(Dis)Respect the Jazz

If you’re looking for a statistically based piece proving through advanced metrics that the Jazz are legitimate, then look elsewhere. Actually, look here or here. However, if you want thorough analysis explaining why no one in the basketball media is willing to give the Jazz any credit for the 9-4 record, you’ve come to the right place. Maybe you already know this, and you just want to read someone rip on the patronizing analysts who withhold their approval of our team until we beat someone legit (Denver AT Denver anyone?). If this is true, again, you’ve come to the right place.

The Jazz are 9-4, and everyone who cares about the NBA one month into the season (admittedly a small group) is utterly baffled. Though perhaps to the majority of the NBA analysts, the Jazz’s success has been confusing, the nature of those analysts’ confusion is not very complex. It breaks down to three major factors:

1) The Jazz have no bona fide stars. Sure, Paul Millsap deserves to be in the all-star game, and Al Jefferson might be the most dangerous low-post scoring threat in the conference, but those guys aren’t stars. At least not to the mainstream media, who comprise the group of people who make the final decisions on subjective and arbitrary matters like “stardom”. Of course these are the same people who have rewarded Kobe Bryant only one MVP trophy, so they can’t be trusted.

Teams without true superstars are always disrespected by the media. This is why Memphis’s playoff run last year was so shocking to so many. Everybody had totally overlooked the team for a variety of reasons: Rudy Gay was injured, Zach Randolph had been written off after his tumultuous tenure with the Jail Blazers, Tony Allen had character problems, and Marc Gasol was just Pau’s beefier, less-skilled little brother. ZERO star power. For a league whose popularity and revenue are based almost solely around marketable stars, the most common fallacy in basketball analysis is connecting that star power to actual basketball production. This is why last year Jeff Van Gundy predicted the Miami Heat would win 72 games and the Finals. This is why he was wrong. This is also why the Knicks have been virtually unwatchable this season.

2) No one cares about chemistry and team defense. There’s nothing sexy about a team with a different hero every single night, and as multiple Jazz writers have mentioned, people have pigeonholed Al Jefferson and Paul Millsap as offensively gifted players without any defensive prowess. Of course, as any devoted Jazz fan has probably noticed, that’s what makes this team great. One night, Big Al puts up 25 points and leads us to victory, and the next night, Gordon Hayward and Paul Millsap combine for 45 points, 16 rebounds, 6 assists, 3 blocks and 2 steals. The Jazz win games, but not because our aging shooting guard is jacking up 30 shots a game and average 40 points (I’m looking at you Kobe). For Jazz fans, this is immensely entertaining. Even as C.J. is throwing up bricks one night, he’s coming back for 19 points on 54% shooting the next night. In fact, the only consistent producer for the team has been Millsap. Everyone else has had at least three atrocious games this season. The mainstream media can’t sell this to non-Jazz fans. People like superstars. People like to see one player gunning for a win all on his own. The proverbial “team on his back” guy–that’s what people like. The Jazz don’t win like that. The Jazz win like, imagine this, a team.

3) We’re still the Utah Jazz. Even when we were running all over the Western Conference in the D-Will and Boozer days, no one cared. No one cared that we were virtually unbeatable at home. No one cared that we were a legitimate title threat. The Utah Jazz were and are still located in Utah.

Fortunately, none of those three reasons are legitimate. Sure the Jazz are getting disrespected, but not because the team is deeply or irrevocably flawed. This is only good for us. We get to root for the team that, despite being geniunely solid and well-balanced, everyone else overlooks. No one circles the Utah Jazz on the schedule (except for maybe the Nets, who stink). The Jazz will continue to be underestimated by the rest of the league and that can only be a good thing. Every single game, the Miami Heat get their opponent’s best effort. The Jazz get the luxury of playing teams at their worst, and it will pay dividends. This Jazz team is at least one of the eight best teams in the Western Conference, and if nobody knows that until the regular season is over, all the better.

Where the Box Score Fails

(Ravell Call, Deseret News)

It’s weird. How it works. How some games mean more than others. How while you’re watching a game, it begins to take on added significance, like it’s worth more than one win, or it will hurt more than one loss would hurt. Sure, the season is 82 games long (66 this year), but that number, 82, makes it sound like they’re all equal. Like a season is comprised of 82 games, 48 minutes each, and the record is nothing but a compilation of how many of those 66 games ended when your favorite team had more points. All numbers. The games, the minutes, then the seconds, and finally the points. The points on the scoreboard that decide whether your team gets one more in the win column, or one more in the other. They’re all equal. Every game is just a game. Right?

