On any franchise, there are particular positions that come with weightier expectations. For the Utah Jazz, that position is point guard. John Stockton’s Hall of Fame shadow still imposes itself over the many who have come after him as the floor general for the team; he will always be the gold standard for point guards who put on the Jazz jersey. Dennis Lindsey and the front office brass are hoping their 2013 1st round draft pick ushers in the next great point guard era in Salt Lake City.
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Journeyman: Any experienced, competent, but routine worker or performer.
As the Utah Jazz prepare for the 2013-2014 season, most of the fan base’s interest is going to be in watching how the core of young players develop. While the front office’s big off-season move involved trading for their point guard of the future and taking on one-year salaries for more financial flexibility and future draft picks, another signing seemingly went under the radar.
On July 22, 2013, the Jazz franchise signed 5’11” point guard John Lucas III to a two-year contract, without much fanfare. Lucas’s most memorable highlight might forever be one that occurred before he ever donned an NBA jersey: he hit the game winning shot that sent the Oklahoma State Cowboys to the Final Four over St. Joe’s in the 2004 NCAA tournament. His willingness to take the big shot reminded many NBA fans of his basketball DNA; would he have the same on-court success as his father, John Lucas Jr.?
Before singing with the Jazz, Lucas had spent time with three other NBA franchises (Houston, Chicago and Toronto). He’s also spent time playing the game globally in Italy, Spain and China. His career numbers are modest, with career averages of 5.1 pts, 1 rebound and 1.5 assists per game. It’s about what one might expect for a backup point guard. For stat geeks, his advanced stats suggest that he’d be a productive player given more minutes, which is reassuring if he’s ever called on to play extended minutes. For many, John Lucas III is the quintessential NBA journeyman. However, if beauty is in the eye of the beholder and if it’s true that the numbers don’t always tell the entire story, then Jazz fans have one of the game’s true character guys who could help continue to mold some of the younger guards on the Jazz’s roster.
Fathers can cast long shadows over the lives of their sons. For some, a lifetime can be spent trying to create an identity apart from this shadow. For others, the bond between a father and son runs much deeper. Our culture is all too familiar of the narrative that involves a child’s exposure to substance abuse. There are too few happy endings. However, on occasion, we are reminded that redemption is still a better story. Most people familiar with the sports landscape know that John Lucas Jr has dedicated his life to helping athletes who struggle with substance abuse. JL3’s journey has no doubt been shaped by these experiences. It’s no wonder then, when Baylor University basketball was rocked by a scandal involving widespread drug abuse and the murder of a teammate, Lucas III had the wisdom to continue his education at Oklahoma State. His life’s experiences up to that point (his father had turned his life around by then) had prepared him to handle this type of adversity and respond accordingly, an intangible virtue for an NBA point guard.
For most Jazz fans, the love of their team also includes loving the individual parts that make up the whole. It matters to the organization and to the larger Jazz community that the ‘right kind of player’ finds his way into a Jazz uniform. John Lucas III’s narrative fits that description perfectly. It should be easy for Jazz fans to cheer for someone who has experienced so much adversity yet gracefully embodies what it means to overcome. It should be easy to cheer for someone who will contribute to the team’s success on the court and have an influence on his teammates off of it.
With John Lucas III, the numbers don’t tell the entire story. While his stats may suggest to some that he’s just a typical NBA journeyman, the sum total of his life suggests so much more.
Did you ever make a list of preferred gifts that you’d make at Christmastime for the gift-giving power brokers? Remember waking up as a kid on Christmas morning wondering how many of those things on your list you would be able to cross off? As a kid, I can remember opening gifts that could only be described by saying, ‘it’s exactly what I wanted.’ While I no longer keep lists for Christmas gifts (I’ve thankfully outgrown that), I know that as a sports fan, I have those types of lists for my favorite teams. Those lists are usually comprised of players I hope come to play in my city for my team, or for a particular player to stay on board, not leaving for what might seem to be greener pastures via free agency. These last few weeks have provided for some of those magical moments for Jazz fans that can only be described as ‘exactly what I wanted,’ and there have been some moments that serve as a reminder that ‘what I want’ may be more painful than originally envisioned.
