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NBA Playoffs 2016: Toronto Raptors and Oklahoma City Thunder stunning so far, should Utah Jazz target some of their players in free agency? - The Downbeat #1918

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Who are some of the under-heralded players helping the underdog Toronto Raptors and Oklahoma City Thunder stand up to their opponents in the Conference Finals? Should the Utah Jazz target some of them in Free Agency? This and farewells to Raul Lopez and another goodbye to Jerry Sloan.

Call me "Teammate," maybe?
Call me "Teammate," maybe?
Jeff Swinger-USA TODAY Sports

Another hodge-podge mix of NBA Playoffs, NBA Free Agency, and NBA Draft News. A heartfelt look back at Jerry Sloan in a must-read article is the main attraction. But we also have to say our goodbyes to one of the more divisive basketball players in Utah Jazz history. The history lesson continues with a look at the best rookies in Jazz history -- which may help us temper our expectations a big going forward I hope. And speaking of hopes . . . a look at how the underdogs are doing in the playoffs and who should be our #1 free agency target. Because we love recency bias.

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The NBA Playoffs continue to be a thing -- though I am not watching every game. (Object Permanence!) That said, I am amused at how things are going. The Golden State Warriors got punched in the face early by the Oklahoma City Thunder, won Game 2, and then lost Game 3. The 73 win Dubs are half-way to being eliminated right now. There are four games remaining, and two games each at home and on the road for them. They need to win three more. The Thunder, led by Kevin Durant and Russell Westbrook, are two games away from going back to the NBA Finals. It's been a long road for them, and once again underscores how blessed Utah Jazz fans were to get back-to-back cracks at a ring.

Out East we have something crazy going on as well. The East leading Cleveland Cavaliers, and all of the star power that LeBron James brings, dropped both games up north against the Toronto Raptors. Winterfell doesn't fall so easily to Southern Lords. It's now a best of three series with each successive game giving more and more confidence to the #2 seed in the East. For T-Dot, it's an exciting time. The fans have never seen such a successful team before, and they now have won 10 games this post-season. For a point of direct comparison, that's one more game than the best ever season for that Deron Williams / Ronnie Brewer / Andrei Kirilenko / Carlos Boozer / Mehmet Okur core.

This round, like all rounds, has been rife with controversy though. Star calls. Non-calls. Even fans talking to players . . . these are boring. We are now in an era where we wonder if guys can be suspended for kicking other guys in the junk. This is a brave new world, basketball fans.

My two cents? The NBA did not hesitate to suspend Karl Malone, owner of two MVP awards, for games due to his physical style of play. But I guess Draymond Green is too big to suspend.

It's all very likely that the Golden State Warriors host the Cleveland Cavaliers in the NBA Finals. But at least for now there's some hope for the underdogs.

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Jazz news time? Okay. Jazz news time. This Jerry Sloan story was brought to our collective attention from Moni and Diana.

It is a heartfelt, honest, and true look back at our best-ever head coach. And unlike the previous Sloan beat in a recent downbeat, will not make you cry out of sadness. But cry manly tears of joy. Tony Abbott writes:

"I met Jerry nearly 20 years ago. I am not the starstruck kind of guy. In fact, I could not have cared less that Jerry was the head coach of the NBA's Utah Jazz. Anyone who knows me knows the outdoors is simply what I am. Hunting, fishing, camping or hiking are what I choose to fill my time with. If you like any of these, we are going to be friends. This is true whether you are an NBA Hall of Fame coach or you deliver my newspaper.

"NBA great Karl Malone and I shared a friendship that developed from our love for the outdoors. Because of this, he asked me to guide a Utah elk hunt he had purchased for Jerry and Brian Sloan. In order for Brian to hunt he needed to take a one-day class and shooting qualification course for his hunter's safety certification at the Lee Kay Center in Salt Lake City.

"Jerry, Brian and I met for the first time at the shooting center. Imagine my surprise when Jerry and Brian pulled up in a white Ford Econoline van. Certainly not the car I would imagine a Hall of Fame coach to be driving."

