Utah Jazz make do with late draft picks

Published: Monday, June 21 2010 11:00 p.m. MDT

Utah's Deron Williams tries for a dunk but is fouled by the Lakers' Shannon Brown as the Jazz and the Lakers play in Game 3 of the Western Conference Playoffs at EnergySolutions Arena on May 8.

Scott G. Winterton, Deseret News

SALT LAKE CITY — When evaluating NBA success, the Utah Jazz are an oxymoron. In this era of "Too Big to Fail," Utah, it seems, is Too Good to Succeed.

Since relocating in the shadow of the Wasatch 31 seasons ago, the franchise has delivered a convincing impersonation of Mary Poppins — practically perfect in every way. Except when it comes to finishing seasons on a perfect note.

Over that span, Utah owns the league's fourth best regular season winning percentage and has made 24 playoff appearances, including two trips to the NBA Finals. Hardly pity-party material.

But if the ultimate prize for an NBA franchise is winning championships, it's arguable the team's habitual regular season excellence and the marginal first-round draft picks that success brings hinders its chances of ever winning the real endgame.

Thursday's NBA Draft reminds us that the league's more foolhardy members are favored over its prudent ones in the name of balanced competition. Call it the NBA version of a bailout.

The first kids invited into this year's draft-night candy store — Washington, Philadelphia, New Jersey, Minnesota and Sacramento — have all been there, done that. Not that it matters much as the past 31 championships have been monopolized by just seven franchises.

For the Jazz, this year's draft is at least a deviation from the norm. As holders of the draft's ninth overall selection, Utah will be among the next group of teams satisfying their sweet tooth.

The pick, originally belonging to the New York Knicks, was artfully secured by Jazz general manager Kevin O'Connor from Phoenix as part of a 2004 trade that briefly brought Tom Gugliotta to the Jazz. It's only the second time since 1983 (Thurl Bailey at No. 7) that the Jazz will be choosing among the top 10 picks. The other was in 2005 when the Jazz finagled climbing up to the No. 3 spot to snag all-star point guard Deron Williams.

The Deseret News has done the math tracking first-round picks for all NBA teams dating back to the 1979-80 season (the Jazz's first in Utah). The team's Average Draft Position (ADP) of 18.2 for 33 first-round selections works out to be the second latest in the round for that period, underscoring how sizable of a competitive disadvantage Utah has faced improving itself through the draft, compared to most of its peers. It also raises the question of whether a small-market team like the Jazz can realistically pursue championships every year reloading, on average, with blanks like Luther Wright (No. 18 in 1993), or Curtis Borchardt (No. 18 in 2002)?

Tackling the same question from a wider league perspective, how many times can you expect to draft Hornets forward David West (career 16.0 ppg, 7.2 rpg), instead of Atlanta center Jason Collins (career 4.1 ppg, 4.2 rpg)? Both fall within the median for players selected with the 18th pick, based on earlier research by quantitative analyst Aaron Barzilai, Ph.D., now a statistical consultant for the Memphis Grizzlies.

Even when considering some of the best players ever taken at No. 18, as highlighted by Barzilai, you get guards Joe Dumars (career 16.1 ppg, 4.5 apg) and Mark Jackson (career 9.6 ppg, 8.0 apg). A sweet backcourt to be sure, but still missing the go-to superstar necessary to claim a title.

Incredibly, the Stockton-to-Malone Jazz came close to doing so — twice. Although based solely on the numbers, they clearly took overachieving and jammed it into an extra gear.

John Stockton was Utah's No. 16 pick in 1984, and Karl Malone followed at No. 13 the following year. Given the pair's less-than-lofty mid-round draft positions, having one of them develop into a Hall of Fame-caliber player would have been an aberration. Barzilai found that median players taken with the No. 13 pick are statistically similar to Richard Jefferson or Bryant Stith for their careers. Median career numbers for No. 16 selections are on par with Jon Sundvold or Bill Wennington.

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