Utah Jazz playoff hopes aren't dead
The Utah Jazz are one of the toughest teams in the league. Or at least, they can be.
Teams these days don’t know which Jazz squad they’re going to get. Will it be the roll-over-and-die Jazz that Boston saw, or the grind-it-out Jazz that had a 25-11 4th quarter to get the win over New Orleans/Oklahoma, or the 60%-from-the-free-throw-line Jazz the Hornets saw in their next meeting?
The Jazz are lucky to be in the West’s weakest division. They're .500 right now, yet only 3 ½ games out of the 3rd seed in the West.
Consider the off-season. The Jazz traded away all of the first-round picks they’d been stockpiling to move up to the 3rd pick. All indications were that GM Kevin O’Connor wanted to draft Chris Paul, while Jerry Sloan wanted Deron Williams. Sloan won, and we know how those rookies have been doing so far.
Then Sloan wanted to get rid of Kirk Snyder and bring back Greg Ostertag, so the Jazz traded away three first-round picks (Snyder, Raul Lopez and Curtis Borchardt) to land Tag, and Tag’s been landing DNP’s lately.
The Jazz tried to land another point guard, and after failing to lure Sarunas Jasikevicius, Antonio Daniels and Earl Watson, they settled for Milt Palacio.
On top of this, second-year man Kris Humphries looks like he found a way to get worse, Devin Brown’s been a disappointment, and Deron Williams’s confidence is so shaken, Palacio and Keith McLeod started half the season ahead of him.
Gordan Giricek, touted as a Croatian Jeff Hornacek when he arrived, gets a dirty look from Sloan every time he shoots more than twice in a quarter.
Then, Carlos Boozer’s injured hamstring caused him to miss the first 49 games of the regular season. 49 games for a hamstring? What is this, baseball? And the injury bug, which has plagued the Jazz ever since Stock and Karl left, hasn’t let up. Boozer, AK47, Matt Harpring, Giricek, Collins, McLeod, Andre Owens and Robert Whaley have all felt it this year.
But Sloan can’t blame injury for some of his roster’s performance. Deron Williams has gone to the media to say Sloan doesn’t tell him what he’s doing right or wrong or why he’s not starting. Sloan stubbornly insists to focus on man defense and allow outside perimeter shooting so the paint can be protected, which has resulted in the Jazz being the worst defensive team in the league against the 3-point shot.
Kevin O’Connor is not blameless either. Here’s a guy who drafted Lopez ahead of Tony Parker, Curtis Borchardt ahead of Tayshaun Prince and Carlos Boozer, Sasha Pavlovic ahead of Boris Diaw or Josh Howard, Kris Humphries ahead of Al Jefferson, Kirk Snyder ahead of Josh Smith, and didn’t fight hard enough to draft Chris Paul instead of Deron Williams. He let Pavlovic go for nothing, and Charlotte got a first-round draft pick out of him. He let Raja Bell and Maurice Williams go for nothing. He signed John Amaechi to a 4-year, $10 million deal.
And yet the Jazz are very capable of putting a run together and making the playoffs, possibly with the 3rd spot, maybe the 8th spot. How can they do it with all that has afflicted them?
Mehmet Okur has had a breakout year. The Jazz have never had the luxury of a 6-11 guy who’s as good an outside shooter as Okur. Okur knocking them down from the perimeter means a big man has to come out on defense to guard him, making it easier for Kirilenko, Harpring and Boozer to get lay-ups down low.
Kirilenko is still his stat-stocking-stuffer self, capable of 25 points, 12 boards, 7 dimes, 6 steals and 7 blocks any given night (maybe not all the same night, but he is the only NBA player is history to score a 6x5, having at least 6 of points, rebounds, assists, steals and blocks in the same game, and he’s had a 5x5 three other times).
It’s possible that Deron Williams has had his wake-up call. Taking on Chris Paul and helping lead his team to victory on the road may have been the confidence boost he needed, and it’s hardly his fault they lost on Saturday.
The Jazz can also count on Denver, Minnesota, Seattle and Portland shooting themselves in the foot. Portland is the Western New York, showing that the size of your payroll doesn’t matter; it’s who’s on it. Denver has had chemistry problems and injury problems with Nene, Kenyon Martin and Marcus Camby, and who knows how Reggie Evans will fit into the equation.
The Jazz are capable of finishing out the season on an 18-9 run, with Boozer’s minutes ever increasing, with Williams back as the starting point guard, with Okur finding his outside touch again. The consistently inconsistent Jazz are also capable of ending on a 9-18 stumble and spending the off-season wondering if they’ll get a lucky ping-pong bounce so they can land Adam Morrison or Rudy Gay.
One thing I can predict: if the Jazz end the season with the Northwest Division title, Jerry Sloan will finally win Coach of the Year.
Now I promised I’d print some responses to my last column on Why I Hate the Lakers, and which NBA players fans hated most.
From whitebballplyr7: “At least Kobe is out there playing hard every day and trying to help his team win; what's to hate about that?”
From richardkat: “Number one on MY list would have to have been Jerry Sloan, tutored by Dick Motta. He perfected the use of the flop and has taught the technique to all his players. John Stockton would be second on the list and Jerry Sloan's best student. Sloan uses every trick in the book, which included crying on every foul they get called on, hacking across the arms on attacking foes (claiming the hand was part of the ball), small 2 finger pushes to the back on rebounds. Among his coaching specialties however is sliding under or in front of attacking offensive players and use of moving screens for their offensive sets.”
From slaasher72: “My least favorite player is Shaquille O'Neal, he made a promise to those in Laker Land to play for a certain amount of years when he signed his last contract with the Lakers. Then because of ego and selfishness he demanded a trade before his time was up. Also he always came in overweight and/or injured in the last few years. He didn't hustle to get back on defense and fussed about not getting the ball all the time. Just once I would like to see a Magic Johnson type player, who played all positions, won championships, named one of the greatest players of all time, and gave credit to his teammates. Shaq betrayed Los Angeles.”
From mbirdsell666: “My least favourite player in the NBA is Lebron James. I know, why would I hate Lebron James? He can do everything and is the future of the NBA, but I don't like him. He came into the NBA with probably the most hype in the history of professional basketball… but what has he done? His first couple years in the league he hasn't taken the Cavs to the playoffs, but everyone still thinks he is the next Michael Jordan. Lebron James was on the 2004 Olympic Team, and Larry Brown barely played him, if he is so great why didn't he get playing time? If he is so great why hasn't he won a playoff serious, or even made the playoffs? I think Lebron will be a very good player in the NBA some day, he will win his share of 7-game series, he might even get a championship at some point. But right now he hasn't done anything to make everyone love him as much as they do and that is why I hate Lebron James.”
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