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What do you talk about the morning after your team’s season seemed to start falling apart before your very eyes? The NBA Draft! The lone, ironic, bittersweet silver lining of the Golden State loss is that it pushed them up to the 10th best record, increasing Utah’s chances of getting a decent pick. The Warriors now have a better record than Charlotte (who may never win another game again), Detroit, New Orleans, Washington, Toronto, Sacramento, New Jersey, New York, and Phoenix. Like last week, Golden State appears to be wholly better than the first six teams in that list and just needs to stay ahead of one of the other three.
New Jersey has been inconsistent, but a lot better than their abysmal 2-9 start. I still think that they are probably better than Golden State with Deron Williams playing well, especially when MarShon Brooks gets back from injury this week. New York is a wild card. On paper, they’re completely hopeless. They’ve stunk up an easier schedule than even the Jazz have had, they’re a few games out of the playoffs, they have no point guard (thank goodness for Jamaal Tinsley), and Amare Stoudemire is falling into the Knicks’ trademarked model of steep declines in the midst of humongous contracts. While that leaves them with a conceivably worse record than the Warriors, I still have a hard time believing that Stoudemire and Anthony will let their pride take such a monstrous beating. I know that they aren’t actually good by any means, but they might right the ship enough to be decent. As for Phoenix, if they turn out to be decent people and trade Steve Nash like they absolutely should and are perhaps even obligated to (#freeSteveNash), then they will plummet down the standings and go into unabashed rebuilding mode. As Jazz fans (as well as fans of humanity), we absolutely want Phoenix to trade Steve Nash to a contender. If that happens, then the Golden State pick is as good as ours.
The Warriors have 3 games this week: at Sacramento, at home against Oklahoma City, and at Denver. Since they are up to 10th, it would be okay if they lost all three games, but it’s a win-win situation if they beat Sacramento. The other two games are games we want them to lose.
Current draft spot: 10th
Potential draftee of the week: Jeremy Lamb
20 games into the NBA season, the Jazz have already provided a lot of entertaining ups, downs and ill-advised three-pointers. While part of me was devastated by the Clippers loss last night, part of me was also really proud of the Jazz. A month ago, I really doubted if they had the gumption to fight tooth and nail with one of the top teams in the NBA all the way down the stretch. So even though it came out as a loss, it’s hard for me to be too upset. Now I think it’s time to wildly speculate about the course of the rest of the season. I think that there are basically 3 roads that the Jazz can now go down.
1. The first- and probably most likely- is that the Jazz follow the 2003-2004/2005-2006 blueprint. In terms of record, this Jazz team most closely resembles that 2003-2004 team, who were unexpectedly 11-9 twenty games into the season. That team never got more than 4 games above .500 and cruised at that pace all season long until they reached 42-38 with two games to go. They lost the last two games and coughed up the final playoff spot to Denver. The current Jazz team is much better than that team, but they also have a tougher schedule. The most likely scenario is that the Jazz struggle through February but pull out a handful of surprising wins, get down in the playoff chase because of all of the road games, and then make a late surge in the second half of March and into April. They sneak into the 8th seed of the playoffs because Houston falls apart again and everyone on Portland’s team gets seriously injured in a tandem-biking accident. In the playoffs, they give Oklahoma City a tough run and squeeze out two wins before falling in six, getting credit from the media for being ‘a team of the future’ along the way.
2. Disaster strikes: Al Jefferson’s ankle starts taking him out of games for short spurts throughout the season, Earl Watson gets knocked out for the rest of the year because he plays just a little too scrappy, and another of our bigs gets hurt for awhile. We drop a few in a row on the road and the wheels start coming off. Ty Corbin starts coaching scared because he knows he isn’t getting the good press he was before, Alec Burks is never freed, Josh Howard never learns to dribble, Jazz Nation gives up all hope on Devin Harris, and C.J. Miles reverts to his old ways and breaks the franchise record for 3-point field goal attempts that he set last year (and can you believe that? Can you believe that of all the shooters the Jazz have ever employed, Calvin Andre Miles Jr. is the one who has taken the most 3s in a season? That’s probably why Jerry Sloan really retired). We finish with about 25 wins and get two top-ten picks in the draft.
