The abrupt resignation of longtime head coach Jerry Sloan has put the Utah Jazz franchise at a pivotal point.
The Jazz have revealed the best and worst that they’ve had to offer this year. They showed brilliance and remarkable resiliency through the first 20 games of the year with a 15-5 record and unbelievable comebacks galore.
But the last 20 games have been equally revealing. The dismalness has hopefully peaked as Utah has lost 13 of 20. And in the process the Jazz have also lost an icon, not just for the franchise but for the entire league.
It’s left the league to wonder who this team is, especially with the departures of Jerry Sloan and his trusty sidekick, assistant Phil Johnson.
Some media outlets have been quick to place the “interim” stamp on Tyrone Corbin’s promotion.
However, Jerry Sloan’s 23-year tenure in Utah wasn’t a result of personal design. It was a combination of strong belief in the system and consistency.
Greg Miller, the owner of the Utah Jazz, has made it clear that Ty Corbin, who has been an assistant with the Jazz for seven seasons, is the head coach. There is nothing temporary about it.
During Sloan’s resignation press conference, Miller joked that hopefully Corbin could have a similar get-together in 20 years to announce his own resignation from the Utah organization.
Corbin is going to have to prove himself, though. Replacing a Hall of Fame career and the third-winningest coach of all time will be a daunting assignment. Missing the playoffs isn’t something that the Jazz are used to, especially under the Sloan regime, where Utah held a slot 19 out of 22 years.
Here are 10 ways that Ty Corbin can lead the Utah Jazz to the playoffs this year:
The Jazz have been known for consistency and their inflexible use of the flex offense. Unfortunately, that consistency has turned into predictability.
The UCLA handbook shouldn’t be thrown out entirely, but it should be loosened.
Some of Utah’s issues have been floor spacing, which is a result of lacking enough shooters to keep perimeter defenders honest when Al Jefferson and Paul Millsap are trying to get work done in the middle.
Teams like the Los Angeles Lakers, who have the luxury of length, simply beg Utah to score from the perimeter. Whenever the ball is dribbled with the intention of going to the basket, the defense has five players in the lane.
If Corbin allows players a little more freedom offensively—rather than pounding the ball relentlessly into the post—in the long run of 48 minutes, it may open up the middle because shooters have been given the opportunity to find their stroke.
Nobody wants to be critical of Jerry Sloan, and rightfully so.
But just from an outsider’s point of view, it appeared the Sloan had lost some of his feistiness. He became more docile and tame.
Not once was he in the ears of referees this season. And more importantly, he appeared to let players get away with more than he would typically allow, specifically defensively and with rebounding.
He appeared tired and worn down.
Corbin has an opportunity to rebuild Jazz culture, to strictly establish himself and let the players know that he will be tougher on them than they’ve grown accustomed to this season.
If he wants the players to trust him blindly, he must be willing to show them that he will battle for them, whether that means jumping all over the zebras or jumping all over them as a group and as individuals.
Corbin can’t be afraid to bench players or be aggressive with the referees.
Jerry Sloan always got a bad rap for disliking rookies, that he refused to play them.
But he believed that you learn in gradual steps, and that if he were to just throw them into the fire, it’d be his fault that they got burnt.
In some ways, this is an area where the NBA has changed.
Coaches now see an 82-game season as an opportunity to develop rookies at a quicker pace, even at the possible expense of some games.
The old-school approach is great if you have the luxury of skilled veterans, which the Jazz do not.
Utah only has two rookies this year—lottery pick Gordon Hayward and late second-rounder Jeremy Evans. Both have shown promise and skill when given excessive minutes.
With fewer than 30 games remaining on the schedule, Corbin has an opportunity to continue developing these two on the fly, potentially giving them larger roles like Wesley Matthews from the Jazz’ great playoff run last year.
Utah simply does not have the skill to rely on their veterans to beat the nightly youth of the NBA.
Fresh legs, though more prone to mistakes, can help Utah build for the future at a faster pace.
The Western Conference is a large one. Playoff series are largely determined by matchups instead of by talent alone.
Anytime a coach can stuff a 7-footer in the middle, it’s a luxury.
Kyrylo Fesenko is far from luxurious. He’s doofy, goofy and most times just plain odd. He looks like a carnival sideshow more than like a basketball player, like he could be a part of Coney Island’s notorious freak gigs.
But he’s huge. He takes up space—most of the lane in fact.
Ty Corbin needs to get Fesenko some more minutes. But it’s also a two-way street, one that Sloan had issues with. It’s hard to keep him on the floor if he’s constantly picking up fouls.
Maybe if he lets him play through the foul problems, even if it’s just to find the groove of the game, Fesenko can impact the game the way his size says he can.
While the injuries are mounting, the Jazz should explore some help from the D-League.
Othyus Jeffers has been playing with the Iowa Energy this season after not claiming a roster spot with the Jazz in training camp. And he’s playing extremely well.
Jeffers is averaging 21.5 PPG and nine rebounds with an efficiency rating of plus-22.0.
The Jazz could use an athletic wing player that may be able to contribute offensively. Jeffers finished the season with Utah last year after injuries forced Utah to extend his 10-day contract.
Utah originally said they would not be signing any D-Leaguers, but that was before they were forced to suit up only nine players against the Phoenix Suns on Friday, when Andrei Kirilenko went down with an ankle injury.
If the Jazz’ player availability keeps dropping, a 10-day contract seems inevitable.
