The Utah Jazz are entering a pivotal summer that will be full of defining decisions, and they just made their first one.
So ends the Tyrone Corbin era of Jazz basketball.
Andy Larsen brought you the news earlier today that, after 258 games as Jazz coach, Corbin wouldn’t return to continue the rebuilding process. So where are we after three and a half seasons of the Corbin era?
Appropriately evaluating Corbin’s spot in Jazz history requires us to be somewhat aligned in terms of defining what a coach is supposed to do, in the broadest possible terms. That’s a pretty philosophical question, one we won’t scratch the surface on in this column; suffice it to say, not all coaching jobs have the same empirical goals, but all might have the same broad purpose. For example, Gregg Popovich and Brett Brown had very different directives and charters in 2013-14, but at the most ethereal level, both had the same philosophical responsibility. So did Jerry Sloan. So did Red Auerbach. So did Ty Corbin.
So what is that broad purpose? First let’s talk about what it’s not.
Unfair criticisms of Corbin
Let’s start here: it’s not Corbin’s fault that the Jazz were 25-57 this year. Hell, it’s not even his fault that they were 112-146 since Corbin took over, although you could certainly argue that another coach might have gotten a better record from those teams. Across the entire NBA, I think coaches bear more blame than they deserve for a team’s losses, but in this specific case, 112-146 is a measure of a lot of things, but it’s not the end-all description of Corbin’s ability to coach.
In February 2011, Corbin inherited the smoldering ashes of a train wreck. That’s not an excuse, that’s fact. The Jazz had systematically shifted (intentionally or otherwise) under Sloan’s watch, and by the time Corbin took over, they were already very ideologically different from the 2006-2010 iterations. They also had locker room turmoil, a disgruntled star, and were on the verge of blowing it up putting the now-starless Jazz in a state of shock for the final stretch of the season. The Jazz could have finished 0-28 that year and I would still insulate Ty to some degree.
The next two years Ty had semi-normal working conditions1 and turned out a 79-69 record, making one fruitless trip to the postseason. The team was still a bit stylistically flawed at this point, but again, I’m not ready to pass the bill to Corbin for those flaws. As I’ve written about extensively, the Jazz’s shift to being a more jump-shot oriented and rhythmically plodding team happened before Corbin was in charge, and appear to have more to do with the nature of Al Jefferson’s game than with whoever was patrolling the sidelines.
Then the franchise made a conscious decision to reset, handing Corbin a roster that was not designed to win games in the short term. They told him — very publicly — that his job in 2013-14 wasn’t going to be assessed by wins and losses.
The other easy criticism of Corbin is that he allegedly has some deeply ingrained age bias and prefers veterans at all costs. Somewhere right now, Raja Bell, John Lucas III and Brandon Rush are having tea together and laughing over their crumpets about this one. Let’s look at the facts.
This past season, Corbin settled into a 9-man rotation that had one guy over 27. For all the hand-wringing about Marvin Williams and Richard Jefferson eating into core youngsters’ minutes, those two finished 5th and 7th, respectively, in minutes per game. Lucas and Rush were almost completely exiled by season’s end, and Andris Biedrins played fewer minutes all year than either Gordon Hayward or Trey Burke played in Wednesday night’s double-overtime game alone.
Some are still angsty about their perception from prior years that Hayward was relegated behind Bell or Josh Howard, and yet Hayward was third on the team in minutes in 2011-12, logging more playing time than Bell and Howard combined.
Like many, I would have enjoyed seeing more minutes for the young group as a whole, but that was never Ty’s job description. The franchise isn’t defining “core” the same way you and I are, so the charter wasn’t to develop one specific 5-man unit at all costs. The goal was development, defined broadly, and you’d have a hard time convincing me that all of the team’s young principles didn’t get better this year if we analyze from the 10,000 foot level.
Criticize Ty if you want — and before this piece is done you’ll see that my own macro view of Ty is plenty critical — but judging him based on W/L or the “vetzz” myth is just a bit lazy.
Just as there are criticisms of Ty that drive me crazy for their unfairness, there are justifications that don’t add up.
