Archive for December, 2011

The Nightmare After Christmas

This morning I woke up, and gradually the memory of last night’s dreadful 96-71 loss to the Lakers drifted to the forefront of my mind. Initially, I reacted by asking myself if it was a dream. Or in this case, a nightmare. As I came to terms with the fact that it had actually happened, its reality did not shake from me the conviction that it was a nightmare. Because in a way, it was.

The Jazz have always been kind of boring. Small-market teams can get national coverage when they’re interesting. That’s why Ricky Rubio was such a great pick-up for Minnesota. At least they’re bad and interesting now (and I don’t mean Michael Beasley kind of interesting), and not just bad (see: Minnesota Wolves, 2010 season). Perhaps its because the Jazz have been so uncool, as Jackson noted in his first post, or because for over two decades, the Jazz have won with a methodical offensive system that thrived on the pick-and-roll. For whatever reason, the Jazz have been boring. This wasn’t really a problem, as long as the team was good. But this year, Jazz fans face the most nightmarish of possibilities: boring and bad.

Besides the madman Jeremy Evans’s momentary flash of athleticism, last night was boring. It was boring. It was hopeless. It was like watching your cousin’s middle school girls basketball game. 31 points at the end of the first half. 2-16 shooting for the player widely regarded to be the team’s best. Brick after clanging brick from C.J. Miles (what’s the over/under on ill-advised threes for CJ this season? 50? 70?). No one, not even Detroit fans, wants to watch their team fail to reach the 75 point mark. That’s boring. But to fail to reach that 75 point mark because your point guard walked the ball up the court every, single possession, only to set up your slow-footed, undersized center for an off-balance hook shot that badly missed? That’s painful, and last night I was pained.

I know this was only one game. And I know I shouldn’t judge a new coach with a young roster on such a small sample size. But that was boring, and that was bad, and I do not want to watch another game like that in my life. For the love of all that’s good about the NBA, can’t we watch a team that runs? That pushes the ball up the court at every opportunity? That throws outlet passes and pressures in transition? If this Jazz team has anything going for it, it is young legs. So run. Give up 110 points a game. Miss the playoffs by 5 games. I don’t care. The team is young. It needs to develop. It’s okay for a few playoff-less seasons. But please, don’t be bad and boring.

Maybe I’m rushing to conclusions. Or maybe, Jazz fans everywhere are about to live a nightmare.

Memo, Money, Had it

I know he was injured pretty much all of last season.  I know that he showed a lot of rust in the preseason games; I know that he is a 32-year-old on a team at least 2 years away from its arrival.  I know that we are a small market team that owed him $10.8 million dollars this season and he wasn’t going to come close to earning it.  I know that the trade exemption might come in handy if/when another Al Jefferson situation arises.

But it’s still sad to see him go.  The Deron Williams trade was one thing- it was a massive overhaul to reform the franchise completely.  This one feels a little different. The Jazz tossed him onto the scrapheap as an obsolete piece from a different time, the former third-best player on a defunct powerhouse that collapsed too soon.  I don’t mind any of the business aspects of it- paying 8 digits to your fifth-most-utilized big doesn’t make sense to anyone (I mean, besides James Dolan).  At the same time, I wish we could have found a way to keep the one cornerstone of the earlier iteration of the Jazz that seemed to have some genuine organizational loyalty.

He was never the one complaining, causing a commotion about his future, or moping around because he didn’t get more touches.  He was always just playing his game, earning his salary, and filling whatever role the Jazz asked him to fill.   When Carlos Boozer was having phantom calf tweaks and missing large parts of the 05-06 season, Memo quietly stepped up to average 18 and 9.  During the 2007 playoffs against the Rockets, while Andrei Kirilenko was crying to postgame reporters about not getting enough minutes, he was putting in a spectacular effort earning the title of Yao Killer.  Even this preseason, while realizing that his position had been suddenly filled by a strong group of young players, he was still pitching in and doing what he could to help his compatriot, Enes Kanter, have the smoothest transition to the NBA possible.  Of course, he will be best remembered for moments like the clip above, as the clutch shooter that always seemed to have the perfect shot at the perfect moment.  And I guess that’s how it should be.