As Utah’s roster currently stands, they’re built to compete for playoff contention, not much more. The weaknesses in their roster are glaring.
There’s a formula for winning championships in the NBA. First, play defense and rebound. The Jazz seem to do these things based on choosiness rather than ineptitude.
Sometimes they defend and rebound. Sometimes they don’t. It’s not a matter of personnel but desire.
The other part of the formula is a well-balanced attack. Utah has a great scoring interior. Al Jefferson, Paul Millsap and Andrei Kirilenko combine for 46 points and 23 rebounds per game.
But the Jazz lack a scoring shooting guard. Raja Bell is the only true shooting guard on the roster, and most of the season he’s been in a slump. Add his poor scoring to his injuries, and some nights Utah only has four positions to play with.
If the Jazz want to seriously compete in the NBA, they need to be well-rounded. They need more shooters, guys that can stretch the defense, maybe even athletic wing players who can get their own shots.
Part of the reason Sloan left was he knew that his tank was running on empty and that this Jazz team, as currently constructed, wasn’t in a position to compete for a championship.
Corbin and management need a strong relationship built on trust and on a collective, competitive nature.
GM Kevin O’Connor hasn’t fooled anybody. In the last year he has either orchestrated or watched the Kyle Korver, Ronnie Brewer and Wesley Matthews all walk out the door. Now, the Jazz need wing players.
Corbin knows this. Management knows this. Shake things up.
While Utah’s consistency has swung like a door on its hinges, Raja Bell and C.J. Miles have been at the forefront of the problem.
Bell has struggled to shoot the ball well this year. The last two weeks he has been able to string together a couple of nice games before being sidelined with a calf injury.
And it seems that as Bell has found the stroke, Miles has lost his.
For Utah to find room for Al Jefferson and Paul Millsap to work, Bell and Miles need to be shooting the ball well from the perimeter as a one-two punch. They are the only shooters that the Jazz have with Mehmet Okur still sidelined.
The injury bug has found its way into Utah.
Mehmet Okur hasn’t been available for most of the season while recovering from an Achilles injury, a sprained ankle and now what seems to be an eternally sprained back.
The aging Raja Bell has been an on-again off-again starter with abductor, groin and now calf injuries.
The quirky and versatile Russian Andrei Kirilenko has sprained both ankles in the last two weeks. And he’s been playing his best basketball in years.
Francisco Elson, Utah’s most versatile defensive big man, is struggling with knee pain.
And, if you haven’t noticed, Deron Williams clearly has a wrist issue that forced him to miss four consecutive games. Now that he’s back, it’s easy to see that he’s still not himself. He’s differing when he is normally aggressive, and his shooting percentage is dipping.
The margin for error was never big for the Jazz in the first place. If they want to remain in the playoff hunt, they will need to get healthy by the end of the All-Star break.
It’s almost ironic that the Basic Basketball 101 playbook that Utah is best known for is seemingly un-defendable for them.
The Jazz are having a hard time defending the pick-and-roll, putting it lightly.
Teams across the league are using the same scouting report. They’re putting Al Jefferson in pick-and-roll defensive situations and getting all the buckets Jefferson will concede in the process.
By the time the fourth quarter comes around, the Jazz’s biggest defensive problem is being isolated almost every time down the court, and the results have been consistent.
When the weak-side help has committed to the paint, the perimeter is left open for shooters. When the help has failed to sink into the middle, Utah is giving up points in the paint.
In Jefferson’s defense, he has protected the middle very nicely this year when he hasn’t been asked to defend the pick-and-roll. He is eighth in the league in blocks with just under two per game and is an improvement from Carlos Boozer.
But it can’t be placed on Al Jefferson alone. The perimeter defenders need to fight over screens harder to help Big Al out.
And finally, the Jazz need to talk on defense.
Say what you will about Carlos Boozer as a defensive liability—which he was—but he wasn’t silent. He was audible over all the fans, yelling and communicating.
The Jazz need to communicate defensively. If they’re going to get beat, they might as well be talking about it.
Nobody is taking a bigger rap for Sloan’s departure than Deron Williams. And it’s simply not fair.
Media has taken Sloan's resignation into an emotional three-day context, not a 23-year career one. The blame has fallen on Deron Williams in one way or another by the local and national media.
On one hand writers, analysts and whoever else has an opinion are saying that Jerry Sloan was the toughest of competitors and a hard-nosed, tractor riding, stubborn monument in the game of basketball. They’re giving out due praise.
But it’s a backhanded compliment when they turn around and say that Jerry Sloan was pushed out by Deron Williams.
One player of the hundreds that Sloan has coached could not push out Sloan. He’s too competitive.
There is, however, an area where media could fairly attack Williams. He’s spending too much time glaring and staring down referees in frustration.
Every time that there is a no-call, Williams, instead of getting back, throws his hands up a-la Chris Webber, as if it will change something.
Corbin needs to get Deron Williams to just play ball. The truth is that Williams is one of the best point guards the NBA has, if not the best pure point guard in the entire league. And the Jazz are lucky to have him.
Plus, he’s having a career season and has put the Jazz on his back in many situations throughout the course of the year.
But he’s got to get back to playing basketball. Nothing else. Just basketball.
Fans are emotional and an irrational bunch. But luckily for all athletes, with the emotion and irrationality comes a short-term memory. The hippocampus of the average fans rivals that of Cheech and Chong.
Winning, not whining, cures all.