- Tony Abbott, Herald Extra, 2016

It's not just about hunting, or the first time they met. It's about how over all the years, the ups and downs, that there was this overwhelmingly genuine consistency of character to who Jerry was. Abbott also details the downs of the last few months, of learning about Sloan's illness, and how that has not yet stopped Jerry from being Jerry.

It is well worth the time to read it. Check it out here!

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In other teary eyed news, another member of our Jazz history is moving off the court and into the history books. Raul Lopez (2001 NBA Draft, #24 - Utah Jazz) has called it a career. He is but a brief footnote to most casual fans, or a piece of 20/20 is Hindsight trivia for others -- referencing how he was selected before Tony Parker. Lopez, when looked at in the vacuum of just the Jazz was not historically significant.

He was selected back when many fans did not know about him; in fact, outside of actually seeing him in person he was really a mystery to even other NBA Scouts. The Spanish point guard had boy-band looks and a game built upon his impressive handle, speed, and playmaking. But he was involved in a lengthy buy-out situation where he wouldn't even get to the States years after he was drafted. And he was drafted to be mentored under John Stockton, but suffered from an acute knee injury that kept him out a year.

When he did finally make it on the court for the 2003-2004 season John had retired.

Lopez would play in all 82 games for Jerry Sloan as a rookie -- on a team that would go 42-40. (Two more wins than our 2015-2016 team, by the way.) He would play 19.7 mpg and average 7.0 ppg, 3.7 apg, 1.9 rpg, and 0.8 spg while shooting 86.3% from the free throw line and boasting a 1.8 to 1.0 assist to turn over ratio. A good start, but nothing ground breaking for the 23 year old.

The following season he would suffer the second serious acute injury of his career (on a body part that had nothing to do with his first injury, btw), and he would play in only 31 games. It is sad for many reasons, as a selfish Jazzfan partly because he had upped his assist to turn over ratio to 2.6 to 1.0, and was shooting 44.4% from downtown as he continued to improve. It should be noticed that each time he did get hurt he worked his butt on to get back on the court.

And that's where it really ended. He was traded in the off-season -- extremely damaged goods -- to the Memphis Grizzlies to be reunited with his boy Pau Gasol. He would peace out to return to the Spanish top league ACB shortly after. For NBA-centric fans that's the end of the story. Euro draft and stash who was picked before Tony Parker, and ended up flaming out with injuries. One of which he sustained in the summer playing for Spain before he was even with the Jazz.

But that's not where the story ends for Lopez. He would play for another 11 years at the professional level in Europe. Nationally he is an icon, and was even before going to the Jazz. He was on the cover of the, then, awesome NBA Live series of games by EA sports.

How many other Jazz players have been video game cover athletes? Zero. He has represented Spain his entire life, winning Golds back in the FIBA Under-18 and FIBA Under-19 tournaments before making their Olympic squad for the first time in 2000. He would go on to play for them in the Olympics all the way up to 2008. Not a lot of athletes are at the top of their game for over a decade to see three Olympics. Lopez was.

He just wasn't for the brief period in time that he was with the (then) "Win now" Jazz -- who were somehow in "win now" mode after just entering a post- Stockton and Malone era. (Great strategy!)

Many North American fans can only judge him on what they saw of him. Similarly, European fans, and reporters, and announcers, and players can do the same. His last game was a celebration of his career where his entire team wore ceremonial shooting shirts over their uniform that just had a "u" on it for Raul. While it was not quite the show that Kobe Bryant got, his video tribute included Pau Gasol, Marc Gasol, Juan Carlos Navarro, and many others who played with him.

All in all, he played for 18 seasons, starting off as a teen, and finishing it up in his 30s.

Andrei Kirilenko, him, and Sasha Pavlovic could have been a fun team to watch for a minute . . .

While his time was short with the Jazz, he will remain one of my fav point guards in team history. I'm obviously a big fan. All of these pictures came from my hard drive. I wish Lopez all the best with what he does next. I really wish things had gone better for you in a Jazz uniform. But I am happy to know that you had a very long and successful career, and showed us all. After injuries and surgeries took away your natural speed, your smarts helped you stay in the game for over a decade after so many wrote you off.

