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Standing on Jerry Sloan’s Shoulders

I’m never going to forget February 10th. It was the day our last link to the finals years retired. As Jazz fans we always knew that Jerry Sloan and top assistant Phil Johnson would have to retire at some point. They were old men who were increasingly asked to babysit more and coach basketball less. In a way, we knew that this day would come, but most of us realistically did not think it would come so soon. Even fewer thought that it would come during the middle of a season, days before the All-Star Break. This was, truly, that ‘impossible scenario’ that the Jazz brass had to quickly plan for on the fly.

After trying to take my mind off of this point, and after recognizing that four regular strength Advil wasn’t going to help me shake my disbelief, I felt like it was best to write about Jerry Sloan. Many talented basketball writers / bloggers / journalists / and analysts have done so. They were able to manage the breaking news with their skills as authors. I am not so talented. I can’t write about Jerry Sloan and Phil Johnson like they are gone. Partly because they’ll always be with us, which is what Jerry Sloan would call being "corny". But more accurately, I can’t write about them like they are gone because it’s just too soon.

In a way this transition would have been easier if it occurred in the off-season. That’s just not the case here, as the Jazz have 28 games left on the schedule to deal with before the end of the regular season. (Playoffs? Playoffs??!) While the tributes will continue to be written about our much beloved and storied departing coaches the Jazz - our Jazz - have to go forward. It starts today. And it starts with Tyrone Corbin at the helm.

Gail Miller, the real rock that our Utah Jazz are built upon, said it best, "I have no desire for you to fill Jerry’s shoes, I would like for you to stand on his shoulders. Players do come and go but the franchise stays here and we will put our full support behind you." If you’ll allow me, let’s look at how Ty Corbin can do just that . . .

"….stand on his shoulders…"

When the Jazz were in New Orleans they were on shaky ground. When they moved to Utah, things got better, but stability did not come until Larry H. Miller (pbuh) took a chance and bought the remaining 50% of the Jazz from Sam Battistone. The Miller family patriarch was a huge Jazz supporter and a passionate fan. His daring was tempered by Gail, his supportive wife. While the Jazz were no longer on shaky ground in Salt Lake City, the ground work for their success was laid by Frank Layden. Sorry Tom Nissalke fans, I’m not going to include him in this because his 32.6 winning % does not strike me as part of a continuous plan for success. Jerry Sloan stepped in and built upon what Frank started and refined the blueprints to success over the last two decades. Now, now it is time for the rest of the Jazz coaches (we’re working on my third Jazz head coach in my lifetime now) to continue the forward progress towards ultimate success.

The Jazz ownership and brass (Gail Miller, her son Greg Miller, Randy Rigby, and Kevin O’Connor among others) don’t want Ty to reinvent the wheel here. His job is to take Jerry’s work and build on it. Clearly the major point is the continuation of the system, which doesn’t really need fixing as it’s not broken. Don’t believe me? How many times has your favorite team gone to the lotto in the last three decades. Now count how many times the Jazz have been there. That’s hard to do when you’re not a hot location for free agents. Respect what’s been growing here all these years. Corbin will tweak the blueprint to fit the talent on the roster, and his own personal opinions of the best strategies, but the central core strategies will remain intact. We are still going to see Jazz Basketball in the reign of Coach Corbin. Why? Well . . .

Dick Motta

A story about Coach Ty Corbin can’t start with Ty Corbin. That would just be absurd. Especially absurd with how Coach Corbin is being promoted in the field – replacing Jerry Sloan midseason (who had a similar promotion years ago, attempting to replace Frank Layden). But a story about Ty Corbin doesn’t start with Jerry Sloan either. It goes farther back, like the Matrix of Leadership in transformers lore. When Jerry Sloan was a rookie he was playing for the 1965-1966 Baltimore Bullets, and was coached by Paul Seymour. Next season the expansion draft had him being pried away and becoming a Chicago Bull. There his first few seasons were under the guidance of Johnny "Red" Kerr – a superstar coach in his own right. The Bulls didn’t start winning, and Sloan didn’t start succeeding in the NBA, until the right coach came along. That coach was Dick Motta. And this is where Ty Corbin’s coaching story starts.

If you watch today’s NBA game you may recognize that a great number of teams rely upon a series of screens and cuts to get players open in the half court. The Pick and Roll is taught to kids all over the world, for example. An even greater number of teams rely upon isolation plays. Screens, cuts, and isos are great; but they are actually parts of a successful offense – and not offensive sets on their own. (Despite what some coaches believe) If you are in the 20-40 age group you’ve probably heard of a few different offensive sets. These offensive sets vary in complexity and reliability. Something that may work at the grade school level probably is not going to work at the NBA level, and so forth. The more fluid and complex a system is, presumably, the harder it is to master. This is precisely why very few teams run Tex Winter’s Triangle Offense. Dick Motta has his own school (in the kung-fu movie sense) of offensive set as well. While he’s not the sole owner of it, he made the Flex offense something that worked at the NBA level.

