The Utah Jazz are slumping.
After flying to a 12-5 start, the Jazz simply hit a wall in December, going a miserable 5-11 to close out 2007 with just a 17-16 record and falling into third place in the Northwest Division. Perhaps the best evidence of this team's troubles is that for the first time in recent memory, the unthinkable is finally being voiced, this time by faithful reader "cordobes," who writes in the following:
By the way, every time I watch this team, a thought comes to my mind: Sloan's style of play may well not be the best fit for this team. Wouldn't Williams and Boozer, after all the two legit superstar players in Utah, benefit from a run-and-gun, small ball style? Is it time for Jerry to leave, for the sake of that team? (I know it isn't happening, unless he wants to leave, but it's an issue i'd enjoy to see adrdessed.)
Whether or not you agree, cordobes isn't alone in his concern. There have been some vague rumblings over the past couple of seasons that the style of play needed to win with this Utah team simply isn't compatible with Sloan.
That said, I'm having none of it.
How this team needs to play remains up for debate. Perhaps because of their youth and athleticism, the Jazz should look to run, which isn't known to be Sloan's specialty. Perhaps Deron Williams and Carlos Boozer can become the nucleus of a great half-court pick-and-roll based offense that will call to mind images of the Jazz of a decade ago. Both are versatile players, and the answers to the basketball philosophy questions with this team will be determined by the moves made around Williams and Booze in the times to come and the match-ups facing the Jazz.
What is certain is this: Jerry Sloan is a coach in the truest sense of the word. He isn't just a shepherd of talent. He is an educator, a teacher of the game of basketball. Beyond the fact that he has had just three losing campaigns in 22 seasons, the greater evidence of his work as a teacher is that Sloan managed to lead the Jazz through the transition out of the Stockton-Malone era with just one losing season in the time around their departures. As reader "Who" pointed out yesterday, Sloan pushed Deron Williams from averaging 10.8 points and 4.5 assists per game in his rookie season to 16.2 and 9.3 a year later as he guided Williams to becoming a playoff force. Sloan has spent the last few seasons nurturing the likes of Carlos Boozer, Andrei Kirilenko and Mehmet Okur, and over the past season and change, that work has finally begun to pay off. He took a very talented but inconsistent team last season and helped turn them into a force come springtime, as he let them use their athleticism to run and gun their way past the Warriors and to tire the Rockets out before them.
Jerry Sloan is an old-school disciplinarian, and when it comes to behavior and the issue of how his players conduct themselves, he can be one tough, inflexible dude. But he is also both student and teacher of the game of basketball, and for the man with the .600 career winning percentage and two failed Finals appearances, nothing matters more than winning. It will take many more bad months to make me believe that anyone else should be at the helm of this Utah basketball team.