games where he played in more than 11 minutes am I unfairly representing selected statistics and biased in doing so? Hardly, his career numbers are ravaged by the whims of Sloan, if anything those are the unfair and biased numbers. In fact, I’m actually throwing away a number of good games he played in the 6-10 minute range as the price I must pay to remove all the games where he played in 5 or less minutes. Did you know that he’s played over 30 games of 3:00 minutes of action or less – and 7 games of less playing time than 1:30!!! I don’t care if you are using your best video game character here, you’re not going to have impressive numbers with that type of playing time. Additionally, these are not the "best" 22 games of his career either, a number of the games included in these stats reflect actually poor play – I did not hand pick just the ones that fit my point of view. There are games here like the one against Duncan where he managed zero points, 1 rebound and 4 fouls; similarly there are games here like the 12/11 and 3 blocks he gave Yao Ming in Houston.

Furthermore, evidence exists to support the theory that ‘with more playing time and the added confidence that regular playing time affords a player, the player is likely to play better than a small sample size of bad play would otherwise unfairly label a player by’. I am, of course speaking of his 50+ games with the Utah Flash in the NBA-Developmental League where he averaged 11 and 8, loosened up enough to hit 63% of his free throws and block 2 shots a game (with a Go Rating of 39.002 – but no one uses that stat except me so I don’t know if that means anything). If you compare that with #2 draft pick Hasheem Thabeet and you see the 2nd rounder Fesenko isn’t that horrible – but you don’t project an NBA career off of your play in the NBA-DL, right Mobe? Therefore Developmental League stats need to be taken with a grain of salt, so that’s why I did not include them in chart form. What does count, though, are games in the NBA against the best players at your position.

Who are the best centers in the league? Dwight? Yao? Duncan? It is either when a) there are a ton of injuries, b) when the Jazz are playing a team with talent and size in the paint, or c) both when Jerry ever releases the Kyrylken. These stats are against the best bigmen in the league. Furthermore, only 3 out of these 22 games (or 3 out of 30 if we include his games playing more than 11 minutes from the playoffs as well) has Fesenko NOT going up against one or more of the following players: Al Horford (ATL); Andray Blatche (WAS); Andrea Bargnani (TOR); Andrew Bynum (LAL); Brendan Haywood (WAS, DAL); Brook Lopez (NJN); Chris Andersen (DEN); Chris Bosh (TOR); Chris Kaman (LAC); Dirk Nowitzki (DAL); Dwight Howard (ORL); Emeka Okafor (NOH); Erick Dampier (DAL); Kendrick Perkins (BOS); Kenyon Martin (DEN); Kevin Garnett (BOS); LaMarcus Aldridge (POR); Marc Gasol (MEM); Marcus Camby (DEN, POR, LAC); Nene (DEN); Pau Gasol (LAL); Tim Duncan (SAS); Yao Ming (HOU); or Zaza Pachulia (ATL). So it’s not like Sloan put in Fes to play 11+ minutes in a blowout to run up his stats against the shrimpy Golden State Warriors or disinterested Detroit Pistons. These are the only games that should count for you and I, as Jazz fans. These are the games where Fes is getting minutes against other legit NBA bigs. And from what I can see, these are stats that are encouraging. (Small sample sized be damned)

Now remember, these are Fes’ stats compared to 2 of the top 3 centers our franchise has ever had. And these are Fes’ stats as a guy under 24 years of age – while Eaton and Ostertag’s stats are filled with mature play and leeway from the refs. Furthermore, Fes’ stats are made up of games against the absolute best bigmen in his day so these stats actually mean something. Right off the bat we see that Fes does not suck on offense. He’s a bigman who shoots a hyper efficient 57 fg%. That’s more than 10% better than Mark Eaton. Fes isn’t taking bad shots, even if he is shooting more frequently than these other two guys. He’s also putting pressure on the other team by drawing shooting fouls more than Eaton or Ostertag did – while playing less minutes than either. Sure, he’s not making the other team pay when he goes to the line right now, but if he can correct that (and if you watch Fes shoot free throws, he has the form that suggests he can improve) his GO Rating will be over 20 for sure. Can you imagine how awesome it would be to have a back-up center who has the offensive game of a 5th option, instead of a negative option like Jarron was all those years? I love the idea of being able to play 5 on 5 on offense, even when we go to the bench. So should you.

What about rebounds? Ostertag got 5.7 rebounds a game in 20.3 minutes of action. Fes gets 4.6 rebounds in 17.7 minutes of action. Give Fes 2.6 more minutes of action and readjust his play now that Boozer’s rules for rebounding no longer count (all contested boards are owned by Carlos), and I think you easily make up the difference. Sure, not as good as Eaton, but he’s the best center in our history according to my opinion. Ostertag is a much more advanced shot blocker, 1.8 vs 1.2 – but I think Fes has the size, length (same reach as Greg Oden) and athleticism to be just as good. What he currently does not have is a particiular nack for it. But then again, if Memo can learn to block over a shot a game (like he averaged for this last season) then I am sure Fesenko can be taught as well. Blocking is a skill, mind you, one that you can get better at if you have the physical tools. Aiming for Ostertag isn’t too low (or too high) for Fesenko, who was a 2nd round pick. (Ostertag was a late 1st round pick, fyi) Ostertag was good enough to start, and these immature results for Kyrylo indicate that he is around the same on defense while being much better on offense.

