Don't underestimate the Jazz
By Chad Ford
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The people of Utah believe in miracles. Descendants from Mormon pioneers who braved the a cross-country trek from Illinois to Salt Lake Valley in the late 1840s, Utah has always been America's hotbed of faith and pious devotion.
As much as the people of Utah love their big families and their religion, they also love their basketball. Every Mormon church is equipped with a full basketball court in the center. They approach the game the same way they do their religion, with zeal and devotion.
But forgive them a bit if their faith waived just a bit last summer. One of the most successful stretches in NBA history was ending. John Stockton was retiring. Karl Malone was leaving in an attempt to find a ring in L.A. The Jazz as everyone knew them were dead.
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2004 Free agents
When I traveled down to training camp in October the signs appeared down right ominous. Attempts to sign big-name free agents like Elton Brand and Andre Miller came up empty. The best player on their roster was a journeyman, Matt Harpring, who had signed a mid-level free-agent deal the year before. Behind him was a young Russian, Andrei Kirilenko, who had shown a lot of promise in his first two years in the league, but still looked too skinny and raw to take on the mantle of Malone.
The rest of the team elicited head scratching. Names like Carlos Arroyo, Curtis Borchardt, Raul Lopez, Aleksandar Pavlovic, Michael Ruffin and Ben Handlogten were as unfamiliar to NBA veterans as they were to the average fan.
When ESPN's Frank Hughes wrote that the Jazz were going to break the record for the most losses in the history of the NBA -- it was hard to find a good argument against his theory. On paper, the 2003-04 Jazz looked like a disaster. The Jazz, however, were defiant.
"We have a good team," Harpring told Insider in October. "We have guys who can play. I don't think we're going to be the worst team in the NBA. I read somewhere that we we're only going to win eight games. I promise you we'll win more than eight games. We have guys with a lot of heart who will play hard every night. That will put us in a position to win."
Sloan was even fiestier. "Basketball hasn't changed," Sloan said. "All it is is basketball. Some teams are going to be better than others. But if you love basketball, you keep working your butt off. . . Hard work will give them the chance to get better," he said. "If players work hard they usually improve ... Will that add up to a lot of wins or a lot of losses? People say that it will add up to a lot of losses but I don't think you try to go out and get better with the idea that you're going to lose. I've always believed that you try to win. Anything less than that you're a loser."
The result of all of that hard work? An amazing 42 wins, just one short of the eighth seed in the Western Conference playoffs. A modern day basketball miracle.
In the process, Kirilenko went from a promising young player into a bona fide all-star. Players like Arroyo, Bell and Pavlovic turned the heads of talent scouts everywhere. The fans, who once fretted nightly over the future of the Jazz, sold out the Delta Center and embraced the team with the same passion that they had with Stockton and Malone.
With all of that said, the Jazz still have a ways to go. "We're still a work in progress," GM Kevin O'Connor told Insider on Monday. "We over achieved last year. We still have to get better. Jerry and the guys did a great job last year. Now it's up to me to get those guys some more help."
"We need to get bigger up front obviously," O'Connor said when discussing his plans this summer. "We need to get some free agents in here who can help us win now. And, we need to be smart about the draft. We're still growing and we realize it's going to take some time. I'm not going to sacrifice the future of the franchise just for an immediate return."
With a boat load of cap space, three first-round draft picks and a nice young core, can O'Connor and Sloan work another miracle in Utah next season? Here's a look at what to expect as Insider continues its summer blueprint series.
Jazz Summer Blueprint
DRAFT: The Jazz have three first-round picks this year. They own their own (likely No. 14), the Knicks' first-rounder (No. 16) and the Rockets' first-round pick (No. 21). The fact that the Jazz picked up the extra two first-round picks during the season speaks volumes about the value of cap room. They swallowed small portions of the last year of Glen Rice's and Tom Gugliotta's contracts and walked away with two extra picks in what is considered a pretty deep draft.
The question is, what are they going to do with them? The Jazz have a number of options. They could easily package several of the picks together and move up higher in the lottery. Many of the lottery teams are nervous about this year's draft and feel more comfortable taking players in the second half. They could also wait until a team falls in love with a player in the draft and trade a pick or two away for a veteran or future first-round picks that will be higher than what they currently have.
BYU big man Rafael Araujo (left) could help the Jazz right away.
However, because this draft is so deep and filled with inexperienced but talented young prospects, the Jazz may be better off keeping all three. Having three picks gives them the ability to gamble a bit and also allows them the freedom to take a young talented project or two. Many GMs believe that this year you can get just as talented of a player at No. 16 as No. 6, and the Jazz should take advantage of it. Given the flexibility, they could really afford to take one young Euro to leave overseas, one high school player who they can develop and one veteran college player or Euro who could come in and contribute right away.
The team is pretty set in the backcourt and at the small forward position. What they really need is size. Luckily this draft is filled with a number of big projects -- some of whom will be around when the Jazz are on the board with their first two picks. Players like Peja Samardziski, Kosta Perovic and Tiago Splitter all make some sense because they are extremely skilled -- an absolute must in the Jazz's offense.
All three could stay overseas for another year or two and continue to develop. The Jazz have had a lot of luck with Euros, and their fans and, most importantly, Sloan, have embraced them. It's a pretty safe bet that if they keep all three picks, at least one will come from overseas.
As far as veterans go -- look for the Jazz to take a long look at BYU's Rafael Araujo. He's got the toughness to come in right away and replace a player like Ostertag. They'd also have to consider 20-year-old big man Mile Ilic with their last pick in the first round.
