I'm a huge fan of the Lord of the Rings movies. As a true geek, I love the extras—the detailed features that show exactly how the movie was made: step-by-step, from pre-production to post-produciton. One particular story has always fascinated me: the CGI development of the giant mumakil collision:
Isn't it amazing how all the little decisions, all the little bits of work over months ended up with a magnificently rendered scene that missed the point of the shot so badly Peter Jackson could only say "huh." The vision of the shot was forgotten, and months of work led them further away, one tiny baby step at a time.
Of course, I'm not really writing about Weta Digital, nor about Return of the King.
I'm writing about the Jazz and their maddening ability to ignore the vision.
More after the jump.
I've always been stunned at how quickly and easily Gregg Popovich sometimes decides to give up. Down by 11, with 10 minutes left? Popovich is always happy to bench the main guys, wave the white towel, and starting thinking about tomorrow. Nobody is willing to concede defeat with less fight.
The irony is that since the Spurs got Duncan 15 years ago, no team has won more games. 801 wins. A .704 winning percentage. That is, in 15 full 82-game seasons, an average of 57 wins per year.
It's a ridiculous run. For some perspective, think of this: for all the Jazz success, they've pulled off that kind of winning four times. San Antonio has averaged that many wins over 15 straight seasons. Wow.
So much success for a team so willing to concede defeat more quickly than any other team in the league.
It's about the vision
A common explanation I've heard for the Popovich's early white flags is that they don't care about regular season success. They want their team ready for the playoffs.
You don't average 57 regular season wins over 15 years if you don't care about regular season wins.
I believe the answer lay in the team's vision: sustained, elite play over entire seasons and entire playoffs. And nothing—not even the quest to win an individual game—nothing trumps that vision. If keeping the players fresh over the entire season and playoffs costs a loss here and there, so be it. In the long run they'll actually win more. There has never been a single game more important than the team's larger vision. And that larger vision, of course, helped them to win a ridiculous number of games and four championships.
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I hope the Jazz have a similar vision: to build an elite team that can truly contend for a championship for years.
Most of the time I believe they do have that vision. But I also often wonder if they forget it. If they get so caught up in winning tonight's game, in maybe making the playoffs this year pushes the vision out of mind—just like those Weta wizards let the day-to-day work, the quest to mesh live-action with CGI let them forget the true vision of the mumakil collision shot.
The Truth about our Jazz
They are not an elite team right now. I know it. You know it. Everybody knows it.
And it's okay. Nobody can have an elite team forever. The system guarantees this. Not even the Lakers can pull it off. Not even close. The point, when your team is mediocre or worse, is to make good roster moves to get back to elite level. And I think fans are okay with that. As long as we see hope for the future, we can deal with struggling today.
But here's the real point: if the Jazz are going to return to elite level, it will be in the future. And who does the team have in its future? Well, look:
That's our future. Four guys: Favors, Kanter, Hayward, Burks.
Let's look very honestly at the rest of our current roster.
- Raja, Howard, Tinsley, and Devin will be gone. You can bank that.
- I'd say CJ will probably be gone after this year. Earl and Evans are slightly more likely to be brought back, but it's also easy to see them let go. Who knows about DeMarre.
- There's no way both Millsap and Al will be here. I can see a future with one of them (I think Sap makes a lot more sense), but it's more likely they both get offers that overpay, and that will be that.
Anyway, we're left with those same four guys. And a whole lot of both questions and spots to fill. If the Jazz are serious about trying to build an elite team, if they are going to keep that vision in mind, then there are some major things that have to happen NOW for it to work—unless they want to rely on fate, God, or damn-fool blind luck.
And what has to happen? Not making the playoffs. That's a distraction. And not trying to win every game. That's a distraction too. And do you know what? Tanking to get a high draft pick would also be a distraction. These are like focusing on rendering the mumakil's tail so much that you forget that the tail isn't the focus of the shot.
That's what this season ought to be about. Assessment. Effective teaching cannot happen until after the initial assessment of the students' abilities. Effective treatment cannot happen until after the doctor makes the correct diagnosis. Effective business plans for struggling companies cannot be laid out until after the new CEO figures out what is going well and what isn't.
And an elite roster cannot be formed until after we understand what we have in Hayward, Favors, Kanter, and Burks. And not only what we have in them, but how they fit together, how they work together, and what pieces are missing. There are certain questions for which the team needs answers. And if they make roster decisions, playing time decisions, lineup decisions, game-plan decisions, or any other decisions based on anything else—whether that be a playoff push, winning tomorrow's game, or any other goal—then they are forgetting the real vision: to create an elite team.
1. Will a Hayward/Burks backcourt work?
I can't think of any question more important than this. When you look at what's available in this year's draft (lots of good C's, PF's, and SF's, but precious few great PG prospects), when you think about how much the Jazz would have to give up to get a good PG via trade—assets that may bring in a lot more if they can go after other types of players—doesn't this question suddenly become ridiculously important? And isn't it maddening that there's been almost no PT devoted to figuring it out?
I love Hayward's playmaking skills as much as anyone, but let's be honest: he's not going to give out 10 assists per game. And we all know that Burks is a scorer with snazzy passing skills—not a distributor with a nice shot. But together, can they initiate the offense enough, facilitate the post scorers enough, and play off the ball enough for the offense to work? Honestly, the team needs to know.