Once a Jazzman. Always a Jazzman. (Copyright: YuccaMan, 2006)

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The NBA Draft is coming up. And we love lists. But let's look at team history first!

Do you know who they picked for the Utah Jazz? There are a few good candidates for sure. Darrell Griffith won Rookie of the Year. Deron Williams almost took the Jazz to the playoffs as a rookie. Andrei Kirilenko was all over the court -- even Jerry Sloan couldn't keep his mayhem and defensive havoc off of the court.

DB 1918 - Hoops Hype Best Team Rookie Utah Jazz Karl Malone

(Via HoopsHype)

Well . . . the sensible thing was to go with Karl Malone. The Mailman delivered as a rookie and averaged some very nice numbers. But if you wanted to check out EVERY rookie season in Jazz history . . . here ya go. Some highlights from that Bball-ref list:

  • Rich Kelley (1976, 75, 17.9 mpg): 7.0 ppg, 7.0 rpg, 2.1 apg, 0.7 spg, 0.8 bpg
  • Darrell Griffith (1981, 81 games, 35.4 mpg): 20.6 ppg, 3.6 rpg, 2.4 apg, 1.3 spg, 0.5 bpg
  • Mark Eaton (1983, 81, 18.9 mpg): 4.3 ppg, 5.7 rpg, 1.4 apg, 0.3 spg, 3.4 bpg
  • Thurl Bailey (1984, 81, 24.8 mpg): 8.5 ppg, 5.7 rpg, 1.6 apg, 0.5 spg. 1.5 bpg
  • John Stockton (1985, 82, 18.2 mpg): 5.6 ppg, 1.3 rpg, 5.1 apg, 1.3 spg, 0.1 bpg
  • Karl Malone (1986, 81, 30.6 mpg): 14.9 ppg, 8.9 rpg, 2.9 apg, 1.3 spg, 0.5 bpg
  • Andrei Kirilenko (2002, 82, 26.2 mpg): 10.7 ppg, 4.9 rpg, 1.1 apg, 1.4 spg, 1.9 bpg
  • Raul Lopez (2004, 82, 19.7 mpg): 7.0 ppg, 1.9 rpg, 3.7 apg, 0.8 spg, 0.0 bpg
  • Deron Williams (2006, 80, 28.8 mpg): 10.8 ppg, 2.4 rpg, 4.5 apg, 0.8 spg, 0.2 bpg
  • Wesley Matthews (2010, 82, 24.7 mpg): 9.4 ppg, 2.3 rpg, 1.5 apg, 0.8 spg, 0.2 bpg
  • Trey Burke (2014, 70, 32.3 mpg): 12.8 ppg, 3.0 rpg, 5.7 apg, 0.6 spg, 0.1 bpg
  • and . . . Dante Exum (2015, 82, 22.2 mpg): 4.8 ppg, 1.6 rpg, 2.4 apg, 0.5 spg, 0.2 bpg

Who was the best Jazz rookie? Was it someone on this list? Did I forget any good rookie years? Actually, who was the most disappointing Jazz rookie? That's probably a crazier question.

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I'm in love with Bismack Biyombo. Actually, I've been in love with his name for much longer than I've loved his game or his play. But that much was obvious. But this dude is legit. I was writing about him before Game 3 of the series against the Cavs, but I didn't get a chance to publish that piece before he blew up for 26 rebounds. It's guys like Bismack that helped form a frame of reference for what OTHER teams are getting out of their 3rd big in their roster rotation -- which is why I never fully drank the Trevor Booker kool-aid. If you compare their careers (and Tibor Pleiss and Jeff Withey) there are some things that pop out. Just looking at last season Book played 20.7 mpg, and averaged 5.9 ppg, 5.7 rpg, 1.1 apg, 0.7 spg, and 0.5 bpg. Biz played 22.0 mpg and averaged 5.5 ppg, 8.0 rpg, 0.4 apg, 0.2 spg, but 1.6 bpg. One guy shot 55% from the field and the other shot 49%. Both are awful from the line. One is going to be 29 next season. The other will be 24.

Booker is not going to come for less than $8 million as his initial asking price. I'd rather pay Bismack what Booker wants, and the extra $3 million more per season that it will cost to get the deal done. That's what I'd rather to. The Jazz will probably just pay Booker though because why try ever to get a good free agent?

