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Utah Jazz: Building a winner, and the positive progress we see

Steve Mitchell-USA TODAY Sports

It's high time we look at the baby steps we're making as a franchise from year to year, and recognize -- okay, so we're not turning things around in the blink of an eye, but we are making progress. Or at least, I think we are making progress. I'm also going to admit that I would be making different personnel moves than the Utah Jazz have been making; but I'm also not in a position to really criticize. It's not like I'm the GM of another NBA team, a team doing better than the Jazz. I'm not a GM of any team. I've never played in the NBA. It's absolutely impossible for me to ever know anything about anything, when it pertains to something I've only watched for over 25 years of my life. (For the record, I've watched a lot of Bollywood movies too during that time frame, and I'm not a great singer or dancer either) But this isn't about the ego orgasm that Spencer talked about. This is about actually seeing that good things are happening.

And good things are happening.

Of course, I like information. And good things happening is nice by itself. But we need to gauge it against something else. What we have at our disposal right now happens to be a lot of evidence of things, good and bad, against time. So let's try to break things down by time frame and see what things are happening. For me, the smartest thing to do was to look at every year since the last time we made the NBA Finals. That 1997-1998 Finals is year zero for us, and every five years after that was a five year plan segment in time. The team may not have reached all of their goals during that period of time, but some goals were met.

And even through all the failures, for the most part the team has learned a little more about who they are, and what they are trying to do.

Good things do happen. But they happen more frequently when you have a plan and a direction. This is the big question mark for a lot of fans right now. We don't know if there is a plan, and if there is a direction. I think it's only fair to admit that these are legitimate concerns because our team is in a state of flux right now and our front office keeps things close to their chest. This isn't chicken little speaking here, this is me looking beyond the ideas of one season in a vacuum.

We fans always kind of knew what the team we root for was trying to do over the last 15 seasons. The next 5 look murky. But before we get there, let's look at how we've built a winner here, and the positive progress we've seen.


(Just probably better to click on that to zoom in)

  • Grey Zone (1998-2003): This was the Stockton and Malone swan song. We were contenders, especially those first three seasons after the finals where we were (by W/L) a Top 5 team in the league overall. We knew what our franchise was trying to do -- win the ring. And the team kept bringing in vets to plug in holes in order to get over the hump. The Jazz had trouble in the playoffs against the Portland Trail Blazers, Sacramento Kings, and Dallas Mavericks during this period. And it sucked. Jeff Hornacek retired first, and we never went out there and had our front office bring in enough shooters to space the floor and adapt to the changing game. Bryon Russell was a very solid shooter, and the front office did bring in John Starks -- but neither were the type of shooter Hornacek was. During this period we were winning, but our core had aged and lost a step. Andrei Kirilenko was drafted, stayed in Europe, and came over and played 2151 minutes as a rookie during WIN NOW times. The poop hit the fan when Mark Jackson joined the team, and that was it. The end.
  • Blue Zone (2003-2008): Our team pretty much had to rebuild because our three best players from the previous 5 years all retired. Andrei was a huge part of this period, and while our coaches' hand was forced (no vets), our team went out there and tried to win as many games as possible. Today Jazz fans would call this tanking because we played young guys. (I still don't think having to rely on youth = tanking) That 2004 off-season the owner, Larry H. Miller, signed a lot of money away to Andrei Kirilenko (RFA), Carlos Boozer (RFA), Mehmet Okur (RFA), Carlos Arroyo (UFA), and Gordan Giricek (UFA). He put his money where his mouth is -- but crazy injuries gave the Jazz their worst ever season DIRECTLY AFTER having the front office spend the most money ever in one off-season. Of course, the silver lining is that the 26 win team, while still trying to win every possible game, had the benefit of tanking. If AK and Booz are healthy and we didn't play them, and won 26 games it's tanking. If our two best players are hurt, and we lose a lot, it's not. We got the benefit of tanking. Which is great, because we used the results of that season to move up in the draft to get Deron Williams. Which is awesome. Why? Because a healthy AK and Booz lead a core of good guys without a star, and the Blue Zone is a very mediocre zone where we'd probably struggle to be the 7th or 8th seed every year in the west. I have no doubt in my mind that we would have been super mediocre without D-Will. And thank God we got the tanking benefit the year AFTER we signed all these hot free agents. The end result is that we got better, so fast. We went from winning 26 games to being in the Western Conference Finals in the span of 2 off seasons. That would have been impossible if we didn't get D-Will. The Fans knew that we had reloaded, and we were in a win now mode as soon as possible. And in this blue zone we won a lot of games, but looking back perhaps we flew too high too soon? We couldn't get past the Los Angeles Lakers, which would carry over to the purple zone.
  • Purple Zone (2008-2013): Right now we're in the last year of that purple zone, and I plan on revisiting this zone in much greater detail after the season is up. It may look crappy, but I think we did a lot of things right from 2008-2009 till today. Some things just didn't work out the way they likely would have. Our core played very hard but the particular guys we had were not capable of adapting to facing the Championship level Lakers three years in a row (last year of blue zone, first two of purple zone). If the Jazz won more regular season games we may have been able to avoid them at the rounds we faced them at. That said, the teams we had in this era to start with were great. Deron Williams, Carlos Boozer, Andrei Kirilenko, Mehmet Okur, Paul Millsap, Kyle Korver, Ronnie Brewer, Matt Harpring, this is a very good core. It's not perfect. They played near perfect at home. But the road was a huge problem even when we were so good on paper. Our starting bigs were too short, and not rim protectors. We couldn't handle LA's length. Our main bigmen scorers were jump shooters (btw, how do Al Jefferson and Paul Millsap score a lot this season?), and our main advantage against LA couldn't do it alone. The purple zone also saw the end of Jerry Sloan as a head coach, and trading away an All-NBA player. The last three years, the end of this purple zone, has been the troubling part. Right now fans don't know what the direction is. We don't see the plan the front office has. We've been in sustained win mode right now -- effectively what we'd have been if Andrei and Carlos were healthy in 2004. We still need a star if we're ever going to elevate our team from this zone. Probably going from a lotto team to the West finals in 2 seasons isn't going to happen again. Maybe this time around we need a slower rebuild and more patience from both the fans and the front office?
  • Green Zone (2013-2018): I can only wonder what our 5 year plan is going to be. I know I'd feature our C4 prominently during this period (Derrick Favors, Gordon Hayward, Enes Kanter, and Alec Burks) -- but I would have done that LAST season. We won 5 total playoff games during the Purple zone. That's not a mistake. That's how great we did in the playoffs during the last 5 year plan. I hope to add at least one more win this year, as the purple zone isn't finished just yet. But the green zone needs more patience, and a long term plan to get better in a way that's sustainable. And to get better in a way where we get to the playoffs not because of tricks, but fundamentals. (Ha ha! You can never defeat our game plan where our SGs dunk and score inside, and our PF and C shoot from the outside! Oh, what? You have bigs who can score and get to the line inside? What manner of devilry is this?)

