SALT LAKE CITY —
As the Utah Jazz open the 2012-13 season tonight, consider what they've accomplished in the 33 years since they arrived in the state.
Everyone knows what the Jazz haven't done — win a championship — but here's what they have done: Become a model for consistency by any standard in any sport.
Specifically, the Jazz have ...
— tied with the Spurs for most playoff appearances since 1984, with 25. But what about the Lakers and Celtics? Not even close. Jordan's Bulls? Puh-lease.
— produced the third-longest playoff-appearance streak in NBA history, at 20, trailing only the Syracuse Nationals (who?), the Philadelphia 76ers and the Portland Trail Blazers. Not even Auerbach's Celtics were as consistent as the Jazz.
— collected the fifth-most playoff victories in the last 25 years. OK, this is where things get sticky — they have a losing record in the playoffs — but let's stick to the point, which is that the Jazz have reached the playoffs with boring regularity. In 29 years, they've missed the playoffs just four times. Three of those misses came immediately after the loss of Hall of Famers Karl Malone and John Stockton. The other non-playoff season followed the first full season following the departure of Williams and Carlos Boozer.
— produced the third-most regular-season victories during the last 25 years. For that matter, they have the third-most victories over the last 20 and 30 years — take your pick. No matter how you cut it, they trail only the Lakers and Spurs in victories.
They have accomplished this while dealing with a couple of big disadvantages. Market size matters in the NBA. Just look at the teams that have won championships — Miami, L.A., Boston, Dallas. The only real exception is the Spurs. Small-market teams such as the Jazz are handicapped by a league that allows the big-market teams to pay huge salaries and stack talent with few real penalties (Exhibits A and B: The Lakers and Heat) because it lacks an NFL-caliber revenue sharing system. For the Jazz, that means a smaller payroll and almost no superstar free-agent signings or high draft picks.
Run all this past Kevin O'Connor, the Jazz's VP of basketball operations, and he laughs — "This is a nice way to say we've been overachievers."
In some ways the Jazz have been victims of their own success. Because they have rarely missed the playoffs, they have rarely had lottery picks. Since the lottery system was created in 1985, they have had six lotto picks, all of them since 2004. The highest pick was third in the draft order — Deron Williams in 2005 and Enes Kanter in 2011. The other lotto picks were Nos. 14, 14, 9 and 12 — and were used to pick Kris Humphries, Ronnie Brewer, Gordon Hayward and Alec Burks. Williams, Humphries and Brewer are long gone.
Says O'Connor, "We've had good leadership from (owners) Larry Miller and then Gail and Greg (Miller) and a directive in how to do things and the right way to do things. We have not taken shortcuts. We've looked at the character in players and who can help us long term rather than try to look at just talent. We've had to grow our own talent. We've maximized the potential with the players we've been able to get."
The Jazz have succeeded by excelling at their own brand of moneyball. In terms of wins per salary dollars spent, probably no team — with the exception of the Spurs — is better than the Jazz.
Since 1985, they have ranked an average of 17th annually in team payroll. By comparison, the two teams that have won more games than the Jazz in the last 30 years — the Lakers and Spurs — average seventh and 15th in the annual payroll rankings, respectively.
The bottom line: The Jazz have had to be better at developing players and prudent in their free-agent and draft spending.
As O'Connor notes, "We've taken some players who have been second-rounders and developed them and made them better than where they were drafted. You have to give our coaches credit."
The Jazz also have maintained consistency by exercising restraint. O'Connor likes to note that when the Jazz went three years without making the playoffs following the exit of Malone and Stockton, nobody was fired; the Jazz stayed the course. There was never a hint that the coaches were in trouble.
Championship or not, the Jazz and their steady, shrewd approach to the game have more than held their own in a league that is driven by superstars and big spending.