New unis; same sad ending?
For the past three years — and the entirety of my (ahem, Ben’s) blogging career — the Utah Jazz has seen its season ended by the Los Angeles Lakers, in increasingly discouraging fashion. Three seasons ago, the Jazz fell in the conference semifinals to L.A. in six games. Two seasons ago, they couldn’t get out of the first round, losing to the Lakers in five games. Last year? The Jazz made it to back to the conference semifinals only to get swept by Beelzebub Derek Fisher and his toadies. So, to recap, wins against L.A. over the past three postseasons: two, one, zero. That’s not progress.
Let’s cut to the chase. Is this year going to be any different? No. (This is permission, as if you needed it, to refrain from reading the rest of this post or an average of three posts a month between now and next June, with late April and early May being a great time to take a Voreblog sabbatical.)
The Lakers will take the West again this year. Oklahoma City, despite its promise and the sheer likability of Kevin Durant, will not make the jump from team-that’s-never-won-a-playoff-series to team-that’s-ready-to-dethrone-the-two-time-NBA-champions. And besides the Thunder, who out West could take the Lakers in seven? Not Portland (too creaky), Denver (too unstable), San Antonio (too ancient) or Dallas (too inconsistent). Anyone who thinks Houston is a legitimate contender is still under the impression Yao Ming has won more than one playoff series in his career (or under the delusion Yao Ming’s knee joints are not made of cardboard).
Who does that leave? The Jazz.
For those of you who did not pay close attention to what Utah did this postseason, let’s review:
1. It got Al Jefferson from Minnesota in exchange for (wait for it) Kosta Koufos and two future draft picks. Minnesota GM David Kahn fell for the Kevin-Arnold-offering-Don-Schwartz trick and let Jefferson go under the pretext of freeing up cap space. He also made this bizarre statement: “With Kevin Love and Michael Beasley on the team, there wouldn’t have been enough playing time for everybody to showcase Al.” Hmm. I guess I didn’t realize Jefferson was the one standing in the way of Beasley and NBA greatness.
This is not to say that Utah acquiring Jefferson (now just two seasons removed from an ACL tear) is a heist on par with, say, the Lakers fleecing Memphis for Pau Gasol. It is to say that Jefferson is an almost perfect fit for Utah, assuming he puts in a little more effort on defense. But then again, he’s replacing Carlos Boozer — who signed with Chicago in the offseason, then promptly tripped over a gym bag while answering the doorbell, breaking a finger and sidelining him for eight weeks — so the bar isn’t too high.
The less said about this, the better.
For all the things Boozer did for Utah (which were many), he was not liked by his teammates, and frequently a distraction over the final two seasons of his contract. Jefferson is younger and (hopefully) hungrier, having never played for a winner. Whether he’s as injury prone as Booze remains to be seen. We know this much: his chest hair does not look like taco meat.
2. The Jazz signed Butler star Gordon Hayward. We’ve waited all summer to post this photo!
Who’s got goosebumps right now?? Those of you who don’t, consider what this photo is saying: Gordon Hayward plays with the fluidity and strength of four men. This will revolutionize the sport! This is like playing nine-on-five but without breaking any rules!
Okay, I’ve been heavily sedated between the prior paragraph and this one. It used to be that rookies had no place in Jerry Sloan’s system, but after Wesley Matthews (now with Portland) won the starting spot at shooting guard last season, perhaps Sloan has softened a bit. Or maybe he just had a soft spot for Matthews’s hustle and toughness, traits Hayward was once teased by his Butler teammates for not having. Hayward had his preseason moments, including 26 points on 8-of-10 shooting in a win over the Lakers. (Yes, I just cited stats from a preseason game as though they actually mattered.) Suffice it to say, it has been a while (five years, to be exact) since Utah fans were this excited about a rookie.
3. Utah resigned Raja Bell. It has been six seasons since Bell last suited up for the Jazz, meaning he never played with Deron Williams. They’ll both benefit from sharing the backcourt. Bell is a physical defender in the Jerry Sloan mold, and he’s a more accurate three point shooter than anyone else Williams has had at shooting guard. Bell also carries the reputation as someone who can get under Kobe’s skin — or at least he could four years ago when he clotheslined Kobe in the playoffs. This did not deter Kobe from lobbying for Bell to sign with L.A. in the offseason. Instead, Bell signed with Utah and Kobe got someone else he previously clashed with — Matt Barnes. (First Artest, now Barnes. It’d be awesome if they turned on Kobe Reggie Jackson-style, a la The Naked Gun. We must kill … the Mamba!)
4. Andrei Kirilenko did not visit his barber. Unless this is some bizarre Russian fashion trend or he’s planning to donate to Locks of Love, Kirilenko’s new look must be some kind of contract year good luck charm:
The odds of Utah trading its Ivan Drago look-a-like and his expiring $17.8 million contract this season? Slim and none. But it may not want to, if Kirilenko can 1) stay healthy (that’s a big if), and 2) build on last season, when he regained something of the stat sheet-busting AK-47 persona from early in his Jazz tenure. Utah was at its best last year when Kirilenko had a midseason surge; after he went down with a strained left calf, the Jazz slid down to the fifth seed.
