Time to rebuild in Utah? Possibly
NEW YORK -- It was both sad and pathetic, revealing and ominous. Watching the Utah Jazz wilt under a barrage of three-pointers from the Knicks on Monday -- most of which were of the uncontested variety -- was like watching a model franchise unravel in real time.
Over the last 21 seasons the Jazz have made the playoffs 18 times, advanced past the first round 11 times and made the NBA Finals twice. Under Jerry Sloan, Utah won 62.3 percent of its games the last two decades, a staggering level of success that placed the Jazz among the most consistently successful teams in sports.
Those days are gone now, swept away, perhaps, with their former coach. The Jazz are 2-8 since Sloan abruptly resigned on Feb. 10 and 2-4 since the front office unceremoniously shipped Deron Williams out of town. If the playoffs started today, Utah (33-31) would be on the outside looking in, a startling development in a season that began with much higher expectations.
It's easy to blame the loss of Williams for the Jazz's struggles, and there is plenty of merit to the argument. For 5½ years Williams expertly orchestrated Utah's disciplined offense, taking the big shot when it was needed and finding the right teammates when it wasn't. His departure left a void that Devin Harris -- who knows a little something about trying to replace a franchise player -- can never fill. As one courtside scout put it, "The plays are the same, the execution sucks."
"There isn't that security," new coach Tyrone Corbin said. "Deron was always the guy down the stretch who had the ball in his hands. He made plays for different guys. He made plays for himself. It's been difficult trying to get everyone on the same page."
But Williams can't close out on shooters or stifle teams in transition. Not by himself, anyway. And in New York on Monday, the Jazz showed a total indifference to defense, giving little more than a cursory wave (and sometimes less) at the likes of Carmelo Anthony, Toney Douglas and Roger Mason as New York made 13-of-26 three-pointers, shot 56.1 percent from the field and piled up 131 points.
"That's embarrassing how we played," Corbin said. "Even if you lose a game, you can lose with some dignity. I don't think this game did anyone any good."
Some will point the finger at Corbin, who indeed bears some responsibility for the slide. On the first game of a potentially season-defining four-game road trip, the Jazz players looked about as motivated as Butterbean preparing for a marathon. But Corbin is three weeks into a shotgun coaching job that offers little practice time and the added burden of teaching two new players (Harris and Derrick Favors) a system that wasn't really his to begin with.
No, the real problem in Utah is more rooted. The Jazz are a team divided. There are members of the old guard, veterans like Paul Millsap, Andrei Kirilenko and Mehmet Okur. These players are used to playing one way and having success doing it. But the team's future rests with its youth, namely two rookies in 19-year-old power forward Favors and 20-year-old swingman Gordon Hayward, who must be developed before they can make a significant impact. Balancing the two agendas, Corbin acknowledges, can be a tricky process.
"We're trying to develop them as we go," Corbin said. "The most important thing right now is to play as well as we can as a group. Different guys are going to get minutes on the floor in different situations."
Eventually the balancing act will have to be tipped toward the youth movement. Millsap, Okur or Al Jefferson will have to be traded to clear playing time for Favors, and Hayward will have to be allotted a more prominent role in the rotation. Depending on how the season ends, Utah's next training camp could feature as many as three first-round picks -- core players who will need opportunities to grow.
They don't like to use the "R word" in Utah, but rebuilding may be unavoidable. The Jazz aren't in position to have enough cap space to sign an impact free agent this summer, even if there was one clamoring to play in Utah. The growing pains they have largely managed to avoid over the years will now be front and center, and only shrewd drafting and patient coaching will hasten them away. Sloan is gone and he has taken his success with him. A new era in Utah has begun.