Utah Jazz Situated to Contend

It wasn’t exactly party time in Salt Lake City, Utah, when the Jazz let all-star power forward Carlos Boozer defect to the Chicago Bulls during this summer’s free agency. After all, it looked like the team was finally putting into play a long-deferred scheme to avoid the luxury tax while suffering some collateral damage on the court. Even Deron Williams, who quietly voiced his displeasure with the organization after Ronnie Brewer was dealt during the season, seemed visually displeased. It was a admission of defeat after a playoff series loss to the Los Angeles Lakers in May.

Keeping all that in mind, would it surprise you to read that the Jazz are actually a better team after these moves? Because they most certainly are. Despite expectations that the team would roll over and not reload for the rapidly approaching 2010-2011 season, GM Kevin O’Connor went out and made two key moves to position the Jazz in a position to succeed into June next year. He traded for Minnesota’s bruising center Al Jefferson and signed vicious guard Raja Bell.

And these two moves couldn’t have been more perfect. Revisiting the Lakers-Jazz series, what were Utah’s two primary problems in dealing with the eventual champions? They were (1) a lack of height and toughness down low and (2) the absence of a stopper for Kobe Bryant.

Jefferson, the centerpiece of the Kevin Garnett trade, is an instant upgrade over Boozer. First of all, he has two valuable inches on his predecessor, making him much more fit to contend with the likes of Pau Gasol and Andrew Bynum in the post. He’s also just as potent a scorer and rebounder; with Williams at the point, he’s almost a shoo-in to put up a 20-and-10 season next year if he stays healthy. While he’s not the greatest defender, he’s no worse than Boozer, who just didn’t have the physical traits to excel on that end.

But Jefferson’s addition is more than just a plus replacement for Boozer. Instead, he enables coach Jerry Sloan to do a lot more mixing and matching with his frontcourt. While in the past he was mostly limited from playing his two most potent offensive forces (Boozer and Paul Millsap) in the post simultaneously lest he be absolutely dismantled down low, he can now play Jefferson and Millsap at the same time and not risk such a terrible fate. While Andrei Kirilenko will probably start at the 4 alongside Jefferson, Millsap and the recovering Mehmet Okur is quite an offensive spark in the second unit.

Against the Lakers last year, Kobe drew attention from two defenders primarily, C.J. Miles and Wesley Matthews, who encouraged a pick-your-poison scenario with the Black Mamba. If the shorter, weaker Miles was on him, Bryant would undress him in the post and make easy turnaround jumpers. If Sloan put the stronger Matthews out there, Kobe would beat him on the perimeter and finish easily in the lane against middling post defenders. With Bell, though, the Jazz don’t have that problem. An aggressive and mean defender, Bell had his share of conflicts with Kobe while he was a member of the Phoenix Suns. His hard-nosed style of play, long arms, and quick feet all make him a great candidate for guarding Bryant and don’t allow him to take advantage of any particular weakness.

In addition, Bell gives the team an off-the-ball shooter that is hasn’t had in the past. With him in the corner or on the wing, D-Will has another viable option on offense other than feeding a big man, penetrating the lane, or running the pick and roll. Bell will be a dangerous spot-up shooter who will add a much-needed dimension to the offense.

While Bell came at virtually no cost, Minnesota GM David Kahn finagled two future first-round picks out of Utah for Jefferson’s service, sensing their desperation. Does Jefferson’s talent outweigh the damage done to the future of the organization? Well, not really. They still have the solid building blocks locked up in Williams and Jefferson, and when Kirilenko’s massive $17 million expiring contract comes off the books next summer, they’ll have space to work with to add other role players. The draft doesn’t figure to be a main source of talent in the coming years for the Jazz.

So it may have been a week of agony for Utah, but they bounced back. Maybe it’s time that Sloan can come away with his first NBA championship or coach of the year award. Jefferson and Bell certainly don’t hurt.


Jazz won’t play home games Sundays during playoffs

The Utah Jazz are one of the best teams in the league, and they can't even fill the arena on a Sunday during the playoffs?

According to Jazz president Greg Miller, the team will try its best not to schedule home games on Sundays during the playoffs. “Why?”  you might ask.

Well, apparently, they draw so few fans on Sundays that it’s not in the organization’s best business interest to operate. Keeping in mind that this is a long-established tradition for the only team in Utah from one of the four major sports leagues, I say the following to Miller and Co.:

“Tough luck.”

Why should you be given special considerations because you can’t draw on Sundays? You are one of the finest teams in the NBA. You stand fourth in the competitive Western Conference, and ESPN’s John Hollinger ranks you third overall in his Power Rankings. And you have two stars in Deron Williams and Carlos Boozer that should remind residents of Salt Lake City of some mildly notable point guard–power forward tandem of John Stockton and Karl Malone.

So the day isn’t the problem. There are enough incentives for fans to show up to a game at three in the morning. Instead, the problem lies with the marketing department.

Change it up or something. Feature new promotions, give discounts, do whatever you can. Just don’t expect the league to bail you out by scheduling your games on the days you prefer. How is that fair?

I remember watching the NBA Finals (the FINALS!) in 2002 and 2003, and the Nets’ home arena wasn’t even close to full. You didn’t see them complaining about it, did you? And they had the Lakers and Spurs, two huge draws, in those series.

This release pairs well with some other news out of the NBA’s office. David Stern said he probably wouldn’t want another team to establish in New Jersey after the Nets leave. He thinks that a team would not be able to thrive economically in what many refer to as basketball Siberia.

However, is the market in Salt Lake City a true issue? It’s not very populated, that’s for sure. But it’s good enough for the Pac-10 conference, which is considering adding Utah amid scrutinizing examination of its market to see if it will be economically suitable.

It all raises an interesting question about the NBA. Should the league allow teams to operate in cities where economic success isn’t feasible? In recent years, we’ve seen the Sonics move from Seattle to Oklahoma City and the Grizzlies move from Vancouver to Memphis.

If teams aren’t making money, should we let them stay where they are?

My initial thinking is no. When teams are strapped for cash, they cut payroll. When they cut payroll, their teams get worse. Meanwhile, teams like the Lakers and Knicks thrive. What does it all mean? A dissolution of parity in the NBA, which no one wants.

But then, are there enough big markets to host all the NBA’s teams? Probably not. Then again, the NBA could benefit from some reduction. Not that it will ever happen, given the pull of the Players’ Association.

In the end, it obviously doesn’t bother me that teams are losing money. But when you ask the league to make concessions and special arrangements for you because you can’t take full advantage of your situation, then I get upset.

Just focus on the game and trying to win. You have the tools, and maybe people will start showing up on the Day of Rest if you bring home some hardware.

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