“I think I’m finished.”
With four simple words, John Stockton casually and unceremoniously closed the curtain on an historic NBA career. In true Stockton style, calling no attention to himself, he made the announcement at locker cleanout day as offhandedly as he would answer a question about his previous night’s dinner choice. The announcement, combined with the move made to L.A. by Karl Malone, the yin to Stockton’s yang, poignantly trumpeted the end of an incredible Utah Jazz era.
If losing two hall-of-fame players and the entire team’s identity in one offseason weren’t bad enough, Utah’s remaining roster was as underwhelming as they came. The Sports Illustrated 2003-04 NBA season preview predicted the Jazz to finish dead last in the west, and quoted an anonymous scout from an opposing team, who was even less optimistic regarding Utah’s chances.
“If this team wins 20 games, I’ll be surprised,” the scout said. “…This is probably the least talented club in the league.”
Utah’s opening night started lineup was comprised of 24-year-old Carlos Arroyo, who was attempting to fill the gargantuan shoes Stockton left behind at point guard; the overpaid and underwhelming Greg Ostertag at center and a talented but young Andrei Kirilenko playing out of position at power forward. DeShawn Stevenson and Matt Harpring rounded out the starting lineup, with Raja Bell, Sasha Pavlovic, Jarron Collins, Ben Handlogten and Raul Lopez getting minutes off the bench. The Jazz won that night, riding hot shooting (57%) and a balanced scoring effort to surprise many, even against an underwhelming Trail Blazers squad. A 127-102 drubbing at the hands of the Dallas Mavericks in the next contest seemed to put the Jazz back on the path to futility and frequent losses where the rest of the league seemed to think they belonged.
Leave it to a team led by Jerry Sloan to grossly exceed expectations.
Despite the dearth of All-Star-caliber players and bona fide scorers on the roster, the Jazz continued to kick, scratch and claw their way through every game. The hard-nosed, high energy style of play Sloan was known for during his playing days seemed to possess the team on a nightly basis. Consistent effort and unselfish play led the Jazz to win more games than they lost, albeit in the least aesthetically pleasing manner possible. By the end of 2003, the Jazz were sitting at a surprising 17-14 record and, shockingly enough, in the middle of the Western Conference playoff race.
If the lack of natural talent weren’t a big enough obstacle Utah had to sidestep, Matt Harpring suffered a knee injury in early January that sidelined him for the remainder of the season. There are two incredible facts brought to light by this injury: the fact that Utah was a whisker away from making the playoffs after missing their second-best player for half the season, and the fact that Matt Harpring was the second-best player on a team with a winning record. This is no knock on Harpring, as his aggressive play and perpetually revved up motor fit the Sloan system perfectly, but Harpring was nowhere near a franchise-level player.
Looking to take a flier on a once-prolific scorer and to acquire some much-needed three point shooting, Utah acquired Tom Gugliotta and Gordan Giricek in two separate draft deadline deals. While the Gugliotta gamble never paid off, Giricek provided much of the scoring void left by Harpring’s knee injury and made Utah’s offense more dynamic by virtue of his three-point accuracy.
Through both draft day trades and sheer hustle and determination, Utah maintained its modest but above .500 pace. Relying heavily on Kirilenko, Arroyo and Giricek, the Jazz continued to hover around the .500 mark until late in the season. (Ironically, current Utah outcast Raja Bell was also a huge contributor to Utah’s offense, routinely pouring in 20 off the bench and garnering consideration for 6th Man of the Year.) At 42-38, Utah was ever so close to cracking that top eight in the Western Conference and extending their season for at least four more games. Unfortunately, an expected loss to the Mavericks and an unexpected defeat to the terrible Phoenix Suns ended Utah’s season and playoff bid. Most likely by virtue of missing the playoffs, Jerry Sloan lost out on winning Coach of the Year. The award went to Hubie Brown, who led the Grizzlies, in-his-prime Shane Battier and young stud Pau Gasol in tow, to 50-32 regular season record and the same number of playoff wins as Sloan’s Jazz squad, 0.
In addition everything mentioned previously, the following stats and facts from the 2003-04 Utah Jazz season only further magnify just how monumentally impressive a job Sloan did with this roster. These don’t need to be sprinkled with prose or expounded upon; they speak for themselves.
- Ben Handlogten, a free agent with zero NBA experience who was signed a month before the season started, suffered a season-ending injury midway through the season. It was considered a “major loss.”
- For the 2003-04 season, the Jazz had the third-hardest schedule, according to basketball-reference.com
- In 2003-04, every team in the Midwest Division went to the playoffs, except the Jazz.
- Had the Jazz been in the Eastern Conference, they would have been the 4th seed.
- The 2003-04 Jazz were the fourth-youngest team in the league, with an average age of 24.9 years.
- At +5, the Jazz had the biggest positive differential in the NBA between wins (42) and expected wins (37), according to basketball-reference.com
In the annals of sports history, the 2003-04 Utah Jazz season will continue to go unnoticed and overlooked, overshadowed by the dawning of the LeBron James era, the triumph of the “star-less” Detroit Pistons over the star laden Los Angeles Lakers, and myriad other storylines. Buried underneath all the focus on superstars old and new, against all odds, Jerry Sloan accomplished quite possibly his most impressive feat: wringing every lost drop of talent and effort out of a team that had no business even sniffing the playoffs, let alone nearly participating. It’s a real shame Sloan doesn’t get more credit for this accomplishment.
But don’t expect him to say anything about it.