2. Will either Millsap or Al work as the third big with Favors and Kanter?
This season's minutes distribution among our four post players simply can't continue forever. Favors is too good for 17 minutes right now. Kanter will probably also reach that point by next season (if he's not there already). Is Millsap willing to come off the bench and beast for 24-28 minutes per game? Can Al function if he's not the primary post scorer but focuses on cuts and the like? And can Ty bench them and limit their minutes as soon as Favors and Kanter deserve them?
If so, great. I would especially love to keep Millsap as the 6th man. But if not ... well there are a lot of good C/PF's in the draft, and there are a lot of good PF's in the league right now. Whether you're looking draft or trade, this is one of the easier questions to address if neither Sap nor Al are the answer for the third post guy. As long as we find out right now and trade/draft when the opportunities are best.
3. How much scoring can the four kids provide?
Are any of these four capable of being a primary offensive weapon? Or are we looking at four guys who could be the secondary option (Hornacek role), or even just third-tier scorers? Or do we have a one or two guys that can be a go-to scorer?
This answer determines so much of what to do with this year's draft (I think it's probable they end up with two low lottery picks). They can go after a great defender with some scoring skills (Kidd-Gilchrist). Or a good scorer/shooter with defensive skills (Harrison Barnes). Or will later picks fill in what the team needs? With two lottery picks and decent trade chips (Sap/Al) in a deep draft there will be a lot of options. They need to understand the kids' scoring skills to know what the team most needs.
4. What can Jeremy Evans do?
Can he give us more than dunks? Can he give us a good 10 minutes off the bench? Or maybe even 15-20? I have foggy memory of a 10-foot baseline jumper—what happened to that? Can it come back? Can he defensively handle backup PF's for 10 minutes a game?
We have him. We have power over whether he returns or not. He'll be cheap. He could be the perfect role player for a financially conscious front office. What a great opportunity to get a decent role player if the answers turn out right. And what common sense to first look at what the team has before deciding what to pick up elsewhere.
5. Where will team leadership come from?
Who has the personality and presence to rally the team, to call out slacking off, to be the example?
Right now it's Raja and Earl. But the best teams have leadership from its best players. Who will the leader be?
6. How well can these guys work together?
Will Kanter and Favors be able to pass to each other in the post? Can they play off Hayward and Burks driving to the basket? Can Hayward and Burks get them the ball in ways that maximize their scoring effectiveness? Do any of their skills overlap and cause redundancy, or do they mesh and blend perfectly? What kind of balance do they need to play most effectively?
The answer to this question will show the team how and when to pull off a Jeff Green for Kendrick Perkins kind of trade (if it's needed).
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There are probably some more questions you can think of. I would have added something about defense had I written this at the start of the year, but I think these guys have all answered that: they can all play strong individual and team defense.
But regardless, this is where the team is at right now. Assessment. Understanding what they have and how to best move forward. If they keep in mind the real vision—putting together an elite team—then answering these questions are the most important things the team can do this season. More important than making the playoffs. More important than landing a high lottery pick.
It's easy to get sidetracked, of course. Every game seems so important. And if the vision is wrong, if it's caught up in the details of today—then of course let's dump the ball to Al 30 times a game. It's safe. We know what we're going to get. And for all the kids' talent, ability, and potential—there's a reason I asked questions. We don't really know what they'll be able to give us yet. We can guess, we can surmise, we can postulate—and we can find evidence for our worst fears and best hopes. But we will never know until the team dedicates itself to finding out the answers.
I believe it will be okay if questions 5 and 6 remain unanswered for a while. OKC went through five seasons of Jeff Green before making a decision. Sometimes those kind of things take time to understand.
But if the Jazz can't answer the first four, then I believe the seasons has been wasted. That's true whether they make the playoffs or win the lottery. The defense question has, thankfully, been answered. But I don't know if the team is any closer to questions 1-4 than it was at the beginning of the year.
And that frustrates me. I envision and hope for an elite team contending for a championship for multiple years. What does the Jazz front office envision?
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I really don't understand the fear that the team will be crummy if they turn things over to the kids. First, it's not like the team's awesome right now anyway. Second, if the kids are a crummy team, then we NEED the kind of talent found via a high lottery pick. And what a great year for it—a deep draft with a decent to shot of finding major difference-makers whether you win the lottery or not. Or maybe a sweet trade with a team that wants a bunch of picks in a deep draft. There are a lot of options if the Jazz play their cards right.
But if the kids lead the team to the playoffs—then great. They're good enough. The team can make the kind of roster moves necessary without the high picks.
There's another reason for giving the kids big roles. The more they play, the more likely Boler, Coach Ty, and the whole crew will actually pronounce their names correctly. Has there ever been an elite team whose coach and play-by-play guy can't do this?
I wanted to write somewhere what I think the kids can produce. I think we could see this as soon as next season if the Jazz let them play and take big roles now.
Favors and Kanter combining for 30-35 points and 20-25 rebounds per game. Both shooting over 50%, both chipping in about 1 assist per game. 3-5 blocks per game. Plus the same good defense we've seen from them already.
Hayward and Burks combining for 30-35 points and 8-12 assists per game. Both 45%+ from the field, 35%+ from three. 6-8 rebounds combined and 2-4 steals combined (and a block per game from Hayward).. Plus the same good defense we've seen from them already.
Am I crazy for thinking this is their potential?