The Draft: Like so many Jazz fans, the words that I would use to describe this year’s draft was, ‘Surprised, Success, and simply, YES!’ Over the course of the weeks leading up to the draft, the conversation that fans and Jazz insiders had centered on was whether or not the point guard that would be available at 14 or 21 would really be the kind of player that could have a long-term career as a starter in the league. The elephant in the room was that even though everyone (including mock draft guys) knew the Jazz had a glaring weakness at that position, the kind of PG they coveted would be long gone by 14. The Jazz’s next starting point guard would not be coming from the draft. If anything, the Jazz would draft their next solid backup PG, who’d steady the ship for the next year or two while the search the franchise’s next floor general continued.
In addition, Rudy Gobert adds an interesting piece to the Jazz’s front line. If indeed, league trends in officiating continue and ‘verticality’ continues to favor the defensive player’s efforts on that end of the floor, then this pick actually does have the potential to be the diamond-in-the-rough that most of us envisioned at the point guard position. Getting even better, Rudy Gobert tweeted that he was looking forward to working with The Mailman to improve his game. What’s not to love about a guy with a 7’9″ wingspan with sharp elbows and a decisive outlet pass? What’s more, GM Dennis Lindsey accomplished all of this without compromising any future assets. (More on this in a moment). Of all the things Dennis Lindsey gave Jazz fans this night, the one that proved to be most cherished: optimism.
Free Agency: WIth free agency negotiations hitting full throttle, the fan base’s long history of being jilted by players surfaced once again. Why won’t player A and/or B come to Utah with all of its available cap space? With all of the drama surrounding Dwight Howard, day after day, Jazz fans lived on a diet of speculation and rumors. To no one’s surprise, Big Al signed with another team. As the opening days of free agency came and went, the excitement of draft night began to ebb.
Then the trade broke that had most Jazz fans scratching their heads. What started out as an interest in Andrew Bogut (and hopefully Harrison Barnes or Klay Thompson) quickly turned into the duo of Andris Biedrins and Richard Jefferson. Huh? My initial reaction was that there was no way the Jazz just enabled a Western Conference opponent to better themselves at their expense. Then the details that filled out the trade began to trickle in. The Jazz received two unprotected first round picks and multiple 2nd round picks. They also added an additional player (Brandon Rush) that may fill a substantial team need, but whose health is still to be determined.
This move allows the Jazz to accomplish a few other things:
- It allows the team meet the minimum salary requirements without overspending for a player whose contract may handcuff them in the years to come.
- It will maximize the amount of time the young players will get if they can keep themselves on the court. Ty won’t have the game management considerations that he admittedly had to take into consideration last year.
- This move allowed the Jazz to acquire multiple draft picks, which is still the most viable way for this franchise to continue to acquire talent.
- Lindsey’s ability to get Golden State to give up what they did is a reminder that a long term vision is needed to be successful. I think in the end, Golden State will regret conceding so much in this trade.
- Without the presence of a dominant veteran figure, the desire for leadership to emerge from the young core is not only expected, it will be necessary (I’m convinced this will end up being a hybrid of Burke/Hayward next season).
- Most importantly, the financial flexibility reinforces a commitment to the youth movement in that it gives the Jazz an opportunity to keep guys like Burke, Favors, Kanter and Hayward around for as long as possible. There is no one on the market who is available now that I’d rather have long term than any of the four players I just mentioned.
Conclusion: So far, Dennis Lindsey has indicated that the Jazz wanted to be aggressive on draft day. They were. He indicated there were no skipping steps in the rebuilding process, and the trade with the Golden State Warriors is evidence that this process is well under way. Jazz fans should be excited about the youth movement, even if it means more L’s than W’s in 2013-2014. Lindsey has spoken about ‘financial flexibility’ to anyone who asks him about the teams’ long term success. It’s an asset that, once invested, can take years to show returns. There are no guarantees, but if this means that for the next 10+ years Jazz fans are treated to the finished product that is often imagined with the young guys, that will truly be the gift that every Jazz fan wants.
Identity. It’s a loaded term; one that is used in many different contexts. Yet, the word is often meant to point us in a particular direction. It’s often expressed as a singular idea that serves as an umbrella to organize converging traits that make up the whole. Within the world of sports, you often hear that a team assumes the identity of their coach or a particular player (usually their best). A team’s identity can be fluid, but it can also serve as a point of reference.