The argument that Corbin did was he needed to do to keep the locker room together is a brilliant oversimplification of a coach’s job. That would be like a CEO responding to shareholder concerns about middling company performance by saying, “Yeah, but look at how satisfied our employees are!” Employee engagement — in any business — is an important investment inasmuch as it drives to better results, but it is only one component of any leader’s job. (And again, that same Bell-Lucas-Rush group probably has a beef or two with the “he-kept-everybody-engaged” line.)
I’m also bothered by the notion that “we did about as well as we should have done” as it applies to any of Ty’s seasons. I’ll concede that, roster-wise, last year’s team was a roughly .500 team and that this year’s team was far worse. But if you really had the Jazz finishing 6th-worst in offensive efficiency and dead last on defense, go ahead and raise your hand. Low expectations are not an excuse to go 82 games without addressing some critical systemic flaws on either end of the court, and if you think they are, I’d like to introduce you to Jeffrey John Hornacek, or even Tom Thibodeau who had a slew of just-add-water excuses but said “screw it”.
And really, while we’re talking about weak defenses of his coaching résumé, anything attempt to justify Utah’s defensive performance this year is bound to sound feeble at best and detached from reality at worst. A team and a coach who were chartered with establishing a defensive foundation instead churned out the worst defense in the NBA.
There are other issues that I haven’t found a satisfying explanation for — like the defensive stance he sometimes took with the media or his seeming disdain for those who bring new tools in to complement their understanding and analysis — but on a certain level I’m not that bothered by either of those2.
So what does influence my overall assessment of why Corbin’s no longer in charge in Utah?
The broad philosophical role of a coach
To answer that, let’s return to that broad purpose I referenced earlier. What is the most important philosophical function of a coach?
I’ve heard many great coaches talk about this, and I’m convinced that it’s establishing a culture and identity. The reason Popovich gets the same level of effort regardless of who’s on the floor is because 15 Spurs are bought into the vision Pop espouses and they know that exceptions to doing things “the Spurs way” are not tolerated. Stan Van Gundy, in one of my favorite quotes ever about the purpose and challenge of coaching, said, “In coaching, you’re trying to create a style of play and a culture. Every time you make an exception, you’re breaking that down.”
I don’t know right now what “the Jazz way” is. I used to know, both in abstract terms and in a detailed, X-and-O way, but there have been so many instances where it was nearly impossible to discern what (if anything) the Jazz were executing on offense or on defense that I’m not sure, and some of that has to be on a coach. Maybe a lot of that is due to the weird, interstitial portion of Jazz history he presided over, but the fact is that we spent 82 games talking about the Jazz’s lack of identity, and at a certain point, that IS your identity.
Corbin did a lot of things well and some things badly, but at the end of the day, he didn’t create a culture. If he had, he’d be sitting down with Dennis Lindsey right now to scout the draft instead of sitting down the guys from Bailey’s to make a home goods inventory.
And none of this is to dance on a good man’s grave. Corbin is smart, hard-working and professional, and my guess is he’ll get another shot someday. When he does, he’ll probably be a little bit better because he will have reflected on his 258 games as Jazz coach and he’ll realize that he could have created a stronger sense of identity and vision. Just like many young NBA players have to figure out over time how to play more impactful basketball, there are lessons time can teach coaches, too. If we take a growth-mindset view here, Corbin could be like many of the Jazz players who never put it all together in Utah but went on to have successful careers.
In the meantime, Utah will go searching for someone who can create and package and sell a vision that will shape the team’s immediate future. Fan favorite Mike Longabardi may get a look, and it wouldn’t surprise me if they talked to a brand-name coach or two, like former Lindsey co-worker Jeff Van Gundy. SI’s Ian Thomsen told the guys at 1280 to keep an eye on Ettore Messina, an idea I instantly loved because he’s an intriguing coach with a stellar résumé3. There are also in-house options, college coaches, and another half dozen names I haven’t even mentioned.
I tip my hat to Ty Corbin, a guy who has toiled in various capacities for 14 years to help the team I love. I also understand why it was time to move on and I look forward to seeing what happens next. It’s a summer of big decisions, and one of the biggest will be Lindsey’s next hire.