On “Skipping Steps”

August 29th, 2013 | by Dan Clayton

You’ve heard it.

You’ve heard it, in fact, so often that it’s becoming a quick cliche in the new Jazz narrative. You’ve heard it from the architect of the team’s future so many times that you memorized it and frequently recite it to your friends and Twitter followers and probably in the mirror as you’re getting ready in the mornings.

“We are not skipping steps in the rebuild,” you have often heard Jazz GM Dennis Lindsey say. “We will be patient and have a pain tolerance.”

Sounds ominous, this commitment to steps. Probably because of that, most fans and analysts in Jazzland’s online and media communities have assumed they know what step Lindsey is talking about: the step of being really bad so a team can add top talent through the draft. Lindsey just arrived from a championship organization that definitely checked the “be bad” box on their to-do list en route to drafting Tim Duncan, Finals MVP for three of the Spurs’ four titles. So that’s the set of steps he’s referring to, right? Clear the decks of long-term salary, lose a lot of games, luck out on lottery day, draft a guy you hope pans out, and then plan the parades.

 

Hmmm.

The problem with that plan is how often it fails. Teams get stuck in the lottery for years at a time, swinging year after year for the fences by a) playing awful basketball, and b) deciding which 18- to 20-year-old will save their franchise overnight. Some do. Many do not. Even in the top five of most drafts, there are as many non All-Stars as All-Stars. The last four drafts (not counting 2013 draftees, who have yet to be eligible for a midseason classic) have yielded a total of three All-Star players out of 20 possible. For every Blake Griffin, James Harden or Kyrie Irving, there are 5-6 that are closer to the Wesley Johnson or Jonas Valanciunas end. And that’s in the top five picks.

And here’s the thing: Lindsey is smart. He knows all that.

Which is why I don’t think that’s the step he’s talking about skipping.

Take a closer look at what the Spurs did to build a dynasty. Yes, they got their first Larry O’Brien trophy by landing the ultimate draft prize in Duncan. But when David Robinson retired and left Timmy alone at the helm, the Spurs didn’t return to the basement in order to reinforce their roster. They smartly rebuilt as they went by allowing their late picks – picks that they got without subjecting themselves as the cellar-dwelling Western Conference punching bags – blossom into stars.

Here’s the key to how Tony Parker and Manu Ginobili became part of a championship core that helped Duncan win three more rings long after Robinson had settled into his rocking chair. They didn’t just draft those guys. They drafted them and then they doubled down to see what they had.

That is the part of the process you can’t neglect. At some point, you have to see what you have. If you skip that step, you’ll waste one of the most precious commodities in basketball: young talent on rookie scale contracts.

Or worse, you’ll fail to realize at all that you have a potential title core. Think about that. Ginobili was a 57th pick, which means by all logic he shouldn’t have even necessarily made an NBA team, much less become an All-Star and a three-time champ. And how many Finals MVPs were selected 28th overall other than Tony Parker? Zero. In an alternate version of Spurs history, TP and Manu could have followed the path of most late picks and become end-of-bench towel-waivers or worse, and the prize for the Duncan draft would in all likelihood be one ring.

What a dramatically different version of modern basketball history we would have if that had happened! The reason the Spurs have four banners hanging instead of one is partly because those two were way too good to be selected at those positions, but also because at some point the organization said, “They might be able to carry the franchise, they might not… but let’s find out.”

You can’t skip the (sometimes painful) phase of giving guys the opportunities to become stars. If it seems like we’re talking about tanking it’s because the “well let’s see if he’s a star” approach often ends in losing games, too. From the outside, there is probably very little perceptible difference between a) actual tanking and b) gambling minutes and roles on your youth with mixed results. They sometimes look the same in the W column, but they are different phenomena with different long-term outcomes.

But I wouldn’t assume that Lindsey means the Jazz must, by some immutable law, pass through the crucible of acute awfulness to get good again. What they must do is find out if Gordon Hayward is a leader, if Derrick Favors can develop an offensive game, if Enes Kanter can adjust to playing against first-tier talent, if Alec Burks can put his physical tools together. Honestly, those are steps that the franchise has probably been skipping since those four came to the Jazz, and when I hear the now-cliched Lindsey quote, I hear him telling us it’s time to see how far those four can take their team.

