A different tune for Jazz in 2009-10?
Already trailing the league's elite, Utah faces an offseason full of important decisions
Monday night, the Utah Jazz can be eliminated, a term that sounds unusually potent for this team at this time, when it feels as if not just a season but an identity could come to an end.
In February, Larry Miller, the team's owner since 1985, died of complications from diabetes. This past weekend, play-by-play announcer Hot Rod Hundley, the voice of the Jazz since their conception in New Orleans 35 years ago, said he is retiring. Power forward Carlos Boozer can become a free agent this summer. And this could even be the year coach Jerry Sloan leaves.
Sloan, who is in his 21st season coaching the Jazz, says he'll go through his standard procedure of meeting with the Jazz's top brass at the end of the season and deciding what should happen next, although the process could be delayed this year because he needs knee-replacement surgery. This is the first time the discussions won't involve Miller, whom Sloan has always credited for his longevity in a profession in which coaches who have won the championships that have eluded Sloan don't enjoy his job security. Miller's son Greg now runs the team.
Jazz staffers affectionately say Sloan is as "crusty" as ever and still enjoys the challenge of trying to get the best out of a team. But if Sloan returns, he'll have to make all those road trips without his buddy Hundley, a friend dating back to the 1960s, which would make another season of the grind sound less appealing.
"I hate to see Hot Rod leaving," said Sloan, even though he also joked that Hundley never picked up the tab.
On the court, Sloan faces the prospect of going without an All-Star power forward if Boozer opts out of the final year of his contract. The Jazz also have to worry about losing free agent Paul Millsap. Even offering Millsap a substantial raise from his current $800,000 salary could be cheaper than keeping Boozer, who made $11.6 million this season.
Center Mehmet Okur and shooting guard Kyle Korver can opt out of their contracts, as well. However, even if all three were to leave, the Jazz still wouldn't have a significant amount of room under the salary cap this summer.
Their biggest albatross is Andrei Kirilenko, the slender forward who is the highest-paid player on the roster and has two years (at $16.5 million and $17.8 million) remaining on his contract. At this point, the best hope for him is that he become a different type of bird, something like Denver's Chris Andersen, and turns into a shot-blocking, rebounding, energy guy.
The drawback to winning as consistently as Sloan has is it didn't offer the Jazz a lot of high lottery picks. Deron Williams, the third pick in the 2005 draft, is the only top-10 draft pick on the roster. Williams is one of the top point guards in the league, but Utah's loss in Game 2 despite his 35 points and nine assists showed that he isn't enough.
The Jazz need a center who can give them a defensive interior presence (and some post-up moves would be a bonus), plus backup help for Williams.
Utah has regressed over the past three seasons, losing in the conference finals in 2007, in the second round last season and now facing a first-round exit with a 3-1 deficit to the Los Angeles Lakers. Much of the slippage this season can be attributed to injuries; Williams, Boozer and Okur were in the starting lineup together only 24 times, preventing a team some saw as a dark horse to emerge from the Western Conference from ever gaining traction.
Even intact, the roster isn't a powerhouse like the Lakers or loaded with potential like the Portland Trail Blazers. As long as the Jazz have Williams, they'll be too good to have the best shot at the top draft picks, but unless they upgrade they won't be a threat to the top teams.
Every year when the season is finished, Sloan makes the 1,500-mile drive back to his farmland in Illinois. (The year Michael Jordan freeze-framed that shot to beat the Jazz in the Finals, Sloan did it in 26 caffeine-fueled hours.) One of these years, he'll get to the farm and stay there.
Decision time for Sloan and the Jazz is coming, just as soon as the Lakers put them out to pasture.