The day the Jazz died

10 Comments

It wasn’t supposed to end this way.

Just yesterday, it seemed there were only two possible outcomes to Deron Williams’ future.

Either he would do what LeBron James and Chris Bosh wouldn’t and re-sign with the only team he’s ever known. Or, amid season-long speculation, Williams would fail to assure its residents of his desire to remain in Salt Lake, and be driven from the Rocky Mountains by trade, a la Carmelo Anthony.

As a diehard Jazz fan (believe me, they exist), it would have been easy. Two options. Love or hate. Parades down State Street atop the finest Toyota Corollas Larry H. Miller Automotives could offer, or jersey burning and righteous anger the likes of which Mormons seem particularly capable of.

With the startling news of Williams’ trade to the New Jersey Nets, I, as with most Jazz fans, felt emotionally adrift, starring hopelessly at my mood ring for direction.

Why? Why would GM Kevin O’Connor insist on dumping the prom queen at the slightest chance that they might consider the same a few years from now? It made about as much sense as having a Utah team named after a style of music from America’s south.

Yet once the shock subsided, there came a much worse realization.

The Utah Jazz are no more.

The franchise that had been the very definition of stability and permanence now has the most uncertain future in the NBA.

Mark that calendar. February 23, 2011, the day the Jazz died.

The last serious wave of disorder came after the 2003-04 season. Hall of Fame duo John Stockton and Karl Malone had both decided to move on, one to retirement and the other to see if he could buy a championship in Los Angeles. And though the pair had been the collective face of the franchise for nearly two decades, the supposed upheaval proved to be little more than a hiccup as the Jazz went 42-40 with a starting lineup that included Carlos Arroyo, a 22-year-old DeShawn Stevenson and the ever-menacing Greg Ostertag.

It was nothing short of a coaching miracle, and one that should have yielded former head coach Jerry Sloan his first and only Coach of the Year award.

What the doomsayers had failed to understand prior to that season was that the soul of the Jazz existed just as much in team leadership as in player personnel. It sprang eternal from demanding, no-nonsense Sloan, from his longtime assistant Phil Johnson, and even from late owner Larry Miller, a self-made millionaire with little concern for the trivialities of professional athletes.

In the ensuing years, the team-first culture continued as brass brought in talent that fit the system, rather than the other way around. Most notably, the Jazz added Mehmet Okur and Carlos Boozer via free agency in 2004 and Deron Williams through divine power in the 2005 draft.

While Boozer never quite took to Utah and vice-versa, Williams appeared to be custom-fit. He had a riotous mix of speed and strength, one only exceeded by a profound sense of competition. Plus, he seemed to have no interest in the off-court antics of his contemporaries. Utah loved him.

Sure, there were bumps along the way, particularly that rookie season, but Williams and Sloan maintained their professionalism throughout, going as far as the Western Conference Final in 2007. Williams wasn’t the first player to chafe at Sloan’s sometimes confining structure, and he surely wouldn’t be the last. Somehow, the marriage worked.

When Sloan surprisingly announced his retirement two weeks ago, we Jazz fans wished him well, but we knew that business would continue as usual with Deron as the cultural keeper of the Jazz.

And then we laughed at the notion that Williams had run Sloan out of Salt Lake City.

Sloan, 68 years old and the longest tenured coach in major league sports, hardly needed an excuse to retire. To even hint that a player had driven him away was blasphemy. This was the same man who once challenged Karl Malone to a fistfight and brought Andrei Kirilenko, the Russian AK-47, to tears. If anything, it was that Sloan felt that if he could no longer bring the bite, he should no longer be the man in charge.

In a further sign that it was the end of an era and not the product of a rebellion, with him went chief counsel Johnson, 69 years old and one of the league’s most well-respected assistants.

As long as new head coach Tyrone Corbin didn’t try to reinvent the wheel, the Jazz would be fine.

But then the news of Williams came.

Now there’s little left of the Utah Jazz that made them the Utah Jazz. There’s no Sloan, no Johnson, no Larry Miller, no Stockton disciple, nothing. The franchise threatens to join the Charlotte Bobcats in NBA anonymity.

Some will argue that the Jazz received a worthy bounty in return.  Derrick Favors could turn into a quality talent, and the two draft picks could net even more. But Utah hasn’t had the best record picking at the low end of the lottery (Gordon Hayward selected 9th in the 2010 draft) and nothing is a sure thing in the NBA.

And yet, maybe there’s still hope. Maybe there’s a player at the far corners of the United States, places off like Louisiana Tech and Gonzaga, just waiting to be discovered. Maybe the Jazz should start by visiting a little-known prospect out in Spokane.

First name David, last name Stockton.

Born in Salt Lake City in the year 1 B.S. (Before Stockton), Greg Groggel is now based in Brooklyn, NY, where he writes for television and the web and eagerly awaits the coming of Deron Williams. He can be reached at @Groggel on Twitter.

Stephen Curry to begin “modified” practices with Warriors

Getty Images
Leave a comment

Golden State has flipped the switch in the first round, going up 3-0 on overmatched San Antonio. The Warriors have been outscoring the Spurs by 20.2 points per 100 possessions in the series, allowing less than a point per possession on defense and scoring when and where they want. Kevin Durant is averaging 27.3 points per game, Klay Thompson is shooting 63.3 percent from three and scoring 25.7 points per game, and the Warriors are clicking.

But they are not yet whole — they need Stephen Curry back. Not for this round, but before the Western Conference Finals for sure.

Curry was re-evaluated Friday and will begin practicing with the team in a limited — or “modified” to use the team’s term — way.