Of course, it's going to be hard to get 'Mack out of T-Dot. They have a cap space issue this summer because they also have to think long and hard about keeping DeMar DeRozan -- so that may make us think Biz is available. But he is very, very tight with the GM of the Raps, Nigerian former bball player Masai Ujiri. (Heck, before playing in Europe for six years, Masai went through the NCAAs, even playing for Bismarck St. at one point.) African guys are loyal to one another. Which is why we get this awesome story . . .

Biyombo does the finger way after big defensive plays, but first had to seek the permission to do so from his countryman Dikembe Mutombo. Who after his play this year has been very supportive.

(You just read that in Dikembe's voice)

(You just tried to say it out loud in Dikembe's voice. It's cool. I tried too.)

I am particularly fond of this series of events from the previous series against the Miami Heat.

  1. He's looking to set screens for guys all the time at the top of the arc
  2. He plows a defender away to create more space for a guy he set screens for
  3. He boxes out the defense -- when he's on offense, allowing for a chance at an offensive rebound
  4. He understood who to box out (Luol Deng not Dwyane Wade)
  5. The undersized center uses his length and athleticism to finish the play (
  6. He shows emotion after it
  7. He picks up the offensive player who penetrates (help defense, defensive IQ)
  8. Despite having the speed disadvantage, he uses his length to challenge the shot at the rim without fouling with the body (9'3.42" standing reach, while being only 6'9" in height. The 7'2 Kyrylo Fesenko had one of 9'4". The 7'1 Shaquille O'Neal had a standing reach of 9'5")
  9. He blocks Wade
  10. He stands over Wade and looks at his fallen form, out of bounds on his back like a helpless turtle
  11. He does the finger wag
  12. He then beats Wade back down the court, creates a 5 on 4 situation, and moves in the right transition line to maintain space
  13. Biyombo calls for the ball.
  14. He catches the ball. (Not always a given for bigs)
  15. He then finishes above the rim with two hands.
  16. He then plays to the crowd

We mention that it will be hard to replace Booker's energy and "nasty". Biyombo can do that, while being younger, larger, and has more upside as a defensive player you can keep on the court. (Booker, objectively, is not a good man or help defender. He does get steals and blocks though.) Biyombo is never going to hit a three. But as a back-up who is good enough to start on occasion this is a talent upgrade for sure.

It's a pipe dream, though. It will be hard to get him out of Toronto. And it may be a contract that's worth more than 10% of the salary cap to do it. (I wouldn't want to spend more than 10% on a back-up big.) But if I was running things this off-season I'd say goodbye to Booker (7% of the salary cap last year), try to trade Tibor and his contract (4% of the cap last year, and he gets a raise this year) at the draft, and depending on that I may have to say goodbye to Withey if I cannot get rid of Tibor.

A bigman rotation that starts with: Derrick Favors (Two-way paint player), Rudy Gobert (Defensive monster), Bismack Biyombo (Explosive player), and Trey Lyles (Offensive floor spacer) is a very good rotation. However, let's never forget that the Jazz will never try to get someone who is playing well and can help the team in free agency. History proves that point. Bismack will have many other suitors who will either pay him more than the Jazz would offer, or offer him a starting spot -- or both. Over the last three seasons he has started only 52 of 223 regular season games (22%), but perhaps this playoffs has changed that for him going forward? (He has started 8 of 18 so far, thankfully to a Jonas Valanciunas injury.)

I do hold fast to the idea that he would be great here. After all, it's not about what the Jazz can do for Biyombo. It's about what Biyombo can do for the Jazz. When asked if he or his Toronto Raptors were afraid of facing LeBron James in the East Finals the son of the Democratic Republic of Congo was quick to point out that "No I'm not and I will never be. I'm never afraid of human beings . . . I'm afraid of Lions."

For a team that has oodles of quiet leadership that will allow other players to penetrate their bodies with their fingers during the course of a game, this type of fearlessness and savagery would be a sight for sore eyes.

Prove me wrong, Jazz. Offer him a contract.