They’re playing a different game than we are.
There’s an imbalance here, right? We can all agree on that fact? That the rules for the Haves in the NBA are distinctly different than for the Have-nots? That on the court, players battle and it’s fair, but that in the war waged in front offices, the fairness ideal is a Maginot line? That in the end, when you consider the history of the league, you start to feel a little naive for ever believing otherwise? Because while some teams fight to stay relevant, and other teams fight to win a playoff series, still other teams fight for championships. Those teams fight for banners, for dynasties, and for a place in the Pantheon of Greatness. The Jazz are not one of those other teams. The Lakers are.
During the most recent playoffs, as I gleefully watched the Oklahoma City Thunder manhandle the Los Angeles Lakers in five games, I felt a certain inevitability to the Lakers return to prominence. I thought back to the last time the Lakers were not a legitimate contender for the championship–the Pre-Gasol Kobe Lakers–and I instinctively wondered what incredible feats of roster-assembling prowess the Lakers would achieve during the offseason. Who are they going to get? How are they going to get back into the Finals? They need speed and athleticism. How are they going to get it?
Shockingly, I never once considered whether they would do it. I never even wondered. There was no “if.” The Lakers were going to lure marquee players, either out of free agency or from another team’s roster, but they were going to do it. Had someone approached me with the possibility that the Lakers might not improve, but that they would slowly fade into relative obscurity until they could reload in the draft (the cyclical pattern for teams like the Hawks, the Hornets, and now the Magic), I would have openly scoffed at them. “The Lakers? The Lakers are never obscure! The Lakers don’t fade; they retool and return. Other teams’ rosters are the Lakers NBDL team. The whole NBA is Mitch Kupchak’s summer shopping catalog.” No, the Lakers will be back. They’ll be back, because they are playing a different game than the Jazz.
A couple weeks ago, after watching Team USA thrash another overwhelmed opponent in Olympic pool play, co-SCH writer Jackson Rudd and I attempted a list of our top 20 players in the NBA. 1-15 weren’t particularly difficult, and though the specifics of such a list would predictably incite healthy debate (read: vitriolic troll war) among NBA fans, most educated followers of the league would probably produce a similar list. According to our list and as soon as the Dwight blockbuster is made official, the Lakers will have 3 of our top 15 players (Kobe, Dwight Howard and Nash). The Heat have two of the top 10. The Thunder have 2 of the top 15, and the Celtics have 2 of the top 20. That list doesn’t include Pau Gasol (at least a top 40 player) on the Lakers, James Harden (top 30) on the Thunder, or Chris Bosh (probably top 30; however tempted I am to drop him lower) on the Heat. For those keeping score, this means that the Lakers, Heat, Thunder account for 7 or almost 50% of the top 15 players in the league, and with the Celtics, 9 of the top 20 players in the league.
Now one could make the argument that the assembling of super teams doesn’t necessarily translate to winning, but one would probably have to be an idiot to truly believe it. The Heat just won the title. The Thunder were the team they had to beat to do it. The Celtics were in the Eastern Conference Finals, and the Spurs (who have Tony Parker, a top 20 player, and depending on how you feel about either Manu Ginobili or Tim Duncan, probably have two top 30 players) were the other Western Conference finalist. Then of course the Lakers, assuming the Howard trade goes through and barring injury, will almost certainly be back in the Western Conference finals next season. In other words, you need really good players to make really good teams. Earth shattering.
This takes us to the Jazz. The most optimistic argument you could make for our current roster is that Favors is a future top 15 player, Hayward is a future top 25 player, and right now, Jefferson and Millsap are both top 40 players. When I call that optimistic, I’m really saying that it’s shamelessly homerism. Realistically, Hayward will probably end up in the top 45 range, and Favors probably in the top 30, which leaves the team with Burks, Kanter, Jefferson, Millsap, the Williams boys and the rest of our bench to turn into a couple more top 30 players, or at least one top 15 player. Because if history and the previous paragraph have taught us anything, it’s that you don’t have a puncher’s chance at reaching the Finals without two top 30 players, and without two or three top 20 players, you’re never going to sniff the trophy.
The popular response to this is that Oklahoma City, a small-market team, went from nowhere (literally nowhere; like the team didn’t even exist five years ago) to the Finals through a series of savvy moves and some intelligent drafting, but that thinking ignores that OKC also lucked into Kevin Durant, who happens to be a once-in-a-generation megastar that loves playing for a small market team and cares about nothing but basketball. That NEVER happens. As brilliantly as Sam Presti has played the last four years, the Thunder would still have been struggling for a playoff spot if it weren’t for Kevin Pritchard selecting Greg Oden with the #1 overall pick in 2007. So either you’re a great basketball market with a penchant for attracting great players, or you’re lightning-striking-50-times-in-the-exact-same-place kind of lucky.
Fortunately for Jazz fans, about 25 years ago, Utah really was that lucky. In back-to-back drafts, the Jazz used a 16th pick and a 13th pick to draft two of the greatest players to ever play the game, both of whom happened to fit perfectly into a system developed by a once-in-a-generation coach. After watching Stockton and Malone play together for all of my childhood, lucky seems like an inadequate word to describe how that goldmine was struck, but lucky it was. Out of that foundation, Jazz fans were treated to two magical trips to the NBA Finals, only to be defeated in consecutive years by one of the NBA’s Haves. Ever since, our appetites have been whetted, and our expectations have been sky-high. For awhile, I even naively believed the Jazz were in the elite community of NBA teams who were always contending for titles. While I still believe the Jazz could win a championship, it’s becoming increasingly clear that there’s a mile-wide chasm between teams who are always in the hunt and the rest of the NBA, who can do nothing more than buy and scratch at lottery tickets. Unfortunately, when the dust has settled after this four-team trade, I’m afraid I’ll finally feel the full weight of reality: that the Jazz are much more like the other three teams in last night’s trade than they are like the Lakers.
This is not to say there is no hope. As Kevin O’Connor and the Jazz front office have already shown, teams without championship tradition, sunny beaches, or the financial constitution to take the luxury tax on the chin, can still compete, consistently and seriously. If the Jazz are going to do it, they’re going to have to do it like the Spurs (somewhat lucky), not the Thunder (astoundingly lucky), and thankfully, the recent hiring of Dennis Lindsey shows that they’ve realized this. The Jazz are moving, however slowly, to the kind of team construction that a championship requires, and that’s reason to believe that this is a game Utah can eventually win. But one fact remains clear: the game the Jazz could one day win will never be the same game that teams like the Lakers always seem to win.