Utah Jazz: Anatomy of a Collapse

Do you remember when the Utah Jazz staged that crazy comeback in Miami? It was a great game wherein they battled from 22 points down to force an unlikely overtime and eventually pull out a win behind 46 from Paul Millsap? Remember when they did it basically again one night later in Orlando?

Remember how the Jazz were sitting atop the Northwest Division in early December? They were 15-5 and looked to be very capable to keep the Thunder and Nuggets at bay. Remember how people were saying that you can’t count out of the Jazz as long as they were armed with their never-say-die coach Jerry Sloan and superstar point guard Deron Williams?

Flash forward to last night, with the Jazz losing in overtime to a lowly Washington Wizards team, possibly their last win of the season. Since December 1st, they’ve lost 34 games, their franchise point guard, their Hall of Fame coach, and their identity.

So… how did that happen?

About 3-4 years ago, I heard a random quote about the NBA that has stuck with me (even if I can’t remember who said it).

Whoever it was said that every team goes through three phases over the course of a season, and if you want to look under the covers, you have to take the time to figure out what commonalities characterized each phase and how the team adapted (or struggled to adapt to) those commonalities.

In other words, if you take a deep look at a team like the Lakers or the Celtics, you’re likely see phases of behavior that look like this:

  • Phase 1 (first 10-20 games): Getting to know the new players, trying out new things, getting the veterans back in shape
  • Phase 2 (the next 30-40 games): The long haul. Try to work through your on-courts problems, win more games than you lose, avoid injuries and don’t let anyone exert themselves too much.
  • Phase 3 (the final stretch): Adapt to whatever injuries are out there, start the drive for the playoffs.

So, with that in mind, let’s take a look at the Utah Jazz season and see how this calamity came about.

Phase 1 (Oct 27th – Dec 1st)
The Jazz started out the season with a pretty memorable loss to the Nuggets. They lost by 22 on opening night after an impressive pre-season run. That was followed by another loss to Phoenix and later to Golden State. When the Jazz took the court for that memorable game against the Heat, they were 3-3 and Jazz fans were getting nervous. The Jazz seemed to have serious trouble in the first half of games and were forced to play catch up more than they should. Still, they were shooting the ball well, assists were up, turnovers were generally low, and despite some obvious growing pains, it seemed as though the Jazz could be a good looking squad. They went 13-3 in November, after a 1-2 start.

Phase 2 (Dec 2nd – Feb 9th)
Something seemed to be bothering the Jazz heading into December. It’s hard to know exactly what that may be, but if you look at stats, a couple things do stand out. Jazz big man Mehmet Okur was still out of commission from a injury the previous.
Al Jefferson was off to a less-than-dominate start, to the tune of .463 FG%, 16.5 PPG, 8.9 RPG through January, and Paul Millsap, a Jazz giant at the start of the season, begins more and more:

  • October: .634 FGG%, 21.3 PPG, 12.3 RPG
  • November: .553%, 17.8 PPG, 7.8 RPG
  • December: .520%, 16.2 PPG, 7.0 RPG
  • January: .484%, 15.5 PPG, 7.5 RPG

At the same time, you see a general drop in Field Goal Attempts for the team (80.8 in Nov to 79.0 in Dec) and an increase in 3-point Attempts (15.4 in Nov to 17.1 in Dec). This would probably be fine except that they’re not converting on 3-pointers particularly well. Generally speaking, the Jazz started to depend on their perimeter game, but the shift didn’t pay dividends.

Now, herein lays an important question. Faced with a struggling interior offense, would Deron Williams want to force the offense away from the conventional ‘interior first’ mindset? Here’s another question: If he did, would he have been right in doing so?

Despite the respect and love that Coach Sloan very richly deserves, one needs only to look at Jazz divisional rival Oklahoma City Thunder to see a team willing and eager to shake up their offense when things aren’t working. In fact, there are those who would argue that by mid January, twenty-six teams in the NBA were tuning their offense towards a faster paced slash-and-cut type strategy.

This, of course, would leave four teams still pushing the older style, and leaning on their big men to help them do so. The Spurs have Tim Duncan, the Lakers have Pau Gasol (and Bynum), the Celtics have Kevin Garnett (and Baby, and Perk, and Shaq) and the Utah Jazz had a struggling duo in Jefferson and Millsap.

At what point does a team cut their losses and try something new?

To be fair, I have no idea if this is the conflict that took over the Jazz locker room. The Jazz has a well earned reputation of a tight-lipped locker room. I take Jerry Sloan at his word that he simply decided it was time to move on, but something led Coach Sloan to the point where he felt he wasn’t able to coach the team the way he wanted to.

Whatever happened caused some serious issues with the team. The Jazz lost six in a row in mid-January, and followed that up by losing five in a row in early February. Not for nothing, but Jazz fans don’t deal with that kind of losing very well. Things were getting ugly in the fan base, and for good reason.

After a crushing loss to Chicago on February 9th, Jazz beat writers were doing their typical post-game write ups and twitter banter. All of the sudden, the Utah Jazz canceled practice for the following morning and everyone associated with the team went into a full scale radio silence.

Phase 3 (Feb 10th – Present)
I’ve found it difficult to accurately describe the impact that Jerry Sloan’s retirement had (and will continue to have) on the Utah Jazz, but, for starters, everything related to the Jazz started to fall apart with his departure, and the subsequent trade that sent Deron Williams to the New Jersey Nets. Things have looked so grim for the Jazz since Feb 11th, that the Nets have amazingly started to like a lifeboat in comparison. As a fan, I clung onto the hope that the Jazz were just one game away from turning things around, but that glimmer of hope was lost following an overtime loss to the Wizards last night. As a friend put it, ‘it was nice to see the rookies out there, but it basically looked like an entertaining pre-season game.’ In their remaining seven games, the Utah Jazz will face the Lakers twice, Portland, San Antonio, New Orleans, Denver and Sacramento.

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