Utah Jazz fans everywhere wonder: “What can we change in order to be a championship-caliber team?”
The first change—and sometimes only change—people want to make is to decide which player to obtain in order to make the Jazz into a championship contender. But it takes so much more. The perfect blueprint for creating a championship-caliber team in Utah involves intangibles, brains, talent and tradition.
Let’s start with the intangibles, the things that don’t appear in the box score.
A team needs players that will mesh together and work in unison. Talent will only take a team so far, but unity fills up the holes where talent doesn't exist.
In the movie Moneyball, Billy Beane puts together a team that has chemistry and meshes together statistically, and they are a much better team because of it. I'm not saying that a team full of Luke Waltons and Adam Morrisons will bring a title to Utah as long as they have chemistry, but if your players do mesh that way, it makes a world of difference.
For example, if you want a player to be your leader, you must first make sure that player has the leadership intangibles. Many fans assumed that Mo Williams would step in and be a leader. The problem is his track record.
So this offseason, if the Jazz are looking for someone to be a leader, it might be a smart idea to search for a player that possesses leadership qualities. He doesn't need to start. He doesn't need to drop 30 every game. He just needs to be a leader.
The obvious choice this year would be Chris Paul. He is a guy that commands respect from everyone, including veterans. He is perhaps the best leader in the entire NBA. The Jazz would be crazy not to at least try to get him.
But how often do you hear about the Jazz trying to get one of the top five players in the league? Never.
And this is normally where the Jazz fans chime in, "Chris Paul would NEVER come to Utah! There is no point in even trying."
And to be fair, they are half right. It's probable that Chris Paul wouldn't even consider the Jazz as an option, no matter how much money is involved. But he is definitely a player worth trying for.
Outside of the state of Utah, the Jazz aren't taken seriously. In fact, they are seen as a joke in the league—a team that consistently teases being great, but comes up short every time. They are not known as a team that makes big moves, or even attempts to. On the contrary, the Jazz avoid blockbuster deals if they can.
Which is why going for Chris Paul would change everything. It would set the tone for the way that the Jazz would be viewed. The league would know that they mean business.
Other teams like Denver and Toronto have recently tried for superstar talent. The Jazz have remained silent. That is a problem. They have to try for Paul, but he will be a difficult player to land. Chances are he won't play for Utah unless the money is right. He will likely remain in Los Angeles.
So, hopefully the Jazz try to land Chris Paul, and if they fail, they should go for the next-best thing: Chauncey Billups.
Billups has won a championship, an NBA Finals MVP and has made noise in the playoffs almost every year of his career. He has been a great leader throughout his career.
The Clippers have too many players in their rotation already, and with Billups’ contract ending after this year, he could land somewhere else. His salary with the Clippers is a measly $4 million; he is definitely affordable. He's only one of many options.
Next are brains. What I mean is the ability to habitually making smart decisions. For instance, Alec Burks should have had every single drop of Earl Watson's minutes this season. Burks is clearly the better player, but for most of the season, Watson played more.
Those with brains make smart financial decisions as well. Overpaying players is the first "no-no" when building a team.
In 2010, the Jazz had Andrei Kirelinko's albatross contract at a staggering $17.8 million. He was the seventh-most highly paid player in the NBA, earning more than Carmelo Anthony, LeBron James, Dwyane Wade and Dirk Nowitzki. Why? Because the Jazz get excited when a player shows a spark of promise and slam money down in their face like they’ve already earned it. Not smart.
This offseason, the Jazz can’t overpay any player on the roster. They can’t get excited and can’t jump the gun. Since the lockout, the league has been clamping down on teams that go over the cap, which will eventually result in teams like Miami, Los Angeles, New York, etc. having to shed some talent to make cap space.
This is a tremendous opportunity. The Jazz must take advantage.
The next is talent. You obviously need talent. But that doesn't limit that talent to one side of the ball. You need both defensive and offensive talent.
Utah should go out and get a top-five scorer or a top-five defender. No NBA team has won a championship without at least a top-five player or top-five defender. Some teams, like the 2010 Lakers and the 2012 Miami Heat, have had the luxury of having both.
If the Jazz fail to get a player that fits one of these two categories, it is a smart idea to clear cap space, because the record shows you need players of that caliber.
And finally, tradition. Tradition is the most crucial piece of the puzzle. Tradition of a team determines the level of pride and type of attitude a player assumes when representing an organization.
The most successful teams in the NBA have a tradition of going out on a limb, taking risks and doing whatever it takes to win. Utah Jazz fans have to make it clear to the front office that the Jazz are expected to win. But it doesn’t stop at just winning; the expectation must be nothing less than a championship.
Kobe Bryant, probably the most successful player in the league, has a unique mindset. If he wins a championship, he gets the "on to the next one" attitude in gear and focuses on winning the next championship.
Lakers fans demand a title contender every year, and Kobe has delivered five to Los Angeles. But even after five championships, you hear the Lakers booed all of this season because they aren’t title contenders.
An atmosphere of tradition is vital. It makes the players proud to represent an organization that doesn't accept failure. Don’t aim for the playoffs; shoot for the finals every single season.
The most important thing about tradition is that it gives the players a reason to stay. What was Stockton and Malone's reason to stay? I would say it was each other. They loved playing together.
Does Malone regret leaving Utah? Maybe. Personally, I don't think so. He was able to reach the finals again with the Lakers and play for an organization with tremendous tradition. He never had that in Utah. But what if he had had that tradition his entire career in Utah? Then perhaps he would have won a championship.
But year after year, we saw the Jazz come up short. We saw them lose year after year to Houston, Portland, Seattle and Golden State. Both Stockton and Malone had long, healthy years in Utah. They were one of the best duos ever to play the game, but they only made the finals twice. They should have been there every year.
These changes are only a few of the necessary steps needed to make the Utah Jazz (or any team for that matter) into a championship contender.
Stay tuned for the offseason.
You can follow Mitch Kunzler on Twitter: @MitchKunzler
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