How far could the Jazz have gone?

viernes, 7 de octubre de 2011

The Utah Jazz had a very disappointing season. Most people, including the team’s players, expected at least a playoff spot, and some even expected a top 4 seed. Instead, they wound up losing their longtime coach, their franchise player, and not making the playoffs.

The Jazz were very unfortunate, and if some things had been different, they would’ve had a chance to go deep in the playoffs. Most people wouldn’t agree with me, but looking at all the circumstances that affected the Jazz 2010-2011 season, it seems to me like that was a legitimate possibility.

The real reason why the Jazz never really had sustained success, even with Deron Williams, was their offensive issues. Those affected the team’s motivation, and frustrated several players, including, of course, the team’s star and leader, Williams. That situation had a negative effect on the Jazz defense, which unlike others such as Boston’s or Chicago’s, didn’t have an ironclad system and relied heavily on each player giving his best effort on every possession.

The causes of Utah’s offensive problems were diverse, and they changed as the season advanced. At first, the main causes were the unfamiliarity with the team’s new players, the fact that Deron Williams hadn’t found his long-range shot yet and Al Jefferson’s knee injury, which he later admitted was still affecting his play at that point.

After that, D-Will was able to find his shot, and the team’s players began to get more and more used to each other, but Al was not 100% healthy yet. The team’s play was improving, but the offense was starting to suffer from starting SG Raja Bell’s lack of production. He wasn’t making three pointers consistently, and his defense wasn’t as effective as it had been in the past, but Coach Jerry Sloan kept playing him for over 30 minutes a game. This reduced the team’s spacing on offense, which was extremely important for Sloan’s offensive system to work. Every night, the team started a lineup that included only one player who could make three pointers on a consistent basis, and that was Deron Williams. When he injured his wrist, that number was reduced to zero. On a system that needs shooters to have opposing defenders’ attention in order to free up space for easy shots in the paint, this was a big problem. Teams began to pack the paint against the Jazz, and there was nothing they could do about it. Other teams’ defenders cheated on Utah’s shooters because they were not a big threat to make long range shots. This made the offense stagnant, frustrated the team and reduced the players’ motivation. Even with all of this, Jerry Sloan didn’t make many changes in the lineup. Raja Bell’s playing time was a lot more than it should have been for a long time, and Gordon Hayward had to wait too long to be given a chance to show his skills and, most importantly, his ability to make three pointers. Jerry Sloan is one of the best basketball coaches of all time, but he made some very important mistakes that in a way led to the situation that caused his resignation. But even with all of that, the Jazz probably would have been able to salvage their season if only Deron Williams had been healthy. For one thing, that would have kept an efficient, consistent shooter in the starting lineup, and would have prevented the team’s offensive issues and frustration from getting that bad. It also would’ve allowed the team to improve substantially towards the end of the season.

In late February-early March, Al Jefferson’s knee fully healed, and for the first time in the season he was 100% healthy. Around that time, Raja Bell and Andrei Kirilenko got injured, opening a spot for Gordon Hayward. With Deron there, Hayward’s insertion in the starting lineup, coupled with Al Jefferson’s noticeably improved play (due to his healing) would have solved the Jazz offensive problems, and with Jerry Sloan at the helm, the team might have gone pretty far in the playoffs. With a healthy Williams and an effective Hayward, the team would’ve had enough shooting, and that, in turn, would have further improved Al Jefferson’s efficiency down low.

The Jazz offense could’ve become one of the best in the league from that point on, and the morale lift would’ve gotten the defense back to being around the league average. That would have given the Jazz a great offense and a good enough defense, similar to the Spurs and Nuggets, but with a star that can make clutch plays in crunch time. And, given the number of offensive weapons the Jazz had, that could’ve been enough to reach the Conference Finals, and maybe even the NBA Finals. That may seem like a crazy thought, but I think it would have been possible. In my opinion, there were three main reasons why the Thunder lost to the Mavericks. The first one was Scot Brooks’ lack of creativity on offense, especially in crunch time. The second one was Russell Westbrook’s selfish plays at critical points in several games. If he had made the right, obvious choice in most of those situations, the Thunder might have won one, or even two more games. The third one was Kendrick Perkins’ ineffectiveness on both ends due to him not being 100% healthy. Jerry Sloan is one of the best offensive coaches the NBA has ever had, and I don’t think it can be argued that he has more than enough creativity to make effective half-court plays at any point in a game. No one in that Jazz team would have played in such a selfish and hard-headed way, especially if the offense was working. The Jazz’s frontcourt might or might not have been completely healthy by that point, but there are still clear advantages the Jazz would have had over the Thunder had they reached the WCF. They probably would have lost to the Mavericks anyway, but they might have given them a tougher fight.

I say all of this to emphasize the potential the Jazz had and how far they could have gone if their best player hadn’t gotten injured. And while some might say that a late-season improvement wouldn’t have been enough for the Jazz to go that far, I think the Memphis Grizzlies are proof that it is possible, and if they had Rudy Gay in that series vs. OKC, I believe they would have gone as far as I think the Jazz could have gone. Utah had a legit chance to become part of the NBA’s elite, but a few unfortunate events prevented that from happening and turned them into a lottery team. 

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