3. Now that you’re thoroughly depressed, here’s the best option: the Jazz beat the Lakers on Saturday to get that monkey off of their back, split their first eastern road trip, beat Oklahoma City at the ESA, and keep it rolling from there. They turn into a gritty road team that learns how to get up by ten points early and hang on the rest of the way. Kevin O’Connor, sensing that the Jazz are actually ready to contend now, takes advantage of Indiana’s desire to clear up cap room for Eric Gordon this summer by packaging the end of C.J.’s contract with the trade exception the Jazz got from the Memo deal to reel in Danny Granger at the trade deadline, who starts playing better and better. With a dangerous scorer on the wing to pair with a deep frontcourt, the Jazz can permanently move Hayward to SG and bring a solid veteran backcourt in Earl and Raja to match with Favors and Kanter off of the bench. Kanter keeps progressing his offensive game and Alec Burks realizes that the role he needs to play off the bench this season is as a sharpshooter and defensive stopper and steps up to it. The Jazz win 43 games- good for 2nd place in the conference- and roll a worn-out and beat-up Lakers team in the first round for sweet revenge from the past few years. In the semi-finals, they run into their old playoff foes, the Denver Nuggets. The Jazz prevail in six games with Paul Millsap averaging 30 points in the series, sending them to their first conference finals appearance in 5 years. They take Oklahoma City to seven games before bowing out, setting themselves up for an even deeper run in years to come. Tyrone Corbin wins Coach of the Year and Golden State hands us the 8th pick in the draft. Likelihood? Not great. But is it possible? Oh yes.
Last night felt like a big deal. It was just another regular season game about a third into the season, but it felt like the Jazz needed this win. Ten minutes before the game, I was frantically searching for reasons why we would win the game:
Hayward lit it up against the Kings, maybe this means his confidence is back.
Maybe our offense actually works better when Big Al isn’t playing.
Maybe Lamarcus Aldridge is sick of being the poster child for the Hipster All-Stars (The Hipster All-stars are guys who aren’t actually All-stars, should be, and thus have a cult following of internet bloggers who are constantly decrying the injustice of the All-Star voting system. And yes, Paul Millsap is a Hipster All-star), and he’ll take the game off.
Two hours later, the Jazz had escaped with a victory. Initially too overcome with relief to draw any conclusions from the game, I’ve since regained enough of my mental faculties to know that this game taught us a few things. So here they are, the 3 things we learned last night:
1. Gordon Hayward took one giant leap forward last night. Granted, we at sloan v. sheed search every, passed-over obscurity of every Jazz game to find ways to compliment the G-man, but we didn’t have to look far last night. In the past, whenever Gordon has had a noticeably good game, it’s been because he’s either A) feeling it and shooting really well AND filling up the box score with non-scoring plays or B) filling up the box score with non-scoring plays. Last night, for the first time, we got an option C) he was shooting poorly, but he still provided offensive production when we needed it AND he filled up the box score with non-scoring plays. The understated play of the game was his block that set up Millsap’s score in the last minute, but Hayward gave the Jazz exactly what we needed down the stretch. On a night when we were going to live and die with how well he played (see: the difference between the first and the second half), he stepped up. He nailed free throws when they mattered, made a game-changing block, and forced shots down on an off-night. Great players have the confidence to knock down shots even after dreadful slumps, and last night, Hayward took one more step toward becoming that kind of great player.
2. In a condensed season, depth means way more than it should. In your typical NBA season, depth is a little overrated. There are enough days off between games for stars to recover, and there are enough games in the season for your team to make the playoffs and make a deep run even if your star is injured for a large chunk of the regular season. Not this season. This season, teams like the Jazz have an extra advantage. Last night’s victory, without Al Jefferson and without Raja Bell, was a prime example of this phenomenon.
