Over the course of the next 48 hours, we'll see a plethora of tributes and retrospectives on the history of Utah Jazz coach Jerry Sloan's career. It is all fair and good and warranted; he existed in a way that is practically impossible for professional coaches to in this day and age. Some things are all about the game, and other things are about The Game. Don't force the perspective; appreciate each for what it is.
In the shadow of Sloan's departure though leaves a very interesting situation that still requires resolution - namely, the rest of the NBA season. The Jazz are now without a man that carried over 1200 regular season wins and almost 100 playoff wins. Since the Jazz are currently chasing the Thunder in the Northwest Division, it is appropriate to consider how this change in headship is going to effect the division from here on out.
It probably goes without saying that it is difficult to come up with an appropriate comparison to Sloan's departure, given that the next longest-tenured coach is the Spurs' Gregg Popovich, who is currently running on 14 years and counting. Rather than look at tenure then, it may be more useful to consider the coach's personal stamp on an organization. Using literally no scientific method at all, I've come up with a few other coaches whom shaped a franchise to their liking and then left. Hopefully we can find some clues for what is going to happen to the remainder of the Jazz season.
Larry Brown - The diminutive Brown has had a mercurial coaching career that has been as much about his wandering eye as it has been for his high coaching acumen.
Of the three coaches here, Brown is the best at combining both team synergy amidst various pieces and in-game coaching excellence. He is the coach of the underdog, and in his various stops around the NBA, there was almost always an immediate spike in team performance. His three highlights in my mind were taking a LA Clippers and Charlotte Bobcats team to the playoffs, and also ultimately winning the championship trophy with the 2004 Detroit Pistons team that toppled the Shaq-Kobe dynasty. Unfortunately, he could never stay satisfied, so after his various conquests Brown always would leave shortly thereafter. He didn't leave teams in a mess necessarily, but he also didn't set them up for long term success, either. In fact, he would frequently undermine his own efforts by flirting with other teams while still coaching his own. He is in a way the scorpion and his team the frog. He will always coach a team to be better than it has ever been before, and he will always leave them heartbroken. It is his nature. Unfortunately for the teams like the Pistons, this meant that the story, which could have been a really good one (resurrected team takes on the Western Conference powers!) was really over before it even began.
Phil Jackson - If you're somewhat new to the NBA game, you may have missed the earliest iteration of Phil Jackson's success as the conductor of the Michael Jordan freight train. It was then that Jackson earned the unofficial title of "Zen Master," particularly in the way he has been able to blend antagonistic personalities together. The easiest example of this has been Michael Jordan and Kobe Bryant with, well, anybody. He also had success in getting the most out of alpha-dog Shaquille O'Neal, second banana Scottie Pippen, oddball Dennis Rodman, candyman Lamar Odom, and a host of spare parts that always seem to be in the right place at the right time. To hear Jackson tell it, he was forced out as the Bulls coach to be replaced by the infamous Tim "Pink" Floyd, which set the Bulls on a road to a 10 year disaster. In his first stint with the Lakers, Jackson won another three rings with Shaq and Kobe. Jackson also saw Kobe push Shaq out the door, self-destruct, force Phil into one year of retirement, and then come back at Kobe's behest. Jackson moves with an air of a guy who is always slightly bemused at the tragicomedy that is the star basketball player, and whenever he has left a team, the egos which he kept floating in the stratosphere quickly found their free-falling terminal velocity. Even so, the man wins rings. Lots of them. His presence on the landscape means that the rest of the league's chances are diminished.
Pat Riley - The godfather himself, Riley has presided over three different franchises that have made the NBA finals (Lakers, Knicks, Heat), winning it all with two of them. If Larry Brown did his magic with his perspective on "playing the right way" and Jackson did his with ethereal synergies, Riley put his stamp on his teams through sheer force of will and personality. His personality was hidden somewhat while he led the megawatt Lakers to multiple championships in the 80's, but fully manifested itself when he took over the Knicks a few years later.
After Riley left the Lakers in 1990, the team was taken over by Mike Dunleavy, who set off a string of mediocrity in Tinseltown. Perhaps Riley knew that the sun was setting in LA, since Kareem had retired, Magic Johnson announced he had HIV, and the Pistons had closed out the 80's with a championship upset. Regardless, after flirting with success in 1991, only to be pistol-whipped by the ascendancy of Michael Jordan in the Finals, the Lakers descended into an embarassing cycle of basketball that was not altered until Shaq, Kobe, and Phil Jackson arrived. Riley's Knicks tenure didn't fall from the same heights (Jeff Van Gundy took them to the Finals during the lockout-shortened 1998 season), but they never won a championship either. They were also guilty of bringing forth a period of completely unwatchable basketball, so any success he had while coaching in NY should be mitigated by the abominable style by which he did it.
