Utah Sports Ruckus: Grading the Jazz's rebuild so far

By Nate Gagon

For the Deseret News

Published: Tuesday, April 22 2014 3:21 p.m. MDT

Butler forward Gordon Hayward addresses the media after being as picked by the Utah Jazz in the NBA basketball draft in New York on Thursday, June 24, 2010. (AP Photo/Craig Ruttle)

Craig Ruttle, AP

SALT LAKE CITY — Now that we know the Jazz are moving on without Tyrone Corbin as head coach, it’s time to look back and see where the franchise has succeeded thus far in its rebuilding process, and where it has fallen short.

At least in part, the Jazz’s rebuilding process began the day Jerry Sloan suddenly decided to retire — Feb. 10, 2011, to be exact. At the time the Jazz were 31-23, despite having lost 10 of 14 games, and were led by franchise cornerstone Deron Williams, along with Paul Millsap, Andrei Kirilenko and first-year Jazzman Al Jefferson.

After Sloan’s resignation, longtime Jazz assistant Tyrone Corbin was named head coach and the Jazz finished the season by going 8-20 under Corbin and missing the playoffs.

After Sloan quit, it was widely reported that a rift between he and Williams had been the primary reason for his sudden retirement. Williams was traded about two weeks later to the New Jersey Nets in exchange for rookie Derrick Favors (the No. 3 overall pick in that year’s draft), Devin Harris and two future first-round draft picks.

Prior to that season, the Jazz used the 9th pick in the draft, a pick they had acquired via a previous trade, to select Gordon Hayward. They also drafted Jeremy Evans in the second round (No. 55 overall).

When the Jazz spent a top-10 pick on Hayward, they likely were hoping he could blossom into a No. 3 or No. 4 option on a championship-contending team by his third or fourth season — a team that the Jazz were probably hoping would include the likes of Williams, Jefferson and Millsap as the top options.

The Jazz didn’t know at the time that Hayward instead would become a key piece in a rebuilding process. Since that is what he did become, we should include the 2010 draft in our evaluation.

2010 NBA draft

On one hand, the Jazz did well in drafting Hayward at the No. 9 spot. On the other hand, they could have had arguably the best player in that year’s draft, Paul George, who went to the Pacers at No. 10. If George hadn’t still been available for the Jazz to take, this grade would be more like a B+. The fact is, however, the No. 1 player in that draft (at least judging after four seasons) was available to the Jazz and they didn’t take him.

A few data points in comparing Hayward and George at this point in their careers:

• Complexsports.com recently (Feb. 24) ranked the 25 best players in the NBA. They had George at No. 3, behind only Kevin Durant and LeBron James.

• This season, George finished 13th in the NBA with player impact estimate of 15.7 (Durant and James were No .1 and No. 2), while Hayward scored an 11.2 (the exact same as Jimmer Fredette, coincidentally), which was the second-best score on the Jazz behind Derrick Favors and just inside the top 100 in the league.

• In John Hollinger’s player efficiency rating, George finished at No. 26 with a rating of 20.16, while Hayward finished tied for the No. 98 spot with a 16.22.

• In Hollinger’s estimated wins added stat, George finished at No. 15 with a score of 13.9, while Hayward finished at No. 46 with an 8.0.

• In do-overs of the 2010 draft I found online, Hayward was selected anywhere from No. 6 to No. 11, while George was most often taken No. 1 and never slipped past No. 2.

The facts would seem to indicate at this point that the Jazz could have landed a top-20 (maybe even top-10 or top-5) NBA player in George but instead got a top-100 (maybe top-50) player in Hayward. Considering that the Jazz, like all pro sports teams, invest heavily to make sure they get their draft picks right, taking Hayward over George looks like a pretty big strike for the franchise.

The Jazz did well in selecting Evans in the second round, as he looks to have established himself as a player worthy of a rotation spot on an NBA roster — something most second-round picks do not accomplish in the NBA. Of all 60 players selected in the 2010 NBA draft that have played at least 2,000 minutes, Evans has the second-best career win shares per 48 minutes at .143, behind only George’s .149.

Grade on 2010 NBA draft: C+ (though still somewhat to be determined)

Trade of Deron Williams

It’s clear the Jazz made the right choice in trading Williams when and how they did. He was never going to lead the Jazz to a championship.

This season, according to Hollinger, Favors at the age of 22 had a PER of 19.01 (No. 44 in the NBA) and an EWA of 9.2. (No. 36). Williams at the age of 29 had a PER of 17.69 (No. 64) and an EWA of 6.9 (No. 65).

So, at least by some measures, it seems Favors is already a more valuable player than Williams, so even if the 2011 trade had just been a straight Williams/Favors swap, it could be considered a positive for the Jazz, especially considering the age and salary differences.