So don’t assume that hitting all the steps means tanking. I think Lindsey and other Jazz brass would be thrilled if a couple of their core young players took huge leaps this year and the Jazz won more than expected, even at the expense of lottery combinations, because it means the club is less dependent on the iffy rabbit foot method of franchise-building than we thought. If it doesn’t happen, then the Jazz will win somewhere between 20 and 30 games and add another top draftee to their stable, but I am not convinced that it will be because they tanked.

It will be because they didn’t skip the step of giving guys an opportunity to step up and become stars.

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 where his hobbies include complaining about League Pass, finding good doughnut shops and dishing out assists for the Thoreau It Down team in the Word Bookstore basketball league.
Dan Clayton

  • Examining Utah Jazz Shot Charts
    Analytics
    13
    July 25th, 2014

    Examining Utah Jazz Shot Charts

    In today’s media-savvy basketball world, there are a number of methods available to analysts like myself to evaluate players,...Read More

  • How Important is Passing?
    Utah Jazz
    1
    July 24th, 2014

    How Important is Passing?

    Being that most of you are all supporters of the former team of the NBA all-time assists leader and one of the greatest passers...Read More

8 Comments

  1. Dunzo says:

    Lmao @ Jonas Valanciunas being compared to Wesley Johnson talent level.

    And I can’t wait to see if “Alec Burks can put his physically tools together”

    This blog is a “C” average at best. SLCDunk >>>>>>>> SaltCityHoops

    • Big B says:

      Harsh much?

      I actually thought this was a great article! ( thanks Dan! ) I have been a faithful SCLdunk fan myself, but I will be back to read more.

      I think Dan’s right that what really matters is development. We may know how much Lindsey cares about getting a good pick in next years draft by what he does at the deadline. He has plenty of pieces to move if he wants.

  2. Clint Johnson says:

    Question: Do you believe the way the team handled the past two seasons, especially Jefferson and Millsap, was motivated by desire to “skip” this step of trusting and testing young talent or was this step always meant to be taken in the 2013-14 season? If so, why now and not before?

    • Laura says:

      I agree with sebazz’s comment below that part of the answer to “why now?” is that this is when the salary cap and luxury tax penalties are becoming more prohibitive, allowing the Jazz to pick up players or picks in trades they might not have been able to otherwise.

      But I do think the 2014 draft is a BIG part of it, too.

      Also, I think I’ve gotten so confused by all this “skipping steps” talk because Kevin O’Connor used to talk all the time about how the Deron trade allowed them to skip steps. But now we’re NOT skipping steps? Make up your minds! Or was it just all BS before? I can’t decide.

      • Matt says:

        I think it’s a combination of 2014 being known as a draft with 5-7 all stars in it for about 3 years and they were developing our young players, very patiently not over exposing them when they couldn’t handle it, deeming this season as the right one to let them loose. So if two or three of our players make huge leaps it gives us our “core” or, it gives the Jazz options at draft time. Lindsey set it up to where there isn’t really a downside.

  3. @ssebazzalm says:

    Nice reading Dan, i agree, and the reason for being now and not before, besides probably the timing of the draft (that give us a pretty good prize if we miss) was not taking contracts beyond this year, and that way mantaining our cap flexibility, and our options open….

    I love what Lindsey and Co. are doing, i’m totally ecstatic

    • Laura says:

      I’m ecstatic, too! This is the most pumped I’ve been for a season in a looong time. It’s going to be very interesting and very fun to watch!

  4. jazzpatty says:

    Dan, I enjoy reading everything you write. From your in-game and post-game tweets to full blown articles like this one. They’re always very insightful and seem to come from “informed opinions” rather than speculation.

    Like the rest of you, I’m curious to see what this upcoming season brings. I know the players will be fighting like crazy to win and will be very insulted by those fans cheering for a “tank job”.

Leave a Reply