Let's look at some of the positive progress, the part of what I see our team doing year from year in the purple zone that makes me feel confident that while the plan may be unknown, that at least we're TRYING to build a sustained winner.

  • We needed better outside shooting, so we traded for Kyle Korver. We didn't KEEP him, and that hurt. We spent last season being as bad as ever at it, but now we know even MORE what we needed and dedicated last offseason to fixing that. I don't think our team is going to go forward without recognizing how valuable outside shooting is. This is the problem we had in the grey zone. It's something that continued to be a problem in the blue zone. But in the purple zone we did manage to get it right twice. And my post months ago on the relationship between outside shooting and playoff success did point out that while there may not be a causation here, but a correlation for sure. Our green zone is going to have guys who can hit the three. You can count on it.
  • During the purple zone we stopped being a great rebounding team. And facing the length of the Lakers three seasons in a row showed us that size matters. We traded for Derrick Favors, and drafted Enes Kanter. Very few teams can boast that combination of size, talent, ability, and potential at such a young age. While they're still not ready for prime-time (according to some), they play a fearless, physical style. Precisely the style our bigs during the purple period did not -- the style that was exposed in the playoffs against the Lakers.
  • How many times during the purple period do you remember us initiating the offense from a wingplayer? Most of the successful teams in the NBA are able to do that, from Kobe Bryant, LeBron James, to even Hedo Turkoglu when he was playing point forward for the Orlando Magic. We can do that now, and do do exactly that, with Gordon Hayward and Alec Burks. Of course, both guys are capable of playing off the ball as well and do. We have a multi-pronged attack that we didn't have before. This is something our front office and coaching staff worked on, and it's very understated. With Mo / Burks / Hayward, or Burks / Foye / Hayward, or Tinsley / Burks / Hayward we've seen different guys attacking on different plays, and even having guys have different roles DURING the same play. This is huge.
  • After Greg Ostertag called it a career our shot blocking was something only Andrei Kirilenko was assigned to do. We did get a few guys who could change shots like Kyrylo Fesenko and Kosta Koufos -- but they couldn't get on the floor. Right now we're swat lake city with Al Jefferson, Paul Millsap, and company. Shot blocking/changing was a problem in the purple period against the Lakers in the playoffs. It's not going to be a problem anymore with Favors and Hayward handling things. Kanter and Burks also get up there. And let's not forget all the key blocks we've gotten DURING the latter part of the purple zone with Big Al. He's been a big part of that, and a huge upgrade in terms of shot blocking over Carlos Boozer (who didn't do any of that). That's another positive step. There is progress being made here.
  • The biggest 'progress' we see is that we are building very slowly. And we're building a winner. During the blue period we went from 26 wins to the Western Conf Finals in 2 off-seasons. We couldn't sustain that growth despite having a very talented team from 2006-2010 (ecotone between blue and purple zones). Of course, what we see next year -- our first year of the green period -- could be anything like building to mediocrity or the beneficial period of the tank without the tank. Next year, 2013-2014 could be a replay of 2011-2012 (which we're doing right now), or it could be a remix of 2004-2005. Time will tell.

Not everything the team has done has been a failure. The team is growing slowly, but I see progress being made year from year. We've adjusted our expectations of what this team is, and what challenges face us. We're not a contender right now, and the decision to try to win now at the expense of development is confusing to some of us fans. We don't know what the plan is, and we can only speculate on how the next 5 years goes. Each of the previous 5 years were more clearly defined. The uncertainty has made this year so crazy for us fans. But I do see progress being made. Specific problems are observed, and attempts to fix them are made. Sometimes it doesn't work, like signing John Starks as a Hornacek replacement. Sometimes it looks like it will work, like getting Favors and Kanter to make us bigger, stronger inside, get more rebounds, and block more shots.

The main challenges we have now are point guard play; defense; getting to the line; and pace of play. A few seasons ago we had simple things like getting rebounds, or making a shot outside of 15 feet on that list. Those things were problems of previous seasons that our front office, coaches, and players have eliminated. I am positive that our team, especially with Dennis Lindsey (if he's not just a puppet) at the helm, will continue to make good progress on the other problems.

Slowly and slowly we're building our way back up the mountain. It's not a quick fix like signing five guys to big contracts in the off-season, then getting a lotto pick All-NBA player in the next draft. This looks more like a slower, more meticulous build. We're not a contender right now. But I can expect us to continue making moves towards being exactly that.