Here’s the great secret: they’re not equal. Some games do mean more than others. Sometimes 6-4 and 7-3 are more than one game apart. This one felt like if the Jazz had won, if Gordon had taken the shot instead of dishing it to Big Al, then somehow, the Jazz would be more than 7-3. The Jazz would be legitimate. Respected. Someone, some talking head on Sportscenter or some writer on ESPN, would acknowledge that this team was for real. Of course I still believe that this Jazz team can accomplish great things. Make the playoffs. Shock the NBA world. But I really, really, wanted some non-Jazz fan to recognize this, and after Millsap’s steal and dunk in the first play of overtime, I finally allowed myself to hope for it. Then we were up four points, and I was almost expecting it. Yes, I thought, I’m going to get on Twitter, as soon as this game is over, and I’m going to find someone dishing out some serious pro-Jazz love. I thought I was going to read some tweets praising Josh Howard’s clutch gene, Paul Millsap’s heart of a lion, and Raja Bell’s fourth quarter defense on Kobe. I thought I was going to read a tweet from Ric Bucher or JA Adande that said something like “Jazz find a way to beat Lakers despite 38 from Kobe.” Then Pau hit the three, Bynum stuffed Jefferson and Kobe’s 38 was suddenly 40, and it had all slipped away. The game that over the course of 53 minutes of basketball had come to mean so much more than 53 minutes of basketball had ended. With a loss. A loss that felt like 10 losses. A loss that hurt. A loss that meant more than just one game.

I can see someone reading the newspaper, or checking the box score this morning, and with some disappointment seeing that the Jazz lost. Maybe they’ll brush it off because it’s the Lakers or because it’s a young team, and maybe they’ll think to themselves, hey, at least we’re still 6-4. They’ll be right of course. We are still 6-4. But for me and for every Jazz fan that watched that game, we’ll know better. We’ll know better because just like the win against Miami last year, this one felt like it was worth something more. 6-4 is not just 6-4.

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.

The Idiosyncratic Heroism of Gordon Hayward

If the Jazz were a comic book, Gordon Hayward would be its hero. Which isn’t to say he’s playing the best basketball on the team or even that he will have the brightest career, just that of all the Jazzmen, Gordon Hayward embodies a narrative and personality most fitting a comic book hero. But not just the over-simplified,  Adam West Batman kind of hero, and not just the Christopher Nolanesque, brooding and tortured kind of hero either. Gordon Hayward is all kinds of hero. He’s flawed and talented. Insecure and confident. Timid and reckless. Glaring shortcomings mingled with occasional flashes of blinding brilliance.  Simultaneously subdued and authoritative (see: Friday night’s dunk). He’s just simple enough to root for and just complex enough to fascinate you. With Hayward, it’s all about which moments you’re watching–which abrupt snapshots of which brand of Gordon you witness. To say I understand him, even in simple, basketball terms, would be completely inaccurate. To say that I’m never baffled and frustrated by him would be dishonest. And to say that I believe with every iota in my basketball-breathing soul that he will be Great and Legendary would be hyperbole. But only slightly.

By any normal standards of judgment, Gordon Hayward is an enigma. As I have mentioned, the guy was one shot away from attaining Cult Hero Status as the Indiana boy who conquered college basketball’s malevolent tyrant, but he’s also a well-documented and self-publicized video game nerd. He has definitely cracked the Top Five Most Athletic White Americans in the NBA list, and yet he struggles in stereotypically white-boy basketball skills (pure, spot-up shooting to name one). He disappears for long stretches at a time only to return for a highlight reel drive and dish. He doggedly adheres to the rigidity of the half-court offense but thrives in the creativity of the open-court. Occasionally opponents blow by his weak perimeter defense and on a subsequent possession see their shot sent back by one of Hayward’s patented, help-side blocks. In fact, before Saturday’s game against Golden State, I was devising a post in which I examined how to better utilize his considerable talents in the team’s offense. Then Saturday night happened, and I was left both pleased and confused by Hayward’s performance.

