Throughout the previous 25 or so seasons of Jazz basketball, fans have enjoyed one of the most stable organizations in basketball. With the exception of winning a title or two, I would not have traded situations with any franchise, especially as I saw the ups and downs that threw fans for a loop. Owners across the league seemingly threw everything they had at winning a title, hoping the right combination of players would stick and lead to the promised land. Rarely did teams see their efforts pay off, but have rather struggled in obscurity as only 9 teams have won championships in the last 30 years. The rest have seen their efforts backfire and often dig an even deeper hole for their teams to ascend.
Since the passing of Larry H. Miller, the retirement of Jerry Sloan, and the shock of trading away a franchise player, Jazz fans have tasted the instability felt by so many franchises across the league.
While not quite maintaining the high level of performance that the Jazz have been known for, it is still remarkable to see the organization, its players, and its fans rebound fairly quickly from such an intense shuffle of situations. Rarely is a team able to go through such drastic change and only miss one season of playoff contention.
During the “rebuild,” many fans have noticed the screaming success of a division foe, the Oklahoma City Thunder, and pointed to them as the model that the Jazz should follow as they attempt to get back to playing high-level basketball. We have two top-3 draft picks, several other lottery picks, and several established players with lots of talent. Sound familiar?
Let me preface this by saying that I do not think that the OKC model is a bad way of doing things. To go from where the Seattle Supersonics were (20-62 in 2007-2008) to where the Thunder are today in only five short (unless you were a fan of the Sonics) years is the product of great management and ownership, and the quick development of very pivotal draft pieces and the occasional acquisition of players via trade and free agency.
Oklahoma City is currently composed of lottery picks and other acquisitions that were “earned” by those few seasons of toiling in Seattle, and even the first couple of seasons in Oklahoma City. The Jazz have also stockpiled their team with young talent in the form of four lottery picks over the last three seasons.
I think that the main difference between the OKC model, and the model that the Jazz need to really follow, is that the Thunder have two All-NBA caliber players on their team in Kevin Durant and Russell Westbrook. Despite having two number 3 picks, a number 9 pick, and a number 12 pick over the last two drafts, the Jazz don’t have a player like that on their roster. The front office has fans crossing their fingers that Derrick Favors will live up to the potential and the comparison to players like Dwight Howard and Amare Stoudemire. Others see young players like Gordon Hayward and Alec Burks developing into borderline All-Stars (comparisons to Andrei Kirilenko and Brandon Roy are often brought up when talking about the two), and Enes Kanter being the answer in the middle for the foreseeable future.
If the Jazz were truly following the Oklahoma City model, which is what many fans point at as the best case scenario, these four players would be in the starting lineup, learning the ropes of the NBA and developing leadership roles that would help them lead this team over the next 4 to 5 to 7 to 10 years. When the Sonics drafted Kevin Durant with the number 2 overall pick, they also shipped their star shooter Ray Allen to the Boston Celtics and flipped Rashard Lewis to Orlando in a sign and trade. Durant was not surrounded with very much talent, and as a result was allowed to flourish and learn from his mistakes en route to earning the Rookie of the Year title.
Because Seattle struggled so much during Durant’s rookie campaign, they earned the number 4 pick in the following draft, taking Russell Westbrook in 2008. Westbrook played, and played a lot, finishing fourth in Rookie of the Year voting. Despite two budding superstars, the Thunder finished 23-59, earning another lottery pick, and selecting James Harden. Harden had been the only high draft pick that wasn’t starting for the Thunder, but became widely regarded as one of the better bench players in the NBA, and this season he should be an All-Star for the Houston Rockets.
If the goal of the Jazz was to follow the OKC Model, the already unstable past couple of years would have become unbearable for fans who have followed this team during their run of consistent quality play. In order to follow what OKC did and truly go all-in on the NBA draft, the Jazz would have probably had to deal Paul Millsap and/or Al Jefferson, accept that they were only going to win 25% of their games for two or three seasons, and hope that the ping pong balls fall their way (or at least that the Blazers were picking in front of them).
Instead, the Jazz kept a solid core of big men, and has now surrounded them with mostly above average role players like Mo Williams, Randy Foye, and Marvin Williams. I don’t think the Jazz organization (or its fan base), have the patience to throw several consecutive seasons away for something that is not a sure thing. Even if they did gut the team and lose for several seasons, that in no way guarantees that you end up with two of the top seven (or so) players in the NBA. With Wade’s injury problems over the past season and a half, even the Heat can’t boast about two such quality stars.
Because the Jazz aren’t blowing things up, there are going to be struggles along the way. While there are several lottery picks on the team, there are also veterans who need to play, especially if Ty Corbin’s goal is to win right now, which should be every coach’s goal (Mark Jackson being an exception to that rule). There are going to be some interesting shakeups this offseason, as the front office will be deciding which players to keep around while they continue to integrate and hand the reins over to the younger generation. It will be interesting, and probably just as unpredictable as the past couple of years have been for Jazz fans. In my fantasy land, Millsap would approach the Jazz this offseason and ask Coach Corbin to help make him the NBA’s Sixth Man of the Year, an award that I’m sure he could compete for while letting a frontcourt of Al Jefferson and Derrick Favors anchor this team.
But if we’re not following this OKC model, what direction are we going in? I vote that the front office set their GPS to “2004 Detroit Pistons” and see where that takes us. That team was one that nobody saw winning a championship, even when they were playing the star-studded-ring-chasing-every-Jazz-fan-wants-to-forget-Karl-Malone-played-for Lakers in the Finals. The following year, four Pistons were named All-Stars, though none were named starters or voted in by the fans. This wasn’t a sexy team full of superstars. In fact, I’m not sure that any of them would have made the All-Star team if one of them had not made it, because that was the kind of effort that they gave. Collectively, they had an All-Star lineup. They knew their roles, and they played as hard as they could every moment they were on the floor.
Think about the parallels that are already there. Al Jefferson and Rasheed Wallace-two offensive minded bigs who have honed their craft very well. Derrick Favors and Ben Wallace-two defensively gifted bigs with raw offensive skills, but who undeniably impact a game. Marvin Williams/Gordon Hayward and Tayshaun Prince-hybrid players who can show up big on the offensive and defensive ends on any given night. Randy Foye (and in a perfect world, Alec Burks) and Rip Hamilton-shooting guards who can knock down open threes. Mo Williams and Chauncey Billups-fearless leaders who aren’t afraid of a big moment and are bent on getting the most out of their teammates. This Jazz team could possibly even be more deep that that team was, but need to figure out how to create the synergy that propelled the Pistons past the Lakers and the rest of the league that year.
This season the Jazz will see many ups and downs. They have exceeded the expectations of some while staying floating above .500 during a road-heavy early schedule. I’m sure at some point this season, they’ll go on a winning streak that will cause fans to get more excited than they should, and they’ll go on a losing streak that will make fans reminisce about days when Deron Williams and even, dare I say, Carloz Boozer were leading the team to the Western Conference Finals. This year though, my hope is that the front office is able to figure out which pieces will be able to contribute to a model similar to those Pistons teams. The outline is there, but may be nearly as hard as the OKC model to replicate, but for this team, right now, that should be the more realistic expectation.