As the Utah Jazz begin what will be their 5th major expression of the franchise, (3rd post John and Karl), the question of who this team is and what they will become, has become evident. How does a young team develop an identity uniquely their own while continuing in the tradition of its past that will be recognized by the community it plays in? While change for change’s sake is almost always counterproductive, to stay true to who you are and remain relevant means that reinvention is necessity. Perhaps a look outside of the world of basketball might give us a better picture of what I mean.
In Dublin, 1989, as the Joshua Tree/Rattle and Hum version of U2 was playing a final gig, in front of their home town, front man Bono made a veiled statement, “We have to go away and dream it up again.” The comment left many fans wondering what the future had in store for the band. Here’s the interesting thing about fans: when we fall in love with a band (or team), it tends to be for life. Usually, the version of the team we like best (like our first album from our favorite band) is the one we most easily identify with. For many U2 fans, it was the Joshua Tree version of the band.
The next time U2 was heard from by the public, the noise that was altogether still theirs was described as, “four men chopping down the Joshua Tree.” It wasn’t just the sound that was different, it was the look. How would the U2 faithful respond?
After the initial shock wore off, many of the U2 faithful found the change exciting and fresh. In fact, despite the different sounds and look, at the end of the day, it was still them. The reinvention was necessary, according to Bono, if the band was going to continue to make music that meant something. Understanding who they were was essential for their longevity. Now, for many U2 fans, there is just as much anticipation for what’s next as their legacy builds upon their storied past, even while refusing to stay there.
Of course, comparing bands and basketball teams might seem like apples and oranges, but I think there’s a lesson here as fans wait in expectation for Jazz 5.0 to debut this fall. For so long, the Jazz’s identity has been rightfully shaped by John, Karl, and Coach Sloan.
These three giants of Jazz lore are most responsible for the imprint of this team’s international identity. This is to be expected, considering the length of their run together in Jazz uniforms. They moved beyond the status of being among the NBA’s best at their respective crafts and became treasured members of the community. As a result, any comparisons of other Jazz players and coaches (past, present and future) will almost always be made against these three. That has its draw backs. I remember Andre Miller once commenting that playing in Utah after John’s departure wasn’t ideal. Who could blame him? As Jazz 5.0 takes shape, the temptation for the fan base will be to hope Favors and/or Kanter will be just like Karl, or the next future PG will play just like John. That expectation will inevitably lead to disappointment. However, in what ways can these players embody what made John and Karl great while still remaining true to their talents when wearing Jazz colors? That prospect, as a fan, is exciting to think about.
Identity can be a difficult thing to create when one has already been identified for you. Abandoning the past altogether, especially given all of the Jazz’s success, is not the answer. How should the past and present coalesce to determine the Jazz’s future identity? One of the concepts surrounding identity is the idea of sameness over time. For U2, that sameness is embodied by the four men who make up the band. For the Jazz, though, players, coaches and upper management change over time. Identity then, is shaped largely by principles that make the franchise unique. For example, Kevin O’Connor and Dennis Lindsey have both reiterated the principle within the organization: the coach is king. There are other traits Jazz fans have come to expect from their team’s brand of basketball: effort, precision, toughness and consistency.
Another part of the Jazz’s identity is its loyal fan base. It has been described by those outside the Jazz community as intelligent, passionate and faithful. LeBron James was once given a standing ovation by the Jazz faithful at the ESA, and it’s that same appreciation for great basketball that causes Jazz fans to boo him now. As Jazz fans prepare for a summer of what they hope to be exciting changes, a few things are clear:
- This will be the beginning of Dennis Lindsey’s contribution to the Jazz’s overall identity.
- Just like Bono said that U2 had to go away to think it all up again, in order for the Jazz to remain relevant (and competitive), they’ll need to continue to reinvent themselves in order to succeed in a smaller market.
- If Lindsey’s track record in San Antonio and Houston are any indication, the team is in good hands.
- The recent news of Karl Malone’s involvement in working with the big men, and the possibility of Jerry Sloan returning in some official capacity, serve as reminders that this is a franchise who is secure in who they are.
As long as the Miller family runs this franchise, Jazz fans can count on two things: the ultimate goal will always to capture that elusive championship and secondly, they’ll never sacrifice who they are to do it. Who knows, as Jazz 5.0 carves out its own identity with a little help from the old guard, this franchise might finally find what its been looking for.