For a guy who's won more than 1,000 games as an NBA coach, Jerry Sloan makes the process sound so easy.
"Anybody could coach these guys," Sloan said of his current Jazz team, which appears destined to become the 18th playoff club in his 21 years in Utah. "They're good people, they work hard in practice and they do the right thing. It boils down to people and how they work and how they respect their job. You always have a chance to win if you get good people who try to do their job. I don't think it's coaching."
It's hard to disagree with a man who ranks fourth on the all-time wins list, but the fact that the Jazz are within sight of the Western Conference's No. 2 seed is a reflection of what could be some of the best coaching of Sloan's career. Injuries, lineup changes, a typically tough conference schedule and sad off-the-court news for Sloan and the Jazz -- all those factors have made life complicated for a team that came within two victories of the conference finals last season.
"Our guys have played pretty hard trying to win some ball games," Sloan said. "We've lost some games we should have won and won some games we should have lost, but they've shown a lot of desire."
Utah is finally hitting its stride, but it took a while because of injuries to top players. Stars Carlos Boozer (45 games missed) and Deron Williams (14), starting center Mehmet Okur (nine), ace sixth man Andrei Kirilenko (11) and reserve forward Matt Harpring (15) all have been sidelined for long stretches. In fact, the Jazz didn't use their projected starting lineup until the 57th game of the season. They already have used 16 starting lineups, six more than last season.
With Paul Millsap's emergence and the continued development of Ronnie Brewer and C.J. Miles, the Jazz stayed afloat with a 26-22 record through January. Now healthy again (not withstanding Boozer's sore ankle), Utah has won 14 of 15 since Feb. 1, including a current 11-game winning streak fueled by the playmaking of Williams.
The Jazz have benefited from a home-heavy schedule; eight of the victories in the streak have come at EnergySolutions Arena (where they are 52-7 since Jan. 1, 2008), and Sunday's win at Toronto to open a five-game trip improved their road record to only 12-17. But Utah is also playing with more grit on defense, an acknowledged weakness that Sloan said is his responsibility.
"Taking bad shots has been one of the things that causes us to not play good defense a lot of the time," Sloan said. "And since pretty much all of our guys are offensive thinkers to start with, they sometimes have a tendency to take some bad shots and not cover the other end of the floor."
Though Sloan's just-do-your-job demeanor leaves the impression of inflexibility, he isn't as stuck in the old ways as presumed.
"The last couple of years he's changed a lot," said Kirilenko, who has famously battled Sloan in the past over his role. "He can be diplomatic on some days. He tries to involve the players a little bit more [in his decision-making] and explain things a little more. He's still a tough coach with his own philosophy, but he's shown he can adjust and joke a little bit."
That likely hasn't been easy to do over the past few weeks. Jazz owner Larry Miller died Feb. 20, and a week later Sloan's close friend and former Bulls teammate Norm Van Lier and his ex-coach Johnny "Red" Kerr passed away.
"It's not just about me," Sloan said in explaining how he has kept focused on the season. "My life was around those guys, but [my players] have their own lives in basketball. ... So it's about our players and our coaches.
"There's a lot to learn as you go forward. Each game is an experience sometimes. There's always something that players aren't familiar with or things you are trying to get across to them. That's part of the coaching process."
• Larry Brown's powers of persuasion. The peripatetic coaching legend seems to have regained his magic touch in resurrecting the fortunes of yet another also-ran. The Bobcats have won six in a row to move within a game of the East's final playoff seed.
• Dwyane Wade's MVP push. Wade is averaging 35.3 points, 10.7 assists, 5.7 boards and 2.7 steals in his last 10 games.
• Twitter. With Shaq delighting fans with his increasingly numerous tweets, the Internet's hottest social-networking site is gaining quite an NBA following. In a recent blog post on NBA.com, Tyson Chandler wrote that he was thinking about starting a "beef" with Shaq to pump up his Twitter feed.
• Donald Sterling's patience. During a locker-room tirade after last week's 106-78 loss to San Antonio, the Clippers' owner reportedly berated the team and accused second-year forward Al Thornton of being the most selfish player he had ever seen. The Clips responded two nights later by losing 118-95 at home to the Grizzlies, who picked up their fourth road victory of the season. "I really can't say did [Sterling's tirade] help or did it motivate us," Thornton told the Los Angeles Times.
• Hawks harmony.Josh Smith had seemed to find an uneasy truce with coach Mike Woodson this season ... until Friday's game at Charlotte. Smith reportedly got into a heated disagreement at halftime withWoodson, who benched his star forward for the second half of a 98-91 loss. "It didn't have nothing to do with his basketball-playing abilities," Hawks swingman Maurice Evans told the Atlanta Journal-Constitution. "It's the off-the-court, internal stuff that causes all the drama." There may be silver lining: Smith had 19 points, 12 boards and four blocks the next night in an 87-83 victory against Detroit.
