Among the many concerns the departure of 23-year head coach Jerry Sloan raises for the Utah Jazz is the question of where to go from here. Utah, which has fallen to 31-23 on the year after a 15-5 start that had the league buzzing, has $59 million committed next season to eight players; it's not a championship core, in other words, and GM Kevin O'Connor built the team to suit Sloan's unique system.
While there's little doubt acting head coach Tyrone Corbin, or whomever the Jazz hire next year to replace Sloan, will maintain some of Sloan's core principles, it's high time for Utah to update its roster to better compete in today's NBA.
First, let's establish what some of Utah's shortcomings are, as presently constructed. It's hard to quibble with the success the Jazz have enjoyed offensively under Sloan, to be sure, but there are issues on that end of the floor.
Most obvious is the lack of a capable three-point shooter. Franchise point guard Deron Williams, reserve small forward C.J. Miles, and starting shooting guard Raja Bell combine to launch 12.3 triples per game at 34.1 percent, well below the league average; gadget forward Andrei Kirilenko leads the team at 37 percent from deep, but averages less than one make per game. Sloan's motion offense excels at generating open shot attempts from all over the court, when executed properly, and maintains good spacing to keep defenses off balance. Yet we've seen that, with a deadeye three-point marksman (think Kyle Korver or Jeff Hornacek) in the fold, the Jazz's offense can have an extra gear. Even acknowledging the absence of walking matchup nightmare Mehmet Okur, a seven-footer with a career three-point percentage of 37.7, this season, Utah would benefit another ranged shooter, even if all he does is shoot threes off Williams feeds.
A related issue is the lack of perimeter shot-creation. Utah's wings struggle to generate offense for themselves in one-on-one situations. Williams' presence alleviates that issue somewhat, as does the nature of the read-and-react flex offense in general. Still, having a perimeter scorer who need not rely on Williams' brilliant passing to get a good shot off could lighten Williams' load and add a new dimension to the offense. Alternatively, acquiring a competent backup point guard--sorry, Earl Watson's 42.1 percent shooting doesn't cut it--and shifting Williams to shooting guard for longer stretches might meet this end.
Further, apart from the tantalizingly athletic rookie Jeremy Evans, the Jazz don't have the speed, quickness, or finishing ability to make the most of Williams' skills pushing the ball up the floor. We're not asking the Jazz to sign a team of Thaddeus Young-types to fill the lane and rock the rim on the break, or anything like that; Utah need not convert itself to a run-and-gun team in the New York Knicks or Phoenix Suns mold. Again, we're only looking for ways Utah can become even more versatile offensively.
Defense never really was Sloan's forte, as Utah's slow pace and hard-nosed (read: high-foul) defensive philosophy masked how porous it's been, relative to what we'd expect from great teams, in his time on the Jazz's sideline. The easiest culprit, as alluded to, is Sloan's insistence on fouling, fouling, fouling everyone. Sure, putting would-be dunkers on their backside might have some sort of psychological impact, but in the short term, it gives the opponent the potential to score free points with the clock stopped.In general, trying to limit opponent free throws makes sense, as the foul shot is the most efficient way to score in the game: one point at a time, with the clock stopped, from a standard distance, without any defenders in the shooter's face. Yet the Jazz, under Sloan, persistently foul and foul again, undermining their own defensive efforts, and efficiency, with some faux show of toughness.
How badly did this tactic harm the Jazz? It's tough to quantify exactly, but we do know that 13.5 percent of Utah's defensive possessions this year have ended with an opponent trying a free throw, according to the stat- and play-tracking service Synergy Sports Technology. That's the highest figure in the league.
The Jazz's personnel is also ill-equipped to defend at an elite level, primarily due to their stable of big men. Al Jefferson and Paul Millsap are tough to guard, sure, but their poor pick-and-roll defense often has their three teammates scrambling to recover. Neither player has great speed, even for the diminished standards of what we'd expect of big men; the same is true for Kyrylo Fesenko, Jefferson's backup at center. When Williams gets screened off, Jefferson and Millsap don't stand a chance of heading off Williams' man, conceding open lanes to the hoop. As a result, Utah ranks ninth-worst in the league, says Synergy, in defending ballhandlers in the pick-and-roll.
But Utah owes Millsap and Jefferson a combined $47 million over the next two seasons, and the pair, as I mentioned, is solid offensively; dealing either for a big-man defensive specialist makes little sense, especially with the deceptively athletic veteran Francisco Elson backing them up. Still, Utah needs to find a quicker, more competent defensive big man who can log 20 minutes per night in the future. Elson, whose minimum-salary contract expires at season's end, isn't it. Perhaps free-agent-to-be Chuck Hayes, currently of Houston, can be had.
Plus, for all their offensive talent, the front-line combination of Jefferson and Millsap hasn't prevented the Jazz from sinking to near the bottom of the league in total rebounding rate, which is the percentage of available rebounds the Jazz grab. This year, Utah ranks 24th in the league in this metric, getting 49 percent of all rebounds. It seems, then, that a swingman who boards well for his position would be of use to Utah, which could then afford to play Millsap and Jefferson together without losing nearly as many battles on the boards.
With the NBA trade deadline just 13 days away, the timing of Sloan's exit and the multiple questions about Utah's performance make it only natural to ask if it'll make a deal. While we're not certain if the Jazz will make a trade to upgrade their roster, it appears likely they'll try to use Kirilenko's expiring contract, worth $17.8 million, to get some luxury-tax relief. Utah sits $15 million over the tax line, so getting completely underneath it is a long shot, but it can at least attempt to ease the sting of paying extra for a mid-tier playoff team.