[Note from Erin: This is the first of what one hopes will be a merciful few posts Ben feels compelled to write about the NBA and, specifically, the Utah Jazz. You do not need to keep reading.]
Deron Williams will not be stopped by ankle sprains or unkempt looking Argentinians in 2008-2009.
One of my annual rituals every fall is to purchase the Sports Illustrated NBA Preview Issue, find some quiet place of contemplation, and pore over its pages, turning first and always to the team page for the Utah Jazz. When did I fall in love with the Jazz? The first bit of evidence points to 1986 when I was in the fourth grade. My grandparents gave me as a Christmas present a “jacket” that could be drawn on with pen. I had all my friends sign it, like it was a cast. It was basically made out of a slightly sturdier form of papier-mâché. This made it sensible as a jacket for about a two week window in early October and then again around middle-to-late April. (From a fashion standpoint, the jacket was sensible year-round, of course.) For some absurd reason, my parents allowed me to keep this jacket long after it outlived its usefulness, and I remember one day as a teenager pulling it from a pile at the bottom of my closet and noting that I had written in, in what I guessed was the style which their autographs would look, the names of various sports figures among the signatures of friends. John Stockton and Karl Malone were both located in the vicinity of my right shoulder.
Then my teenage self, suddenly confronted with a mortifying relic from the past which stirred up a sickening self-awareness, promptly threw the jacket in the garbage.
Why the Utah Jazz? The only answer I can give, I suppose, is that Utah picked me as much as I picked it. There was also the fact that if I ever played in the NBA it would only be because John Stockton had paved the way for undersized, scrappy guards who couldn’t dunk to still have productive, even exemplary careers. My first act of Stockton worship was to buy his SI poster for my bedroom. I could not locate the exact picture in Google images, but this gives a good approximation of how short his shorts really were:
These shorts are actually two sizes larger than the ones Stockton wore when he first entered the league.
His poster remained on my wall all the way through college. This also gives you a good approximation of the viability of my dorm room as a make-out pad, not to mention the hairstyle I emulated from ages nine to twenty-three.
Now, I press on knowing full well that John Stockton has retired into anonymity in the greater Spokane, Washington, area. I also press on knowing that exactly two people (Scott Guldin and Denys Lai) will read this post and experience something resembling interest, while a few other sports fans may possibly be intrigued by the fact that someone living in Cincinnati actually cares passionately about the NBA and thinks its product is as good as it has been in a long time. (Last season even ended on a good note!) I’m guessing that the rest of you, assuming you’ve even made it this far, will experience something between mild disinterest and active revulsion. Forgive me.
The fact is I simply love the Utah Jazz. Let me count the ways:
1. Jerry Sloan. The most tenured active coach in professional sports. (Twenty-three years!) He coaches the way he played: hard-nosed, gritty, leaves it all on the court. Expects the same from the stars as he does from the twelfth man. To the NBA’s everlasting shame, Sloan has never been Coach of the Year.
2. Utah plays like a team. This is also a testament to Sloan. Whenever I have the NBA vs. college argument with friends, I usually concede at some point that one of the things I love most about Utah is how it plays like a college team. Stockton and Malone always bought into that, and Deron Williams and Carlos Boozer carry the same mantle today. Thankfully the NBA is moving back toward being a team-oriented league rather than a superstar league.
3. The Jazz is the only show in town. Unlike most NBA markets, the Jazz is the only ticket in Salt Lake. It would be too much to call Utah the Green Bay of professional basketball, but I find the sight of 19,911 screaming, jeering, frothing-at-the-mouth and predominantly Mormon fans to be both endearing and criminally underappreciated. (Bill Simmons does not warm to the rabidity of Jazz fans — or our lack of humor at hearing him say Chris Paul will always be better than Deron Williams — because during the 2002 Olympics he couldn’t get a beer past 8:30. This is fair.)
