Jerry Sloan will be missed.
For 30 years, Sloan has been a fixture on NBA sidelines, running his system and piling up wins. And that's nothing to say about the 11 years he spent before that on the court himself, a shooting guard with a reputation as one of the game's best defenders and fiercest competitors. He's been a part of the league for so long we just took it for granted that he was there. The sun rises, the seasons change, Jerry Sloan coaches.
It really is the end of an era, and what an era it's been. The NBA hasn't been without Jerry Sloan since 1964. I have nothing but respect and admiration for the man, and am sorry to see him leave.
Especially under these circumstances.
Deron Williams has dug himself into a 500 foot hole.
Sloan and Williams have never had an easy relationship. By all reports, "tolerated" would be the best word to describe how they got along. Make no mistake, Sloan is a demanding coach. He has a system. He has a vision. You execute the system and stick to the vision, or you don't play.
Williams himself found that out rather abruptly his rookie year, when he found himself in a point guard timeshare with Milt Palacio and Keith McLeod because Sloan rather severely limited his minutes. Sloan didn't think he put in enough prep work. Sloan didn't think he understood the playbook well enough. Sloan didn't think he played with enough toughness, or was focused 100% of the time. In short, Sloan made Williams earn it.
And we're not talking about a rookie coach, here. When Williams first stepped onto an NBA court, Sloan already had 25 years of coaching to his name. He began coaching before Williams was born; he knew, as he always has known, what he was doing.
That's why this is a bit saddening to me.
It's no secret that Williams has been less-than-happy with the Jazz the last couple of years. He's made repeated comments about how he feels the system is outdated, how the talent level has peaked, and how frustrated he is that the Jazz never change either of them for what he feels would be the better. If you're looking for a proximal cause for why Sloan is gone, look no further than #8.
Did Williams go to Jazz GM Kevin O'Connor and demand Sloan be outed? Highly doubtful. Did he have a big hand in why Sloan left? I would say, absolutely.
As our sister blog, The SLC Dunk so succinctly put it, we'll probably never know exactly what happened last night that sparked this firestorm. But that doesn't mean we can't make some educated guesses.
More than any other player or position, the point guard is the extension of the coach. The coach makes the plays and decides when to use them, the point guard's job is to execute. For years, Williams has been at odds with Sloan over...well, just about everything. Playcalling, substitution patterns, practice schedules, film room study. Everything. This year has been especially trying, with Williams particularly unhappy with how long it's taking Al Jefferson and rookie Gordon Hayward to pick up the playcalling. And all this reportedly came to a head last night, resulting in a major blowup in the locker room and a closed-door meeting between Sloan and O'Connor. Which resulted in Sloan resigning.
And I'm certainly not saying that a coach never makes mistakes. I'm not saying the coach always signs the right player, makes the right substitutions, or calls the right play. We can see from our own head coach that that clearly isn't true, and we'll get to that in a minute. But let's be clear: when you're a player, the coach is your boss. Whether or not you agree with him, it's your responsibility to do what he says as well as you're capable of. Especially when your boss has a 10-mile long track record of success.
It's not as if Sloan could have done it forever. He's 68 years old after all, and the life of an NBA coach is demanding, to say the least. It's long hours in the film and practice rooms. It's late games followed press conferences that last until midnight followed by flights across the country where you don't get to your hotel until 4 in the morning. Sloan has been mentioning for a couple of years now how he's less and less able to get up at 5:30 in the morning. How he has less and less enthusiasm for the big game, and less and less motivation to power through "the grind".
But let's be clear about one thing: Jerry Sloan is not a quitter. Jerry Sloan is not a man who would walk out on his team and his organization in the middle of the season just because of old age. He had a similar player-relations issue with Carlos Boozer, and a major breakdown with Andrei Kirilenko, and got both straightened out. No, something specific happened here that was beyond his ability to deal with, and Jerry Sloan has dealt with a lot.
When ESPN asked John Stockton his thoughts on the matter, Stock replied that "maybe he just doesn't want to argue with his point guard or anybody else anymore. And I think he's earned that." Karl Malone took a more direct approach, but had the same message: "The guy I know and love, he don't quit or nothing."
Those sentiments are shared by Basketball John of SLC Dunk, who writes:
...this is what confuses me the most and why I think Deron and/or the rest of the team had a large part in Sloan's resignation. The timing of this whole thing just isn't right. If he did it at the end of the season, I could understand that. However, the Jazz are still very much in the playoff hunt and are on the verge of playing more consistent basketball.
The Jazz only have a little over two months of basketball left in the regular season. Given a first or second round playoff series, you could say three months. They've already been at it for 5 months and have less than 40 games left. If there wasn't anything that drove Jerry out, you would say he was quitting on the team. He was tired of fighting whatever/whoever it was and decided that it wasn't worth it. Sloan would not just quit mid-season on this team.
I must say (and I apologize if I come across as simply blasting Deron in all this, but...) Williams has been thoroughly less-than-remorseful about all of this. His comments that he "didn't think [Sloan] would do it in the middle of the season" and how "we feel [new head coach Ty Corbin] should have had a head job by now" don't exactly express a great deal of sympathy or affection, and sort of even hint that the team was conspiring to make this happen, and simply didn't think he'd leave so soon. But perhaps the most interesting comment was the one he officially made to the press:
"I would never force Coach Sloan out of Utah. He’s meant more to this town, to this organization than I have, by far. That’s not my place. If that was the case, I would’ve just said I wanted out before."