It was a very minor trade in the NBA landscape and it’s not going to impact who wins the championship.  The Jazz will have more relevant games to win in the (hopefully) near future and somebody wearing the blue and green will step up and hit the big shots.  Craig Bolerjack will come up with a new signature call and Jazz fandom will move forward.  But I’ll always look back fondly on the days when the game was on the line I anxiously waited to hear the words: “Memo… Money… Got it!”

On January 14th, I expect there to be a wide range of reactions to Deron Williams’ entrance onto the floor ESA, but I really hope that there is only one kind of reaction for Memo.  He was a guy worth cheering for.

Jeremy Evans: Madman

Who is Jeremy Evans, anyway?  I mean, what does it even mean to be ‘the energy guy?’ Paul Millsap was that guy once, long ago, but maybe he became too talented all-around to become an ‘energy guy’ anymore, making him something more complete, or at least something more easily identifiable as an NBA player.  Jeremy Evans doesn’t really have a complete package of anything, but when he checks in you know something crazy is going to happen.  Hopefully crazy good, though there is definitely an alternative.  Anyway, this play from the game today just epitomized everything I’ve come to understand about this wiry little small forward: he just has a different concept of the game of basketball than everyone else.  I mean, sure, there’s a slight difference in the way he screams after he sees that his transcendent dunk was dismissed by the official as an offensive foul, but not really.  Mostly he’s just crazy, and does what crazy people do: whatever they feel like doing at the moment.

It seems like Evans senses to some extent how lucky he is to have a roster spot on an NBA team.  He spent four years playing for Western Kentucky (yes, of the Sun Belt conference) and barely brushed into double-digits scoring his senior season.  His highest scoring game was a 22-point outing (against THE Arkansas St.) and he was on NOBODY’s mock draft going into 2010.  Then the Jazz used their sixth-to-last pick on him and voila! “Energy guy.”  They gave him a guaranteed contract, a roster spot, and before you know it, he’s posterizing people right and left despite the fact that he is still way too low profile to even have a poster.

The one thing I have to say about this guy after the game tonight is that he really killed himself out there in those last couple of minutes.  He seemed to unravel a little bit after the aforementioned dunk went awry, but he pulled it back together, kept getting the minutes and actually played some solid (gasp!) defense down the stretch to help the Jazz hold their lead despite doing everything possible to make it unnecessarily close.

The Pros and Cons of the Josh Howard Signing

Remember when Josh Howard was an All-Star? Yeah, me neither. But he was. And it really wasn’t that long ago. In fact, it was only five years ago. In that season, Josh Howard averaged 19 points and 7 boards, then 20 points and 7 rebounds the next season. Then, in his last full season with Dallas, he averaged 18 and 5. Those are legitimate numbers, and if that last season with Dallas was last season, then this post wouldn’t be entitled “Pros and Cons,” but “How the Jazz Finally Signed a Coveted Player out of Free Agency.” Then again, if Howard had produced last season like his glory days in Dallas, the Jazz wouldn’t have been able to sign him.

So what happened? He got injured. Which isn’t anything new. Injuries have plagued him since that All-Star season. He hasn’t played 55 games in a season since the 07-08 season, and he only played in four games last year since he tore his ACL. Admittedly, the Jazz are taking a flier on a  player who had a PER of less than 10 last season, but the truth is, no one even knows if Howard is good anymore. He could regain some of his former game and bring 15 points and 5 boards to the table every night, or he could re-injure his knee and ride the pine for the rest of his one-year contract. Either way, there are some knowns about Howard’s game, and these are what I will address: the “basketball reasons” for signing Howard.

Pro: His position. The Jazz needed help from the small forward. With AK still in Russia, the Jazz had a gaping hole at the position. Hayward could/probably will play a large portion of his minutes at the three, but beyond him, Jeremy Evans was the only other SF option (and I know I’m assuming C.J. will not play the 3, but I like to live in a pretend-world where C.J. Miles does not get considerable minutes on an NBA team).