4. The Jazz has always been the underdog. I would go on loving the Jazz even if Utah won it all someday. But part of its charm for me is that Utah has come oh-so-close but never reached that lofty summit of champions. (I will neglect to draw an analogy here with the Chicago Cubs for the rightful reason that there’s really no comparison, but I feel what Cubs fans say they feel every year when it all falls apart.) I mean, these twelve non-Mormon men have chosen to live in Salt Lake City for the majority of the calendar year when their colleagues around the league are hobnobbing in Los Angeles, New York, Orlando and Miami. It’s like they really are on a mission, cast off into the wilderness for a year or six to bring the NBA gospel to the hinterlands. Godspeed, good warriors!
Now, most pundits are picking the Lakers to win it all this year. Seven of the eighteen ESPN.com writers like L.A. (Five picked Boston, two apiece like Houston, San Antonio and New Orleans.) SI opts for the Spurs, reasoning that if San Antonio won in 2003, 5 and 7 then they’ve got the odd years of the first decade of the new millennium all locked up. Nobody picks the Jazz.
It would be a long shot if Utah made the leap this year, but here are a few reasons why they could. To do so I will draw some comparisons between the 2008-09 Utah Jazz and the last Finals team Utah fielded in 1997-98.
1. Deron Williams and Carlos Boozer are not John Stockton and Karl Malone, but they’re pretty darn good. Plus they can do some things (gasp!) that Stockton and Malone could not. Williams is more physical than Stockton and plays with a little more swagger. Boozer holds up less well in this comparison, but he’s in a contract year and I don’t think he’s in a Jazz uniform next year. I think both have monster years. (I also think Williams benefits from hearing everyone side with Chris Paul when they compare the two. He seems to thrive on being underestimated.)
2. Mehmet Okur bears no resemblance to Greg Ostertag. Praise the Lord. Okur is in good shape and there’s no way he could start this season in a worse funk than he did last year. Whereas Sloan rightfully forbade Ostertag to handle the ball anywhere above the foul line extended, Okur thrives on the perimeter and is an excellent passer. He may be frequently outmanned in the paint, but Ostertag was outmanned the minute he stepped on the court. (Alternate titles for this section included “Mehmet Okur bears no resemblance to Olden Polynice, Tom Chambers, Felton Spencer, Danny Schayes or Mark Eaton.”)
3. Andrei Kirilenko might — might — remember what it was like to be AK-47 and turn into a Russian Bryon Russell. Given how far Kirilenko has fallen in recent years, it’s hard to remember the heady days of 2005-06 when he was the “toast of fantasytown.” This did not stop me from drafting him in round seven of my fantasy draft in an effort to snatch up the entire Jazz starting lineup. (Only Okur eluded me.) (And yes, Kirilenko’s salary this year is over $15 million.)
4. Ronnie Brewer might — might — fulfill John Hollinger’s expectations and become the next Jeff Malone if not the next Jeff Hornacek. How much money did Brewer pay ESPN.com’s Hollinger to write that he “might be the single most underrated player in the league”? Let’s start the bidding at $100,000 and a lifetime supply of Hair Club For Men.
5. Ronnie Price, C.J. Miles, Kyle Korver, Matt Harpring and Paul Millsap might — might — be the equivalent of L.A.’s supporting cast last year. At the very least they are substantial upgrades from Jacque Vaughn, Howard Eisley, Shandon Anderson, Adam Keefe and Greg Foster, respectively. Korver’s perimeter shooting (or at least the threat of his perimeter shooting) opened up the offense and sparked Utah’s second half run last season. Harpring may be coming off his seventh reconstructive knee surgery at 57 years old and still be confused about the fundamental differences between basketball and football, but darn if he isn’t scrappy! Price and Miles are athletic and will get PT early in the season while Williams recovers from an ankle sprain. And Millsap could become a baby-faced killer ready to emerge if Boozer moves on next year. I’m down on my knees praying.
