Posted on: May 9, 2010 12:40 pm
With another playoff rout at the hands of the Lakers looming on Monday, the Utah Jazz find themselves in a familiar position. No organization has enjoyed more stability or embraced the same style of play for as long as the Jazz have under Jerry Sloan. And perhaps no top-tier team has fallen short in the postseason as much, either.
Utah has endured only one losing season in Sloan’s 21 years on the Jazz bench and has earned a spot in the draft lottery only twice. Contrary to late owner Larry Miller’s past assertions that his team would never pay the NBA luxury tax, the Jazz made that commitment last summer when they matched Portland’s offer for restricted free agent Paul Millsap. The commitment was renewed when Sloan persuaded ownership not to trade Carlos Boozer on the last year of his contract at $12.7 million this season.
Despite another playoff disappointment, GM Kevin O’Connor told CBSSports.com recently that the Jazz are prepared to be a tax-paying team next season, too. Whether that entails keeping Boozer, an unrestricted free agent, remains to be seen. But what’s clear is that the Jazz are at a unique crossroads for any franchise – venturing into the second round of the playoffs with a team that has won 50-plus game three of the past four seasons, and owning a lottery pick in the upcoming draft.
By virtue of a trade with Phoenix, the Jazz own the Knicks’ first-round pick, which was conveyed to the Suns as part of Isiah Thomas’ ill-fated trade for Stephon Marbury in 2004. The Marbury trade continues to be the gift that keeps on giving in two proud Western Conference cities. The Suns used the resulting cap space to sign Steve Nash, who has led Phoenix to within one win of the conference finals. By virtue of the Knicks’ 29-53 record this season, the Jazz are slotted ninth in the lottery order with a 1.7 percent chance of landing the No. 1 pick.
Utah is 1-for-2 in its two most recent forays into the lottery. Coming off a 42-win season in 2003-04,O’Connor held out hope that he’d be able to land No. 1 pick Dwight Howard. He wound up with 14th pick Kris Humphries instead. After a 26-win season in ’04-’05, Utah got the third pick and drafted franchise centerpiece Deron Williams.
“I think with the fact that we’ve only had one year with a losing season and were fortunate enough to get Deron Williams has really helped,” O’Connor said.
With a playoff-ready roster, a lottery pick, and a commitment to capitalize on both by paying luxury tax again, O’Connor hopes he’ll be able to parlay that flexibility into a series of moves that finally will push the Jazz past the second round for the only the second time since Michael Jordan put a dagger in them in back-to-back NBA Finals more than a decade ago.
“Larry had said at one point he’d never pay [luxury tax,” O’Connor said. “He said it a couple of times. But then he said, if we know that we’re going to have a very good team and it’s not for a long period of time, he certainly would expect to do that. I think it’s a commitment going forward. I don’t think it’s a commitment that we’ve broached yet. We need to see what the numbers are going to be and everything else. But I think we’ve proven already that we’re willing to pay it and I think the results have justified us paying it.”
Portland’s offer sheet for Millsap was heavily front-loaded with a poison pill designed to force the Jazz to choke on the luxury-tax implications. Utah matched anyway, and Millsap’s salary declines from $10.3 million to $6.2 million next season. Boozer’s $12.7 million salary comes off the books, and there has been only one publicized discussion between O’Connor and Boozer’s agent, Rob Pelinka, about re-signing with Utah. The situation gives O’Connor the flexibility to explore sign-and-trade scenarios, and sources say you can expect high-level discussions with Miami on a Boozer trade at the February deadline to be rekindled.
The point is, as bleak as things look for the Jazz now – and as much as this resembles a seemingly endless replay of postseason heartache – the franchise is positioned better than it has been in years to finally take the next step. At a time of year when coaches are getting fired and teams are enduring front-office turmoil, the Jazz just keep sticking with the status quo because the status quo has worked.
“I think the stability has come from the fact that we’ve consistently won,” O’Connor said. “I don’t think you have stability without that.”
I know this is getting old, but maybe this is the year it finally pays off.