Pro: Experience. Howard has been to the Finals. Howard has played in the league for longer than half the roster combined, especially the other options for small forward: Evans, Hayward and Miles are all very young.

Pro: Rebounding from the 3. Howard has been a perennially good rebounder for his position. In fact, Howard’s career rebounding per 40 minute stats are better than LeBron James’s who is largely considered the best rebounder from the 3 in the league.

Pro: He takes care of the ball. In the 06-07 and 07-08 seasons, Howard led the league in turnover percentage–the same seasons in which he played the most minutes of his career.

Unfortunately, there are also a number of cons:

Con: He’s injury-prone, but we covered this earlier.

Con: He can’t shoot the three-ball. This is possibly the most aggravating aspect of the Jazz’s offseason acquisitions was the failure to pick up an elite shooter. Besides Gordon Hayward (who had a limited number of attempts), the Jazz did not have a single rotation player shoot over 40% from three last season. Not a single one. To put this in perspective, the Denver Nuggets who were barely a playoff team had three players with over 50 attempts. So what did the Jazz do in the offseason? They picked up a career 34% three-point shooter. Problem solved.

Con: He may have character issues.

In the end, taking a flier on a player always has the same dangers. Fortunately, this one is a one-year, low-risk (worst case scenario: he blows out his other ACL, gets busted for weed possession and then gets waived before season’s end, ending his career and opening up more minutes for the electrifying Evans), potentially high-reward flier (best case scenario: consistent rebounding, decent perimeter defense, bench scoring, a contract extension and general career redemption). If nothing else, I’m excited because I used to love watching the old Josh Howard play, and maybe, in the slim chance he can regain that form, I’ll get to watch it again–and that’s the greatest pro.

Sensible Hype: Gordon Hayward will be an All-star

At the risk of alienating our still-fragile readership, I have a confession: I am a Duke fan. In related news, I also root for the terrorists every time I watch Die Hard, and I think David Stern is a selfless guy who doesn’t have enough power. My weak defense is that growing up Duke was on TV more than any other team, and every time I watched them play, they had just enough white guys with no marketable athletic ability beyond a decent jump shot that I thought I had a chance to play for them. So as a Duke fan, I was three inches away from forever resenting Gordon Hayward for ruining Jon Scheyer’s national championship. But he missed. Then the Jazz drafted him, traded Deron Williams, totally reinvented the team, and now I’m writing on a blog whose tagline is nothing short of a worshipful declaration of adoration for the Butler guard. Which is one of the great things about sports: a guy I vehemently rooted against is probably my favorite player on my favorite NBA team.

As far as rookies go, Gordon Hayward went largely unrecognized and probably with good cause. He only averaged five points and two boards in a forgettable season for an irrelevant team. But those numbers are deceiving. First, they ignore his improvement over the course of the season. His average final season numbers are much more indicative of his lack of minutes played (16.9 over the course of the season) than they are of his actual performance. Second, they ignore Sloan’s reputation for burying rookies. Third, they ignore Gordon’s more hopeful stats: 49% field goal percentage and 47% from three. In fact, if you check out Hayward’s splits, you see that in the months where his minutes went up, so did his numbers. This is especially true in the final seven games of the season, when he averaged 36 minutes a game. In those seven games, he averaged 16 points, 3 rebounds, 3 assists and 58% shooting. Of those seven games, six of them were against playoff teams, and his virtuoso performance of the season (22 points, 6 boards, 5 assists, 2 steals and a block) was against the Lakers in the Staples Center.

The usual knocks on Hayward were that at times he looked lost offensively and outmatched defensively, but in those last final games, he looked anything but. Despite his great offensive stats, what I remember most about that game against the Lakers was the frustration evident on Kobe’s face after Gordon had forced him into another bad shot. Kobe Bryant, perhaps the most polished offensive force in the game, was frustrated by a rookie’s defense. Just one year removed from missing that shot against Duke, Gordon Hayward was shutting down one of the game’s best shooting guards and leading the Jazz to an upset win against a team fighting for home-court in the playoffs. That was the Gordon Hayward that we all thought the Jazz had drafted: a guy who could definitely be the best player on a contender and who could someday be an All-star.