Did anyone notice Utah went undefeated in the preseason? Am I really that bullish about the preseason? All that says, if anything, is that Jerry Sloan always gets the most out of his players. Will this finally earn him a Coach of the Year award? Highly unlikely. But I doubt Sloan cares about the hardware.
So where exactly does this leave Utah in 2010-2011? Pretty good — definitely playoff-bound — but, once again, not good enough. If last year was Deron Williams’s coming out season, this year could be the year he goes All-NBA First Team. Utah will go as far as he can take them.
Of course, the major intrigue of this season — we’ll say nothing of the fact that a lockout looks mightily likely in 2011-2012 — is LeBron James going to Miami. “The Decision” was bad enough. His suggestion that racism played a role in the backlash against him was simply absurd. Now he delivers this:
I have no idea what LeBron — or rather, Nike — is trying to accomplish with this. As Tom Scocca put it, “The only criticism the commercial doesn’t anticipate or outflank is the criticism that James is only able to relate to the public through a television commercial.
“What should I do?” he asks the viewer, over and over, as if the original TV special in which he announced his decision had been forced on him, as if the public had rudely violated his private decision-making process against his will. What should I do? James never asked the public that question, and he isn’t asking now. He asked Nike. Do this fake-self-aware rebranding campaign, Nike told him.
I liked LeBron. He was Something To Love About Ohio. (We made corn mazes in his likeness!) The one time I saw him play, he made everything look effortless. He’ll do the same in Miami. But I can’t root for him in a Heat uniform. I like my sports figures to be loyal, to stick with their teams — especially when they’re hometown heroes, and especially when their hometown is as beleaguered a sports city as Cleveland. This is sentimental and old-fashioned, but that’s why I loved John Stockton — and Mark Eaton.
I didn’t actually love Mark Eaton, I just needed to get a — DEAR LORD, LOOK AT THOSE SHORTS.
I’ve always hated the Heat — for being a lousy, soulless expansion team, for having Rony Seikaly, for having lame fans, for playing thuggish basketball, which is another way of saying it has Pat Riley as its GM. Miami will be easier to root against this year. The Heat will be good, probably very good, but I wouldn’t be surprised to see it combust and fall short of the Finals. Look at the pieces around James, Dwayne Wade and Chris Bosh. Joel Anthony is a starting NBA center? Juwan Howard and Jerry Stackhouse are still upright? Can you win an NBA championship with Carlos Arroyo as your starting point guard? I don’t think so.
So who will win it? I want to like whoever comes out of the East — let’s go with Boston. Rajon Rondo made me a believer during the playoffs last year. Even if some of the supporting cast around him crumbles — and surely someone on that squad will (the Celtics added both Shaquille O’Neal and Jermaine O’Neal in the offseason; I predict they’ll be one and two to sustain major injuries this season) — he’s the kind of player who can hold everyone together. So Boston and the Lakers meet again in the Finals. I want to think Boston could avenge last year’s thoroughly depressing fourth quarter shutdown in Game Seven of the Finals. But do I really believe that or just want to believe that?
I have no reason to think anyone beats the Lakers again this year. So [sigh], the Lakers three-peat.
Let’s go Jazz.
UPDATE: Denver trounced Utah in the season opener last night, leading by as many as 27 before finishing off the Jazz, 110-88. In his Utah debut, Jefferson had 6 points and 7 rebounds while Hayward had 11 and 5. Only rookie Jeremy Evans had a positive +/-.
I neglected to reference the Sports Illustrated NBA preview whatsoever in my post. SI tweaked the format a bit this year, opting for division overviews in lieu of more detailed team pages. Fine enough. Here were my favorite, more amusing (and, this year anyway, significantly less absurd) excerpts from the “Enemy Lines” sidebars, in which rival scouts offer insights on each team:
- “[New York’s] signing of Raymond Felton is not going to make people excited. He’s an upgrade from bad to middle of the road. He doesn’t do any one thing particularly well, and his decision-making at the ends of games can be borderline horrible” (true)
- “I don’t have faith in Mike Dunleavy” (um, true)
- “In college Tyler Hansbrough overpowered guys inside, but I’ve seen him get blocked by Grant Hill” (cruel but true)
- “This could be Larry Brown’s final year [in Charlotte]. He’ll be frustrated having to rely on D.J. Augustin at point guard, and when you’re depending on Kwame Brown, Nazr Mohammed and DeSagana Diop as your centers, you’re asking for trouble” (understatement of the year)
- “[Boris] Diaw is the kind of guy who questions everything — he’s much too smart for his own good” (huh?)
- “There are time I’m completely amazed by J.R. Smith and times I simply can’t stand him, like when he stiffed me with the check last night at dinner” (I altered this one slightly)
- “I don’t know how you can trust Michael Beasley, especially after he said he loved me and wasn’t seeing anybody else” (again, slightly altered, but almost certainly true)
- “Brad Miller is almost done” (a bald-faced lie!)
- “All I saw from Hasheem Thabeet as a rookie was a big guy clogging the middle” (true, but why make Hasheem cry?)