Typically, when a team misses the playoffs, it’s for one of two rather obvious reasons. 1. A talented roster that is incapable of meshing the considerable talents of each individual into a concerted team effort. 2. A roster that simply lacks the talent to string together wins on the road. This year’s Kings and last year’s Warriors are examples of reason 1, and this year’s Nets, Bobcats, and Wizards are prototypical of reason 2. For the majority of this season, I have worried that this Jazz team is simply falling victim to reason 2: the team, united though it may be, does not have enough talent to steal enough road games to reach and maintain a very available 8th playoff spot.
For the most part, this has been my narrative for 2012, but in recent weeks, the Jazz are losing winnable games at home (last week against the Kings and last night against the Suns) and forcing me to re-evaluate. Now, I don’t believe there is a single person remotely educated in NBA terms that would place this Jazz teams in the ring of basketball hell to which the Nets, Bobcats and Wizards are consigned. This leaves only one possible solution: the Jazz are underachieving.
This is absolutely not to say to that the team is not trying. Quite the contrary: almost every player on this roster kills himself every night, most especially during this losing streak in which the team is mired. These players care a ton, and one trip to a post-loss locker room removes any doubt that they don’t want to win. Yet they continue losing. This is not due to a dearth of legitimate talent. Teams all over the NBA would love to have Hayward, Millsap, Jefferson, Favors, Burks and Harris on their roster. This team, when broken down into the individuals, is good. Really good. Unfortunately, the pieces are not complementary.
Take for instance, the example of C.J. Miles. What do the Jazz need from C.J.’s position? A high percentage three point shooter with judicious shot selection, perimeter defense, and solid movement without the ball. But who is C.J.? A long, athletic, high volume shooter who loves long 2s and has a disappointingly low percentage from three. Where would C.J. thrive? An undersized team that thrived on isolation plays for the wings and that pushed the pace for 48 minutes of every game. A team like Oklahoma City. Unfortunately (particularly for C.J.), C.J. is on the Jazz, where he has been pigeonholed into a role he is ill-equipped to perform.
I am not blaming everything or even much of anything on C.J. He is merely an example that points to a larger trend. The Jazz roster is loaded with players who have been compelled to play in roles with which they are uncomfortable or ill-suited. At least offensively, Millsap is far more effective at the 3 (see: Blazers game). Jefferson, whose greatest ability is scoring on slow, methodical, low-post isos, plays on a team whose system thrives on quick passes and heavy off-the-ball movement. Jefferson’s very style disrupts the flow of an offense structured on flow. Again, this is not Jefferson’s fault. In fact, of all of these square-in-a-round-hole players, Jefferson has been the best at adapting his game to the situation. He has become a much more adept passer out of the post and he has developed a sense for pulling double-teams with his positioning so as to open up his teammates. But again, this is not his strength, and this certainly doesn’t maximize his considerable talents. It’s only the role the team asks him to play.
Sadly, this is par for the course in the NBA. Very rarely do teams find a set of players who complement each other beautifully. The thing about chemistry is that you don’t know you have it until your team is out there on the floor. Last night at the game, Spencer (known around here as “The Boss”) and Gordon Chiesa were discussing how well Andrei Kirilenko would have played on D’Antoni’s SSOL Suns. Unfortunately, because of an albatross contract, AK’s transcendent but specific skill set were forced into a Jazz system that could not maximize it. Because of the nature of the Association, this sort of thing is inevitable. There’s no omnipotent God of basketball who governs to which teams each player/coach must go to reach their potential (otherwise, Jimmer would be on the Magic, C.J. would be the leading scorer for the Bobcats, and Steve Nash would most definitely not be wasting away on a mediocre Suns team). Good teams make the best with what personnel they have, and that’s what those D-Will, Memo, and Boozer teams did with AK.
The good news is that this current Jazz team is possibly more talented than those D-Will teams. The roster is young, and youth improves with time. That alone should raise the ceiling of the team. The ideal line-up of the future for positions 2 through 5 is Alec Burks, Gordon Hayward, Derrick Favors, and Enes Kanter (or potentially Millsap instead of Burks with Hayward at the two), and that line-up does look, at least on paper, like a talented, complementary collection of pieces. This would be especially true if Burks could improve his 3 point shooting. The bad news is that right now, this group is too young, too inexperienced, and too raw to make a legitimate run toward the playoffs without the help of the veterans. As much talent as this team has, the Jazz have yet to access and maximize all of that talent, and until that occurs, this team’s ceiling is a first round playoff exit.