SALT LAKE CITY — So that's it, roll the credits — or burn the evidence. The season that passed as painfully as a kidney stone finally ends tonight.
It seems like years since the Jazz were good, yet it was only December when optimism reigned. Now as they await their season-ending game tonight against Denver, you have to wonder: What did we just witness?
The Jazz have 43 losses, the most since 2004-05. Before that, you'd have to go back to 1982-83, when the team was so insolvent it traded Dominique Wilkins for two players and cash. But even that year the Jazz won five of their last nine. This team has lost 21 of its last 28 games and 10 of the last 12.
Truthfully, it's about time this happened. The Jazz have been pro basketball's steadiest franchise for nearly three decades. This was only the second time in 28 seasons they have finished with a losing record. Even the lordly Los Angeles Lakers dipped below .500 three times in that span. The Boston Celtics had 10 losing seasons, including five in a row. San Antonio has had seven losing seasons and Chicago 11.
The Jazz collapse this year wasn't as surprising as it was inevitable. Like waiting for prices to rise, you know it's coming. It's only a matter of when and how hard it hits.
Free from worrying whether Carlos Boozer would miss half the season with an injury, the Jazz launched nicely into 2010-11. Newly acquired Al Jefferson raved about joining a perennial playoff team. Though they lost their first two games, they followed with 15 wins in their next 18 attempts.
But it wasn't merely what they did that defined the season; it was how. They were the league's comeback experts, rallying from 10-point deficits eight times and 15-point deficits seven times. Still, it was a murky, jittery place.
Nobody dances in the dark forever.
All went well until mid-January when the team nose-dived, losing six straight, including defeats against lightweights Washington and New Jersey. Deron Williams admitted he wasn't in favor of all Jerry Sloan's decisions, but allowed that the Hall of Fame coach wasn't going to change. Even more than usual, his responses to media questions were becoming flat and disinterested. At one point he accused teammates of not knowing the plays.
None of it seemed terribly worrisome at the time; just the observations of a chronically moody point guard. Instead, it was a harbinger.
The matter culminated the night of Feb. 9 against Chicago. A halftime argument between Sloan and Williams led to Sloan's resignation the next day. Williams was traded two weeks later.
The NBA's most stable franchise was reeling.
The Jazz might yet have gone on to make the playoffs, but injuries continued. Mehmet Okur was out for the year. Raja Bell's foot, Kyrylo Fesenko's thumb, Devin Harris' hamstring, Andre Kirilenko's back, ankles and knee, Ronnie Price's toe and Paul Millsap's hip all conspired. Although the Jazz have lost 164 games to injury or illness, they've had worse years (six, actually). But seldom have they had such widespread issues, affecting virtually every player.
The team never knew who would be available. It might have been simpler to announce the healthy players, rather than an injured list. Last week against San Antonio, they had only eight players dress. The Jazz have had just seven games all season with a full roster.
Constant lineup adjustments, the new coaching staff and the trade combined to derail playoff hopes.
"When you look at it from the standpoint of how much this franchise was used to having the same guys all the time for so many years, and then you have the coaching change, and you have a trade and all these injuries — it's just one thing after another," said Jazz coach Ty Corbin. "They all came together at one time. Hopefully we can get past it and get back to the regular norm we're used to having around here."
Said Jefferson: "It's definitely been a roller coaster."
But unlike the other years, this time the roller coaster entirely skipped the track, arching aimlessly into space.
As time passes, it becomes clearer that Williams' problems with Sloan ran deeper than many knew. He hinted about leaving if the Jazz didn't surround him with enough talent, and reportedly waved off plays. A sense of unease had settled in. At first it seemed to just be the frustration of losing. Later it became public that the squabbles with Sloan were fairly frequent.
Meanwhile, Sloan's gaze had become worn and raw.
He annually considered retirement, but always concluded he had nothing better to do while his Illinois fields lay dormant.
Sloan actually mellowed over the years, hoping to accommodate the prickly Williams. He seldom chafed at minor details the way he used to and was often complimentary of his team's effort, even after a loss. But in the end, the one thing that would make him quit mid-season occurred: His best player (if not others) was unwilling to buy into his system and philosophy. It was always his way or the highway in that regard. So he quit on a winter morning, leaving the Jazz out in the cold, literally and figuratively.
On the bright side, the Jazz have a young, athletic, enthusiastic base of players. (Witness recent wins over L.A. and New Orleans.) But the certainty the Jazz enjoyed for nearly three decades has vanished.
"It will be a fresh turning point with the coach, and we can start with the beginning," Jefferson said. "I'm really looking forward to it. That's kind of the upside. You're not going into the off-season thinking it's going to be like it was this year."
A year that, in the big picture, had probably been looming for a very long time.
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