I have not been a happy Jazz fan this season – and I am not alone.
Gordon Hayward started the year unhappy with his contract impasse with the team and ends it unhappy at his disappointing performance as team option number one.
His teammates must have been unhappy with a sizable portion of their fanbase cheering for them to accumulate losses. The team has done a good job of keeping most such discontent in-house, though occasionally blips leak into the media showing player reaction to their fans yearning for losses. For example, Trey Burke: “I think that’s just selfish for a fan.” Gordon Hayward: “That kind of sucks.”
Perhaps the single least happy person in the Jazz locker room is Head Coach Tyrone Corbin. Mostly this is hidden behind stock comments of optimism, like this offered after the March 31st loss to the Knicks, “We just have to keep fighting and get better.” Once, such comments were the brave face of a traditional coach handed, by his sensibilities, an anathematic team. Now, it is hard to see such comments as anything but hollow. With seven games left in the season, time to get better is all but gone, and the fight seems to have largely left Corbin’s young, talent-sparse team, as the coach well knows. This has led to occasional outbursts of Corbin’s true – and understandable – frustration, such as his eruption in the first quarter of the thumping against the Thunder.
His discontent is easily understood. How might a coach being judged on defense characterize “worst case scenario” in a contract year? A 24 and 53 record and second worst team defensive ranking1 probably hits pretty close to a bulls-eye.
The vexation of this season has not spared fans either.
Some poor souls entered the year hoping to watch good basketball resulting in a respectable number of wins. Neither happened. As erratic, and sometimes ugly, play stretched into a growing pile of losses, many fans simply gave up, on the season or the team. Last year’s attendance to watch Al Jefferson’s slow symphony of post moves: 9th in the league. The year before, when the Jazz barely made the playoffs and were swept by the Spurs: 6th. This season the Jazz rank 13th. Kurt Kragthorpe of the Salt Lake Tribune reports, “2013-14 attendance will be the lowest in the 23 seasons of ESA’s existence.” So you can bet management isn’t savoring this season either.
The only happy people in Jazz nation at this point are those who went into the season hoping for a nauseating number of losses that transform into the number one overall pick. For fans dancing in the streets as the Jazz hold the fifth worst record in the league, a word of caution: your paradigm of how to build an NBA champion may well be flawed.
The ideology of building a team by being very bad to “earn” a franchise star is widespread. One of the loudest local proponents of the strategy is the Tribune’s Gordon Monson. Recently, he reiterated the argument in his March 6th article: “We’ve been through this a thousand times this season. The Jazz have to lose to advance their cause [getting the highest possible pick in the draft to get a start to build around]. Every game they win curses them. No matter how sickening that is to diehard Jazz fans, it’s just a fact.”
Many share Monson’s belief that the modern landscape of the NBA requires that small market teams who aspire to be champions bottom out to get a star and build from there. But genuine facts contradict such strategy.
First, understand that teams that draft a player who leads them to a championship rarely pick that player in the top five picks of the draft. Since 1990, only seven players have led the team that drafted them to a title.2 Only two were top five picks.3 Three players were taken in the back half of the lottery4, and as many players were taken beyond pick twenty as in the top five.5
Another flaw in the tank-to-title strategy is the belief that getting the first overall pick in the draft is a transformative event. Most often, it isn’t.
In the last ten years, only two number one overall picks have of their own impact moved their teams into the playoffs: Derrick Rose and Dwight Howard. John Wall will join the list this season with a record remarkably similar to the Jazz’s record last season, when they were widely criticized for striving for the playoffs with a mediocre team. To put that in perspective, only three of the last ten teams granted a number one overall pick have leveraged it into as much competitive success as the Jazz experienced with Al Jefferson and Paul Millsap.
Any who argue this season is different because this draft class is so good are likely deluding themselves. Syracuse Coach Jim Boeheim warned of this months ago in an interview with Adam Zagoria on SNY.tv: “There’s no player that’s out there on the horizon that’s a Tim Duncan or a LeBron James. I’ve seen all these guys play… They’re not that kind of player. They’re not transcendent players that are gonna make your franchise.” As recently as late March, Danny Ainge, President of Basketball Operations for the Boston Celtics, reiterated the point in an interview with The Boston Globe: “[The 2014 draft class is] not even close to one of the best draft classes in the last 10 years.” This on the back of his announcement through video stream on the Celtics web site that “there aren’t any game changers in the draft.”
I’m higher on this draft than some who have soured recently, but I’m also realistic. How many prospects do I feel could through their addition dramatically improve the future of the Utah Jazz? Two, Andrew Wiggins and, to a lesser extent, Jabari Parker. Given Joel Embiid’s back injury, I would be surprised if either Wiggins or Parker last to pick three. The Jazz will most likely finish with the fourth worst record in the league, giving them a 24.5% chance of winning one of these two desperately craved wings. That means a 75.5% chance the team ends up with Embiid, or Dante Exum, or Julius Randle, or another prospect.
Embiid could be better than Derrick Favors, but am I convinced he will be? No. Just as I’m not confident Dante Exum will prove better than Alec Burks or Julius Randle than Enes Kanter. The Jazz have a plethora of good to very good young players right now. Barring their ability to get a potentially dominant wing scorer, there is a real chance the pick that is the fruit of all this season’s losing will be less improvement on the current young talent than simply a change. 57 losses6 is a lot to endure to become different without necessarily getting better.
So my suggestion for fans who chanted, inwardly or outwardly, “Tank on!” to the Jazz this season: Keep your expectations moderate or you risk the unpleasantness of this season becoming the new Jazz culture. And none of us want that. We never want a season like this again.
Kurt Kragthorpe said it this way: “Utahns never should have to endure another season like this one.” I agree. Nothing has been pure this season, not the joy of victory or the pain of defeat. I, like all Jazz fans, and Jazz players, and Jazz coaches, and even Jazz management, have been caught in between competing imperatives. Jazz “Nation” has split under the tension, some aligning with one desired outcome (win in spite of all), some aligning with the other (lose in spite of all). And while I can bitterly disagree with people for their desired outcomes and allegiances, the truth is I can’t blame anyone.
Because part of me has been right there with them. I could not hope, entirely and without reservation, for either wins or losses this year, and so everything proved a disappointment.
It’s time such sordid seasons are finished. The insane incentive structure the NBA employs with their lottery must end. I don’t even care how anymore, so long as it makes losing a constant evil and never a virtue. But never another season like this one.