You hear a lot of dumb things in my line of work. Ridiculous conspiracy theories. Unworkable trades. But among the dumbest came last week, when a radio guy suggested to me that the rules in the NBA make it impossible for a team to improve. Not bad trades or insipid coaching hires. The rules. Something about how teams are so hamstrung by contracts, and can't make deals because of the cap, and boo, hoo, hoo.
Is the NBA's collective-bargaining agreement written in Sanskrit?
This isn't brain surgery. Smart drafting, signing the right free agents, and managing the cap leads to championships. No one is perfect; the last four teams standing in the playoffs have each made a number of mistakes when it comes to personnel. But they've made so many right calls they've overcome their errors.
Take Utah, which faced down obstacles of history of culture and of finances to get back to the Western Conference finals. Instead of making excuses when the John Stockton-Karl Malone era ended, general manager Kevin O'Connor and coach Jerry Sloan went back to work.
No team starts from further back than the Jazz. For years, players around the league were reluctant to come here, fearful of a city that didn't seem to have much to offer in terms of culture for African American, non-Mormon players. So when Stockton and Malone left the stage, Utah had a sales job to do.
"What we try and do is go right after you," O'Connor said yesterday. "You interested or not? I can't move Utah any closer to the beach. I can't give you some of the things that other cities can ... so I try to ask those questions real hard and real quick. It goes back to my recruiting days. The worst place to finish is second."
Then there was Sloan, the crustiest of old coots, who has won only 1,000 games or so by demanding that people show up on time and be ready to sweat. Or, as he puts it, "Some guys think shaking hands is hard work." Yet his way is anathema to a lot of players today, who have been told how great they are since they were 12.
But owner Larry Miller didn't fire Sloan for some player-friendly coach. And after years of frugality cheapness over the years, Miller finally opened his wallet. In 2003, the Jazz went after restricted free agents Gilbert Arenas, Jason Terry and Corey Maggette. They got none of them but didn't quit.
The following summer, the Jazz targeted center Mehmet Okur and power forward Carlos Boozer whom they almost drafted in 2002. (Instead, Utah drafted ... Curtis Borchardt. See? Not perfect.)
Utah gave Okur a six-year, $50 million offer sheet, and followed that up with a $68 million offer to Boozer. The Jazz probably overpaid for each but got their men the right men.
"Utah just stood out to me as far as the tradition they had," Boozer said between Games 3 and 4. "Financially, it was all the same. But this organization is a proven winner."
The following year, Utah should have drafted fourth overall in the first round, but Milwaukee and Portland leapfrogged the Jazz in the lottery, leaving Utah with the sixth pick. But instead of whining about how unfair the rules were, O'Connor traded up to the third spot on draft night. There, Utah knew it would get the point guard it needed, either Chris Paul or Deron Williams. The Jazz ended up with Williams.
Bad luck plus hard work still equals desired result.Comment on this story
Now, Boozer is finally healthy and has become an all-star. Williams has blossomed into an elite-level point guard. Okur is a solid center. Andrei Kirilenko the first piece drafted in 2001 does a little of everything.
O'Connor added rebounding machine Paul Millsap (taken 47th in the second round) and veteran guard Derek Fisher this season. And the city is physically improved after hosting the 2002 Winter Olympics. There's a lot more for everyone not just black players to do around here.
"Times have changed so much," Fisher said. "Things are accessible in every city and every market. There's really nothing that you can't have or can't do in every place in the world. I don't think guys feel the same way they might have felt 10 years ago ... 'I can't go there, there's no electricity, there's no paved roads.'"
None of this required a degree in astrophysics or a billionaire owner. It only required smarts, guts and a plan executed by men who would rather roll up their sleeves than add any more salt to that big lake they have around here by shedding crocodile tears.