Factor in the two additional first-round picks, which ended up being a No. 3 in 2012 and a No. 27 in 2013, and the Jazz made out like bandits. Perhaps they could have used those picks more wisely, but that’s a different step to evaluate later on.

Grade on Williams trade: A+

Making Tyrone Corbin head coach in 2011

Considering that Sloan’s longtime assistant Phil Johnson decided to quit with him in 2011, the Jazz did the right thing giving Tyrone Corbin the job. Corbin had been watching and learning from Sloan and Johnson for seven years, and was considered a hot up-and-coming coaching prospect.

Looking back now, it’s impossible to know who the Jazz might have appointed midseason instead that would have done a better job long term. Even Jeff Hornacek, a strong candidate for the NBA Coach of the Year award for the unbelievable job he’s done in his first season with the Phoenix Suns, was only a part-time shooting coach for the Jazz at the time. It would have been crazy for the Jazz to promote Hornacek instead of Corbin to head coach in 2011. Interestingly, it was Corbin that made the decision to bring Hornacek on as a full-time assistant coach after he was promoted.

Grade for promoting Corbin: B+

Handling of Corbin after he was named head coach in February 2011

When Corbin was promoted following Sloan’s resignation, the Jazz made it clear they did not view it as merely an interim promotion, but as a long-term hire. They quickly gave Corbin a three-year contract to remain head coach of the franchise.

Owner Greg Miller said at the time: “I am confident that Tyrone is the right man to lead this team into the future. He is someone with longstanding ties to the Jazz and this community, and who has embraced the core philosophies and ideals this organization holds true. I feel that his character and leadership qualities will be true assets to the Jazz moving forward for many years to come.”

General manager Kevin O’Connor said: “He is ready for this job and we feel certain he will excel as a head coach just as he excelled as an assistant coach and as a player.”

Judging by these words of Miller and O’Connor, Corbin’s tenure as the Jazz’s head coach has to be viewed as a disappointment.

Looking back, the mistake the Jazz made was signing Corbin through the 2013-14 season. Jazz management should have had the foresight to recognize that a major rebuilding season was possible in 2013-14 — given the player contracts set to expire before that season — and therefore should have only signed Corbin through 2012-13.

Instead, the Jazz ended up putting their coach and players in an awkward situation and allowed Hornacek, one of the most promising basketball coaches in the world today, to walk out the door to Phoenix.

Who could have known Hornacek would be such a good head coach? Not me. As an outsider I was fully on the Corbin bandwagon. But Jazz management gets paid a lot of money to have such inclinations.

Grade for long-term handling of Corbin: D+

2011 NBA draft

The Jazz, still with O’Connor as general manager, went into the 2011 draft with picks No. 3 and No. 12, which they used to select Enes Kanter and Alec Burks. Despite being the third pick overall, however, Kanter is 19th in most minutes of players from the 2011 draft. Burks is just ahead of him at No. 18 in minutes played. At this point it seems the Jazz are unsure, at best, of what they have in Kanter and Burks.

We’ll never know how the Jazz might have been able to use these draft picks in trades, so all we can really do is look at what other players they could have drafted.

As already mentioned, 17 players from this draft have played more minutes thus far than Kanter or Burks. Players the Jazz could have drafted include: Klay Thompson, Kawhi Leonard, Kenneth Faried, Kemba Walker, Nikola Vucevic, Chandler Parsons, Jimmy Butler, Reggie Jackson and Markieff Morris.

Regardless of whom the Jazz might have picked, it’s doubtful they would have played them enough minutes for us to know whether they’re any better than Kanter or Burks right now.

Grade for 2011 draft: C (though largely still to be determined)

Hiring Dennis Lindsey as general manager in August 2012

As of yet, Lindsey has not had the time to earn the trust or distrust of Jazz fans. That certainly won’t be the case much longer, given the summer the Jazz have ahead of them.

Grade for hiring Lindsey: To be determined

Decision to let Jefferson and Millsap leave for nothing

In February of 2013, the Jazz chose to let the trade deadline pass without making any trades, a puzzling move to many fans and NBA insiders considering the quality of the players and contracts the Jazz had available — Al Jefferson and Paul Millsap being at the top of the list.

Instead, Jefferson and Millsap left the organization as free agents following the season, netting the Jazz nothing in return except cap space.

Dennis Lindsey admitted after the deadline that the Jazz were “very” popular in trade talks but declined to mention any specifics. Without knowing what was on the table for the Jazz in trade offers, it’s impossible to fully evaluate the decision to stand pat.

Having said that, I feel comfortable in saying there must have been a way the Jazz could have pulled at least one decent long-term asset in exchange for Jefferson and Millsap, but they failed to do so.

