Posted Apr 8 2010 11:02AM
As Robin Williams once put it, spring is nature's way of saying "Let's party!" And nowhere is that more true than in the NBA, where the good teams gear up for the postseason and the less good teams start to count their defeats, er, blessings for what they might mean in the annual Draft lottery.
Unless you're the New York Knicks, whose seat at the table next month will be filled by the Utah Jazz, a byproduct of the oh-so-fruitful trade six years ago that landed Stephon Marbury in New York. The Jazz hold New York's lottery pick, which passed through Phoenix and now, finally, is unprotected. That could be a bonanza for a perennial playoff contender pushing, once again, toward a Northwest Division title and the No. 2 seed in the West.
It's being characterized as a minor blow by the Knicks, who prefer their player development faster, better and on someone else's dime and timetable. "I've built teams through the draft and that takes longer," Knicks basketball boss Donnie Walsh told the New York Daily News recently. "First, you have to get the players and they have to play together for three years. You're talking about something that could take seven years. I don't want to take that long. And I don't kow what the appetite in New York would be for something like that. You can do that in other cities."
Yeah, but not in Salt Lake City. Not lately, "lately" in this case spanning back more than a quarter century.
Fact is, sending a lottery pick to the Jazz is like hanging a top hat, white tie and tails in Jazz coach Jerry Sloan's closet. Are we sure they'll know what to do with it? Just as Sloan would push the monkey suit to the back while reaching for another pair of blue jeans, the Jazz have done all their winning under him with, well, the player equivalent of denim.
Utah has had a lottery pick only once since 1983. In 2005, the Jazz maneuvered up from sixth to select point guard Deron Williams at No. 3. Otherwise, this is a team assembled a lot like Tony Stark's first Iron Man suit, from a spare part here, a piece of scrap metal there. Have you looked at the Jazz roster lately? Even the Westminster Dog Show would bar them for lack of pedigree.
Six guys -- Carlos Boozer, Kyrylo Fesenko, Kyle Korver, C.J. Miles, Paul Millsap and Mehmet Okur -- were drafted in the second round, which means they were available to pretty much any team good or bad. Four more weren't drafted at all: Sundiata Gaines, Othyus Jeffers, Wesley Matthews and Ronnie Price were basically left at the curb with "Free" signs on them. Only Williams arrived in the NBA to much fanfare, and only Kosta Koufos and Andrei Kirilenko can join their playmaker in claiming first-round status.
Disclaimer: Boozer, Korver and Okur weren't Jazz discoveries, getting picked 35th, 51st and 38th respectively by other savvy and/or fortunate organizations. And even among the fellows who snuck in the league's side or back doors, there are some solid apprentice programs, such as Duke, Marquette, Creighton, Georgia and Louisiana Tech. Still, everybody who cooks in the NBA shops at the same grocery store. Not everyone manages to turn mundane ingredients into gourmet grub.
"Utah does very well at evaluating talent and picking up veterans, but the key there is that their leadership is top-notch," a veteran NBA scout told me. "That's on the GM [Kevin O'Connor] and management for letting the coach run the team, and making it clear that 'You don't second-guess the coach.'
"Millsap earned his contract [$32 million over four years, signed last summer] when Boozer was injured. But that speaks to Jerry Sloan -- he just plugs in the next guy. They've had some guys who haven't fit in but they get moved along. Every season they seem to bring up a couple [NBA Development League] players who do well. It seems like every year they're finding a back-up point guard somewhere."
Think of Utah's trade deadline-day decision to move Ronnie Brewer to Memphis for a future first-round pick -- good player off a good team, but nothing irreplaceable (especially if Brewer wasn't going to be re-signed this summer). No other NBA head coach is as comfortable, or as accomplished, at working with duct tape as Sloan.
The Jazz's ability to restock and repair, when other teams might be wringing their hands, is both a product of and a contributing factor to Sloan's unrivaled job tenure. And the biggest reason it works is that while most franchises are zigging in the Draft -- poking, prodding, gauging and predicting skills and brain types -- Utah is zagging. Under Sloan, the Jazz always have seemed to put a little extra emphasis on toughness, which was the No. 1 trait he brought to the league as a black-and-blue guard with the Chicago Bulls in the 1960s and '70s.
Landing and keeping a job in the NBA when you weren't drafted, like Matthews, requires toughness. Earning a call-up from the D-League and turning a 10-day contract into something lengthier, like Gaines and Jeffers, demands the same. You run your finger up and down the Utah roster and can find the same story, repeated. It's a proud and pugnacious tradition that works well with Sloan's system built on pick-and-rolls and defense, and it dates back to Karl Malone and John Stockton arriving as 13th and 16th picks (1985 and 1984, respectively) and exiting as Hall of Famers.
It isn't foolproof and the obvious retort from critics is, "Yeah, well how many NBA titles have the Jazz won?" But it is a sober and somewhat noble approach, one that becomes more noticeable at this time of year. While the Jazz are working hard for games in May, maybe even June, so many other teams -- with lottery picks already in the house -- are toting up their expiring contracts for salary-cap space in free agency. Or they're thinking about Ping Pong balls as if the Draft will mean salvation.
If Utah can patch this all together and chase a top seed in the mighty West, what's your team's excuse?
Steve Aschburner has written about the NBA for 25 years. You can e-mail him here.
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