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.

Heartbreaking: Watch Mikal Bridges explain joy of joining hometown 76ers while they trade him to Suns (video)

2 Comments

Mikal Bridges‘ mom jumped up, pumped her fists and screamed “Yes!” through her giant grin.

The 76ers – the organization she works for in human resources – had just drafted her son No. 10 overall. Bridges, a Philadelphia native who played at Villanova, seemed as if he’d stay home for his pro career.

Bridges:

She’s very, very excited. She’s been wanting this. She’s probably more excited than I am. She was about to cry and all that. She said she didn’t want to ruin her makeup, so she’d try to hold it in. But no, she’s very excited. I’m her only son. I’m a little mama’s boy. Her son is right there around the corner again, and it’s just really cool.

Except, as Bridges was talking, the 76ers were trading him to the Suns for No. 16 pick Zhaire Smith and the Heat’s unprotected 2021 first-rounder.

That extra pick carries major value. Even if you like Bridges much more than Smith – which I did, especially considering their fits in Philadelphia – that’s hard to pass up. The NBA is a business after all.

But it’s lamentable how this played out.

Kings GM Vlade Divac: ‘My team is a super team. Just young’

AP Photo/David Zalubowski
4 Comments

The Kings drafted Marvin Bagley No. 2 last night (seemingly for bad reasons, which doesn’t at all eliminate him from being the right pick but makes it less likely he is). He’ll join a young core also comprised of Bogdan Bogdanovic, De'Aaron Fox, Buddy Hield, Willie Cauley-Stein, Skal Labissiere, Justin Jackson and Harry Giles.

That group excite you?

Kings general manager Vlade Divac isn’t reducing expectations.

Lina Washington of ABC 10:

To be fair, in 2012, the Warriors were coming off a 23-43 season with Stephen Curry and Klay Thompson already on the roster and had just drafted Draymond Green and Harrison Barnes. Everyone would’ve laughed at calling Golden State a “super team, just young” then. But those four (plus Andre Iguodala) eventually led the Warriors to a championship.

But, really: Nah.

Entering the 2016-17 season, then-Knicks guard Derrick Rose said, “They’re saying us and Golden State are the super teams.” We mocked Rose relentlessly, and of course, the Warriors went 73-9 while New York finished just 32-50.

How long until Divac’s young super team reaches even 32-50?

Spurs GM still optimistic relationship with Kawhi Leonard can be salvaged

Associated Press
4 Comments

SAN ANTONIO (AP) — General manager R.C. Buford acknowledges star forward Kawhi Leonard is unhappy with the Spurs.

He remains optimistic the relationship can be salvaged.

Leonard has requested a trade from San Antonio because he is unhappy after missing most of last season with a right quadriceps injury. Buford would not comment on “speculation” of a trade demand, but agreed there is a fractured relationship between Leonard and the only franchise he has played for.

“Kawhi and his family mean a lot to the organization and to the community and while none of wish we are where we are, we’re going to do what we can to build the best relationship we can with him,” Buford said Thursday night as the Spurs made two late picks in the NBA Draft. “We’ll explore all of our options, but the first one would be to do what we can to keep Kawhi as part of our group.”

Leonard missed the first 27 games of the season but returned to play in nine games. He complained of discomfort and pain in the leg in his final game. Leonard sought an outside opinion after the Spurs cleared him to play, working with his own medical team in New York in an attempt to return to the court. The 6-foot-7 forward reportedly grew upset that the Spurs had questioned his rehabilitation process.

The Spurs listed him as out on their injury reports for much of the year citing “injury management.” While San Antonio was in the playoffs, losing in the first round to eventual repeat champion Golden State, Leonard was rehabbing in New York – which meant that Spurs coach Gregg Popovich, when asked for the situation, deferred all comment to “Kawhi and his group.”

“I think all of us would wish that things would have gone differently,” Buford said.

The Spurs held a team meeting late in the season where veterans, led by Tony Parker, implored Leonard to return. Leonard said he was unable to due to the injury.

In the 2016-17 season, Leonard averaged a career-best 25.5 points and was third in the MVP voting. The 2014 NBA Finals MVP and two-time NBA defensive player of the year is due just over $20 million next season, and can become a free agent in the summer of 2019. He is eligible to sign a $220 million extension with San Antonio.

He is reportedly willing to walk away from that to play elsewhere, possibly in Los Angeles.

“I don’t know that timing is a factor in this from today … he’s under contract for another year, our goal is to keep him as part of our program for a long time,” Buford said.

 

NBA Draft Winners, Losers: Big nights for Phoenix, Dallas

Getty Images
3 Comments

Let’s start with the obvious — this whole story is a fool’s errand. It really takes about three years to accurately assess who are the winners and losers in the NBA draft. Guys we thought were locks will turn out to be pretty pedestrian, guys we wrote off as projects down the board will impress. In three years, we’ll have a real sense of which teams read this draft well and nailed it.

But we don’t live in that world.

So here are my projections on the real winners and losers Thursday night in Brooklyn, starting with the guys who didn’t screw up the No. 1 pick.

