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Golden State Draft Pick Watch: February 3

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

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The Three Possible Outcomes of this Jazz Season

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.

Golden State Draft Pick Watch: January 27

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

Jazz Rankings: At the buzzer…

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.

How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love Al Jefferson

I’m not going to create any personal revisionist history here:  I was a hater.  I heard every one of the countless “Al Jefferson is a black hole and nothing ever comes out” arguments and nodded in agreement.  I watched him give up big numbers night after night and I really wondered if it was worth it.  When the Jazz drafted Enes Kanter in June, I thought it was writing on the wall that the Al Jefferson experiment had failed.  While I always liked the guy in interviews, I could never fight the feeling that he just didn’t get it.  He didn’t understand what little things he had to do to make his teammates better and get the team more wins.  In my view, all he did was give up easy buckets and take tons of shots.

Naturally, when the season started in L.A., all of my worst fears were realized as he took it upon himself to make a run at the worst-shooting night in franchise history.  Grasping for some silver lining, I remember telling Evan after the game, “At least if he keeps playing this poorly, the Jazz will have to do something.”  Then, when we won the home opener against Philly without him, my skepticism was fueled even further as I was quite convinced that we would have blown it if Al was in to let Spencer Hawes get 10 more easy points.

I can’t really point to an exact moment across the past week or two that made me start to come out of my staunch position, but I think the whole Al Jefferson picture started to finally come together for me.  True, we were winning, he was making his shots, and (gasp!) even playing defense, but there was something more to it than that.  I finally realized that by being a part of this team, Al is finally getting a chance to learn how to win.  Sure, it’s not a coincidence that every team he’s played for has failed to  reach the postseason, but nobody ever taught him how to win games.  We all thought that it was going to come to him when he came to town with Deron Williams and Jerry Sloan at the mast, but maybe it’s now.  Maybe being a part of our rebuilding process will help him rediscover how to succeed at the game of basketball.

Not to rain on our glorious and unexpected 6-3 parade, but the Jazz are now coming out of what is probably the easiest part of their schedule.  Even if things turn sour for the Jazz, I’ve come to the conclusion that Big Al really deserves the support either way.  The poor guy just hasn’t learned to win yet, and not for lack of trying.  He was never given a good look from a good team and now he’s still trying to figure out what he has to do to get the promised land of the postseason.  The last time that he won anything was the 3A Mississippi state championship and he had to average 44 points a game to do it (which I suppose explains his current shooting habits).  Though last year was a spectacular disaster of a season, it seems fitting that Utah should be the place where Big Al finally figures out how to play for the win.  Even though there will undoubtedly be some more highs and lows before he gets there, I reluctantly concede that he deserves a little patience.

Raja Bell is Milt Palacio, and also he is Keith McLeod, sort of rolled into one with a dash of CJ Miles in there somewhere

As much fun as it is to make #freeAlecBurks tweets, the following chain of events seem to be inevitable, with or without a twitter trend:
1. Raja Bell will continue to make his post-ankle injury free-fall into basketball irrelevance.
2. Alec Burks will continue to make the most of his garbage minutes by proving himself to be the only player on the Jazz who can consistently penetrate and create easy shots for himself and others.
3. Bell will gradually get less minutes as Burks continues to integrate himself into the defensive schemes and make less mistakes on the defensive end.
4. Burks will start averaging his well-earned 14 points per game shooting over 50 percent from the field along with over a steal a game within 25 minutes every outing.
5.  Jazz fans will rejoice and Raja Bell will become best known as a minor trade asset for his expiring contract at the end of next season.
It may take awhile before the truth of this statement really becomes indisputable, but it needs to be said:  This is not the 2003-2004 season.  This rebuilding stretch is a far cry from the last one.  The Jazz aren’t fielding a team full of players that the AP would call ‘scrappy’ every time we pull out a win against a decent team.  Unlike ’03-’04, they have an above-average talent level, an unproven coach, and a couple of big contracts.  The only similarity between the two teams is that Paul Millsap is kind of like a big, black, angry Matt Harpring with two functional knees.
However, the whole Alec Burks scene looks very familiar when considering Deron Williams’ rookie season.  Of course, D-Will was at least getting minutes the whole season, but the understandable frustration among Jazz fans is pretty much the same.  Obviously, both rookies had a lot of potential and seemed to possess the ability to take over games if they were feeling it.  Both were stuck behind regrettably underwhelming starters in the backcourt who seemed to disappear on both the court and the stat sheets.  Said starters also had strange first names: Milt and Raja, which sounds like a Canadian indie rock band (leaving out Keith for the sake of indie-ness). Keith and Milt stole 50 starts from the budding Deron Williams that season, and 50 will probably end up about right for Raja’s starts this year as well, barring any injuries (which would render this whole post utterly obsolete).  The good news is that even before he ultimately usurps a role on the starting squad, Burks will keep getting more and more minutes as he leaves Coach Corbin fewer and fewer reasons to keep him on the bench.  In the meantime, we can keep enjoying ourselves by reading everyone’s #freeAlecBurks tweets.

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.