Can the Utah Jazz Escape the Hamster Wheel of Losing?

July 30th, 2014 | by Dan Clayton
Wall's Wizards might be the most applicable example for Jazz to follow if they want a winning season. (Photo by Ned Dishman/NBAE via Getty Images)

Wall’s Wizards might be the most applicable example for Jazz to follow if they want a winning season. (Photo by Ned Dishman/NBAE via Getty Images)

Eighty-two percent of recently bad teams have some tough news to share with Jazz fans: getting off the lottery hamster wheel is tough work.

It’s easy for teams to get stuck on the treadmill of multiple losing seasons. The experience other teams have had trying to get out of the NBA’s basement can certainly inform our expectations for a Jazz team that keeps adding young talent but ultimately wants to begin its ascent back to relevance.

The last 15 NBA seasons1 have included exactly 100 teams to win 30 or fewer games2, which makes for tidy math. Here’s what we can learn from the previous 100 teams to traverse these waters.

The main lesson: winning doesn’t happen overnight. Here are some stark data points from those 100 teams and the seasons they had after dipping down to 30 levels (or .366 in a lockout year).

  • Only 18% of those teams had winning seasons the year after, meaning 82% were stuck to some degree in a cycle of losing.
  • More than half (53%) remained at or below 30.
  • A quarter of teams didn’t improve at all, and 19% actually got worse.
  • Having said that, the other side of that number is that 76% of teams to win 30 or fewer games did show some kind of record improvement the following year.

The next logical question is: did those 18 successful teams follow a template that is remotely applicable to the Jazz? As we analyze the Jazz’s chances in 2014-15, do the moves that rapidly rebuilt those teams seem congruous to what the Jazz are doing, or will Utah’s road be a longer one?

To begin to answer those questions, let’s look at the teams who went straight from 30-minus to contender. For the sake of argument, we’ll call “contender” the 50-win level. There were five teams in the last 15 years to do that just one year removed from the basement.

2007-08 Celtics: From 24 wins to 66. This team also won the championship.

From basement to banner. This story, though, has the least to do with the Jazz’s rebuild. The Celtics did the opposite of the Jazz, flipping all of their future assets to compile a  just-add-water contender. They didn’t build through the draft, actually trading their pick and some nice young players3 to land Kevin Garnett and Ray Allen. They surrounded those two and Paul Pierce with filler free agents in support the win-now model, not with youth.

  • Did they quickly bounce back in a way Utah can emulate? No, unless the Jazz have plans to trade for two superstars in their prime.

2004-05 Suns: From 29 wins to 62. Went to the Western Conference Finals.

Like the Celtics, the Suns did the opposite of what the Jazz are doing… mostly. They traded their pick and otherwise dumped salary so they could pursue free agent Steve Nash, who would quickly become MVP material. Those cap-clearing moves4 cost them future pieces as well, including the pick that would later become Gordon Hayward. Also, Amar’e Stoudemire blew up that year. Probably largely due to the Nash signing, Stoudemire went from being a 4.4 WS player (role player levels) to an elite breakout year. He his a 26.2 PER and 14.6 WS, both elite levels5.

  • Can Utah emulate? It would take adding a free agent on the cusp of a major improvement, and then having one of their own young stars explode to elite levels. The former is almost impossible at this point, the latter is unlikely.

2001-02 Nets: 26 wins to 52. Went to the NBA Finals.

This team’s boldest move en route to doubling the win total was trading its best player to land Jason Kidd. Kidd was a 9-10 WS player at that point, which is All-star level, and better than what they were getting from Stephon Marbury. They did add a draft pick, but it wasn’t exactly a tank-your-way-to-a-star approach. They actually traded backwards to land Richard Jefferson along with role players Brandon Armstrong and Jason Collins. Then they added more veteran role players.

  • Can Utah emulate?  If they trade for an All-star (not happening) and play in a weaker conference (definitely not happening).

2003-04 Grizzlies: 28 wins to 50. Went to the playoffs but lost in the first round.

Here’s another team that quickly retooled without the help of the draft. They actually traded both picks away that summer for bench help6. Other than that, they really just added decent players via trades (Bo Outlaw, Jake Tsakalidis) and signings (James Posey). They also got Mike Miller back from injury, which helped modestly (3.9 WS). Even Pau Gasol didn’t have a breakout year, scoring, rebounding and playing slightly less than the year before. Honestly, Memphis’ 22-win turnaround is a bit of a head scratcher on paper. They made minor tweaks and were a well-coached7, but really their biggest addition was Posey.

  • Can Utah emulate? The recipe here is a little unclear, but for the Jazz to follow the Grizz’s model, they’d have to have nailed their rotation pick-ups and they’d need COY-level coaching from Quin Snyder, a rookie himself.8

2009-10 Thunder: 23 wins to 50. Also lost in the first round.