3. We still need Big Al. As much as I love to hate on Big Al, our half-court offense is a disaster without him. Ever since he has learned to pass, the double-teams that he commands are invaluable. He opens up shots for Millsap, and he carries a scoring load that the combination of Enes Kanter and Derrick Favors cannot match. The Jazz won last night because Hayward stepped up, Millsap reached down deep and pulled out one of the gutsiest rebounding performances I’ve witnessed, a combination of Jeremy Evans’ energy and the ESA crowd lifted the team up for one final 4th quarter run, and Enes Kanter played lockdown defense on Aldridge in the 4th quarter. Those kinds of things can’t happen every game. The Jazz need the methodical consistency that Big Al brings the offense.
As the final piece of the Deron Williams trade, Utah has the rights to Golden State’s draft pick this year as long as the pick doesn’t end up landing from 1-7, placing Jazz fans in the predicament of wanting Golden State to be dreadful, but not spectacularly dreadful. We’re going to start breaking down how well that slightly-worse-than-mediocre balance is being achieved every Friday, and we’ll somewhat arbitrarily decide when we should be rooting for Golden State to win and when we want them to lose.
Our best-case scenario is to get a draft pick in the 8-10 range, meaning that seven teams need to be worse than the Warriors. Right now, I struggle to fathom how any NBA team could possibly be worse at basketball than the Charlotte Bobcats, and the Washington Wizards have already fired their coach and threatened to set records for early-season futility and as an extra bonus are stubbornly starting Andray Blatche (who gets roughly the same treatment at home games that Carlos Boozer gets these days at the ESA). They’re locks to be worse than Golden State. Next, it looks like this is officially Detroit’s tanking year, and New Orleans will be in way too deep of a hole by the time Eric Gordon returns from injury.
Oh yeah, and Toronto is a terrible, injury-prone team that could only win a game on the road if the home team missed a hundred easy shots in the fourth quarter and two overtimes (can’t… resist… self-loathing…). So that’s five. We need two more teams to lock up that pick (unless tragedy strikes and Golden State wins the lottery), and one of them is looking like the Kings. While they have shown flashes of dignity over the season, they also downed a coach and now have lost their leading scorer for a couple of weeks. The last team to be worse than the Warriors is up for grabs. The standings right now say New Jersey, but the Nets are looking better and will probably get a bunch of easy wins over all of those Eastern Conference glorified farm-league teams. I’m still not convinced that Cleveland is anything but a terrible team even though they’ve scratched out a few early wins, so they might be the ticket. We’ll have to stay on the lookout.
Over the course of the next week, the Warriors play at Oklahoma City and home games against Sacramento and Utah. If they lose to OKC and Utah (OBVIOUSLY), that puts the Jazz in good shape. It would also be advantageous for the Warriors to knock out the Kings next Tuesday to make sure that the Kings stay at the bottom of the standings. The concern, of course, is that Stephen Curry is back from injury in all his Davidson-pride glory.
Current draft spot: 8th-Tie
Potential draftee of the week: Michael Kidd-Gilchrist
There were times when I would come into the game, and on my first possession the ball would come to me with three seconds on the shot clock and then I would have to put up a 3-pointer. I would miss, and then everyone would be mad at me.
– C.J. Miles
Of course C.J. Miles said that. I might not have even needed to attribute the quote to him for devoted Jazz fans, especially those who follow C.J. on twitter, to have recognized its source. Only C.J. comes off the bench and immediately jacks up a three, and only C.J. would justify that shot by saying there were three seconds on the shot clock. You know, because the ONLY thing you can do with the basketball and three seconds on the shot clock is shoot a three. That said, he is absolutely right. Every Jazz fan has stored a file somewhere in the back of his or her mind labeled “C.J. is a Gunner” that contains the memories of roughly 150 off-balance threes that C.J. has bricked off various parts his of the basket. We’ve all seen it, and it happens just like C.J. himself said. He comes in off the bench. He gets the ball with a low shot clock. He throws up an ill-advised shot. It clangs off the side of the rim. The crowd groans, and as C.J. so aptly put it, we’re all mad at him.
