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NBA Playoff History: Revisiting John Stockton, Karl Malone, and an unsettling Utah Jazz hypothesis

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Sometimes execs coast for a while when things are easy . . . and for the Jazz, getting better was real easy after the 1984 and 1985 NBA drafts

Chris Nicoll-USA TODAY Sports

I am encouraged by all of the younger fans (to me) who are coming into their primes right now in their Utah Jazz fandom. I remember how crazy I used to be back in the day, and I also remember how feverish I was for anything I could get my hands on that even mentioned "my" Jazz. So that motivates me to investigate more, write more, and ultimately produce more content. The positive emails I get tell me that people want to learn more about the Jazz from before they were big Jazz fans. There are lots of starting points, but I think now that hindsight is 20/20 we can talk about some of the more taboo subjects. This is something that I've talked about privately with some other fans my age, but I don't think a lot of younger Jazz fans have even thought about this. So that's why I'm bringing up this unsettling hypothesis up.

The Utah Jazz did not surround John Stockton and Karl Malone with the type of talent needed for them to be contenders, early on in their careers.

That's a charged statement, and I even know from personal conversations with Jazz front office people that they will deny it to the end of time. Of course, it's easy to say they were trying their best. Even Karl Malone was very public with pointing out that talk was, indeed, cheap because while his front office just made excuses, other teams were leapfrogging the Jazz. And I can understand his frustration -- you're a young guy. You're and All-Star. You want to win as much as possible, because in that era the players wanted to win. It wasn't about playing in a big market, or playing with your best friends, or making a lot of money. Back in the 80s when the salary cap was so small the "thing" about the NBA was about winning.

And if Karl Malone loudly suggests that the Jazz weren't always about winning then it's something to investigate.

Scott Layden was an amazing evaluator of talent and got John at #16 in 1984, and then Karl at #13 in 1985. Very rarely do you find two Hall of Famers in the middle of the 1st round, in back-to-back drafts for your dad, the GM of the team and head coach, Frank Layden. It's not just pure luck, but it's something that changed the Jazz franchise forever. (I can imagine that if Utah never got Karl I never would have been a Jazz fan. Also, the Jazz may never have gotten good with how slowly they seemed to surround their HOF talent with capable players.)

Over the course of their careers John and Karl would play 18 seasons together, and finish with a 925-519 regular season record. They would also go 85-87 in the NBA Playoffs, with a pretty okay 16-18 in series wins/losses. Their playoff record is without a title, and that would have probably pushed them to .500 there; however, their regular season record is for a team that wins 64% of their games every year. That translates to a 52.53 win team over an 82 game schedule.

They were great.

The team wasn't great until a whole decade after they were already in the league.

Season Regular Season Playoffs Series Beat: Lost:
1 1985 1986 42 - 40 51.2% 1 - 3 25.0% 0 - 1 0.0% -- DAL
2 1986 1987 44 - 38 53.7% 2 - 3 40.0% 0 - 1 0.0% -- GSW
3 1987 1988 47 - 35 57.3% 6 - 5 54.5% 1 - 1 50.0% POR LAL
4 1988 1989 51 - 31 62.2% 0 - 3 0.0% 0 - 1 0.0% -- GSW
5 1989 1990 55 - 27 67.1% 2 - 3 40.0% 0 - 1 0.0% -- PHX
6 1990 1991 54 - 28 65.9% 4 - 5 44.4% 1 - 1 50.0% PHX POR
7 1991 1992 55 - 27 67.1% 9 - 7 56.3% 2 - 1 66.7% LAC, SEA POR
8 1992 1993 47 - 35 57.3% 2 - 3 40.0% 0 - 1 0.0% -- SEA
9 1993 1994 53 - 29 64.6% 8 - 8 50.0% 2 - 1 66.7% SAS, DEN HOU
10 1994 1995 60 - 22 73.2% 2 - 3 40.0% 0 - 1 0.0% -- HOU
11 1995 1996 55 - 27 67.1% 10 - 8 55.6% 2 - 1 66.7% POR, SAS SEA
12 1996 1997 64 - 18 78.0% 13 - 7 65.0% 3 - 1 75.0% LAC, LAL, HOU CHI
13 1997 1998 62 - 20 75.6% 13 - 7 65.0% 3 - 1 75.0% HOU, SAS, LAL CHI
14 1998 1999 37 - 13 74.0% 5 - 6 45.5% 1 - 1 50.0% SAC POR
15 1999 2000 55 - 27 67.1% 4 - 6 40.0% 1 - 1 50.0% SEA POR
16 2000 2001 53 - 29 64.6% 2 - 3 40.0% 0 - 1 0.0% -- DAL
17 2001 2002 44 - 38 53.7% 1 - 3 25.0% 0 - 1 0.0% -- SAC
18 2002 2003 47 - 35 57.3% 1 - 4 20.0% 0 - 1 0.0% -- SAC
1985 2003 925 - 519 64.1% 85 - 87 49.4% 16 - 18 47.1%

