Now that Raja Bell has been waived and is no longer a Jazzman, it’s time to remember his entire Utah career.
When Karl Malone left and John Stockton retired, the cupboard looked pretty bare for the 2003-2004 Utah Jazz. Some predicted they were going to be the worst team in the NBA. They had Andrei Kirilenko and Matt Harpring, and that was it. Curtis Borchardt, Raul Lopez, Sasha Pavlovic and Mo Williams were all rookies, and Borchardt and Lopez had suffered serious injuries the year before. The millstone known as Greg Ostertag’s contract was still around their neck. Third-string point-guard Carlos Arroyo was now their starter. They’d traded to get Keon Clark, who played two games and then retired at the age of 28. Their big free-agency signing was… Raja Bell.
Raja Bell had already played for two teams his first three years, coming off a season where he averaged 3.1 points per game. But he started for 31 games for the Mavericks for his perimeter defense. In Utah that average jumped to 11.2. He was a key-piece of the scrappy 42-40 that Jazz fans look back on with almost the same fondness as the Finals years. Why? Because that team worked hard for every possession every night and they were one of the best defensive teams in the NBA.
Listening to Harpring’s goofy color commentary may make it difficult for some Jazz fans to remember that he used to be one of the toughest guys in the NBA. He had the respect of his teammates, but injuries cut his season short, and he only managed to play 31 games. AK47 had his breakout All-Star year and led on the floor, but the vocal locker-room leader became Raja Bell.
Bell had a twenty-pound chip on his shoulder against any opponent that Jazz fans admired.
Now sadly, Bell was only here two years. His second stint was the lowly 26-56 year and then at 12:01am he signed a long contract with the Phoenix Suns. Bell became an annual playoff participant on Steve Nash’s team, and eventually the Jazz put together their Deron Williams-Derek Fisher-AK47-Carlos Boozer-Mehmet Okur team that made it to the Western Conference Finals (with a bench of Harpring, Gordan Giricek and rookies Ronnie Brewer and Paul Millsap).
When the Jazz lost diamond-in-the-rough Wesley Matthews to Portland, and Carlos Boozer and Kyle Korver moved on to Chicago, the Jazz traded for Al Jefferson but still needed more help on the wing. They brought back old friend Raja Bell for a three-year deal.
Raja was signing up to play next to Deron Williams, Andrei Kirilenko and Mehmet Okur under coach Jerry Sloan for a playoff run. A few months later, Jerry quits, D-Will’s traded, and Okur’s out for the year. The Jazz spiral and miss the playoffs.
Next season is the lockout season, and Raja Bell’s skills are obviously diminished. Ty Corbin sticks with Raja in the starting lineup for most of the season, but it’s clear rookie Alec Burks deserves more minutes. Raja eventually loses his starting position and is a grump the rest of the season. He calls Corbin “unprofessional” and vows to never play for the Jazz again.
Now most fans balk at Raja lashing out at Ty because Ty stayed loyal to him long after it was clear he was hurting the team.
The Jazz offer Raja a buyout. He doesn’t take it. And so he sits on his $3.45 million, saying he wants to play for the Lakers, but he won’t budge on wanting all of his money. He’s not at training camp, he’s not in practice. He’s just an occupant on the roster.
Raja might sign with a team looking for a couple regular-season wins, but his stubbornness kept him from being able to sign with a playoff team. I wouldn’t be surprised if he plays in the NBA again; if 41-year-old Kurt Thomas can still get a job, I suppose there’s no reason to count out 36-year-old Raja Bell.
Bell’s second go-around damaged the goodwill he’d built up around Utah. If the Jazz miss the playoffs this year, he may come out and say “I told you Corbin couldn’t coach!” but if you made a list of Top Five Worst Jazz Free-Agent Signings, his second time just might make that list.