The term, end of an era gets thrown around a lot in professional sports. Sometimes it’s wholly underserved, for instance, the end of the Vince Carter era in Orlando. Sometimes it’s a bit of gray area. The same trade that ended VC’s Magic run ended the Gilbert Arenas era in the nation’s capital. Agent Zero left a mark on that team and that franchise, thus his time could be rightfully called an era. There will be no discussion as to whether or not an era ended today in Salt Lake City.
As we all know, after 23 years running the show, Jazz head coach Jerry Sloan has turned in his whistle. Sloan leaves a team with a record of 31-23 that started out promising but has hit a bit of a rough patch, dropping 10 of their last 14, including six in a row. As of January 14th, the Jazz have not won back-to-back games, and have fallen well short of the expectations they set in the first half of the season.
Sloan steps down amid wild speculation that the team’s All-Star and franchise player Deron Williams laid out the classic ultimatum that either Sloan was shown the door or he was going to walk after next season as a free agent. It’s not my place to speculate as to the relationship between D Will and Sloan, those with better access, and more intimate knowledge of the situation can, and will do that. What I want to talk about for a moment is what this sea change in leadership means for the Blazers, and in a broader sense for the NBA.
As far as Portland is concerned, the coaching change in Utah could mean a great deal. Currently Utah holds a two game lead on the Blazers for the second spot in the Northwest division. Although its unlikely that Portland will be able to catch Oklahoma City, leading the division with a record of 33-18, Utah immediately becomes a legitimate target. Throw in the never ending Carmelo drama in Denver, and the Blazers jumping to second in their division doesn’t seem like such a stretch.
Now it’s not a given that Utah implodes under their new coach Tyrone Corbin. Corbin is a new coach in name only; he’s been a staple of the Jazz bench since the 2004-05 season. But in the short term Utah is certainly at risk of coming apart. If players start to bail on the new system, or management decides to blow it up, Utah is holding a valuable piece in Andrei Kirilenko’s expiring contract, things could go from bad to worse in no time.
The Blazers have played the Jazz three times so far this season, winning and losing at home and winning on the road, and have one more trip to SLC before its all over. That game isn’t until April 7th, the 79th game of the season, and by then Utah should be well sorted out as to how the loss of their coach affected their play. For the time being, the Blazers can rest assured that through all of their struggles this season, there is at least one team in their division that had it worse.
So that’s the short-term impact. Taking a long view, Sloan stepping down may or may not have a huge impact on the Northwest division and the league as a whole. For the division, if Corbin can’t keep the Jazz relevant, and Carmelo leaves Denver, the Northwest goes from one of the best division in the NBA to one of the worst. In 2009-10 four teams from the Northwest division made the playoffs: Portland, Denver, OKC, and Utah. There is a fair chance that at least one of those teams won’t be on that list this year. It’s good for Portland if the competition is weak as far as their record is concerned, but a watered down division makes the Blazers vulnerable against better teams.
The impact for the league is somewhat different. If Deron Williams really did run Sloan out of Utah, it clearly shows who has the power in the NBA. We all know that nine times out of ten it’s the players that call the shots, just ask Mike Brown. But the LeBron James situation is a little different. James is the best player in basketball, the center of a franchise that otherwise is no good, and although Brown lead the Cavs to back-to-back 60-win seasons, winning the Coach of the Year in the process, there was always a truck load of talk that it was mostly LeBron. Williams is an All-Star, but Sloan is an institution. Very few people my age can even remember the NBA before Jerry Sloan became head coach of the Jazz. That kind of history should trump a dissatisfied star.
I’m not saying that from this day forward superstar players are going to force their coaches into retirement, but there is a possibility that in the future good coaches might be leery of taking head coaching positions, knowing that one or two protracted disagreements could mean the end of their job. The NBA is definitely a player’s league, but player’s coaches have a history of not being able to deliver. One reason there is likely to be a lockout next season is that the owners believe the players have too much power, and they’d like to get that power back. The Sloan incident is an unfortunate manifestation of this belief, and does the players no favors.
I’m spent my whole life as a Blazer fan, meaning that one of my least favorite teams of all time is the Utah Jazz. That being said, I have a lot of respect for that franchise, its teams, and it’s fans. Who knows what will happen Friday night when the Jazz take the court without Jerry Sloan at the helm for the first time in almost a quarter century. What’s clear is that this is not only the end of an era for Utah; it’s the end of an era for the NBA.
Check out Purple and Blues for their reaction to Jerry Sloan’s resignation.