And this is the crux of the argument. It's like the Jazz leaned on their good luck in the draft and the loyalty of their star players, and just watched as lesser teams went and become contenders while they stagnated. (HOU, PHX, and SEA went to Finals before UTA) And Utah did stagnate. John and Karl had four first round exits in their first five seasons in the league. And they advanced only six individual rounds in a decade. That's really not good enough if you were gifted two HOFers in the middle of the draft. Or, more practically, that's as good as just two HOFers can take you if you aren't serious about getting good guys to balance the roster.

It's no surprise to me that the Jazz moved from "okay, they made the West Finals somehow" to "they are a contender now" when they actually traded away a highly effective but limited player away from a more talented one who fits the team better -- this was the Jeff Hornacek trade in 1994. (They did lose Jeff Malone in the move, but he was like the Big Al Jefferson of shooting guards. He could score, but he wasn't doing much else. And he wasn't scoring in the way you want either. Big Al is a finesse paint bigman. Jeff was a shooting guard with an 18 foot max range.) (That's hyperbole.)

Utah did their best with Mark Eaton inside for as long as they could, but injuries, age, and all the miles on his legs made him less useful each successive year. He was already a one way player, and in the playoffs was abused by clever opposing coaches who would match up an outside shooting big against him (see what George Karl did with Sam Perkins against the Jazz in '93).

I'm not expecting the Jazz to make a block buster move, but even small moves to improve the quality of depth of the #4 to #10 guys on the team would have made that first decade of John and Karl easier on them. I threw my hat into the ring as a Jazz fan and they went and took the Showtime Lakers to the brink in the '88 Playoffs. The team didn't even make the same round until three playoffs later, and didn't surpass it until four. In-between were two first round exits.

Sure, the reasonable thing is just to accept that the Jazz were trying their best, but their best wasn't good enough. Sir, I am not reasonable. I am a fan. And I don't think that you're trying to surround your budding All-Stars and future HOFers with the best talent possible when guys like Carey Scurry and Bart Kofoed are coming off the bench to play big playoff minutes.

John and Karl powered the Jazz to a Western Conference Finals in 1992. But if you look at the teams the Jazz put out there before '92 you don't have to wonder why it took so long to get there.

1986 1991 Utah Jazz Playoff Rosters

The Top Four players were solid, even if the lesser two weren't also two-way star players. But the #5, #6, #7, #8, #9, #10 guys? There could have been improvements.

Eventually the Jazz started to actually build around John and Karl (and Jeff). But it took a very long time and they were at the top of the mountain at the very ends of their careers. From 1996 to 2000 the Jazz were the team no one wanted to face. I don't see if there is a legit reason why they couldn't have been that from 1990 to 2000, though.

The Jazz were patient and conservative, and did not go for the home run. I get that. They also watched a lot of pitches and went down without swinging early and often in John and Karl's career together. That's something today's stars will not accept. And the cap and the agents promote movement.

Thankfully, Dennis Lindsey isn't waiting around to improve the team. He may not be going for the home run just yet, but his bunts and stolen bases are adding up where the earlier GM's strike outs used to be. But more on that awful mixed metaphor in the next piece.