Posted on: January 28, 2010 11:53 am
Edited on: January 28, 2010 7:45 pm
First of all, as Charles Barkley would say, I love the seven first-time selections. All-Star weekend is badly in need of some juice, and I think there's a good chance that some of these first-timers -- Deron Williams, Derrick Rose, Rajon Rondo -- will provide some of the weekend's most memorable moments.
I know this is a knee-jerk sports world and we're supposed to fight about everything, but I don't have enormous problems with the coaches' selections. In the East, they picked Rose and Al Horford over my picks -- David Lee and Josh Smith. I disagree on Horford; Smith is the Hawks' most important player after Joe Johnson, and Horford doesn't play enough minutes to be an All-Star. Lee deserves to be there, too. Being based in New York, I have more than my share of chances to watch him bust his behind on a talent-less team. Rose? I don't have any problem with him being an All-Star. He'll be great to watch in an All-Star Game. Guys like Rose understand the moment and know how to rise to it.
In the West, I only differed with the coaches on one selection: They chose Zach Randolph; I chose Chauncey Billups. If I met with every coach who chose Randolph and we debated outside some NBA locker room, I don't think anybody would win. Z-Bo is having a great year on a surprisingly competitive team. Billups remains the glue that keeps the Nuggets together. I'll take the No. 2 pick in that draft and be happy.
In making my picks, I used the same criteria the coaches are instructed to use: select seven reserves, ranked 1-7 for weighting purposes, according to the following positional breakdown: center, two forwards, two guards, and two wild cards.
Here were my picks -- with the coaches' alternative in parentheses, where applicable:
1. Chris Bosh, F, Toronto: The "other" 2010 free agent went into the season determined to put up huge numbers, which he is. Bosh's steady play also is a big reason for the Raptors' recent resurgence.
2. Rajon Rondo, G, Boston: Nothing against Kevin Garnett or Ray Allen, but Rondo may have surpassed both of them as the most important Celtic after Paul Pierce.
3. Josh Smith, F, Atlanta (Coaches picked Derrick Rose): Defense, shot-blocking, scoring -- J-Smoove does it all, except take too many 3-pointers. He's eliminated that annoying aspect of his game and deserves to be rewarded.
4. Gerald Wallace, F (wild card), Charlotte: This is a tough call between Wallace and Danny Granger. I'll give the nod to Wallace because of defense and team success.
5. David Lee, C, Knicks (Coaches picked Al Horford): It's time to stop attributing Lee's machine-like double-double production to Mike D'Antoni's system and recognize that there's nothing wrong with being one of the best pick-and-roll big men in the league.
6. Joe Johnson, G, Atlanta: Johnson should send a thank-you gift to Jamal Crawford, whose ability to absorb some of the end-of-quarter/end-of-game scoring load has kept Johnson fresh.
7. Paul Pierce, F (wild card), Boston: Rondo makes the Celtics' engine go, but Pierce is still the closer -- one of the best in the league at both ends of the floor.
1. Dirk Nowitzki, F, Dallas: Still playing at an MVP level and never gets the recognition he deserves.
2. Chris Paul, G, New Orleans: In terms of statistics and overall talent, the best point guard in the league.
3. Brandon Roy, G, Portland: With all of Portland's injuries -- including Roy's own balky hamstring of late -- this budding superstar deserves credit for keeping the Blazers afloat.
4. Chauncey Billups, G (wild card), Denver (Coaches picked Zach Randolph): We take Mr. Big Shot for granted because he's so consistent, but remember: He's consistently great. Monta Ellis deserves serious consideration here or for one of the wild-card spots, but there are simply too many great guards in the West for him to break through.
5. Pau Gasol, C, Lakers: Despite missing a big chunk of the season, Gasol has played enough to warrant an All-Star nod. When he's on the floor, he's among the most gifted and impactful big men in the league. Gasol or Randolph? I'll take Gasol.
6. Kevin Durant, F, Oklahoma City: We knew he could score, but now KD is emerging as a much improved defender and leader.
7. Deron Williams, G (wild card), Utah: This is why there's no room for Randolph on my squad, despite his solid 20-point, 11-rebound averages on a much improved Memphis team. D-Will is too good -- and the Jazz's recent resurgence too notable to overlook -- for one of the top point guards in the NBA to continue to get overlooked.