Part IV: The Future

The future is the easiest part, because almost anything can happen here. Back in early July people here felt as though Center was our most pressing need (71% out of a total 291 voters). This was back when The Koof was still on the roster and the only SG we had 'was' Othyus Jeffers. It remains a very big hole indeed a few months later. Despite our current lack of depth, the immediate future does not look so bad. Of the 48 minutes at the center spot, the vast majority will eventually be given to Mehmet Okur and Al Jefferson. Whatever is left will be given to whoever is left on the team as the designated ‘odd man out’. [The internets are suggesting that there is some Francisco Elson / Utah Jazz flirting going on right now. I did not just write eight thousand effing words so that we pick up some guy who was a back-up in Denver, instead of the guy we spent 3 years "developing".] Right now, Fesenko is not even signed with ANY NBA team right now, let alone our Utah Jazz; though, polls here indicate that he's the overwhelming favorite to add -- 76% of you out of 338 people said so. While I have done nothing but profess my love for this guy in this post, I do easily recognize and abide by the ‘we shall love whomever is here’ fan doctrine. If Fesenko is not brought back I will learn to love again, I am sure. Getting back to the problem, I think that having a rotation that is set in stone is flat out stupid though. Things happen over the course of a game where you end up having to change your game plan. Similarly so, changes in the dynamics of a team over a season require similar flexibility. Our coaches would do well to employ such a fluid game plan.

Speculating here, if Fesenko is brought back then his continued development and improvement almost relies upon getting around 20 minutes a game. He did not even average that in the playoffs this year when the Jazz were quite thin up front, fat chance he’ll get that now that we traded for Jefferson, though. He plays better when he’s in a groove (see the Portland game last season where he was playing deep into overtime, or the game a few seasons back against Houston where he played into overtime as well that's mention in the previous section), playing him in short bursts or hardly at all is not going to coax the best out of Fesenko. Again, he’s played in 25 games where he got 3 minutes or less of playing time – which does a world of hurt to any flow you may be trying to maintain. Of course, it would be disingenuous of me if I did not suggest that Fesenko’s development and his relative worth to the Jazz may have been augmented had he gotten real playing time in his first few seasons – but as David Locke suggests, ‘Jarron Collins gives the Jazz the best shot to win’. But all of this Fesenko talk is a moot point really, because . . .

. . . Ante Tomic is young, smooth and has a killer hook shot. And we own the rights to this 7’2 back to the basket scorer. He’s a primary option on offense and is used to taking on the scoring load for his team. He makes his free throws and isn’t a slouch on defense either (hard not to get blocks when you are 7’2). You cannot overestimate the glee I feel just thinking about how awesome it would be to have first option talent in the paint in center size – the Jazz franchise will have finally caught up to the George Mikan era NBA. Of course, the true test to see if the Jazz have been paying attention would be to play this guy at the four (and maintain our sets) while taking advantage of other teams that don’t have a 7’ power forward. (Which currently includes Utah, but it’s a temporary condition until we finally drop the A-Tomic bomb on other teams) I will, of course, be writing more about Ante Tomic for this website in the future (and Tadija Dragicevic too!) so I’ll keep it short here. Size always counts in the NBA, and the future of our franchise relies upon a) recognizing this truth, and b) using what size we have to our advantage. As an aside, you don’t know how it hurts me to see Jerry not forcing the size advantage in order to match up with another team’s tweener squad in recent years – perhaps overcompensating for those rag-tag line ups that have hurt him in the past in the playoffs?

Part V: Conclusion

As Jazz fans, we have a lot to be proud of. Unfortunately, when it comes to the center spot, our franchise has a reason to be envious of other teams’ paint presence. The Jazz coaches learned to exploit the prohibition on zone defense to our advantage, despite having to play 4 on 5 on offense because our centers were so pathetic on that side of the ball. Rule changes removed this tactic and our reliance upon an unconventional offense required the miracle player of a strong rebounding big who can knock down three pointers and maintain our precious floor spacing. This player is Mehmet Okur, and he has performed admirably in this role (again 16 and 8 over nearly 500 games). Teamed up with Mark Eaton and Greg Ostertag, these three represent the Jazz’ best centers – all incomplete players boosted by coaching gimmicks. Truly, other teams’ best centers have LOVED matching up against these three guys. You never hear centers say "Oh boy, I’d love to be defended by Mikan, Wilt, Kareem and Shaq," – of course not. They’d rather feast on our guys instead. In the wake of Okur’s injury (and just what Sloan is going to do with Jefferson remains to be seen, we’re convinced he’ll be fine – but for all we know he may just play PF this entire season), the traditional two way center who is strong in the paint continues to elude the Jazz – truly, a festering problem. Kyrylo Fesenko has the physical tools to fit the bill as a physical paint presence who can block shots and dunk it hard inside; however, his development has been slow and mismanaged – this is a FEStering problem. Still, evidence suggests that there are quantitative reasons to continue supporting the Fesenko project. Ultimately, the Jazz future inside may be well beyond any current player on the roster (or tendered a contract), but instead rests in the soft, capable hands of Pau Gasol-clone Ante Tomic.

Having a guy named A-Tomic playing in the meltacenter brings a whole new meaning to "Boom B--ches".