Thursday, February 24, 2011

Greg Miller Pulls a Michael Corleone

The Godfather is one of the 5 best films of all-time.  One of the many things that makes it one of the best films of all-time is it's incredible ending. During the course of the film we watch as Michael Corleone struggles to do the right thing. He yearns to live a normal, legitimate, American life. He tries to keep his distance from his troubled, powerful, and wealthy family. In the end though, Michael cannot escape his destiny and succeeds his father as the new Godfather. In the climax of the film Michael stands in a church taking part in the baptism of niece. As Michael recites the holy oath we watch as his henchmen carryout his icy plot to take out all of his competitors and enemies, giving him total control of organized crime in America. This includes the killing of his brother-in-law whose child Michael just helped baptize.

It's an incredible ending to an amazing film. Yesterday, Greg Miller made his Michael Corleone move. He eliminated everything in his path to taking total control over the future of the Utah Jazz. His power play included some Corleone-like icy-ness. Michael's move did not turnout entirely well for him. He lost many family members, and pretty much lived out the rest of his life miserable. No one knows how Greg's will turn out. That hinges on two things: the development of the youngest player in the league Derrick Favors, and what Deron Williams is able to accomplish during the rest of his career. Regardless, this was an attempt by Greg to take control.

Here's what happened as far as I can tell: After the death of his father Larry H. Miller, Greg Miller began overspending to keep many of the Jazz's core players in an attempt to keep the Jazz competitive in the Western Conference. This pushed the Jazz deep into the luxury tax, something that Larry H. Miller vowed that the Jazz would never do because financially it would cripple the team. The Jazz's finances became bloated and the team never could climb out from the middle of the pack and become a true title contender.

This season, Deron Williams' attitude and confrontational nature had been grating coach Jerry Sloan all season. Phil Johnson recently told the Tribune that Sloan had been saying since the beginning of the season that he was so frustrated that he felt like he didn't have the energy to finish out the rest of the season. With the reassurance from Johnson, Sloan quit. I think that this, coupled with Jazz fans' reaction to the resignation and Karl Malone blitzing into town, guns blazing, in an awesome and idiotic series of interviews, deeply troubled Miller. He clearly agreed with one aspect to Malone's country ramblings, the inmates were in his mind running the asylum. The players with the Jazz and elsewhere had proven that they had the upper hand over coaches and management.

As Deron stood glibly next to Chris Paul and Carmelo Anthony during All-Star weekend, coldly refuting to talk about what exactly his intentions or desires were, I think the wheels in Greg's head began to turn. I don't think Deron knew whether or not he would resign with the Jazz in two years. He couldn't and didn't give the Jazz any indication one way or the other. Because of this, the next season with Deron was going to be hounded by questions about his impending free agency which always, always, always have negative impacts on teams. No team has ever won a title with such questions floating around all season in the modern era.  The Jazz have been watching Denver closely. They saw that a team that had been a top 4 team in the West for the past couple of seasons toil at the bottom of the playoff pack due unquestionably to the lack of passion brought on by Anthony's trade demands. In the end Denver was forced to accept a less than ideal package for Carmelo because of his refusal to accept a trade to the Nets that would bring them a far superior package.

There is also a very important question about how good Deron was going to be in the future. Wrist injuries have begun to become a recurring problem with Deron. He was injured it each of the past three seasons, and every single time he does his jump shooting disappears. Deron's frustrations with the team, coaches, and system were also beginning to effect his play. He lost agressiveness. After the Sloan debacle and getting booed by the same fans that have worshiped him since 2005, I think he was mentally unable to perform to his highest standards. I think there is a fair and legitimate concern that Deron may not ever be the same player ever again.

In the aftermath of the Carmelo-Knicks deal, the Nets' package for Carmelo was sitting on the table. With that in mind Greg Miller decided it was time to take control. There have been a lot of fair questions regarding the timing of the trade. Deron still had one more year left on his deal which hypothetically could have given Deron incentive to stay. The team could continue to develop and turn things around and the Jazz would could become a legit contender. Also with the uncertainty of the CBA, Deron might have favored to optin to his last year of his current deal because the 18 million he was scheduled to make could be well above the max-salary allowed under a new stricter CBA. The CBA also could institute a franchise-tag similar to the NFL, which would have again prevented Deron from leaving. The timing also seemed odd considering Deron's wife living in Utah is due to give birth to their third child in a few weeks.

The reasoning behind the deal is shrewd though. The uncertainty of the CBA could result in Deron sticking around a little longer true, but it also could have prevented the Jazz from gaining anything before he departs. If the NBA loses the 11-12 season, Deron could walk leaving the Jazz without the ability to make any kind of favorable trade to build in his absence. They were also able to capitalize on New Jersey's desperation. The where able to pry away their Carmelo offer, even though Deron seems to have a lot more leverage on the Nets than Carmelo, because he isn't even eligible for an extension until July. The Jazz could not have done better than they did IF they were going to trade Denver.

