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.
Now factor in that Stockton and Malone were drafted one year apart and went on to play side-by-side for 1,412 games, and it stretches the laws of probability to their breaking point.
Unfortunately for Utah, the basketball universe righted itself in time for superior draft bloodlines to prevail in the 1997 and 1998 NBA Finals. The Jazz foils both years were Michael Jordan, Chicago's No. 3 pick of the 1984 draft, and Scottie Pippen; the No. 5 overall pick in 1987 by the Seattle Supersonics who was traded to the Bulls.
There's also no overlooking that the one team more draft-challenged than the Jazz has been the Los Angeles Lakers, who collect NBA titles the way a spoiled 5-year-old collects Zhu Zhu pets. Since 1979-80, the average Lakers' first-round ADP has been 19.8 en route to 10 world titles, including back-to-to back championships this season and last.
The San Antonio Spurs, a team ranking only fractionally behind the Jazz in this analysis, aren't strangers to championship hardware either. Despite a yearly first-round ADP of 18.0 — nearly identical to Utah's — the Spurs have won four championships.
One reason the postseason trajectory of the Jazz has differed so greatly from the Lakers and Spurs is because the latter pair have benefitted tremendously from having two chances apiece to select the draft's overall No. 1 pick.
In 1979, the Lakers' first No. 1 overall pick turned out to be Magic — Magic Johnson, that is. Ironically, that pick came from the New Orleans Jazz as partial compensation for the earlier signing of free agent guard Gail Goodrich. The team's second No. 1, taken three years later, was James Worthy, no slouch himself.
San Antonio's two No. 1s arrived a decade apart and for a time formed the Twin Towers of David Robinson (1987) and Tim Duncan (1997), who brought the Spurs their first championship.
Spurs coach and then-G.M. Gregg Popovich wanted Duncan so badly he was accused by some of tanking games during the 1996-97 season to improve the team's chances of drafting the 7-footer. Adding such an elite player clearly mitigated a string of first-round busts for the Spurs that included Dwayne Schintzius (24th, 1990), Bill Curley (22nd, 1991), Cory Alexander (29th, 1995), Felipe Lopez (24th, 1998) and Leon Smith (29th, 1999).
Weather nirvana, the allure of next-door Hollywood and owner Jerry Buss' deep pockets also give the Lakers a competitive ace when playing the free agent game, or re-signing players acquired by trade.
The Jazz can't compete with that. It's difficult imagining Shaquille O'Neal in his prime signing a long-term deal to play in Utah as he did in Los Angeles. Or finding Salt Lake City on Kobe Bryant's short list of places he'd play when entering the NBA as an underclassman. With limited options, Utah has little choice but to continue chasing after their tail in the draft. To their credit, the team's general manager tree of O'Connor, Layden and Dave Checketts before has proved up to the task.
After drafting Stockton and Malone, the team went on to uncover other legit NBA talents in Dell Curry (No. 15, 1986), Greg Ostertag (No. 28, 1995), Andrei Kirlenko (No 23, 1999) and DeShawn Stevenson (No. 23, 2000) during the later stages of the first round.
But for every draft success, there have been equal or greater first-round disappointments, along with some outright busts: Jose Ortiz (No. 15, 1987), Eric Leckner, (No. 17, 1988), Blue Edwards (No. 21, 1989), Martin Muursepp (No. 25, 1996), Alexander Pavlovic (No. 19, 2003) and Kirk Snyder (No. 16, 2004).
Although fans of the Los Angeles Clippers would no doubt be happy for a similar ratio of successes to failures, because if there's an NBA franchise that's been the anti-Jazz it's the hapless Clippers — a team that's squandered the league's only top-10 ADP (9.4) going back to 1979-80.
The Clippers' draft bounty has included three No. 1s, three No. 2s and a pair each of No. 3s and No. 4s. The team, in return, has barely won one-third of its games and mustered just seven playoff appearances. So perhaps being too good for your own good isn't such a bad dilemma, considering the Clippers' travails and the other lost franchises who wander in the NBA wilderness year after year.
Besides, does anyone really think Utah would have done things differently? Pulled a Popovich? Not with an old-school owner and coach in Larry Miller and Jerry Sloan at the helm.
No, the Jazz faithful need to embrace their team for what it is. Appreciate that they've been watching greatness, just not seeing championships.
Given the challenges of drafting, on average, No. 18 over the years, how have the Jazz been so successful?
"I think a lot has to do with (Jazz general manager Kevin O'Connor), a lot has to do more so with Jerry (Sloan) being able to take the guys that he has and finding their strengths and playing to their strengths and then help them to improve their weaknesses over time. We've been fortunate here because we've had two main guys as long as Jerry and Phil (Johnson). Before it was John (Stockton) and Karl (Malone), and you could always fit some people around them and now it's Carlos (Boozer) and Deron (Williams) and you can fit people around them. ... You find the pieces around your stars, your so-called stars, and we've been fortunate to be able to do that."
—Walt Perrin, Jazz VP of player personnel
This analysis is based on time being the great equalizer — that three decades of first-round selections by each team represent a sufficient sample size to smooth out any year-to-year bumpiness that occasionally comes from teams having multiple first-round draft picks one year and perhaps none the next.
Excluding expansion teams, every franchise has made a least 24 first-round draft selections (Lakers, Wizards) over the time period studied. The Clippers represent the other extreme having chosen 38 times in the opening round since 1979-80. Utah has had 33 first-round picks.
Some trades between teams have been simplified for the purpose of this analysis. For example, the Jazz didn't select Curtis Borchardt with the 18th pick of the opening round of the 2002 draft. The Jazz actually chose Ryan Humphrey with the No. 19 pick and then traded his draft rights and the draft rights to Jamal Sampson (No. 47 overall) to the Orlando Magic for Borchardt's draft rights.
But for analysis purposes Borchardt is considered as if he was a Jazzman from the beginning and there are myriad comparable situations in draft history involving practically every team.