But this isn’t the only C.J. Miles. Somewhere in my mind, and occasionally on the court, there exists a C.J. Miles Basketball Player. Not just C.J. the Gunner, but C.J. the gamer. The C.J. Miles of my basketball dreams. The Ideal C.J. This C.J. Miles, who I will henceforth call Ideal C.J., only shoots threes when he’s spotting-up. Ideal C.J. attacks the basket whenever he sees an opening. Ideal C.J. only settles for jump shots if he’s wide open, and never shoots them if he’s not squared-up. Ideal C.J. is active on defense. He reads the passing lanes, makes breaks on the ball, and forces turnovers. Ideal C.J. uses the length and lateral speed that C.J. the Gunner wastes to become a lockdown perimeter defender. Most of all, Ideal C.J. knows his role and executes it. He doesn’t force, he feels. He acts within the flow of the offense to deliver the back-breaking three from the top of the key, or to drive hard and throw down a momentum-swinging dunk. He picks his spots and he nails them. This is Ideal C.J.
The best part about this clip is the very thing that drives Jazz fans to insanity. It’s the way C.J. makes an impressive play with a fairly high degree of difficulty seem almost effortless. He reads Andrew Bynum’s eyes and breaks on the ball by throwing his long arm in the passing lane, and it’s all in one swift, smooth, beautiful motion. This is Ideal C.J. and this is exactly what maddens us. Why can’t he always play like this? He makes it look so easy, so why isn’t it? Why am I not currently writing about All-Star C.J. instead of a only-occasionally-present C.J.? Every time C.J. releases with that sweet lefty-shooting form of his, I expect the ball to go in. So why doesn’t it? Why does it miss more than 62% of the time?
C.J.’s issues all center around the intangible, mental aspect of the game. He has all of the physical tools to be a game-changing player in this league, but too often he settles for 7th best on a Jazz team that is largely considered to be rebuilding. Everyday C.J., the one we usually get, is a likable guy. Admittedly, I’m attached because C.J. has been a Jazzman his whole career, but I want to believe in this guy. Perhaps more than any other player in the last three years, I have wanted C.J. to succeed–to become Ideal C.J., day in and day out. Maybe C.J.’s destiny is to light up the points column for a 20-win Charlotte Bobcats. Or maybe, one day, we’ll all remember this period of C.J.’s career as the time when we thought of C.J. in terms of potential. As C.J. the Gunner versus Ideal C.J. Maybe on that day, we won’t have to call him anything but C.J. Miles. That’s the day for which I hope and long. The day Ideal C.J. and C.J. Miles become one.
At the end of last night’s game, we were all confronted with an immediate resolution to the question that has been circulating for about a year now: who takes the last shot? I know that there are statistics about performance in the clutch time designed to tell us who is the best choice, but as we all know, clutch time is about more than statistics; it’s about going with whatever your gut tells you. That’s why running isolation plays for reckless, volume-scoring wings becomes an inexplicably good idea and Ron Artest makes shots that swing NBA Championships. With that in mind, I decided to rank the Jazz players from 1-13 by the gut-check test- who I would feel most comfortable taking the last shot to the least comfortable. Without further ado:
CONFIDENCE LEVEL: We got this.
1. Paul Millsap. He’s simply the best player on the team, and even when he’s not, he’s the most important. On Tuesday night, Al Jefferson had a rough night on offense but we rolled to a 30 point win behind Millsap. Last night, Millsap wasn’t hitting his jumper and nothing Big Al could do could get us going. Granted, there were a ton of other factors, but Paul Millsap is the personification of our team and I would simply never be disappointed if he was taking the last shot. He never loses his composure.
2. Gordon Hayward. It goes without saying that this is ‘good’ Gordon Hayward. I was thinking about categorizing and putting ‘bad’ Gordon Hayward later on the list except that I realized that it was totally redundant because ‘bad’ Gordon Hayward is bad because he would never take the last shot. Anyway, this guy always seems so calm at the end of games and really makes some big plays. There have been a couple of miscues- the pass to Al at the end of the Lakers game comes to mind- but he’s been the biggest late-game playmaker the Jazz have had so far. He was the one with the late-game steal against Golden State that put the Jazz ahead for good and he was also the one running the floor for the easy fast break bucket at the end of the game last night. His shot has been off so far this season, but if the game was on the line, it would be easy for me to believe.
