Late last night, Jody Genessy released this report that the Utah Jazz have talked to former head coach Jerry Sloan about returning to the club. There’s still much we don’t know: we don’t know if the interest is mutual (though Jerry telling a newspaper reporter about it is a good sign), and we don’t know the position that was discussed (though the departure of Hornacek means there’s an obvious vacancy in an assistant’s spot on the bench). But Jerry’s constant presence as a season ticket holder last year, then his work with the Jazz at the NBA draft combine in Chicago, and now this report indicates a trend of increasing involvement for the Hall Of Fame coach and his former franchise.
After attending the NBA draft combine in Chicago, and witnessing Sloan’s involvement first hand, Mychal Lowman posted his theory: that Sloan was coming back to the Jazz to become Ty Corbin’s assistant. Just as former Coach-of-the-Year winner Phil Johnson’s worked as Sloan’s right-hand man as Sloan grew to become the HOF coach, Sloan would work as Corbin’s mentor, helping his former player and assistant reach his full potential as a head coach. At the combine, Sloan was spotted sitting right next to Corbin, and Corbin worked more closely with Sloan than with anyone else on the staff, including Kevin O’Connor, Dennis Lindsey, or scout Walt Perrin. Also accurately pointed out by Lowman: given the Jazz’s steadfast insistence on secrecy, Sloan’s involvement suggests that he isn’t about to join another franchise.
What would Sloan’s assistantship tenure look like? Despite his old-school reputation and playing career, in which he was far more impactful defensively than offensively, Sloan’s coaching expertise has been on the offensive side of the ball. Sloan led two different teams to league-leading offensive performances: in 1997-98, the Jazz put up a 112.7 Offensive Rating with Stockton and Malone at the helm (a performance that Dean Oliver selected as the 3rd best offense in league history in his book Basketball on Paper), and in 2007-08, when he led the Williams/Boozer/Okur Jazz team to a 113.8 Offensive Rating, better than even the Phoenix offensive juggernaut. That being said, it’s possible that his best accomplishment was leading a team with Andrei Kirilenko, Greg Ostertag, Raja Bell, Carlos Arroyo, and Jarron Collins as playing time leaders to offensive respectability in 2003-04. He’s also shown an remarkable ability to adapt his offense system: the pick-and-roll attack of Stockton-and-Malone is legendary, but he eschewed that system in favor of the flex for the Williams/Boozer years.
That all being said, the Jazz’s main problem last year was defense, ranking just 21st in the league. On the Salt City Hoops Saturday Show, I advocated for a defensive assistant coach like Scott Skiles or someone of his ilk to join the Jazz, after all, that’s where the most improvement is to be made. But depending on which players return for the Jazz next year, an offensive coach may actually be more needed. Consider: last season, when Al Jefferson was not on the floor, the Jazz played excellent defense, to the tune of a 100.8 Defensive Rating. That total, if continued for the whole season, would have made the Jazz the third best defense in the league, just behind the Indiana Pacers and Memphis Grizzlies. Should Jefferson not return to the Jazz next season, the Jazz’ defensive woes may already be solved.
That leaves the offensive end of the floor as the source of potential improvement. Though the Jazz’s offensive reliance on Al Jefferson was drastically overstated last season (the Jazz were just 0.3 points per 100 possessions better offensively with Al on the floor, after being 10.4 points better with him in 2011-12), the boogeyman of poor bench offensive performance may disappear should Sloan return as an assistant. Given his well-deserved reputation for getting the most on offense out of his players, Corbin may feel more comfortable going to his defensively excellent bench with Sloan around. A defensive unit featuring Hayward, Favors, and Kanter; an offensive system built by Sloan, and Corbin’s excellent team-building skills may just be the Jazz’s ingredients to future greatness.
Of course, with so many hypotheticals, it’s far too early to predict the Jazz’s return to relevancy this upcoming season. But should the pieces fit together like this, the future looks really bright. Coach Sloan, your move.