One preseason win doesn’t mean hardly anything, but try convincing me of that at 9:30 p.m. on October 11, 2003. You couldn’t.
That was the night, exactly a decade ago, that I covered my first game as a beat writer for Utah’s Mundo Hispano newspaper, a now-defunct local publication. Mundo hired me, basically for gas money, to cover a Jazz team with some Latino talent. The editor would request access on my behalf and, if all went well, the first game I’d cover as a paid journalist would be preseason contest #2, the Seattle Sonics visiting the suddenly starless Jazz.*
The erstwhile Jazz PR crew granted Mundo‘s credential request but forgot to assign me a seat. They told me to find any open spot for the night and I, mostly oblivious to the fact that the Delta Center media sat anywhere else but the courtside rows that have since been converted to luxury seats, slid into a second-row seat, just behind Hot Rod Hundley’s spotter. From that seat, I watched the Jazz ignore predictions of how historically awful they would be and inject some hope into a town that Hall-of-Famers John Stockton and Karl Malone had just left.
I thought about that game a lot as the Jazz opened their preseason with a 101-78 win over the Golden State Warriors on Tuesday. Almost ten years to the day after that game, the exhibition Jazz again tempted hope in the face of similarly low expectations.
Setting the Stage: October 2003 at the Delta Center
The Jazz played mostly from behind in a tight fourth quarter, but a Mo Williams jumper made it just a one-point deficit (89-88, Sonics) with just over a half minute to play. After a missed shot by Seattle, Mo actually had a chance to take the lead, but missed a layup. Andrei Kirilenko secured a second shot opportunity with just seconds to play, but Reggie Evans stripped the ball away, leaving the Jazz to foul.
Only a second remained when the Jazz recovered Evans’ second miss and called a timeout to advance the ball. During that timeout, you couldn’t tell it was “just” preseason at all — except for the fact that superstar Ray Allen had been sitting since 5:52 in the 4th. The anxiety in the arena over what might happen next was palpable. The stakes were lower, I suppose, but at the same time they really weren’t; here was this team picked to win eight games all year that was out to prove that the basketball world had it all wrong. I guess that’s why the next play is one I still vividly remember a decade later.
Matt Harpring checked back in for Ben Handlogten to inbound. There was a screen set on the side of the key for Raja Bell to pop out for a catch-and-shoot. That’s all Bell would have time for, but that’s all he needed. The shot dropped, the Jazz won, and a sheepish kid reporter who grew up watching Jazz basketball tried to hide his ear-to-ear grin among the cadre of veteran reporters he quite accidentally surrounded himself with.
The Jazz won seven of their eight preseason games that year, and none of those were the reason the team would contend for a playoff spot and ultimately secure a winning record. But you could sense that night that people might have gotten it wrong when evaluating this makeshift roster with its brilliant coach.
Back to the Present: October 2013 at EnergySolutions Arena
Once again the Jazz headed into a preseason game amid unflattering forecasts for their upcoming season. In fact, hours before the game, Vegas linemakers updated the over/under for the Jazz, deciding that 28.5 wins was too high for this team and changing it to 27.5. That’s more than the eight-win prediction from before, but it’s hardly the feedback you want to get precisely as you’re tightening up your laces for the first exhibition game.
As it turns out, the oddsmakers didn’t bother them. The Jazz overcame a clunky offensive start and rode their bench to a double-digit halftime lead. Six players reached double figures, including rookie Trey Burke, but more impressively, the team defense held Golden State to 32.6% shooting.
In another quirky parallel to a game ten years prior, just in front of me sat a good friend making his own media row debut. Like 2003 me, Andy Larsen had already been a part of the Jazz media community for some time before donning his press pass on Tuesday, That made him no less giddy about the work of covering a Jazz game, something he later said was “an amount of fun no human being should be allowed to have.” I remember that feeling, Andy.