3. Josh Howard. If this guy could just learn how to dribble I’d consider putting him at number one. In all my life, I’ve never seen someone look so laid-back while playing basketball in the NBA, which especially seems to work out for him in crunch time. He just looks like he’s jogging around, dribbling lazily, loosely aware of his environment, and then he makes the perfect play at the perfect time. He kept the Jazz in the Lakers game with his totally unforeseen deluge of shooting and I really don’t see any reason why it wouldn’t happen again.
4. Jeremy Evans. This was easy. If Jeremy Evans is taking the last shot in a game, it’s because it is a dunk after the opposing team forgot that he was playing. He really never gets the ball otherwise, so this is an easy choice. If Jeremy Evans takes the last shot in a close game, it’s a win.
CONFIDENCE LEVEL: I think we’ve got a chance…
5. Earl Watson.
6. Raja Bell. Make no mistake; like everyone else literate enough to read statistics, I thoroughly understand that Raja Bell is a bad NBA player. At the same time, he seems to keep doing things right exactly when everyone has written him off. I definitely think that carries over to clutch situations- can you imagine how the air would deflate out of the ESA if Raja pulls up for a 3 in the last minute of the Dallas game? It would be the perfect moment for him to strangely win the game, meaning that he’ll keep starting for the rest of the season despite having the one of the lowest player efficiency ratings in modern history.
7. Jamaal Tinsley. If we learned anything from the Sundiata Gaines Experience, it’s that when you’re third-string point guard takes a three at the buzzer, it WILL go in.
CONFIDENCE LEVEL: Well… um… Maybe they’re feeling it?
8. Al Jefferson The best recent development in Al’s career is that he has started deferring to other players and spreading the ball around. Even passing out of double teams! As many wins as this turn of events will inevitably add to the season, it also has had a distinct negative effect on his late-game tendencies. I’m sure I’m not the only one who has noticed him stop calling for the ball at the end of games and getting off the block to clear up the lane for other players. If he takes the last shot, he’d be a little tentative about it- like against Los Angeles- and I’m not very excited about that.
9. C.J. Miles. Who knows what would happen if C.J. Miles took the last shot. He’s just crazy enough to make it, but it would still give me an especially severe heart attack, so he’s down to number nine.
10. Alec Burks. He has the best chance of rising significantly even within this season, but for now he’s down here. Even though he’s awesome, he is still a little bit out of control and has been taking some bad shots against tight defense. Last night was a huge step in the right direction, and I think that he’s putting it together quickly, but for now he’s down here because I think he would throw it up from anywhere if he got nervous.
11. Derrick Favors. Again, this is on the way up, but Favors doesn’t have a go-to move that I would be confident in. If he’s posting someone up with the game on the line, what is he going to do? I have no idea. I just hope that he’s feeling it.
CONFIDENCE LEVEL: NOOOOO!!!!!!!
12. Devin Harris. I had him this low even before the Dallas game last night, and before the trade rumors exploded thanks to Marc Stein’s tweet, leading to Devin Harris trending nationwide. Here’s my reason: against the Lakers last week, the Jazz started over time with a strong run and had tons of momentum along with the full support of the crowd. It seemed like victory was inevitable and all of our shots were going in. Then, after Pau Gasol makes a three from the corner to pull LA within one, Devin Harris takes it upon himself to answer. Even though we had been on a roll, as soon as he cocked his legs back and let the ball rip, I thought, “There is no way on earth that basketball is going through the hoop right now.” And I was right. We lost that game and then he put up 5 points per game on 31 percent shooting in all of the games since and now he’s publicly on the trading block. If Devin Harris takes another late-game shot any time soon, you know that every Jazz fan on the planet will be immediately thrust into despair.
13. Enes Kanter. Kanter just has to be last. While it looks like he’s going to be a solid pickup and he’s filling his role very well and efficiently, his scoring is not yet up to speed. Everybody knows that at the end of the game, the refs let a lot more physicality slide. We also know that Kanter’s biggest problem is his consistent failure to go up strong. The two forces collide and we’re talking about a very low chance of success.