The process of free agent wooing cannot be easy for Utah Jazz GM Kevin O’Connor. I would guess that his work involves no 225-foot murals draped down the skyscrapers of Salt Lake City or iPads stuffed with enticing videos of Karl Malone waxing poetic about his relationship with the organization. No, the Jazz’s biggest haul in the free agent market of recent years involved getting a young star to renege on a verbal promise made to a blind man because Utah had just offered him an unreasonable amount of money (which later turned out to be very reasonable). Utah, as elegant and comely as its scenery may be, simply does not present the ideal stomping grounds for an NBA player; still, the Jazz represent the NBA’s answer to the Atlanta Braves (sans the one ring): a veritable stronghold of consistency and efficiency. Without fail, the team puts itself in position for more, allowing itself the opportunity to succeed, even when overmatched. As redundant and sportswriter-ly it is of me to say it, the Jazz succeeds because it lays a groundwork for and a culture of success. Still, cliche doesn’t field a good team, and O’Connor had his hands full this offseason with the imminent departures of some of his finest players in All-Star-type (and occasional All-Star) Carlos Boozer, the stud youngster who lied to the blind guy (and isn’t so young any longer); sharpshooter and Buffy the Vampire Slayer extra Kyle Korver, who was simply the best shooter in basketball last year; and undrafted rookie Wesley Mathews, who surprised many with his fantastic perimeter defense and surprised all with his fantastically inflated contract from the Portland Trailblazers. Yes, for once, it seemed doom and gloom would finally sully the eerily pure whiteness of the Utah landscape; O’Connor then went to work.
When a team finds itself both struggling to remain relevant while trying to take into consideration financial limitations (such as an owner’s refusal to pay the luxury tax), it usually decides one or the other, as splitting the proverbial baby in half usually ends in more of a mess than choosing one specific goal (and please, please forgive me my puns). The Jazz saw itself in this exact situation at the beginning of the Summer of Bron Bron, staring into the Boozer-less abyss it had feared (and prepared for by resigning the undersized but imposing Paul Millsap) for years while alternately attempting to move under the tax of the luxurious. In a summer where big names could not be kept at home through mere millions and established loyalty, what chance did a market like the Jazz’s have? The team, aware as any of its impending irrelevance that could spur true franchise player Deron Williams into the same kind of trade demands that the LRMR products made, saw what the Raptors and Cavaliers did not this offseason: opportunity in the face of debilitating change. Where Dan Gilbert groaned publicly and Bryan Colangelo scooped up a few second-rounders, O’Connor lost his prize free agent with poise, aggressively grabbing a trade exception worth 13 million dollars. Of course, the rest of the story seemed fated: lunatic GM publicly shops best player of awful team, smart GM smells blood, the Jazz seizes opportunity. The Alaskan kid that had risen to prominence in Salt Lake City vanished like that, off to the big city and contract he had pursued like a fiend for years, and in his stead, there stood a behemoth of a man-child, Al Jefferson, the most underrated haul of the Summer.
As I reiterate a story that seems more predestination than happenstance, I cannot help but stand in awe at what the Utah Jazz were able to do. Rebuilding projects typically take years, testing the patience of the most diehard fanbases and giving inconvenienced stars the opportunity to find fame and fortune elsewhere. O’Conner, weathered genius Jerry Sloan and Jazz ownership would have no parts of such a process, knowing exactly what we all knew: time is short, opportunities for Larry O’Brien trophies scarce. In the midst of a summer that seemed to thumb its nose at the small markets, proving that there was no place in today’s NBA for those teams whose owners weren’t gigantic Russian playboys or smooth-jazz-playing Isiah Thomas fans, the Utah Jazz established itself, as if it had to, as one of the NBA’s premier franchises. It can always find a way to win, even when odds and circumstance are legitimately conspiring to take Utah down. As impressive as the haul of Al Jefferson was, though, exactly how many wins that consistency is good for can still be argued. But that misses the entire point.
The Utah Jazz play in what is currently the roughest division in basketball, even if divisions mean nothing in basketball. During its current era, an array of contenders have emerged as “the new”, and “the new” always seems sexier than the Jazz. The Durants, the Melos, the Roys even‒ these men will all still have their chances against the machine that is Utah this year and certainly into the future. But this chapter was supposed to have been written and closed for Utah at this juncture, one which see the biggest hinderance to the Jazz’s title hopes not in any other team or player, but in making the shiny news toys Jerry Sloan was just given fit into the pegs that all Jazz players must. Because that is what Utah does; it does not adjust, and it certainly won’t fold or break. It forges on, trudging through new paradigms and eras, waiting for its opening. By tipoff of opening day, the flex offense and its components will be in motion, whether Jefferson has learned to play in it or not. The defense will be violent, as it always has been. And the Jazz will win because that is what it knows how to do, regardless of context.
Featuring philosophizing on league-wide issues, ‘On the NBA’ is the new Red94 general NBA column. Recent posts can be accessed via the sidebar. Follow Red94 on Twitter and Facebook for new post updates.