The Thunder’s improvement had something to do with the draft, but this was actually the end of a sustained, youth-focused rebuild, so it would be tough to say that drafting James Harden accounted for 27 wins. Russell Westbrook and Jeff Green also stayed at roughly the same level, and they added only supporting pieces. The story of this turn-around is all about a transcendental player cracking the code. Kevin Durant exploded from the fringe All-star level (7.9 WS in 2008-09) to an elite superstar (16.1 WS and ridiculous scoring efficiency).

  • Can Utah emulate? The Jazz would need somebody to explode to top-three superstardom. That’s not happening this year, and it will be a while before we know if they have anyone of that ilk.

These five teams’ roadmaps don’t offer much to the Jazz. Let’s assume, then, that 50 is out of the question. Let’s see, in shorter form, if the other 13 teams who went from 30-minus to 42-49 wins can proffer some models. In this group, we do see some teams who got instantly better at least in part because of an instant contribution from a high draft pick and/or a well-timed coaching change.

Four of these teams got back to winning records largely because of a marquee trade.

  • ’13 Nets (27 to 49): Traded for a secondary star (Johnson), added role players (Stack, Blatche), changed coach.
  • ’14 Suns (25 to 48): Traded for Bledsoe, breakout year by Dragic, drafted Len, changed coach.
  • ’05 Wiz (25 to 45): Trade pick (Harris) + players for Jamison, got healthy (Arenas).
  • ’11 Knicks (29 to 42): Traded for Stoudemire, added Felton + pieces, mid-season Melo trade.

For two, the main ingredient was getting good players back healthy (Curry, Wade).

  • ’09 Heat (15 to 43): Got Wade back, drafted Beasley & Chalmers, added Magloire, James Jones, etc., new coach.
  • ’13 Ws (29 to 47): Got an AS (Curry) and elite defender (Bogut) back from injury, added Landry, Jack, Barnes.

For one, it chiefly had to do with an impact free agent (and, importantly, a new system).

  • ’14 Bobcats (21 to 43): Added Jefferson, Neal, Ridnour, etc., drafted Zeller, new coach.

Those seven probably don’t have much to offer the Jazz in the way of applicable rebuilding advice, because the Jazz probably aren’t making marquee trades or adding impact free agents9, and we don’t have a star-level player to bring off the injured list. The other six, though, might represent templates Utah could follow: they added more young talent to developing rosters, and signed the right veterans.

  • ’05 Bulls (23 to 47): Drafted Gordon and Deng, added role players (Nocioni, et al.), career year from Curry.
  • ’07 Raps (27 to 47): Drafted Bargnani, traded for Ford, added role players (Garbajosa, Anthony Parker, etc.).
  • ’14 Wiz (29 to 44): Drafted Porter, traded for Gortat, nice leaps by Wall (4.5 WS to 7.9, 1st AS).
  • ’03 Rox (28 to 43): Drafted Yao, traded for Posey, Francis healthy.
  • ’04 Nugs (17 to 43): Drafted Melo, signed Miller, Boykins, Barry, Lenard, etc.
  • ’04 Heat (25 to 42): Drafted Wade, signed Haslem, Odom, Alston, etc., new coach.

The teams of Wade, Melo, Yao, Bargs and Gordon/Deng got enough immediate juice from those guys, and added the right supporting pieces around them. There’s no telling yet if Exum can have that type of first-year impact, though.

I also like the approach of this past year’s Wizards, something of a hybrid. Their best player made another step forward, they drafted a player who was solid-but-not-yet-great as a rookie, Beal continued to progress modestly, and the addition of Gortat gave them an identity inside along with Nene. If Gordon Hayward is ready for his next step, Exum produces something like 4(ish) WS10, Favors provides the interior scoring and D, and the other youngs continue their forward progress at even a modest pace, the Jazz could start the climb just like the Wizards did.

But if this exercise shows us anything, it’s that even if the Jazz take steps forward, there’s a strong historical precedent suggesting they might not make it back above .500 next year.


The last 100 teams to win 30 games or fewer, and how they fared the following season.

The last 100 teams to win 30 games or fewer, and how they fared the following season.

Dan Clayton

Dan Clayton

Dan covered Utah Jazz basketball for more than 10 years, including as a radio analyst for the team’s Spanish-language broadcasts from 2010 to 2014. He now lives and works in New York City, but contributes regularly to Salt City Hoops, FanRag and BBALLBreakdown.
Dan Clayton


  1. JoshG says:

    Another Key Factor for any team would be injuries. You mention teams got a healthy player back . I don’t remember the last player that the Jazz lost significant time to an injury. I don’t count Burke from last year.

  2. Mike says:

    I know the jazz are a different team than what they typically are… But, I really like the fact that we are only on this list once.

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