A lot has fairly been made of both Deron's wife's pregnancy and also the fact that Deron learned of the trade on SportsCenter rather than a phone call from his agent or management. The pregnancy element is unfortunate, but the Jazz had to make a business decision. Sad, but true. The Jazz could not have let Deron know sooner though. If Deron had gotten word before the deal was done, he could have gone to the media to voice his unwillingness to play or later sign with New Jersey which undoubtedly would have given New Jersey cold feet. Deron also could have resisted and tried to convince the Jazz to wait which would have been a great risk to the Jazz. The Jazz were unwilling to do this because there was going to be no better package out there for Deron. Second, it would have put too much power in the hands of Deron. Deron would to a large degree control the Jazz's future. So Miller and Kevin O'Connor pulled a Corleone.

It was cold, calculated, risky, but I it is possible that it was the right move for the Utah Jazz. This doesn't make it any easier to swallow. It was the worst day of my Jazz fan life. Deron was without question my favorite Jazz player since 2005. He is in the prime of his career, though again I worry that his prime may be behind him. Although like a good Jazz fan I will accept the new team, I truly do feel like Jack at the end of the third season of LOST.  We have to go back. Back to the island with Boozer, Brewer, Korver, Hurley, Memo. All those guys.

Greg Miller is Michael Corleone. I just can't decide if Deron is Connie's husband, or the Alex Rocco character.

Friday, February 11, 2011

Jazz Fans' Dallas

About 10 years ago, I used to stay up late to catch a series of documentaries that were permitted to be played on the history channel only in the middle of the night. It was called "The Men Who Killed Kennedy". It was a 9 part series. Each examined a different angle of the Kennedy assassination. It was only allowed to be played that late at night because of how controversial many of the episodes were. even now they never include in the DVD sets or re-air episodes 7-9 which are so off the wall bonkers that I urge you to buy them bootlegged off of eBay. Either way I am well versed in Kennedy lore.

The past couple of days have perhaps been the most cataclysmic in Jazz history. I use the word cataclysmic because I think it invokes a level of unpreparedness in those effected. In 2003 when John Stockton announced quietly following a playoff loss to the Kings that he "was done", every at least knew that it was coming. So much infact that when my Dad and I went to the previous home game we both talked about it as his last game in the Delta Center (didn't think that it would also be Karl's). Point is Jerry Sloan abruptly leaving his 23 year old post is the most cataclysmic event in Jazz history followed closely by (in no particular order): selling Dominique Wilkins, getting burned in the 2005 Draft Lottery, and the passing of Larry H. Miller.

Unlike the previously mentioned events however, Jazz fans seem to be frantically looking for a smoking gun and thinking they see them everywhere. Sloan's resignation has already become Jazz fans' Kennedy Assassination. An event so controversial, shocking, and clouded that will be never cease to be discussed. You have Kennedy (Sloan), Oswald (Deron), and the grassy knoll (WHY DID AK LEAVE THE COACHES OFFICE AFTER THE GAME!). That last game against the Bull's has become Jazz fans' Dallas.

I think that there are only a handful of people who know exactly the series of events that led to the resignation of Jerry Sloan and his "Kitty Sanchez" Phil Johnson.

But here is the general idea that I have put together of what happened. The fall of Sloan started in the 2005-2006 season. The Jazz had just drafted prized rookie Deron Williams. Despite clearly being the best point guard on the team, Sloan begins the season by starting Keith McLeod. After a promising start from Deron, Sloan inexplicably begins playing Deron exclusively at shooting guard and then benches him in favor of soon-to-be-out-of-the-league Milt Palacio. Sloan does not being playing Deron again until the second half a mid-season game against the New Orleans Hornets where Deron explodes and becomes the Deron we know. Deron never got this. He has brought it up multiple times throughout his career. The Jazz missed the playoffs by 2 games that year and Deron (and everyone else to be honest) is convinced that he would have been the difference. While Sloan has admitted that it was a mistake on his part, I don't think that made Deron feel any better. The point is Deron has resented Sloan for a long time.

This season the relationship began to completely disintegrate. Most people, but especially Deron and CJ assumed that with Matthews, Korver, and Brewer all gone that CJ would become the starting shooting guard. Sloan opted for Raja Bell citing a need for defense in the starting lineup and scoring off the bench. Deron and Raja never could build any chemistry and it was obvious that Deron wanted to play with CJ, not Raja. Sloan never budged from his position that he thought that CJ should come off the bench and seemed to be throwing it in Deron's face by starting Gordon Hayward at small forward instead of AK and keeping Bell in the starting lineup for a particular stretch. Deron and CJ's inner circle had many tweets around this time stating their displeasure, so it would seem to follow Deron and CJ felt the same.

