Pondering the “what ifs” in sports can be painful and unhealthy. But like so many things in life that are painful and unhealthy, we do it. We spent time analyzing, scrutinizing, occasionally obsessing on what might have been. You know you do it. Feel free to admit to it. And there is no shame in it. It is a natural part of fandom, and the Utah Jazz faithful are not immune to that.
With this in mind, this is the first in a mini series (not to be confused with a miniseries) of posts, highlighting some of the “what ifs” in the franchise history. Some will be obvious–think the 1997 and 1998 NBA Finals squads–and others will be less so.
Without further ado, what if the Utah Jazz had managed to keep Donyell Marshall long-term?
Donyell Marshall was an interesting blend of size, athleticism and sheer basketball talent coming out of the University of Connecticut. When he was tabbed as the fourth pick in the 1994 NBA Draft by the lowly Minnesota Timberwolves, hope was high. Marshall was having a nice rookie campaign, averaging 10.8 PPG and 4.9 RPG for the Timberwolves1. But when the chance to obtain forward Tom Gugliotta emerged, Minnesota pounced on it, shipping Marshall to the Golden State Warriors. It’s not too often a high lottery pick gets shipped out his rookie year2.
Marshall went on to play five+ seasons for the Warriors. He struggled mightily his first two years in the Bay Area, but something clicked in the 1997-98 season. Marshall became a focal point of the team’s schemes and he produced 15.4 PPG and 8.6 RPG. Two years later, he was a double-double guy for the Dubs, posting 14.2 PPG and 10.0 RPG. But the Warriors were a mess, constantly changing coaches and perennially missing the postseason.
Enter the Utah Jazz. The team had reached an impasse with excellent back-up point guard, Howard Eisley. Eisley had been a terrific find for the team and as all know, he was a integral cog for those Finals teams. His role grew and some could see him being John Stockton’s successor. But given the Hall of Famer’s remarkable longevity, conditioning and ability to play through injuries–even as he got older–left Eisley wanting a bit more. He wanted to go to the Dallas Mavericks, where he would have a chance to compete for a starting role.
The Jazz joined forces to complete a tricky, complex four-team trade. From Utah’s perspective, it was essentially shipping out Eisley, Adam Keefe (whose role had diminished greatly) and a late first-round pick for Marshall and something called Bruno Sundov.
It was an exciting acquisition for the Jazz. At 27 years old, Marshall was just entering the prime of his career. He added hope to the Utah front court, with his ability to play both forward positions. He was effective equally as a starter or key player off the bench. Marshall’s rebounding acumen and he long, wiry frame added a lot to the mix. He became a very good complement to Karl Malone up front. Marshall played with enthusiasm and injectd some much needed youth and energy to an aging team trying to remain contenders in the NBA landscape.
His seasons in Utah were somewhat underrated. Marshall averaged 13.6 PPG, 7.0 RPG his first year in Salt Lake City, adding in a steal and a blocked shot. The advanced stats tell the story–19.9 PER, .568 TS% and a very good 8.5 WS–third best on the squad behind a pair of greats. The following season, Marshall brought 14.8 PPG and 7.6 RPG and while the advanced numbers were not quite as good, they were still impressive (19.2 PER, 5.0 WS).
In the summer of 2002, Marshall became a free agent. The Utah Jazz wanted him back, but the two sides were apart in terms of the money. Maybe there were other issues less known to the public, but who knows? Marshall decided to ink with the Chicago Bulls for less money that he was demanding from Utah. He only lasted one year in the Windy City before being traded. He went on to play with a number of teams–Toronto, Cleveland, Seattle and Philadelphia. He enjoyed his best season in 2004, averaging 16.2 PPG and 10.7 RPG for the Raptors. Marshall enjoyed a long, 15-year NBA career.
What did the Jazz miss out on? Marshall brought a unique talent to the table and it was hard to replace that. He was still young enough that he could have been a big part of any post-Stockton and Malone teams. A Marshall and Andrei Kirilenko tandem could have been interesting to see–long, athletic and quite good on both ends of the court. Add in Greg Ostertag and you’d have an interesting group. Marshall also became a prolific 3-point shooter, something Utah needed3. It is not a stretch to think that Marshall could’ve been a double-double guy in Utah.
Instead the Jazz signed Matt Harpring to fill Marshall’s shoes. Harpring was a stalwart player for the Jazz (his first year in Utah was quite good–good enough that he had some All-Star mentions). He added a different dynamic. Still, it seemed like Marshall had more upside, and thanks to his size and versatility, may have addressed a greater need. Who knows what could’ve been had they been able to agree on a contract.
So, there’s our first “what if’ scenario. While there are many more that will be addressed in subsequent posts, feel free to leave a comment with some of the “what ifs” that you’ve had. After all, it is part of being a Utah Jazz fan.