For a player who was the go-to guy on a previously unheard of college team, confidence is key. When Gordon is confident (something that was nearly impossible for him under Sloan’s harsh watch), he fills up the box score, he can guard the other team’s best player, and he’ll shoot the lights out. In the Jazz’s final game of the season, at home against Denver, he took 17 shots (eat your heart out, C.J. Miles!), made 12 of them, and went 5 for 6 from three-point range. He was rolling off screens and nailing jump shots. He was leading the fast break and finishing at the rim, and most of all, he was oozing confidence. That’s the Gordon Hayward that can be an all-star, and that’s the Gordon Hayward I believe we will see this season.

If you are still unconvinced, do yourself a favor and watch these highlights from the last time we saw Gordon take the court:

Devin Harris is actually good

PROOF

Ever since The Trade, it seems like everyone I’ve heard from has written off Devin Harris as a stopgap point guard instead of a traditional Utah-Jazz-pure-point-guard which apparently is the only kind we are allowed to have.  This makes me sad.  I think Devin Harris is awesome.  I think we downgraded from an A to a B+ and that really isn’t that big of a deal.  I am firmly entrenched in the ‘let’s keep Harris and see what happens’ school of thought.

We are totally fine with Harris as our go-to PG.  More than fine.  He’s a 28-year-old former All-Star- a real former All-Star, not like AK47 in ’04 who just got in for being a fascinating crazy person- and he brings everything to the table that a point guard needs to in order for a team to contend.  The days of needing a 10 assists-per-game point to win the Finals are long gone.  Ever since the hand-check rules were put in place in 2001 and enforced more harshly in 2005, all a team needs to do to be elite is trot out a point guard that can spread the floor by either a) slashing and getting to the line or b) being a legitimate three-point threat.  Of course I’m not talking about crazy out of control though entertaining shameless chuckers. But I am talking about Devin Harris.

The biggest dig I’ve heard anyone give him is that he doesn’t fit into our system, but I don’t even think we have a very well defined system at this point.  The last game of last season saw Gordon Hayward scoring 34 points in all manner of ways that Jerry Sloan would have highly disapproved of.  And we won!  So maybe our ambiguous system will be a good thing after all.  And hopefully it works out for Devin Harris, because he is every bit the facilitator that Russell Westbrook is.

My only problem with him is the new beard.  The beard has got to go.  Deron Williams grew a beard and then he ruined our franchise and got himself traded.

The Championship Template: Should the Jazz trade Millsap?

Here’s what we know about winning a title. First and foremost, you need a big man who can protect the rim and be your defensive anchor. This is a necessity. If NBA history has taught us anything about winning championships, it’s that unless you have Michael Jordan, you need a game-changing defensive presence in the paint. The Mavs had Tyson Chandler, the Lakers had Bynum/Gasol/Odom in 2009 and 2010, the Celtics had Garnett and Perkins and so forth. In fact, if the Knicks hanging Chauncey Billups and Ronny Turiaf out to dry to fork over big money to Chandler teaches us anything, it’s that the Knicks are finally serious about defense, and more significantly, winning a championship. You have to have an inside defensive presence. That’s why Tyson Chandler, Nene, and Marc Gasol are all going to get really rich in the next two weeks. That’s why the failed-Chris Paul trade would have made (or still will make) the Lakers worse, and that’s why the Blazers thought it was a good idea to draft Greg Oden over Kevin Durant (which, by the way, wasn’t a good idea; it was a really, really bad idea).

