Utah Jazz Woes Go Deeper Than Al Jefferson's Benching

Tim PetersonCorrespondent IMarch 29, 2011

Al Jefferson leads Utah in scoring with 19.1 ppg.
Al Jefferson leads Utah in scoring with 19.1 ppg.Kevin C. Cox/Getty Images

Somewhere out there, Deron Williams has got to be chuckling to himself. Ever since the Jazz parted ways with the best point guard in the NBA, their season has gone in the toilet. It’s been a disaster.

The free-falling Jazz are all but mathematically eliminated from the playoffs and look to be in complete disarray after a horrendous home loss to Washington on Monday night. Utah is now 36-39 and in danger of ending the season with a losing record at home. The Jazz are 20-18 at EnergySolutions Arena and have home games with the Lakers, Blazers and Nuggets remaining.

The infamous trade that sent Williams to New Jersey for Derrick Favors, Devin Harris, draft picks and cash has produced a hapless Jazz team in return. Utah has gone 5-13, lost six straight games, dropped out of playoff contention and has no leadership whatsoever since trading Williams.

And with 54 seconds remaining in the third quarter of Utah’s game with Washington, center Al Jefferson was pulled from the game and never returned. The team’s leading scorer (19.1 ppg) was benched for the remainder of the contest and wasn’t in a talking mood afterwords. According to reports, Jefferson had no comment and adamantly waved off reporters after leaving the locker room.

What does this all mean? Well, first and foremost, let’s assign blame to the parties that are truly responsible for the demise of this once model organization. The ultra-conservative Utah Jazz are not building for a title run—despite what the organization has said publicly—this season is turning into a bait and switch that would make Wall Street swindler Bernie Madoff proud. Utah GM Kevin O’Connor continues to take the wait-and-see approach, as the Jazz have hit all the wrong notes.

Last summer, O’Connor was grilled by the Salt Lake media for his selection of Butler’s Gordon Hayward with the ninth pick overall. O’Connor had a terse response, telling skeptics to give the 20-year-old rookie a couple of seasons before passing judgement. But that’s assuming the GM will still be in Utah when the time comes.There's no word yet on when cries to fire O’Connor will come, and so far, Jazz fans are being patient.

Aside from Williams, the Utah GM has struck out on virtually every one of his first-round picks and that’s why the jury is still out on the future of this team. Utah has two lottery picks in the 2011 NBA Draft, but because of O’Connor’s poor track record in the first round, and a down year in college talent, these high draft picks don’t guarantee anything.

Free agency hasn’t been much better. In 2004, Utah signed Carlos Boozer to a huge free-agent contract for six years and $68 million. The all-star’s tenure in Utah was marked by injury and a trip to the Western Conference Finals, but little else. This past summer Boozer moved on, signing a five-year deal with the Bulls worth $76 million. Like it or not, Boozer represented a huge investment by O’Connor and the failure of keeping Boozer and Williams together will be felt for a long time in Utah.

However, the acquisition of Jefferson this offseason was supposed to offset that loss. On the surface, the swap of Boozer for Jefferson was like finding gold. The problem is, it turned out to be fool's gold. Jefferson has never been able to match the scoring that Boozer provided, and Williams never played with the 6’10” forward long enough to develop the same dynamics he and Boozer shared. Jazz owner Greg Miller acted on a "gut instinct" as he called it, and traded Williams away—which further frustrated Jefferson.

In fairness to the young owner, Miller cited Carmelo Anthony holding Denver hostage and LeBron James leaving Cleveland as justification for trading the two-time All-Star. But so far, the Nets continue to look to like the winners in this deal.

The mistakes made by Utah in just a season and half are many. Utah allowed Wes Matthews to go to Portland on a five-year deal worth $34 million. Matthews said afterwards that he was surprised the Jazz didn’t make an offer. Not just a counter offer, but any offer at all.

Guard Ronnie Brewer, a defensive stopper and the team’s first-round pick from 2006, he was traded to Memphis to save money. Ditto with point guard Eric Manor.  

Kyle Korver, the NBA’s single-season percentage leader from beyond the arc was left unsigned by the Jazz. But how could O' Connor do this when the team has a giant hole at the shooting guard position? Raja Bell certainly wasn’t the answer. So, it’s still a mystery as to why the Jazz failed to sign Korver. Yet under the penny-pinching leadership of Miller, the answer becomes as plain as the nose on Jerry Sloan’s face. It’s all about the money.  

Let this resonate Jazz fan: With ex-Jazzmen Boozer, Korver and Brewer all ending up in Chicago and MVP candidate Derrick Rose ascending to the top of the league at the point guard position, the Bulls (53-20) not only have the best record in the East, they could win an NBA title and beat the Lakers in the process. Accomplishing this task with O’Connor’s hand picked players would have to sting Jazz Nation.

That brings us back to the future of Jefferson and Jazz coach Ty Corbin. With Derrick Favors playing well, would the Jazz try to trade their leading scorer? “Big Al” was ejected from Saturday’s loss to Dallas in the final minutes of the game and Jefferson told The Salt Lake Tribune that his actions were unprofessional, Corbin agreed: “That’s not who we are. We’re disappointed.” Corbin said, via Brian T. Smith of The Tribune.

Reaction from Jefferson’s benching will come soon enough. But it’s safe to say this latest altercation is sending a message to the big man: It's our way or the highway big fella.

The question moving forward is simple: How long can these two butt heads? Corbin has the backing of the front office, but that will slip from his grasp if he can’t find a way to win. And “winning” has been hard to come by since the day Miller and O’ Connor shipped out the franchise centerpiece.