By Wes Lilliman
Head Coach: Take a wild guess…
PG – Deron Williams
SG – Raja Bell
SF – Andrei Kirilenko
PF – Paul Millsap
C – Al Jefferson
G – Ronnie Price
G- Sundiata Gaines
G/F – C.J. Miles
F – Gordon Hayward
F – Jeremy Evans
C – Mehmet Okur
Seriously, as long as there’s no “Stockton-to-Malone” or anything related to Jeff Hornacek, I’m cool with the Jazz.
Granted, they still play in the Delta Center. Jerry Sloan is still the head coach. And when you look at most of their fans, you get the same type of feeling that you normally only get when you see the Amish or folks that are really into Toby Keith – just, like, a little different.
But the current group of players that the organization has put together? That’s something I’m comfortable with and can get a little excited about.
First and foremost, while they haven’t been able to win the big one or even get to the NBA Finals, a successful machine has been assembled for the past few years now. They’ve either approached or surpassed 50 wins since 2007, and in each year, the team that has eliminated them from the playoffs has gone on to win the conference championship.
Secondly, the group is led by arguably the top point guard in the league, Deron Williams (for the record, I’m a Chris Paul guy, but really, it’s apples and oranges). Williams has emerged as a bonafide superstar and has the look of a player who is going to be an absolute force for years to come. He’s big, tough, and has that thing about him, where you know you’re going to have to come out and really go all-out to stop him.
Finally, the off-the-court personnel are as solid as a rock. Sloan is, of course, the anchor. The guy is as sure of a thing as there is in the NBA, along with Rasheed Wallace technical fouls, unplanned parenthood, and Craig Sager’s ever-so-stylish suits. Additionally, GM Kevin O’Connor continues to not only build a winner, but he’s shown the ability to absorb offseason losses and respond with moves that not only fill the gaps, but may actually make the team better in the long run.
For instance, take the departure of forward Carlos Boozer. Rather than let him get away to the Bulls for nothing in return, O’Connor turned the deal into a sign-and-trade and used what he got to ultimately grab big man Al Jefferson from Minnesota. Both Kyle Korver and Wesley Matthews were also lost to teams who were willing to throw out massive amounts of money (particularly in Matthews’ case), but the space was used to acquire valuable swingman Raja Bell. Lastly, Utah landed Butler forward Gordon Hayward in the draft, which should prove to be a great fit and also satisfies Utah’s long-standing “hard-working, easy-to-coach, white guy” quota. Really, it was meant to be.
A title contender? Probably not, thanks to the monster that they have in Los Angeles. However, this group looks intriguing for years to come.
The biggest question will be how Jefferson steps into Sloan’s gritty, defensive-minded system. Jefferson was an extremely productive, 20-10 guy for the Timberwolves, but how will he be able to adjust to a different, more demanding style of play in Utah? My gut says that, once he gets used to things, he’ll be just fine. In fact, he might ultimately end up being a more effective piece than Boozer because he’s bigger and younger. That remains to be seen, as Jefferson isn’t as refined and has had injury problems in the past. But come on, compared to Boozer (aka “Mr. Glass”), he’s perfectly healthy.
Also prepared to step up to fill the void is Paul Millsap, who will finally get his shot at starting full-time as the team’s power forward. He’s certainly not the offensive player that Boozer is, but he’s a 250-pound bruiser who rarely misses games and is no slouch on either end of the court. The new group will have to click, but the Jazz look to be just fine on the inside. If they can get Mehmet Okur back to full force (after recovering from a ruptured Achilles tendon), then you’re really looking at a versatile and dynamic set of big men.
The perimeter game also looks very promising. Williams is at the elite level, and he’ll have plenty of guys surrounding him that will give opponents something to think about on a number of different levels. C.J. Miles, Andrei Kirilenko, and the recently-added Bell all bring different but effective things to the table. Miles improves on a yearly basis and has only been slowed by a few nagging injuries. Bell is both an excellent defender and shooter, and he’s a strong-minded player who won’t back down from anybody:
Kirilenko (aka AK-47, the coolest nickname in the league), can play All-Star level basketball when healthy, and it won’t hurt that he’s going into a contract year.
All of these options will give the rookie Hayward to develop at a slow pace, but I fully expect him to be given the chance to contribute.
So, you have a well-coached team with decent depth. Add that to the fact that they’re mostly very young, and we’re looking at a potential player for a long time. The Lakers can’t stay on top forever and, while it won’t be this year, there’s a good chance that they could play for a championship one day.
IF THEY GET LUCKY: Jefferson and Millsap step in and make Jazz fans forget about Boozer, with Jefferson emerging as a top big man on a top team. Williams leads the team out of the pack of young, potentially very good Western Conference teams, and the Jazz give L.A. a fight in the Conference Finals.
IF THEY DON’T: The new pieces (namely Al) struggle with their new surroundings, injuries continue to plague the guys who have struggled with them, and something finally manages to force Sloan off that bench and out of the picture (what that would be, I have absolutely no idea).
REALITY: Looking at this team on paper, I have to consider them to be near the top of the 2nd tier teams in the league (i.e. anyone other than L.A., Boston, Orlando, and Miami). They have a great combination of depth, veterans, and youth. I’d expect another 50+ wins. As for the playoffs, they’ll fall as soon as they run into the Lakers, but that could easily be very late into the postseason. And, this time around, they’ll put up more of a fight against Kobe and co.
BONUS SECTION: JERRY STACKHOUSE channels ME and unleashes FURY upon JEFF HORNACEK.
I loved Jerry Stackhouse coming out of college. He was a stud. And although he never reached the same heights at the pro level, he was (and continues to try to be) a solid player who added something to multiple teams.
I hated Jeff Hornacek with equal, if not more, passion. His face, his demeanor, and his stupid free-throw line routine where he wiped his face as a way to say hello to his kids or whatever the hell it was. I’d post a video of it, but I’m trying to work on relaxing as a whole, and I don’t want to trigger feelings of rage.
So, it was a glorious day when Stackhouse fouled Hornacek, and then proceeded to UNLOAD. Hornacek didn’t do much more than sort of get in Jerry’s face, but that’s all it took. Jeff’s ugly mug could make Ghandi explode. BEHOLD (also enjoy bonus footage of Jeff Van Gundy clinging to Zo Mourning’s leg like a small ape, and Chuck Barkley proving he is insane by throwing with Shaq):