 

Suns small icon Winner: Phoenix Suns.

It isn’t just that they didn’t screw up the top pick and landed in DeAndre Ayton, the guy most likely to be a franchise cornerstone star in this class. Although they did that. Also, it was their move later to trade their pick at No. 16 (Texas Tech’s Zhaire Smith) for Mikal Bridges — most likely the best “3&D” prospect in this draft (it cost them a future first via Miami). By the time everyone was trying to get an Uber outside Barclays Center the Suns had put together a starting lineup of Devin Booker, Bridges, Josh Jackson, and Ayton (plus a point guard to be named later). That’s a group worth watching — and they hired Igor Kokoskov as their new coach this summer because he’s strong on player development. It’s the start of something.

Phoenix also drafted French point guard Elie Okobo at 31 in the second round when a lot of teams thought of him as a first-round talent. Another smart move.

Loser: Michael Porter Jr.

A couple of weeks ago, Porter was mentioned as a potential No. 2 selection to the Kings. But after teams got a look at his medical reports from last Friday’s workout — remember, he missed all but three games at Missouri following back surgery — they backed off. Reports about his attitude didn’t help. Porter slid all the way down to Denver at 14. What that means to him besides getting to play at altitude in Denver: The No. 2 pick is slotted for a $7.3 million salary next season, the No. 14 makes less than $3 million. We’ll see if Porter can use this as motivation — and stay healthy.

One winner in this: The Denver Nuggets for grabbing him at 14. That is a good team (they just missed the playoffs) with strong players already where Porter can be brought along slowly without unreasonable expectations.

Mavericks small icon Winner: Dallas Mavericks.

Mark Cuban and company traded up from No. 5 to No. 3 and landed Luka Doncic — the player they had highest rated on the board. This is a win for the Mavs and for Doncic because he lands with a brilliant Xs and Os coach in Rick Carlisle who will put him in positions to succeed, plus Doncic gets mentored by Dirk Nowitzki. This pick also is a strong move because he should pair well with young point guard Dennis Smith Jr. — Doncic can run the pick-and-roll at times with Smith cutting and moving off the ball, and in the reverse Doncic has a good catch-and-shoot game. Dallas has options for playmaking now.

Also, nice second-round pickup of Villanova point guard Jalen Brunson. That’s a high IQ player who can step in as a reserve and help immediately.

Loser: Robert Williams.

The Texas A&M big man has the talent of a late lottery pick — the Clippers met with him a couple of times — but concerns about his attitude and work ethic saw him plummet all the way down the board to 27. Will he use this as motivation to play with a high motor all the time, or will he continue to coast? If he brings it, he could be the steal of this draft. That brings us to…

Celtics small iconWinner: Boston Celtics (because they got Robert Williams).

This was an Oceans 9 level robbery (that’s the next movie, right?) for Danny Ainge this late in the first round. At No. 27 you’re usually just hoping to get a guy who can develop into a role player in a few years. Williams is much more than that, he has the tools to be an elite NBA defender, and in college he was a defensive and rebounding force. In the NBA he’s going to be a rim running big, ala DeAndre Jordan — except Jordan fulfilled his potential. It’s up to Boston to get that out of Williams (and it’s up to Williams himself to work), but if they do this was another brilliant Ainge pick.

Loser: Golden State Warriors.

They tried to buy into the second round as they did a year ago and pick up someone who fits their style — and this year they had $5.1 million to do it (more than the $3.5 million a year ago). However, other GMs remember how much heat the Bulls front office took for selling their pick to Golden State last year and watching the Warriors draft Jordan Bell — Mr. “cash considerations” was playing a role in the NBA Finals. No GM wanted to repeat that mistake. No early second-round pick for the Warriors this year.

However, their first-round pick of Jacob Evans was a good one, he’s the kind of versatile wing player who fits into their rotation.

Winner: Puma.

The German soccer cleat maker shoe and apparel company wanted to get back into the basketball game, and the did it with a splash — their guys Ayton and Bagley went No. 1 and 2. That’s going to be a lot of free publicity and a lot of eyes on their players starting in Summer League and beyond. The company also landed guys with real potential in Michael Porter Jr. and Zhaire Smith.

Oh, and they hired Jay-Z as well. That’s a good week whatever else happens.

Winner: NBA Twitter

The guys in suits up the executive food chain tried to put an end to Woj bombs this year — ESPN was trying to clamp down on their news breakers Tweeting out the picks before they happened (as had been the case for a few years, with Twitter often two or three picks ahead of Adam Silver and the broadcast). Other major news breakers (such as Yahoo’s Shams Charania) agreed to play along. We all thought we would have to wait around for Adam Silver to saunter up to the table.

But if there is one thing NBA Twitter has taught us it’s that it will not be contained. It breaks free, it expands to new territories and crashes through barriers, painfully, maybe even dangerously. NBA Twitter, uh… finds a way.

Before long Twitter picks were leaking and Twitter was a pick ahead of the broadcast again, and Adrian Wojnarowski was dropping bombs, cleverly not saying who the pick was but….

NBA Twitter is the best.