Players Come and Go – Lessons from the Past

May 18th, 2015 | by Ken Clayton

Photo by Melissa Majchrzak/NBAE via Getty Images

Every year, players captivate the hearts of Jazz Nation and fans don’t want to let go.1 This year was no exception, as was very evident during the final week of the season. Some players made their final home appearances at the ESA, several recorded videos for the final broadcast thanking the fans, and pretty much everyone said the right things during locker room cleanout.

In response, fans and media members alike began envisioning the potential departure or campaigning for the retention of various favorite players, a list that isn’t short after a season that saw the Jazz improve markedly during the final two months.

There were tweets lamenting that fan-favorite Jeremy Evans might have played his last home game in the ESA. Another noted that Bryce Cotton’s late-season play might make others on the roster available.2 Fans similarly love Joe Ingles, who will be a restricted free agent, Trevor Booker, who could be traded or released thanks to his minimally guaranteed contract, and pretty much anyone else who wore a Jazz uniform this season.3

The current version of the Jazzman love-fest reminded me of a Desert News column published just after the 1984 draft (although it was likely written prior to the draft). Sports editor Lee Benson reasoned that anyone added in the offseason likely wouldn’t improve the team, and could potentially hurt the 45-win, Midwest Division winning Jazz. The headline (possibly not written by Benson) sensationally stated: “Chemistry of Jazz team could be ruined by draft.”

His thesis: “By bringing in new talent, the Jazz run the risk of ruining the tenuous chemistry that glued the whole thing together in ’83-’84.”

Listing the roster from top to bottom, Benson figured that the Jazz had the perfect mix of stars, up-and comers, and role players. The assumptions may have been reasonable on an individual level:

  • The Jazz were unlikely to acquire a better scorer than Adrian Dantley, find a more promising high-flyer/three-point shooter than Darrell Griffith, or a better point guard than Rickey Green, who was fresh off an appearance in the All-Star Game.
  • Other players, like Mark Eaton and rookie Thurl Bailey, were young and had plenty of room for improvement.
  • The rest of the roster, from John Drew down to Tom Boswell, knew their roles and played them well.

“It might be a good idea for the Jazz to go ahead and sign their free agents and sell the new guys to somebody else before they ruin everything,” the writer concluded.

Chemistry was everything to him, and all twelve players had his stamp of approval, chemically speaking. But there are various types of chemical reactions. Benson saw the 1983-84 Jazz as synthesis – compounds combining to form a more complex compound – and assumed that any change would alter the chemistry so dramatically as to result in some kind of destructive reaction, perhaps a decomposition or combustion.

Let me confess that I was somewhat convinced.4 As a 15-year-old fan who had just jumped on the bandwagon that year, I was pretty enamored with the team. I was fascinated with my new team’s accomplishments, beginning with the division title and the first-round series win. Individual players led the league in scoring, three-point shooting, steals and shots blocked. The Jazz had two players (plus the coaching staff) in the All-Star game, one on the All-NBA second team, and one on the All-Rookie team. Add the Coach of the Year, Executive of the Year, and the NBA’s Citizenship award, and it seemed the Jazz could do no wrong.

But even in my rookie offseason, I could see that the team’s success was built on the strength of a small core. Internal improvement would help the team, but so would upgrades to those outside the core.5

Of course the Jazz didn’t sell the 1984 draft pick, and actually beat the odds to find a better point guard than Green in John Stockton. At one stage in his career, Upper Deck produced a card on which Stockton was called “Court Catalyst.” Talk about chemistry. A catalyst is a substance that increases the rate of a chemical reaction without itself undergoing any permanent chemical change, with synonyms such as stimulus, spark, impetus and spur.6

When chemistry did fall apart – as it did before the next season even started – it was hardly John Stockton’s fault.7 Adrian Dantley held out of training camp while demanding a renegotiated contract, damaging his relationship with coach and GM Frank Layden. John Drew, a potent scoring sixth-man, lasted only 19 games before he was banned from the league due to cocaine addiction. Later in the season, Dantley was injured, which Layden blamed at least partially on holdout-related lack of conditioning. Even if the Jazz had brought back the same twelve players, the roster wouldn’t have remained static for long, and the chemistry wouldn’t have lasted.

What does this mean for the young but improving Jazz in 2015?

As with any offseason, there will be changes. Someone on this roster – maybe even someone who is very well liked – won’t be here on opening night. Will it be Evans? Booker or Ingles? A bigger contributor like Burks or Burke? Time will tell.

But there’s another lesson that can be learned. While the column in question advocated inaction over risk, action was clearly the right course in 1984, and it is in 2015 as well. But that doesn’t mean Jazz brass should throw caution to the wind. Benson did have one thing right: chemistry is important. It’s just not so important that an organization can’t try to improve at all. Knowing the Jazz and Dennis Lindsey (with his Spurs background), every effort will be made to find players who will buy into Utah’s way of doing things. This offseason’s mantra: improve the talent, but try not to disrupt the cohesiveness we’ve seen since the trade deadline.8

For now, prepare to wish your departing favorites goodbye, and cross your fingers that you’ll love the replacements just as much.

Ken Clayton

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One Comment

  1. LKA says:

    What happens happens. Fans don’t sign the paychecks so the FO will do what they have planned. I have not recieved my registered letter asking for my opinions so it is all on a “hope.” I do thing Evans is much better than any of the D- League rookies. Not real good with names but remember the d – Leaguer who put in the three at the buzzer to beat the Cavs. ?? Long forgotten. Cotton will need a whole summer league and pre season to show his stuff. So I think the others will have to prove themselves or just be trade bait. I will also argue to keep Evans at the same salary and keep him. But I like others like Evans enough I would root for his team even if it was (gulp) the lakers..That said I think Cotton is on the team only depending on who the Jazz get in the draft. I can be a dreamer and hope the Jazz land the # 3 spot and draft Russell.. I would not be surprised at all if Burke is moved. He would love to go to Boston or Detroit. And if the Jazz can improve themselves so be it. I enjoyed reading your article. Tomorrow night the lottery and then many weeks before te draft.

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