Tom Smart, Deseret Morning News
The Utah Jazz put the finishing touches on the 2005-06 season Wednesday, which really isn't much of a process anymore. You could say they turned out the lights, the party's over, except for one thing: What party?
Unless quibbling, 20-point losses and stifling injuries are reasons to celebrate, this was a season to quickly forget and get on with summer.
But as the Jazz left the court following a 105-102 victory over Golden State, they were actually taking some consolation. First, they finished with a win, which nowadays is cause for celebration. Second, they compiled a 41-41 record, which after last season's 26-win effort was a nice jump. Third, they seemed to have finally discovered a lineup that poses a scoring threat from every position. Fourth, a team leader could be on the way.
Once upon a time, the last regular-season game was a chance to fine tune or sometimes even rest the starters for the playoffs. Now it's just the last game. See you in September. Now that the Jazz have missed the playoffs for a third straight year, the obvious question is, what changes will occur?
For his part, Sloan will probably do what he does every year and go back to the farm in Illinois, think things over, and get back to owner Larry H. Miller on whether he'll remain as coach. Miller has already made clear it's Sloan's call.
Only Sloan knows whether he's still connecting with his players. Asked if he plans to return, he replied, "I haven't got through the day yet. I'll worry about that tomorrow."
Pressed further about his future, he said, "I plan on being back, but you never know what your health is going to be and things like that."
Arguments as to whether he should return are intriguing. On one hand, this year, more than ever, players seemed to tune him out. All too often his rants were vapor in the wind.
"We didn't have a leader, as such, on the team," said Sloan. "You can yell and do this and that and people have been doing this as long as teams have been in the league, and struggled like we've struggled. But when you have leadership, you win games that you're not supposed to win."
Indeed, there were problems. Rookie Deron Williams chafed early in the year about playing time. But as time passed, he improved so dramatically that Sloan said the issue of finding an on-court leader should "clear itself up in a year or two."
But that's in a year or two. This year, losing streaks were commonplace. Miller had a meltdown that prompted him to skip a month's worth of games. Sloan and Greg Ostertag had to be separated in the locker room. Even the ever-optimistic Andrei Kirilenko complained the offense didn't provide him enough shots.
At the same time, the Jazz won 15 more games than last season a big jump. As the end neared, they showed surprising desire, claiming nine of their final 13 games. Their .500 record was fashioned despite the half-season absences of injured Carlos Boozer and Gordan Giricek.
Meanwhile, the lineup of Williams, Boozer, Kirilenko, Mehmet Okur and Matt Harpring, put together in March, actually looked like a respectable NBA team. Harpring is the only starter who isn't under contract next year. As for Boozer, whose name is always good for trade rumors, he too is likely to be around at least if you ask Miller, who puts the odds of him returning at 99 percent.
It's true Sloan is hard-nosed, which doesn't always sit right with a generation of players whose attitude is pay first, play later. They seemed to wonder at times if his playbook was written on parchment. Yet when they did play his way, they usually won. But injuries also cut deeply into Sloan's plan (226 player-games missed).
There's no guarantee next year will be injury free, either.
So, the longest-tenured coach in professional sports has some things to consider.
Still, he's had periods when he had more compelling reasons to retire, such as when John Stockton and Karl Malone left, after his wife passed away, and last season, when they won just 26 games.
Compared to those years, a decision this off-season should be easy.Critics say he's too old to relate to players and the game has passed him by. Is it time for young blood? Could be. But the same arguments were floated just before LaVell Edwards retired at Brigham Young University. And look what happened after he left.
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