The target has always been a return somewhere during the second round, and that still seems to be on track. That is also a little faster than traditional for a Grade 2 MCL sprain, which can take up to two months to heal (not the 4-6 weeks of the Warriors timeline), but the Warriors are being cautious here for now.

Eventually, the Warriors will need him back — their offense is built around Curry and his ball movement and movement off the ball. Curry’s gravity to draw defenders, even when he doesn’t have the ball, opens up the floor for others. Put simply, if he’s 28 feet from the bucket on the weak side defenders still have to watch and be near him, and help defenders need to be aware, which pulls the defense to wherever he is. Without Curry and the Warriors take more midrange jumpers, it’s just in the first round series against the Spurs they are hitting them.

 

Kenyon Martin: I once played high

Kevork Djansezian/Getty Images
6 Comments

Former NBA commissioner David Stern said the league began testing for marijuana because players complained of other players playing high. Chauncey Billups said he knew teammates who played better high.

But Stephen Jackson is the rare former NBA player who admitted to playing high.

Now, he has company.

Kenyon Martin – who played for the Nets, Nuggets, Clippers, Knicks and Bucks in a 15-year career – via Bleacher Report:

We were playing in Indiana one day. I wasn’t feeling well. I had a hamstring, a hip or something. So, I smoked. I wasn’t going to play originally. So, we got to the arena, and I’m like, “I feel good.” I went and told the trainer, “I’m going to go today.” I went out there and had a great game.

If you want to guess which game this was, here are the possibilities.

This was part of a great feature on marijuana in the NBA and NFL. Matt Barnes, Al Harrington and Gary Paton also participate. I highly recommend (pun intended) watching it in full.

Nuggets president Tim Connelly: Next season playoffs or bust

AP Photo/David Zalubowski
Leave a comment

The Nuggets have steadily improved over the last four years – 30-52 to 33-49 to 40-42 to 46-36.

But even 46 wins weren’t enough to get Denver into the playoff this season, extending the postseason drought to five years.

Nuggets president Connelly, via Gina Mizell of The Denver Post:

On if next season is “playoffs or bust”:

“I think we’re there. How many times can you be the bridesmaid? Our young core, three of our best players are 23 (Gary Harris), 22 (Jokic) and 21 (Jamal Murray), and they’ve proven they’re capable of doing it at the highest level. I think all of us are, quite frankly, sick of this time of the year having a press conference.”

There’s certainly something to be said for injecting urgency. The Nuggets are already good enough to make the playoffs. They just happened to play in a historically deep Western Conference. But that doesn’t mean they can’t take more responsibility.

Denver lost to the Hawks (twice), Grizzlies (twice without Mikey Conley), Mavericks, Kings and Nets this season. Flip any of those games, and the Nuggets would have made the playoffs.

But I’m not sure what “or bust” means.

Connelly said Michael Malone would return as coach next season. If Denver misses the playoffs, would he get fired? Would Connelly come on the hot seat? What if the Nuggets again produce a record that typically qualifies for the postseason?

Even if Denver misses the playoffs next year, the 2019-20 team would have a 22-year-old Jamal Murray, 25-year-old Gary Harris and probably a 24-year-old Nikola Jokic under contract. That’s still a pretty good place to be.

Because of Jokic’s rapid ascent, the Nuggets are trying to accelerate the timeline. They most notably signed Paul Millsap last summer. (Injury cost him most of the season and contributed to Denver falling short.) They could also emphasize the present by re-signing Will Barton this offseason.

But playoffs or not next year, the Nuggets have a bright future. Connelly just doesn’t want them leaning on that excuse, though following through on his edict could create complications if Denver again narrowly misses the postseason with a good record.

Adam Silver: NBA could eventually reseed in conference finals

Leave a comment

NBA commissioner Adam Silver has three major talking points on 1-16 playoff seeding (rather than the current system of 1-8 seeding by conference):

1. He likes the idea of it.

2. He doesn’t feel bound by the tradition of an East vs. West format.

3. Travel is a big impediment. Not only would there be more playoff series between teams farther away, the regular-season schedule would have to be balanced and therefore include more games between teams currently in opposite conferences.

(An important point I think Silver doesn’t raise nearly enough publicly in regard to a balanced schedule: That’d mean more away games that start at 10 p.m. for Eastern Conference fans and more away games that start at 4 p.m. for Western Conference fans. That can’t be good for TV ratings.)

The NBA commissioner added another consideration in the debate.

Silver on ESPN:

The other thing you could potentially do is reseed at the conference finals. And that deals with if your two best teams are in the same conference. So, there are some other approaches to deal with. You want the two best teams to meet in the Finals.

A balanced schedule wouldn’t be necessary with this setup. The semifinals would either be fairer and produce a better NBA Finals or have the same matchup we’d get in the current system.

Even more importantly, this could pass.

As fun as it is to debate the optimal postseason format, there’s no way enough Eastern Conference owners (at least five, necessary to create a two-thirds majority) approve. They want to protect their eight playoff spots and guaranteed Finals spot.

But what if Eastern Conference teams were still guaranteed eight playoff spots and two semifinals spots? That be enough. The Rockets and Warriors – two Western Conference teams – are the NBA’s best this season. In coming years, it could be the 76ers and Celtics – two Eastern Conference teams. That’s far more variable than which conference is stronger throughout.

If teams in championship contention feel the very top of their conference will be weaker than the other conference, they could resist. But that still leaves contenders that don’t feel that way and non-contenders that want the additional shared revenue a better NBA Finals would generate.

That’s a plausible path to 20 yes votes and something we should take seriously.