After we've finished with the tributes to Jerry Sloan and parsing why exactly he decided to resign at midseason, the Utah Jazz has no choice but to move on. Not only is the Jazz in the midst of a playoff race, at the same time the organization's future is increasingly uncertain as All-Star point guard Deron Williams heads toward free agency. There is much work ahead for both Utah general manager Kevin O'Connor and Sloan's replacement, Tyrone Corbin.
In the short term, the Jazz stands sixth in the Western Conference playoff picture but is closer to falling out of the playoffs entirely than to claiming home-court advantage. With the Memphis Grizzlies surging at the same time Utah has struggled, John Hollinger's playoff odds have the Jazz more likely to end up in the lottery than reach the postseason.
That makes this an unfortunate scenario for Corbin, who takes over midseason with only one assistant coach (holdover Scott Layden makes up the entire staff; Corbin will surely look to add at least one more assistant). Utah will take the court tomorrow against Phoenix with only a single shootaround under Corbin before he has the chance to put his stamp on the team during the three days the Jazz has off before facing the Suns again. Since Corbin is a first-time head coach and has spent nearly his entire coaching career on Sloan's staff (his other experience was as manager of player development for the New York Knicks in 2003-04 under Isiah Thomas), it is difficult to say what kind of changes are in store.
Coaching won't solve Utah's biggest problems. We can parse out offense versus defense and the Jazz's issues on the glass, but the fundamental problem is a talent drain stemming from Utah's precarious position with regard to the luxury tax. In the last 14 months, the Jazz has lost five rotation players to trades or free agency--Carlos Boozer, Ronnie Brewer, Kyle Korver, Wesley Matthews and Eric Maynor. While Utah has been able to replace all to some extent, the cumulative effect has been a loss of depth exacerbated by the ruptured Achilles Mehmet Okur suffered in last year's playoffs.
Discounting rookie Jeremy Evans, who has played sparingly, the Jazz has just five players who have performed at better than a league-average level this season (Deron Williams, C.J. Miles, Andrei Kirilenko, Paul Millsap and Al Jefferson). Ordinarily, Okur would be part of that group, but his injuries (a lower-back problem now has him out through the end of February) have left Utah perilously thin in the frontcourt and forced Millsap and Jefferson to play together despite shared strengths and weaknesses. Meanwhile, Raja Bell and rookie Gordon Hayward have played a combined 2,000 minutes on the wings far below replacement level.
Tweaks to the rotation might help matters to some extent--Sloan had used the combination of Miles and Kirilenko with the starters relatively little despite that unit's spectacular success--but that would only be a matter of papering over the issue. It is nearly impossible to win in the NBA with so many non-contributors in the rotation. The Miami Heat might be able to get away with it. The Jazz, with but Williams as an All-Star, cannot do the same.
It would be an overstatement to say that the Jazz has mismanaged its situation. More accurately, Utah is an example of the difficulty teams face keeping their core together without paying an exorbitant amount in luxury tax each season. One or two contracts gone bad can cripple an organization's flexibility. Paying Kirilenko a max salary has cost the Jazz dearly over the last couple of seasons as other contracts came up. To keep its payroll at a reasonable level, Utah had to sacrifice Brewer and Maynor in trades and let Matthews walk when the Portland Trail Blazers signed him to an offer sheet as a restricted free agent.
What has really proven problematic for the Jazz is the lack of contributions from players on rookie contracts, which tend to be the most cost-effective investments in the current NBA climate. Hayward is the only Utah player on his rookie deal. The Jazz struck out on two first-round picks that would still be on their rookie contracts (Morris Almond and Kosta Koufos) and lost Maynor in a deal that reduced last season's luxury-tax bill. Instead of plugging holes with developing young players, that has forced the Jazz to hunt for bargains in free agency--with mixed results at best.
Kirilenko's contract finally ends after the season, giving Utah some breathing room. However, the Jazz dealt a pair of first-round picks to Minnesota to get Al Jefferson, which will make it difficult to add cheap, young talent. And Utah must replace Kirilenko's 33 minutes per game, whether by re-signing him at a lower salary or adding another player.
Hanging over all of this is Williams' free agency. The Jazz' point guard has not been shy about vocalizing his frustration this season, hinting at the possibility that he may depart if things do not get better. O'Connor faces a dilemma in terms of how much to cater to Williams' desire with short-term upgrades. As we saw in Cleveland and Toronto, that presents a major risk should Williams bolt anyway. Yet Williams is so valuable, especially since he is in the middle of his prime, that trying to keep him may be worth it no matter the cost.
Shortly after news of Sloan's resignation broke, reports by Yahoo!'s Adrian Wojnarowski, ESPN's Ric Bucher and Marc Stein and Brian T. Smith of the Salt Lake Tribune suggested that tension between Sloan and Williams contributed to the coach's decision to step away. Williams angrily refuted that notion in an interview with Utah radio play-by-play broadcaster David Locke for KFAN 1320. The last thing Williams wants, surely, is to be known as the player who forced Sloan out after 23 seasons. Should he earn that label, former Jazz beat writer Ross Siler noted on Twitter, it might push him away from Utah just as surely as any friction with Sloan would have.
Thursday was certainly an eventful day for a Jazz franchise that has been a paragon of stability throughout Sloan's tenure, but the drama is nowhere near its conclusion. Utah's play under Corbin the remainder of this season, along with the moves O'Connor makes by the start of next year to try to put a competitive team around Williams, will go a long way toward determining whether the Jazz can continue to contend in the Western Conference.
Kevin Pelton is an author of Basketball Prospectus.
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