• New York's playoff dreams. It wasn't long ago that the Knicks were positioning themselves for a playoff run. But after seeing his team lose five of six heading into four consecutive road games this week, president Donnie Walsh can start prepping for the draft now.
An NBA scout assesses how starting shooting guard Delonte West (12.2 points, 41.2 percent from three-point range) has helped the Cavaliers this season.
"He's a jump shooter who he still has the ability to create his own shot, although he's not a guy they want probing and dribbling the ball all over the floor. With West, Mo Williams and LeBron James, Cleveland always has an opportunity to exploit a guy they feel struggles at guarding pick-and-rolls. And because West is such a sound team guy, he doesn't try to do too much. He comes off the pick and if he's got a shot, he'll take it; if he doesn't, he'll move it and space the floor.
"Defensively, you feel for him [as a 6-foot-3, 180-pound player defending shooting guards]. He can guard on the ball and he's active away from the ball, which allows him to come up with steals and force bad passes. He reads the floor very well and takes advantage of guys who get careless with the basketball. He's able to rip at guys and grab guys and make big men who aren't strong with the basketball uncomfortable. He isn't afraid to battle a bigger player or harass him or make him work to get a spot. That will be important in the playoffs, when there's no question teams will look to try to take advantage if Cleveland goes with the [small] two-guard combination of Williams and West."
• "Getting up in the morning kind of stinks."-- Jazz guard Kyle Korver bemoans the 12:30 p.m. ET start time to the Jazz's game in Toronto on Sunday after losing an hour through Daylight Savings Time.
• "The hugging that goes on beyond the game makes me want to puke."-- ABC/ESPN analyst Jeff Van Gundy,at the MIT Sports Analytics Conference on Saturday (more below), decries how the open camaraderie between opposing players has prevented the rise of intriguing rivalries.
• "With Boris, it's always a cat-and-mouse game. He knows a lot, so you have to find ways to motivate him, almost trick him into what you want him to do sometimes."-- Bobcats guard Raja Bell describes to the Charlotte Observer how best to squeeze more offense out of his longtime teammate Boris Diaw, who has drawn some light criticism for passing too much.
• Arizona Republic: It might take a book to capture all of the ins and outs of Shaq's war of words with the Magic and coach Stan Van Gundy. Or you could just get the blow-by-blow here.
•The On Deck Circle: Could the NBA be rife with HGH?
•Beyond the Beat: Former Nuggets beat writers Chris Tomasson and Aaron Lopez reveal how they discovered their newspaper, the Rocky Mountain News, was going out of business and detail what it was like to cover a team for a publication that was about to shut down.
• Basketball-Reference.com: A look at some of the more interesting facts about an array of past MVP winners.
•SLAM: Are plus-minus stats an accurate reflection of a player's value, or do they not account for great players on bad teams?
MIT hosted the third Sports Analytics Conference on Saturday, a confab organized in large part by Rockets general manager Daryl Morey. Statheads, GMs, coaches, league officials and business leaders gathered to discuss the latest and future methodologies for building teams and sports pitchmen. Here are three of the more interesting tidbits (and one additional note) we picked up:
1. There is no such thing as a hot hand in the NBA. According to two researchers from the University of Chicago's Booth School of Business, a player's likelihood of making a shot drops by 3.5 percent if he hits his previous shot. Why? Probably because the player is taking a harder shot, argue the authors of the study, John Huizinga and Sandy Weil. That doesn't stop players from like acting like they have a hot hand, though, as a player will shoot 16 percent quicker after a made jumper than a miss.
2. The biggest obstacle to using advanced statistics (optimal shooting spots, when to push a possession in the closing seconds of a quarter, etc.) is communicating their potential benefit to the players. Players generally are trained to listen only to coaches, who aren't necessarily receptive to a possibly unorthodox approach unless they can be convinced it will help them win. And finding the right words to persuade a coach to try something new isn't easy when practice plans and game strategies often are already in place. On top of that, even if a coach does incorporate the new ideas, there's a good chance players won't remember the concept in the heat of a game. "Communication skills are almost more important then the numbers," said Mike Zarren, the Celtics' numbers guru and assistant director of basketball operations.
3. Hiring a coach is the hardest job in the NBA. So said Mavs owner Mark Cuban, who told the conference that Dallas hired Rick Carlisle in part because of a study the team did that found Carlisle made the biggest impact on players who changed teams, a la Jason Kidd. Morey added that teams are betting on that person as an executive, leader and teacher. Identifying those guys isn't easy in the first place, as a search can be made more difficult because of proven head coaches' tendency to drag their staffs from stop to stop. "It can make good coaches meek," Cuban said.
4. Permit us this four-point play ... Cuban offered that teams are most profitable when they are rebuilding. Why? They can maneuver their payroll toward the league minimum while still reaping the benefits of the NBA's national TV deal, revenue sharing and a fan base buying tickets to see a team viewed as hopeful, not hopeless.