On the high school front, they've got to look at a number of players. The top big guys left on the board will include Al Jefferson, LaMarcus Aldridge and Robert Swift. However, none has the skill level the Jazz normally look for. J.R. Smith could also be in the mix here. While the Jazz have a number of players who can play the two, none has Smith's combination of athleticism and shooting prowess. O'Connor knows his team needs someone with star potential, and Smith has it. They'll also have to seriously consider Minnesota's Kris Humphries. He has only one year of college experience, but he put up big numbers in the Big 10 and would be a good fit at power forward.
FREE AGENCY: The Jazz have more free-agent money -- between $28 and $30 million depending on the cap -- of any team in the league this summer. Tom Gugliotta, Greg Ostertag, Jarron Collins, Gordan Giricek and Carlos Arroyo come off the books next season, clearing the way for what could be a massive haul in the free-agent market. Of the three, only Arroyo and Giricek are likely to get another offer from the Jazz, though there are scenarios where Ostertag could return at the right price.
Even if the Jazz re-sign all three players, they'll still have a mountain of cash. What will they do with it? Despite the reputation that no one wants to play in Utah, O'Connor got two top free agents to sign offer sheets in Utah last season -- Corey Maggette and Jason Terry. However, the Clippers and Hawks matched the offers and the Jazz walked away from the free-agent scrum basically empty handed. O'Connor did turn that space into two extra first-round draft picks last season, but the Jazz know they need to do more this year.
It won't be easy. The Jazz will have heavy competition from the Nuggets, Hawks, Bobcats, Suns and Spurs. All will have enough cash to offer at least one big contract to someone. The key this year will be to strategically pick a few players who are willing to come and woo them in a way that the Jazz aren't used to doing. That means wining and dining a little bit, rolling out the red carpet and maybe even paying a little bit more to make sure that when free agents make their decision, the Jazz come out on top. The Jazz have so much to offer -- great facilities, one of the best coaches in the league, a great owner and a beautiful, scenic place to live. They just need to package it a little bit better.
2003-2004 SEASON STATISTICS
GM PPG RPG APG FG% FT%
71 9.6 5.9 1.0 .463 .775
Who should they target? Again, big men will be the top priority, though the Jazz could also use a veteran point guard if the right one came along. Who are the top big guys that the Jazz will make a run at? The Pistons' Mehmet Okur would be a perfect fit in Utah. He's tough and skilled, which would make him a Sloan favorite as long as he gave a better effort staying in shape. Stromile Swift would give the Jazz the athleticism they've been looking for. He's shown great progress under Hubie Brown the last two seasons and would be a good fit in Utah.
A veteran big guy like Adonal Foyle also makes a lot of sense. He's smart, motivated and would come with a very reasonable price tag. The team could also make a run at a bigger-name free agent like Kenyon Martin, Erick Dampier or Marcus Camby. Lots of teams would love to have Martin right now, but it's pretty hard to believe he'd leave the Nets for the Jazz at the this point. Dampier and Camby have had great years, but they're going to want long-term contracts at their next stop. Neither player is really worth the risk.
On the point guard end, there is one player who makes a lot of sense in Utah. Steve Nash is the type of smart, cagey player who Jerry Sloan likes and may be the only point guard on the free-agent market this year capable of filling John Stockton's shoes. The problem with Nash is two-fold. One, he said he wants to return to Dallas, and its owner, Mark Cuban, has the money to pay him. Two, he wants a long-term deal. There are those in the league who believe that Nash only has a few years left. He breaks down almost every year and that concerns a lot of people. The Jazz can't afford at this point to blow too much money on a guy who may not be around when the Jazz are really ready to compete again.
TRADES: The Jazz aren't trading Kirilenko, Harpring or Pavlovic, and no one else on their roster has much trade value. However, if the team doesn't land the players they want in the free-agent market, it can always use its cap room to trade for players who teams, looking for cap room of their own, are willing to unload. A player like Antawn Jamison, Shareef Abdur-Rahim, Juwan Howard or Eric Snow might be available in return for the extra cap space (or luxury-tax relief) a team would get in return for trading a player like that.
COACHING: Here is the key to everything that happens in Utah. Sloan proved this year, more than any other time in his career, that he can take and mold a group of young players and turn them into a team that out executes and out hustles almost every team in the league. Give him the right players and he'll give you a team that no one wants to play. The fans in Utah love him for it. As long as Sloan is pacing the sidelines, the Jazz are always going to be a team that you can't take lightly.
FRONT OFFICE: O'Connor has a tough job. Normally, $30 million in cap room, three first-round picks, a Hall of Fame coach and two strong young building blocks almost automatically guarantees future success. O'Connor and his staff have a great eye for identifying players who fit into Sloan's system.
When you go back and look at how a number of second-tier players have performed in Utah as opposed to everywhere else they've played (Matt Harpring, Raja Bell, Shandon Anderson, Howard Eisley, Donyell Marshall and Jeff Hornacek all come to mind) it's pretty clear that the Jazz know what they're doing and their mission is different than almost every other team in the league.
With that said, the pressure is on O'Connor this year. Last season they turned a potentially devastating situation into one of the best stories of the season. No one will underestimate the Jazz next season. The fans want the team back in the playoffs and, with the right moves, it's possible. But O'Connor's right. His team over achieved. With teams like the Blazers, Nuggets, Rockets (and the soon to be Western Conference Hornets) all poised to get better as well . . . the Jazz need to make a big splash or two this summer. They don't need a home run -- but a couple of solid doubles would do the trick.
If O'Connor can do that, Sloan will do the rest.