Riley's final stop has been with the Miami Heat, where he probably still smirks at the tread marks he left on Stan Van Gundy's ill-fitting suit as Riley took over the team mid-stroke to win the championship in 2006. The team, featuring Dwyane Wade, Shaq, and spare parts, completely took on Riley's personality during that run (and one might say, so did the referees as well ;-). However, despite the attitude makeover, the team quickly fell apart afterward as Shaq was traded, a banged-up Wade got little help, and the team seemed destined for a string of 42 win seasons until LeBron James showed up.
Of thee three coaches here, Riley seems to have been the best at leaving a lasting imprint on his franchise that carried forward to the future regimes, mostly because his imprint was more about his will and personality than any specific coaching gimmick. Brown offered the skill of an engineer for his team, but once he left, so did the skill. Jackson brought calm in the storm, but as we know, the eye of the storm would move with him. Only Riley seems to understand how to establish a long-term disposition for his team that can be carried past his own personal performance.
Which brings us of course back to Jerry Sloan. Where does he fit into the historical coaching rubric? I think that, of the three coaches I described, he probably is somewhere in between Pat Riley and Larry Brown. He possessed high coaching acumen and an exacting personality, but he also lacked the in-game coaching genius of Brown and the talent that has always surrounded Riley. The talent aspect is probably what concerns me the most for Utah's future. The team is small market and has always struggled to attract top caliber talent. The franchise's historical mainstays - Karl Malone, John Stockton, and now Deron Williams, were all drafted by the team and eventually convinced to stay. I imagine that what convinced them was the discovery of a common bond between their innate basketball natures. The formula works.
Perhaps Sloan's greatest attribute was also his greatest deficiency - he had a steadfast belief that his system could always work, regardless of the components. To a large degree, he was correct. The problem was, he has often had to utilize Smartcar engines while his competitors often have the chance to upgrade to something a bit heftier. Ironically, one of Sloan's hobbies is restoring tractors, so he innately knows the importance of the right part for the optimal performance. And yet, it is sometimes the limits of the engineer to see beyond and outside of his paradigm to re-imagine his own work. In Sloan's mind, just like Brown's, there is "a right way" to play and none other. He had to have the right pieces to make his machine work, rather than take the approach that Jackson or Riley took, which was to take the best pieces available and then imagine and build the best new kind of machine possible.
For a player, when you operate within that mindset that has enveloped an entire franchise for close to a quarter century, it is going to be difficult to change. I don't think Deron Williams "pushed" Sloan out the door. The very idea is nonsense. There is no doubt in my mind that, if the decision were Sloan or Williams and Sloan wanted to stay, Williams would be running a pick and roll somewhere else. Williams may feel like his game can breathe easier now, and I would not be surprised if we see a quick bump in the team's energy and performance. He is going to want to prove that the team's excellence is as much about him as anything else. That isn't egocentric at all; that is the air of a point guard who knows how to make the machine accelerate. However, (if I may stretch this metaphor even impossibly further) Williams is only the driver. He isn't the builder. He doesn't know what Sloan knows, and now that body of knowledge is gone.
As I have written this post, I have been searching for an analogy to help it make sense. The best I can think of at this point is that the Jazz have been a team much like the Tony Dungy-led Indianapolis Colts. Dungy led those teams in
a similar fashion, emphasizing precision, accountability, and hard work over all other things. He also brought along with him the cache of being one of the most successful and pioneering black head coaches in the NFL and a successful rebuilding of the historically moribund Tampa Bay Bucs. Dungy eventually topped the mountain, but when his coaching career was said and done, I think there has been a lingering feeling that, for all the talent he had, he only won a single ring. He and his team never saw fit to deviate from what they believed and were convinced was the best way to do something, which is why the Colts could never operate on the same improvisational scale as a team like the Steelers, for example.
When Dungy left, he put the team's reins in the hands of his trusted assistant, Jim Caldwell. Caldwell had the same parts, a similar way of doing things, and the same expectations. And yet, the team, even reaching the Superbowl a year ago, appears to be missing something. It still lacks improvisational ability, and now that is compounded by the fact that it is missing Dungy's decades of experience as well. I don't think the team will find itself again until it is willing to lose itself.
Likewise, the Jazz players may feel like it's a new day; perhaps it is. They are free of the heavy hand of the disciplinarian pater familias. But it is not a new season or a new franchise. The Jazz will falter because they have not escaped their ceiling that was established at the beginning of the year, and now they have lost their foundation. Limited upside, unlimited downside. That sounds like a risky proposition to me, one rife with risk for collapse that will open up the division for others.
But then again, I'm a Thunder fan.
Jack McCallum: How's your team?
Sloan: We're terrible.
McCallum: Maybe it's you. Maybe you can't coach.
Sloan: Hell, everybody knows that.