6. Utah might — might — win a game in San Antonio. The last time it did this was 1999. If it doesn’t happen during the regular season, it’s not happening in the playoffs. In the off chance a miracle does happen, it’s certainly not happening twice in seven games, so Utah would need to win out at home. Actually, I can’t say that this year’s team is remotely as good on the road as the 97-98 squad was. I’m getting depressed. Let’s move on.
A few more random thoughts, some on the upcoming season:
1. Before ESPN.com, the SI NBA Preview issue was a holy artifact, kept and preserved in as pristine a condition possible for something I flipped through and consulted regularly. (Now it’s merely essential but not necessarily foundational.) This is not to say it is the infalliable word of God, of course. (Darius Miles was on the cover in 2000.) Scott Guldin and I especially enjoyed perusing the “Enemy Lines” scouting reports for each team and finding the most outrageous predictions that we could mock and turn into inside jokes. A sampling of the most dubious predictions from years past:
- “A guy to keep an eye on is Brian Skinner. He’s strong as a bull, and he’s worked on his offense and developed good hands. The year after next he’s going to be one of the top power forwards on the free-agent market.” (2000)
- “Jahidi White has tons of potential.” (2000)
- “Kenny Anderson will be a surprisingly big help, because it’s been years since Seattle had a true backup to Gary Payton” (2002)
- “I really like Marko Jaric” (2002)
- “The Warriors have excellent reserves in Clifford Robinson, Calbert Cheaney and Speedy Claxton” (2003)
- “Jamaal Tinsley should have a breakout season” (2003)
- “If Kevin Ollie isn’t playing 30 minutes a game, the Cavs are going to struggle” (2003) (Note: If this prediction is ever made of your team prior to a season, turn off the TV for the next eight months.)
- “Melvin Ely has a chance to be part of Charlotte’s long-term future because of his low-post game and his ability to play power forward and center” (2004)
- “Brian Cardinal is a superior shooter who can produce at both forward positions” (2004)
- “I see Adonal Foyle as a terrific back-up. He’s a high-effort rebounder at both ends and a shot blocker” (2004)
- “Jamaal Tinsley is a good enough point guard to win a championship. He may still make bad decisions, but he’s getting better” (2005)
- “People criticize Kyle Korver for being slow, but basketball is not about running 94 feet. It’s about your first step” (2005)
- “Saleem Stoudamire will be as effective scoring off the bench as Ben Gordon was for the Bulls last year” (2005)
- “The Blazers are counting on Martell Webster to be the next Dale Ellis” (2005)
- “I’m a big Ruben Patterson fan” (2006)
- “Jamaal Tinsley can find people, he doesn’t hesitate to throw it ahead on the break, and he’s got a knack for finishing. But the Pacers have got to accept that he’ll turn it over” (2006)
- “Adam Morrison was a great choice with the No. 3 pick” (2006)
- “I equate Deron Williams to Derek Harper — a starter in the league for a long time, a guy who defends and makes a shot here and there” (2006)
- “Seattle’s best defender up front might be Nick Collison” (2006)
- “One of the best free-agent pickups in the league was Ronny Turiaf” (2008)
- “Jamaal Tinsley, despite being replaced by T.J. Ford as a starter, will cure world hunger and broker a Middle East peace accord” (2008)
Only the last one was made up. Scott and I have never been able to prove that these anonymous scouting reports are in fact written by highly evolved chimpanzees. But let’s not act surprised when the truth comes out. (At which point the editors will say, “We never quite figured out why these highly evolved chimps liked Jamaal Tinsley so much.”)
2. The cover of the 2005-06 NBA Preview Issue has Larry Bird standing with his arms crossed in front of a smiling (sort of) Ron Artest. The headline is “The Odd Couple.” The subhead says, “You May Not Love Ron Artest but Larry Bird Does.” And how did that work out? Same when Sacramento brought in Artest. So is Artest really going to be a difference maker in Houston? Could Houston honestly be champions this year when Tracy McGrady has never won a single playoff series in his career? Will sportswriters ever tire of the Talented But Combustible Headcase Goes to Stable Champion Contender and Tries to Put Them Over the Top storyline? (See Bonzi Wells to Houston, Rasheed Wallace to Detroit (this one actually worked), Latrell Sprewell to Minnesota, Chris Morris to Utah, any free agent to the Blazers, excepting the fact “stable” has never been used to describe Portland, etc., etc.) The answers: No, no and no.