Deron also this season was very vocal about his feelings that the Jazz were not putting in the necessary preparation before games. He felt that practices were too light and unfocused on helping new players learn the Jazz's read based offense. He also felt that the team would benefit from film study (a regular part of most NBA team's routine) which the Jazz were doing none of. Deron also insinuated that Sloan was unapproachable about adjusting these types of things, though Sloan disagreed.

Finally, Deron has become increasingly frustrated with running a system that many players on the current team seem to struggle with, while the team continued to lose games. Opposing teams have long known every play off the Jazz offense, but it never mattered because every offensive set has multiple options that cannot ALL be defended. If it is executed properly, there will be a good shot. The problem has been that many of the new players do not know how to respond to defense's taking away of main options and how to find secondary options. This has led to missed buzzer beating long jumpers and fast breaks for the other teams. This has been the main reason that the Jazz have gotten down by 10+ in so many games. This instance on running the offense to its full extent has been the major issue between Deron and Sloan. The is also the impetus to the now fabled halftime confrontation that seemingly was the instigator for Sloan to resign.

Deron also needs to take a look in the mirror. Deron is a great player. He is definitely an All-Star, and is one of the best in the league at making his teammates better. However, he is not in the same class as the LeBron's, Wade's, or even Kobe's of the world. Sometimes it seems like Deron see's himself as God's gift to Utah and to basketball. He has limitations. He is decent, but not great shooter, he struggles to stay in front of opposing point guards (Parker, Curry, Westbrook), and most importantly is way too prone to turnovers and bonehead plays. He needs to look in the mirror and find out that a lot of the Jazz struggles has can be attributed to his passive and at times poor play. It's true that he has been a major part of making the Jazz as good as they have been, but the Jazz's system and Sloan have played a major part in making him look as good to the rest of the country.

Like Kennedy, I think Sloan is rightly praised for some of his present characteristics: loyalty, dedication, hard work, and successfully running one of the best offensive systems ever established. However he is also being characterized to be someone he wasn't. The main thing that you heard especially late Wednesday and early Thursday was: "Sloan is not a quitter! He would never just leave a team mid season!" Well ... actually he is. A long standing record of being a quitter. Sloan first was recruited to play at Deron Williams' alma mater (! ... "back and to the left") The University of Illinois. After a very brief stay, Sloan grew too homesick to continue and gave up his scholarship and came home. After a few years of working manual labor jobs with enormous, freakish hands, Sloan decided to give basketball another try at the University of Evansville. After his playing career in the NBA was done, Sloan accepted a job to coach the University of Evansville, but once again Sloan felt the need to quit mid-season. A decision that unbeknownst to him would save his life. Point is he a card carrying quitter. This isn't out of character for him. It is decidedly in character.

The other thing that has been bother me about the way Sloan is being characterized is that people seem to think his coaching has been without flaws. That is not true. Sloan has always been sometimes too stubborn and hardheaded to make changes to coaching decisions which have clearly not worked out (McLeod, Palacio) being a prime example. Sometimes he is too late to make adjustments that everyone else in the world can see, just because he has a hard time accepting that the original decision he made was incorrect. The craftiest of NBA coaches (Jackson, Popovich) have always been able to exploit the Jazz because it has been easy for them to find match-ups on the court where they can go to work.  An easy example of this was choosing to start Hayward over CJ against Denver earlier in the week. Now, why would you throw a 150 pound rookie out there to defend Carmelo Anthony, whose entire game is predicated on bully his man to the basket to get a foul. Within minutes Hayward was out of the game and ended up playing a total of about 5 minutes. Though I believe all of this to be true, I am aware that Sloan has been an excellent coach and has been one of the major factors in the Jazz's consistenly being good over the course of the last decades. There is no question. But he wasn't John Wooden or Red Auerbach either.

The bottom line is this. Even though Jazz fans will forever being looking for the smoking guns that knocked Sloan's head back and to the left, there is only one to look at. Sloan is Oswald, Sloan is the grassy knoll, Sloan is Castro, Sloan is Lyndon Johnson and the CIA too. I believe the Jazz when they say that no one forced him out. I truly believe that he no longer had the energy to deal with being an NBA coach. Yes, the conflict between he and Deron was absolutely the impetus for his retirement, but I do believe that a younger Sloan would have had no problems at all. He had no energy left. You could see it. He looked increasingly old the past couple of seasons. Deron was probably right. He didn't have the energy to put in the dilligent preparation that Deron felt necessary for success. He also didn't the same kind of energy to battle Deron like he had in the past with Karl Malone, Greg Ostertag, and to a much lesser extent Gordan Giricek. I think Sloan was right. This is the right time. However, Jazz fans are going to have to find away to wash the blood off of their pink dresses.