Brad Rock: Jerry Sloan, Phil Johnson's best year wasn't one you'd expect
Tom Smart, Deseret News
SALT LAKE CITY — After 23 years, 20 playoff appearances, two NBA Finals and nine division championships, it could be argued that Jerry Sloan and Phil Johnson were the true dynamic duo of the Utah Jazz.
John Stockton and Karl Malone weren't bad, either. But someone had to draw up the plays.
Sloan, who retired Feb. 10, has more wins with the same team than any coach in history. Right by his side for all of them was Johnson, his assistant. Which raises the question of which season was their finest. Was it 1996-97, when the Jazz first made the NBA Finals, winning 64 regular-season games? Or was it the following year, when they took the Bulls to six games in the Finals? It even could have been 1994-95, when they won 60 regular-season games.
Another nice year was 2006-07, when the Jazz made a surprising run to the Western Conference finals.
However, Sloan's and Johnson's finest year was none of the above. That came in 2003-04, a year the Jazz didn't even make the playoffs. Talk about making chicken salad out of chicken scratchings. They had no Hall of Famers, no real scorers, either. Just a scrawny Russian kid who turned in freakish box scores. Yet they ended up missing the playoffs by a single game.
"That might have been as good a job coaching as we ever did because of what happened," Johnson said. "We came very close to making the playoffs. What happens in those situations is that there's not as much pressure, so not as much is expected. It's almost positive whatever you do."
What the Jazz did do was surprise the daylights out of everyone. They beat the Pacific Division-winning Lakers and runner-up Sacramento once apiece. They also beat 52-win Dallas twice and split with Eastern Conference contenders New Jersey and Detroit. Mostly, though, they dined on the lower end teams — something they have failed to do this season.
Their only letdown was in getting so far, yet losing to Minnesota and Phoenix in the season's final two games. That allowed Denver to grab the final playoff spot. It was the first time in two decades the Jazz missed the postseason, yet few people complained. After a 20-year playoff run — third-longest in NBA history — fans seemed to understand. It was a lot like a marathon: You may not end up at the top, but if you make it to the finish line, people are willing to applaud.
Malone was in Los Angeles, Stockton in Spokane by the start of the 2003-04 season. Malone had signed a deal with the Lakers, hoping to win a championship. Stockton had retired to his hometown. Yet somehow the Jazz managed to finish 42-40, marking a 21st consecutive season of winning half their games or more.
"It was unbelievable," Johnson said. "Not only that, it was surreal, because when we went to play the Lakers, Karl (Malone) was playing for them."
"Surreal" could also describe how general manager Kevin O'Connor and the coaches patched together a winning team. It was Kirilenko's third season, the only time he would make the All-Star team. He averaged 16.5 points, 8.1 rebounds, 3.1 assists and had 150 steals and 215 blocks.
Nice numbers, but there wasn't a 20/10 guy in the bunch.
Something else was remarkable about that team: It missed a franchise-record 259 player-games due to injury and personal leave. Matt Harpring — the second-leading scorer — sat out 51 games with knee surgery. Curtis Borchardt — never a factor, though he could have been — was out 66 games.
Meanwhile, they were playing without Stockton and Malone for the first time in 18 years. At least one national writer predicted the Jazz would set an all-time record for futility.
The coaches juggled the lineup and, according to Johnson, changed the offense to fit the personnel, hoping to maximize the ability of the flashing, slashing Kirilenko.
Other players on that team: Gordan Giricek, Raja Bell, Carlos Arroyo, DeShawn Stevenson, Mikki Moore, Greg Ostertag, Jarron Collins and an undiscovered Mo Williams.
"Bottom line is we just had some guys that wanted to play and wanted to win," Johnson said. "And it happened."
So here comes the new era in Jazzdom. Johnson, Sloan, Stockton, Malone and the late Larry H. Miller are gone. Almost every tie to the Jazz' glory days has been severed.
Experts are again predicting an end to the Jazz's excellence, with good reason; the team is in danger of missing the playoffs after losing 10 of its last 14 games. At the All-Star break, the Jazz are tied for the last playoff spot.
It's hard to imagine things getting better soon.
Still, stranger things have happened. As the '03-04 Jazz showed, sometimes just when you're headed for oblivion, you turn up in the most unexpected places.
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