2a. Though I have never met him, I suspect that Ron Artest is basically a slightly more malevolent Tracy Jordan: The crazy, free-wheeling talent with mixed-up, kooky ideas about how the world runs and a tendency to do embarrassing things like “tattoo” his face or star in Werewolf Bar Mitzvah videos. If any of our regular readers are friends with Ron Artest, please let me know if this theory is valid.
3. Prediction: Erin will attempt to hide/donate to Goodwill/burn my John Stockton jersey at least once this year. Another prediction: She will see my stack of old SI previews somewhere and say, “Is there a reason we’re still holding on to these?”
4. The NBA has suffered more than any other league from the perception that its refs are in the can. Whether they are or not is beside the point. If the perception is so widespread, it’s a problem. What the league looks like post-Tim Donaghy will be interesting. Do I think all NBA refs are fixing games? Certainly not. Do I think NBA refs are the most subjective pro officials and the most influential at shaping the outcome of a game, and especially a playoff series? Yes. Do I think Game Six of the 2002 Western Conference Finals between the Lakers and Kings was an absolute travesty and the single worst officiated game I’ve ever seen in my life and that there was no way L.A. was losing that game? Yes, yes, and yes. (Donaghy worked that game, by the way.)
5. I am incredibly envious that my brother can go to a Trailblazers game whenever he likes. Brandon Roy is bound to become a household name and LaMarcus Aldridge is on his way. Greg Oden is hopefully in for an outstanding rookie year, last night’s ominous opening aside. Rudy Fernandez becomes the new foreign heartthrob, unseating Manu Ginobili who unseated Tony Parker. (Bill Simmons raves about Portland in his NBA preview. I’m going to link to it again in case you really haven’t started reading that instead of this drivel.)
6. I will relish the Monday night of no NBA basketball next March when the NCAA Finals take place, less so for the actual game than for the opportunity to call Denys Lai as soon as “One Shining Moment” comes on.
7. One fondness I continue to have for Sports Illustrated is that it has not degenerated into Let’s Just Let Former Players Do Most of Our Commentary For Us. Honestly, Jalen Rose? Avery Johnson? The odious Greg Anthony? Mark Jackson? Tim Legler? Jon Barry? Isaiah Thomas? Magic Johnson? Tom Tolbert? For every Charles Barkley there are a hundred Bill Waltons. I shudder at the thought that in five years time Bruce Bowen, Jeff Foster and Brian Scalabrine will all be doing play-by-play. Gilbert Arenas has potential though. (To SI’s discredit, ESPN snagged the immortal Scoop Jackson first. Or would Jackson becoming an SI staff writer be like Marlo Stanfield trying to become a respectable Baltimore businessman? The guy needs to taste his own blood in the streets.)
(Incidentally, Scoop likes the Rockets. Okay, Scoop.)
8. Vinny Del Negro?
9. At some point in the next year I will pull out NBA Superstars on VHS and rewatch a two minute, twenty-three second montage of Charles Barkley set to “The Warrior” by Scandal.
(My favorite part is 1:58 in when a teammate slaps Barkley on the back twice in perfect sync with the lyrics “Bang, Bang.” Incredible editing work there.)
10. My prediction for this season: Cleveland over Los Angeles. Boston suffers from losing James Posey and at least one of its big three has a serious injury. No one else in the East gets close. In the West Utah and Oklahoma City become the top two contenders to L.A. One of them gets the Lakers in the conference finals. San Antonio will have a collective knee blowout and everyone will belatedly realize the average age of its starting line-up is 83 years old. (Marc Stein will lose sleep trying to figure out how he overlooked this fact.)
Let’s go Jazz.