The fact is, as hard as it is to assess Gordon’s broader effect on the game, I’m often disappointed at how reluctantly he asserts himself. But even as I puzzle over his seeming fear for the spotlight, he grabs a loose ball, races down the court, draws the foul, and nails a game-winning free throw that acts as the culmination of an awe-inspiring, box score -filling performance. It’s almost as though he glories in seizing those moments when everyone has counted him out. He waits, and waits, until you’ve started to lose faith, to regret your prediction that he’ll be an all-star, and to lower your expectations to Rasual Butler levels–then he strikes. Then he wakes up, looks you in the eye and unassumingly asks “remember me?” Suddenly, he’s blitzing the passing lanes and starting fastbreaks. He’s throwing down brash dunks and flying around the court like Detlef Schrempf on speed. Most importantly, he’s winning games for the team you’ve loved all your life. He’s showing the same kind of respect for the game that drives you to wear that Jazz T-shirt for four game-days in one week because you think it’s lucky (it is lucky). He understands how you feel about this team, and he wants to win it for you. Gradually, in that dawning of comprehension, you begin to see the possibility that Momentarily Great Gordon Hayward could be Always Great Gordon Hayward. You begin to see Gordon Hayward The Future. Gordon Hayward The Hero.

Risk-less Management: Why Won’t Corbin Start Burks?

When I first heard the news that Sloan was leaving and Tyrone Corbin was in as head coach, my initial reaction was sadness, then concern, then intrigue, until finally I reached a vague optimism: Maybe Sloan had lost his touch. Maybe the players need fresh blood. Maybe a shake-up in the status quo is exactly what this team needs to make a leap. Maybe Tyrone Corbin is a better fit for these players. Maybe this is a good thing.

Now the jury’s still out on Corbin. Sure, his expressions are usually a pleasant combination of veiled terror, unbridled rage, and dogged hopelessness, and sure he continues to dole out consistently big minutes to C.J. Miles (who shoots a glorious 34% from the field; seriously, how close are we to dubbing a well-guarded, 20-foot, fadeaway jump shot that clangs off the rim a “C.J.”?). Those things are forgivable. He’s a new coach. He’s been given an inexperienced and underachieving team. But there is at least one unforgivable about Tyrone Corbin’s recent coaching.

Jerry Sloan was old. He was stuck in his ways. When the Jazz drafted an exciting young player, I knew that player was only going to get garbage minutes for his first few seasons, and I was all right with that. Sloan had experience and he had a methodical system that would not be interrupted by unnecessary risks on unproven players. So when I reached that vague optimism in the post-Sloan retirement, it was because I thought the Jazz finally had a coach that would take those risks. I believed Hemingway when he told me that the younger you are, the more gambles you’ll make. And thank goodness, I thought, because this is a team if there’s ever been one that needs to gamble on some young players.

Alec Burks needs more minutes. This is obvious to everyone. I have searched the web, and there is no response movement to #freeAlecBurks. No one is clamoring to defend Raja Bell. There is no popular or even unpopular support for Raja’s 20 MPG. The general consensus is that the 35 year-old Bell’s only purpose on the Jazz roster is to steal Alec Burks from his minutes. Even Corbin himself has yet to offer a reasonable defense for Bell’s continued use.

So what’s the hold-up? Why does Raja continue to start and Burks continue to grow restless on the bench? Because so far, Corbin has not been the fresh, untainted, risk-taking coach the Jazz needed. What I overlooked was that Corbin is a Sloan man, and Sloan men believe in veterans. Whether he realizes it or not,  Corbin was deeply indoctrinated by Sloan, and not just in their affinity for half-court, pick-and-roll offensive sets. Corbin won’t start Burks, or even give Burks consistent minutes, because Corbin takes no risks. He doesn’t overhaul the offense even though the personnel is built to run. He doesn’t ride the second team even when they’re playing better. He doesn’t get in anyone’s face for taking bad shots (yeah, I’m talking about you Al Jefferson), and he certainly, isn’t going to play Alec Burks until he is absolutely sure Burks won’t make him look bad.

At 2-3, the Jazz are mimicking the style of their coach: low risk, low reward. The Jazz will continue to beat bad teams at home and lose on the road unless Coach Corbin starts gambling on the team’s young talent. Sure Utah won last night, and the Jazz can keep beating the New Orleanses and Philadelphias of this league with this line-up. But the playoffs are a pipe dream without some shake-up, and that requires risk. Corbin can hesitate, brood, mull it over, and eventually have enough statistical and visual evidence to justify starting Burks, and then enjoy the benefits of an athletic wing who scores; or he can start him now and at least have a chance at something special.

Roll the dice, Corbin. You’re not Jerry Sloan, and until these last five games, I was grateful for that.

 

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.

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.