Grade for 2013 trade deadline: C-

2013 NBA draft

The Jazz made a move to trade up and nab Trey Burke with the 9th pick. Interestingly, there is potential for this draft to end up looking very similar to the 2010 draft for the Jazz — they may have picked up a decent player at No. 9 while passing on the top player in the draft.

There was a lot of positive talk about Burke this season but ultimately I’m not sure the stats justify it. Burke played a lot of minutes (third-most among rookies) and so he put up higher averages per game than most other rookies.

When looking at more advanced stats, however, Burke didn’t fare as well. He was only No. 11 among qualified rookies in PER at a below-average 12.64 and No. 7 in EWA at 1.8.

Meanwhile, Michael Carter-Williams, who Philadelphia took with the No. 11 pick in the draft, had an EWA of 5.5, tops among rookies by a wide margin, and a PER of 15.59.

It looks possible, if not probable, that the Jazz could have another Hayward vs. George situation on their hands with Burke and Carter-Williams. In addition to the stats, it’s worth nothing that Carter-Williams is a good six inches taller than Burke. Many in the NBA believe size is ultimately a big deal.

Mostly, of course, this grade is still to be determined. But for now:

Grade for 2013 draft: B (though largely still to be determined)

Progress made in the 2013-14 season

In a Nov. 14, 2013, column for the Deseret News (nine games into the season) I wrote:

“It will take great coaching and management to keep the Jazz’s young core from beginning to doubt themselves and each other. … Whether Tyrone Corbin is the man to get this young team where it needs to be in the months to come remains to be seen. The Jazz chose not to give Corbin a long-term contract; owner Greg Miller said he did not want the coach to feel too comfortable. … Jazz management have openly admitted they expected the team to struggle this year, but they promised a focus on establishing a tough defensive identity. If what the Jazz have played to start the season is tough defense, somebody get Zach Galifianakis and Ken Jeong on the roster, because at least that would be entertaining.”

There we find two objectives of the 2013-14 season for the Jazz:

1. Keep the players from doubting themselves and each other (Grade: C-)

2. Establish a tough defensive identity (Grade: F)

About a month later, with the Jazz at 6-21, I wrote another column: “For the Jazz, it’s all about 2016-17,” talking about what the Jazz needed to accomplish this season for the future. Some pertinent excerpts:

“This season for the Jazz is not about winning games. … The purpose is for the Jazz to do everything they possibly can to set themselves up for future playoff runs and serious contention. The target is the 2016-17 season. Coach Tyrone Corbin has 240 minutes to give out per game. These minutes should be divided up with an eye toward the 2016-17 season.

“The single biggest threat to the Jazz’s rebuilding plan is team management. The Jazz must make certain they do not get in their own way. The front office and coaches must be on the same page. Dennis Lindsey, the team’s general manager, has to ensure that the coaches realize and appreciate that every minute given to players that are not likely to be major contributors for the Jazz three seasons from now is essentially a minute gone to waste.

“The fact that the Jazz sent Gobert to the D-League is proof that fans could have legitimate reasons to worry about the Jazz getting in their own way. … If the Jazz’s purpose this season has nothing to do with making the playoffs then it has everything to do with player development. Players develop by getting on the court in meaningful situations and learning the difference between doing things right and doing things wrong.

“The Jazz make a mistake and get in their own way every time their coach worries about matchups with the other team this season or pulls a young player for making mistakes. The only long-term thing that makes sense for the Jazz is to give Favors, Burke, Hayward, Kanter and Burks 36 minutes per game. Gobert and Evans should get between 15-20 minutes per game. The other 20-30 minutes per game? Who cares?”

After the season, Kanter stated plainly that he should have played more and that the young players should have played more together.

I agree. Gobert and Evans are included in that as well.

Other objectives noted for the 2013-14 season:

1. Minutes should be divided up with an eye toward the 2016-17 season. (Grade: C-)

2. The front office and coaches must be on the same page. (Grade: D+)

3. The Jazz make a mistake and get in their own way every time their coach worries about matchups with the other team or pulls a young player for making mistakes. (Grade: D)

Overall grade for the Jazz’s progress in the 2013-14 season: D

Rebuilding process thus far

By far the best accomplishment of the Jazz’s rebuild so far was the trade of Williams. Overall, their drafting acumen from 2010 forward would appear to be decent, but certainly not without question marks.

I would say the same thing about the rebuilding process as a whole to this point — decent but certainly not without question marks. The good news is that the Jazz have not backed themselves into a corner — they have a lot of flexibility in terms of assets and cap space and could go many different directions from here.

Rebuilding grade going into the summer of 2014: C

Intrigue going forward: A+

Nate Gagon is a published sports, music, and creative writer. He is also a wholehearted father, grateful husband and ardent student of life. He shoots roughly 94% from the free throw line and can be reached at: nategagon@hotmail.com or @nategagon.

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