While Winter’s Triangle has seemed to work well with shooting guards with little conscience when it comes to field goal attempts; the Dick Motta offense was forward oriented. This offensive system is what those Dick Motta Bulls teams used, and what Jerry Sloan learned firsthand as a player. How good was this system? Well, 1st option Flex Forwards developed into efficient scorers. Karl Malone (career 25.0 ppg, 51.6 fg%; 2nd All-Time in scoring), Carmelo Anthony (24.7 ppg, 45.8 fg%), Adrian Dantley (24.4 ppg, 54.0 fg%), Elvin Hayes (21.0 ppg, 45.2 fg%), Mark Aguirre (20.0 ppg, 48.4 fg%), Jamal Mashburn (19.1 ppg, 41.8 fg%), Carlos Boozer (17.4 ppg, 54.1 fg%), and Wayman Tisdale (15.3 ppg, 50.5 fg%) were all beneficiaries of this system (by 1st hand Motta influence, or 2nd hand). Boozer’s numbers under this system were way above his career numbers, scoring in the 20s almost every game. This is a difficult system to teach, but the ‘flexibility’ it afforded players in the halfcourt was an asset. Rings aside, the triangle doesn’t look so effective in comparison now, does it?

Why bring the forward oriented offense up? Well, like the Matrix of leadership – this offensive system has been passed down over time in an unbroken line from Dick Motta. (It also proliferated a bit with a number of Coaches who were former Motta players teaching it to their teams) Not only is this offense something Erik Spoelstra is desperately cribbing from in order to evolve LeBron from a one on one guy, but it’s something that we’re going to see run here in Utah by Head Coach Tyrone Corbin now that he’s Optimus Corbin. The general offensive philosophy is going to remain the same – and that will help this team. After all, what other NBA offense do Andrei Kirilenko, C.J. Miles, Paul Millsap, and Mehmet Okur have a chance to run at an NBA level for the remaining games this month?

We speculated that Coach Corbin will run a little more, and attempt to push the pace a little higher. I think this is a good idea. We used to run a lot. I can’t tell you how many posters and magazine photos I’ve seen that have a Jazz fast break finish with our center (mostly Mark Eaton) barely crossing half court. If our team is running hard and finishing on breaks I don’t care if guys like Al Jefferson, Memo, or Kyrylo Fesenko don’t make it past half court. I’m sure guys like Deron Williams and Earl Watson would relish the chance to run a bit, and take advantage of a very latent running game in Salt Lake City. Pace is important, but not more important than retaining this impressive offensive playbook.

An actual coaching staff

Playbook intact, finding coaches is the most immediate concern for Corbin right now. We presume that Scotty Layden is promoted to Top Assistant (the role that Phil Johnson held previously). This leaves at least two gaping holes on the bench. Of course, as fans we’d like to see these positions reserved for former players – people we are already in love with. These positions actually have to do things though. I think we need to hire the best people for the job; and not just try to keep everything in the family. Jeff Hornacek is a great shooter. He’s been a shooting coach for a while now (with mixed results). Being a special assistant who focuses is on one aspect of half the game isn’t the same thing as being a full-on coach on the bench. The other assistant coaches do more than just hold clipboards and keep players from running onto the court during fights.

I don’t know if Hornacek is qualified to run full practices, coordinate information in scouting sessions, read advanced statistics, and find a way to get Fesenko to stop staring at overhead helium filled balloons. (Hopefully Jeff, a Coach’s son, is completely awesome for this job, and I have nothing to worry about.) Time isn’t an ally on this, so a promotion to Hornacek may seem like the next logical step. This does take him away from his strength and specialty as a coach though. Would you promote Antoine "Big Dawg" Carr to a full-time assistant coach because he could have been an okay rebounding coach? Would you promote Greg Ostertag to a full-time assistant coach because he could have been an okay shot blocking coach? I don’t know. But we seem to be promoting Jeff into a spot he’s never had before. (We’re already promoting a rookie to be our head coach)

I think it is a safe bet that Corbin will keep all the other familiar faces around (from trainers, to support staff). This leaves one spot open. I wouldn’t mind having a veteran here (but it doesn’t have to be a former Jazz guy – so I’m not reserving it for Kenny Natt, or Gordon Chiesa). A veteran here may be someone Ty can lean on, at least a little bit, now that Jerry and Phil have gotten out of Dodge. If anything, this may be the only party of Corbin’s first coaching staff that he actually has a choice about / say in the matter. Personally, I love that frowning older man on the Boston Celtics back bench – I think he’s a bigman coach who is paid just for his coaching sessions with Kendrick Perkins on how to scowl and frown more definitively. If we are going for experience *and* a former NBA player *and* a former Jazz guy – why not David Benoit who has been a head coach in Japan for a very long time now. Ha ha. Okay, we’re really not going to see that happen, but I did want to mention to the world what David Benoit has been keeping himself busy with.

28 games

These remaining 28 games are not an audition for next season. If he wants it, he’ll be Head Coach next season with full support of the management. These remaining 28 games are for playing Jazz basketball while transitioning to a new head coach. The expectations should remain, even though an active Hall of Fame member isn’t coaching the team. Instead we have a player’s coach who everyone on the team respects. He is a good coach, even though he’s young and he will, unfortunately, not be perfect from day one going forward. I’ve watched him with great interest during the various Summer Leagues over the years. (I know some others have as well) He is going to be a solid coach in this fickle league – having the support of the organization will give him a sense of security a lot of other, young, coaches are not afforded. This is only going to make him better at his job.

What is his job? To coach this team – but not to do anything to mess up this team. He’s going to be starting, on paper, with zero years head coaching experience and a 0-0 record. But in terms of what Gail is explaining to us, Tyrone Corbin already has 32 years coaching experience with the Utah Jazz, and a 1350 – 976 record over that span. And I know that the Jazz brass, the players, and even Head Coach Ty Corbin are grateful for this. We fans should too.

Le Roi est mort, vive le Roi!