At any rate, the Jazz are in a reminiscent position, fresh off a convincing win that has people momentarily forgetting the bleak forecasts. But is the 2013-14 team ready to continue surprising like their decade-ago counterparts?
How to Replicate a Miracle
If the Jazz want to prove the experts wrong and have a Cinderella campaign, they have a model to follow right in their own history. Having covered the surprise squad of Kirilenko and Harpring myself, here are some things the Jazz need to do in order to repeat some auspicious history.
First thing is defense. That Jazz team had the 19th ranked offense in the NBA that year, but stayed in games because of its above-average defensive numbers. That’s quite amazing when you look at the list of mediocre big men who were shuttled in and out of the starting lineup all year.
The Jazz also led the league in rebound rate that year, and they hit the offensive glass at a rate that nobody since then has equaled. Seriously, their 34.1% offensive rebound rate is the best in the last 10 years. There are many paths to NBA success and some teams are good specifically because they get back on defense at the expense of offensive rebounds. But when you’re a below-average offensive team, squeezing some extra life out of a possession is very valuable.
Depending on inexperienced point guards like today’s Jazz, the 03-04 Jazz team actually didn’t get great play from its PGs – but they did get them to play within their limits and effectively. The team finished in the bottom third of the league for assist percentage and tied for second-worst in turnover percentage, but both Carlos Arroyo and Raul Lopez managed True Shooting percentages above 50%. That tells you that if Burke focuses on playing efficiently, this year’s Jazz can survive his rookie learning curve.
Perhaps the most important lesson the 2003-04 Jazz have for their current-day counterparts is offensive balance. Lacking a go-to scorer, that team depended on an offense-by-committee approach. An impressive 12 players scored at least 10 points per 36 minutes, and nobody took more than Harpring’s 13.2 FG attempts per game. While today’s Jazz would love for a natural scorer to emerge, they’re probably better suited for the equal opportunity approach. They appeared to get that on Tuesday, with seven players all finishing between eight and 14 points and with no one player accounting for any more than 13% of the team’s used possessions (Burke and Burks).
It was hardly a starless team, though. Kirilenko’s Win Shares were elite at 11.6. To put it in perspective, if you dropped his WS into last season, he’d be behind only LeBron James, Kevin Durant, Chris Paul and James Harden. So the Jazz probably need someone to step up and lead them if they intend on another surprising year.
And the other star of that team, of course, was Jerry Sloan, who probably did the finest coaching work of his career that season. Despite his flaws, Sloan was able to get the most out of his entire roster: not just Kirilenko and Harpring, but also guys like Michael Ruffin and Aleksandar Radojevic. In a way it’s unfair that Ty Corbin will be judged against the bar of a Hall-of-Famer’s best season, but the reality is that he has more to work with than Sloan did 10 years ago and can answer a lot of questions by putting the puzzle together and surpassing some expectations.
There’s a good chance that Tuesday’s game has very little to do with the one I attended ten years ago, and that it winds up as merely a footnote to a bumpy season for the transitioning Jazz. But if we’re to remember the blowout of the Warriors as a harbinger of a team unexpectedly ahead of schedule, they can take some notes from the group I first covered. Defense, extra possessions through rebounding, balance, coaching and Burke playing within himself are probably the salient lessons coming out of the time machine from a decade ago.
* I had covered one game before – as an amateur writer who won Deseret News‘ 2001-02 “Cover a Jazz Game” contest. Before that, I was studying PR and had no intentions of heading into any kind of journalism, but as I shadowed Tim Buckley and Brad Rock for the night, I caught the bug and decided I would surely be back. Oddly enough, that game was also against the Sonics. I got to watch Stockton and Gary Payton battle it out and then headed to the locker room where I conducted interviews with, among others, Stockton (extremely gracious), Malone (intimidating as hell) and Greg Ostertag (hilarious, in a not-for-print sort of way). Then I worked for Spain’s Marca as a correspondent for a year, but my job at that point was to cover Lopez, who didn’t play in 2002-03. So the game in question was my first game as a paid journalist.