Championship teams and the Utah Jazz

by @JazzHoops

Man, it’s been a long time since I’ve been on the blog-o-sphere. Ever since the disaster that was Jazzbots, I’ve had a bit of an itch to return to the keyboard and give my take. It’s good to be back.

Been thinking a lot about the anatomy of a championship team and how they’re built, and comparing that to the composition of the Jazz. And I’ve found a common thread amongst some of the top-tier teams that is pretty consistently found amongst all championship-caliber teams. With this premise, I’m ignoring the Miami Heat. Yes, they are a championship team. No, the way they were put together isn’t the norm, nor possible with the Utah Jazz, frankly. Let’s look at truly built teams. I’m going to use the San Antonio Spurs, the Oklahoma City Thunder (on the cusp), and the Boston Celtics.

Common Thread 1 – An all-star caliber draft pick. Tim Duncan, Kevin Durant, and Paul Pierce is who you are all thinking, right? While that’s true, what’s often forgotten is these teams have struck gold not once, but twice. I’m thinking Tony Parker, Russell Westbrook (and how about Serge Ibaka?), and Rajon Rondo. Does it matter how a team acquires a star? Absolutely yes. Why? Because you have a potential max-caliber player playing at rookie level salaries allowing for a higher level of performance from a position without compromising the teams’ cap space. The hope is that the player can perform at that high of a level, while the team as a whole is at its peak. For the team to be at its peak, the other common threads must be aligned as well, which leads us to:

Common Thread 2 – A complimentary all-star capable player. A championship teams needs not one but two guys who could reasonably be added to an all-star team, if not is ON the team. Pairing the two players from my previous example, and there you have it. This is common not just in the built teams from the ground up, but in teams that have been thrown together like the Miami Heat (Wade/James), the Detroit Pistons (Hamilton/Billups), the Bulls of old (Jordan/Pippen), etc. I’m going to put this in bold: You are fooling yourself if you believe your team can win an NBA championship without two star players at minimum.

Common Thread 3 – Refinement via trade. Each of these teams have gotten themselves over the top via trade. You often just need that last piece of the puzzle, as the Jazz attempted over a decade ago when they brought in Hornacek. Boston brought in Garnett and that was the missing piece with an emerging Rondo paired with a star in Paul Pierce. Throw in Ray Allen and they were not just a contender but immediately favorites. Oklahoma City, while having not yet won a championship, has refined their team via trade. It was a bit puzzling at the time to let go of a talent like Jeff Green, but they realized they were a finesse team attempting to lock horns with the elite teams that featured big physical presences down low. The Thunder was not lacking in scoring ability with Harden (at the time), Westbrook, and Durant. They were lacking in physicality, rebounding, etc. The Spurs have always been a franchise that enjoys looking outside of the league for “refining” help. Oberto, more recently Splitter, etc have been nice pieces for them back in their championship runs with Oberto, and more recently with Splitter. Recall how Detroit was always a good team, but never a TRUE championship threat…until they brought in Rasheed Wallace.

Which brings us back to the Utah Jazz. The debate wages on as to how good Enes Kanter and Derek Favors can be. The common consensus is that there are no All Star caliber players on the Utah Jazz. Potential all stars? Yes. But not current, which does not align with the aforementioned championship formula, requiring in general a drafted player to be a future potential max-contract player to be a major contributor on a peaking team. So for arguments sake, let’s say between the combination of those two players, you may have at most your complimentary star player. But then, you ask, what about Gordon Hayward? Couldn’t he be that? Therein lies the difficulty with the Utah Jazz. The Jazz have a lot of players who could be “the guy”. Favors, Kanter, Hayward, some would argue Burks. We watch these guys play and on a rotating basis one of them has a night that makes you think they could be that complimentary guy. Look at how well Enes Kanter played at home against Charlotte. The very last game of last season where the Jazz lost to the Spurs, David Locke said on the radio broadcast that that game would be the last game Derek Favors would ever come off the bench in the NBA. We’ve seen Gordon have great games, etc. But how often does a long term project player blossom to become one of the two key players on a championship team? How many project players can a team afford to have on its roster? The Jazz have several.

That takes us to our third common thread, which is refinement via trade. I would argue this is not possible until the first two conditions are met. When they are not, as is the case with the Jazz, it is just simply a trade to see if it improves the capability of a team to make the playoffs. The Jazz added Marvin Williams and subtracted Devin Harris. This wasn’t going to take us to the promised land. It was an attempt to improve the team depth towards making the playoffs. The team added Randy Foye via Free Agency. Same deal.

So with a pending summer coming off a probable first round exit at best for our Jazz, what’s the best play for the Jazz front office? Well, if you look at the formula, would it be leveraging assets to improve position in the draft? Is there THAT player in this current draft class? Is it looking to make a big trade? Moving what is commonly viewed as “Key” component players to better position ourselves with a star or complimentary star player and taking on their salary? The Jazz probably need to address both. Having a late “teens” draft pick very, very rarely results in a player capable of becoming a potential max player. Further, we know how free agency has treated the Jazz historically, which is why I’ve essentially left that avenue out of the equation. The Jazz need to focus, not so much on particular positional needs, but composition needs of a championship-caliber team. If the best overall player in the NBA draft plays the same position as Derek Favors, so be it. If the best player to trade for would steal minutes from Gordon Hayward, or Enes Kanter, so be it.

The best teams in the NBA look similar in the mirror. The Jazz need to look at themselves there first and make some changes.