Self-Indulgent Tangent: This is also why Jordan was the greatest ever. His big men during those championship years were some mix of the following players: Bill Cartwright, Horace Grant, Luc Longley, Toni Kukoc, and Dennis Rodman. Of those players, only Dennis Rodman could have been considered in the top 50 players in the league during their championship seasons with the Bulls, and Bill Cartwright, the center the Bulls trotted out during those first three championships, was all kinds of terrible. Somehow, Jordan won 6 championships anyway. And don’t tell me that Scottie Pippen could make up for the lack of a post presence. Sure Scottie Pippen was a top 20 player at the time, but LeBron James had Dwyane Wade, a top 5 player, as his sidekick and couldn’t win it all (or wait, who was the sidekick?). Unless you’re Michael Jordan, you need a center who can protect the rim. You know, someone not named Chris Bosh.

You also need at least one dominant scorer. Nothing surprising here. You need some role players who can fill a variety of roles: Own the Glass Guy (often same person as Protect the Rim/Defensive Anchor), Perimeter Lockdown Guy (Ron Artest during the Lakers championships), Instant Bench Scoring Guy (J.J. Barea for the Mavs), Team Chemistry Guy (known in some circles as White Guy Who Never Gets Minutes but Who is Etched into Basketball History for Dancing at the Championship Parade),and so forth. Those guys fill holes, and necessary holes, but the last absolute necessity, if it isn’t being filled by the dominant scorer, is the Go-to Guy. The “I Refuse to Lose this Game” Guy. The Clutch Guy. Call him what you want, but every team needs someone filling the role. Dirk, Kobe, Paul Pierce, and Manu have all played the part on championship teams. Even the 2004 Pistons, generally known as the least star-oriented team to win it all, had Chauncey Billups playing the Clutch Guy role. You have to have it.

So how do the Jazz line up? Here is my rough outline for how the Jazz fill the necessary big man slots:

Protect the Rim Defensive Force = Derrick Favors (assuming he starts accessing that potential)

Low-Post Scoring/Rebounding = Al Jefferson/Paul Millsap

If the Jazz are going to win a title, they absolutely need to have a defensive presence in the middle. The only player on the roster with that kind of potential is Derrick Favors. Unfortunately, Favors’ minutes will be eaten up by Jefferson at the 5 and Millsap at the 4. This can mean only one thing: Millsap has to go.

Jefferson and Millsap both give the Jazz low-post scoring and rebounding. Jefferson rebounds better and has a superior low-post game, whereas Millsap is a better mid-range shooter and works better off the pick-and-roll. Now, assuming Gordon Hayward molds into the Go-to Guy who can average 18-5-4 (which really is possible, but more on this at a later time), the Jazz’s primary need is the dominant scoring force. Of the two, Jefferson has higher scoring averages and has the ability to create his own shot on the block. Millsap’s numbers dipped after the departure of Deron Williams, because a huge portion of Millsap’s points were assisted.  That means Millsap. I love Millsap. He has an incredible motor, and he functioned much better in Sloan’s system than did Jefferson. If Derrick Favors becomes the defensive force, what the Jazz need from that Jefferson/Millsap tandem is pure scoring. Having added Enes Kanter though the draft, Millsap has become obsolete. Certainly he could offer the Jazz a lot, but there are deeper needs (i.e. a passable back-up for Gordon; and no, I don’t mean Raja Bell), and Millsap’s presence would inhibit Favors’ development.

Obviously, there’s a pro-Millsap argument. Which would break down something like this: Millsap is $5 million a year cheaper. Millsap is younger. Millsap doesn’t demand the ball every single trip down the court. Millsap has a higher FG%. Millsap plays with heart, and if organizational loyalty means anything, then we should keep Millsap.

That’s a very valid argument, and to be completely honest, I would not be devastated if the Jazz didn’t trade Millsap. In fact, somewhere in my sentimental heart, I’d be relieved. Unfortunately, they do have to trade one of them. In other words, one of them has to go, and because Jefferson fills our need for a dominant scorer, I’d rather keep him.

Once the team has solved the Jefferson or Millsap issue, there is really only one question remaining: What can we get for him? Or more aptly put, how can the Jazz turn Millsap into the next piece of a championship team?