Eesh. First of all, I cannot overstate the significance of Williams neglecting to mention how Sloan meant anything to him, personally. Second, he practically declares he wants out and has just declined to say so much to this point. And third, he understands already that he's under fire for how this all went down.
That's why he's at the bottom of a 500 foot hole. Regardless of how much play he had in it, everyone knows he was in it, and everyone is eager to make him the primary suspect. Regardless of how much is his fault, he's getting blamed for it.
It's a testament to Jerry Sloan as a coach and person than his resignation would ignite so much anger. And a testament to the absurdity of professional sports that an employee can openly defy his boss, publicly criticize him in the national media, and somehow be the one who doesn't lose his job.
But that's how it works, isn't it? The players have that sort of power. They're the ones who are on the court. They're the ones who put fans in the seats. They're the ones who sell jerseys and hats, who sign autographs, and who everyone follows on Twitter. Not the coaches. The players. I don't know if Sloan was forced out or if he walked out, but I feel pretty safe in saying that what did it for him was he asked the Jazz for their support in handling Williams' defiance, and didn't get it.
Because the Jazz as an organization know that if Williams is unhappy, he leaves. And if he leaves, they're not a good team. They made a business decision to go with the guy that sells them tickets.
As J.A. Adande so aptly put it on ESPN (and credit to his article for being the genesis of this one):
If a coach -- and not just any coach, Jerry Sloan -- can't overcome player unrest in Utah, no coach is safe. The instability caused by the flexing of player power over the past year is much more tangible than any threat of contraction or franchise relocation. The mere threat of Deron Williams leaving the Jazz in 2012 appears to have been enough to pry Sloan from his sideline seat after 23 years.
Williams just went from drafting behind Chris Paul and Dwight Howard to zooming to the lead in the current lap of potential 2012 free agents....the Jazz just played the biggest hand they have for 2012. It's the ultimate concession. Not even Sloan and his 1,221 career victories will be an obstacle.
One Jazz source told me, "Ninety-nine percent of the team loves Sloan. He didn't lose the team."
But that 1 percent won out.
That 1 percent appears to be Williams. And as Adande Tweeted when asked where DWill can go from here: "He'd better win...and stay". It's a player's league, and it always has been. But that doesn't make something like this come off any better.
So why do I bring this all up? Yes, I wanted to put in some words about what happened, because I have a great deal of respect for Jerry Sloan and wouldn't feel right if I watched him step out like this without saying something.
But....I also want to paint another picture for you:
SloanRambis and WilliamsLove have never had an easy relationship. By all reports, "tolerated" would be the best word to describe how they got along. Make no mistake, SloanRambis is a demanding coach. He has a system. He has a vision. You execute the system and stick to the vision, or you don't play.
WilliamsLove himself found that out rather abruptly his rookie yearfirst year under Rambis, when he found himself in a point guardpower forward timeshare with Milt PalacioRyan Hollins and Keith McLeodOleksiy Pecherov because SloanRambis rather severely limited his minutes. SloanRambis didn't think he put in enough prep work. SloanRambis didn't think he understood the playbook well enough. SloanRambis didn't think he played with enough toughness, or was focused 100% of the time. In short, SloanRambis made WilliamsLove earn it.
The obvious difference, of course, is that Rambis does not have a successful, 25 year coaching history to his name. Jerry Sloan earned his stripes, and therefore was well within his rights to make Williams earn his. Rambis is just as rookie as Love. He hasn't earned it. That's an important distinction.
But the overall point, again, is player power. It's no secret that Love and Rambis do not see eye to eye, even with the somewhat stable working relationship they've managed to put together. If Love is unhappy with things here....and let's not kid ourselves, he's at least entertaining the idea of relocation....then the moral of the Jerry Sloan story is that he can apply pressure on the front office to make changes. Love isn't "just anybody" anymore. He's an All Star putting up historic numbers. Or, in NBA business terms, he's the face of the franchise who sells jerseys and hats and tickets. If he's unhappy to the point of threatening to leave...as Deron Williams appears to have been (and maybe still is?) then one would think the Wolves would try to change things to make him happy.
And that's not to say you sell the farm to appease your star player. Woe is the team that let's a player make all the decisions. Cleveland Cavaliers, anybody? Not only did it turn out that LeBron has a less-than-perfect eye for picking players, but he then jumped ship and left the Cavs in ruins. What happens to Utah if Williams leaves? Not only are they out an All Star point guard, they also let him more or less run out a Hall of Fame coach.
As I said, the gap between what Kurt Rambis has accomplished as a coach and what Jerry Sloan accomplished as a coach is from here to Mars. But it's eerie, isn't it, how similar the Sloan/Williams saga is to the Rambis/Love one. It's a tricky situation, and a telling one. How the team treats one will give us a pretty good indication about their feelings towards the other. There's a lot that's going to play out in the next 3 or 4 months.
In the meantime, we at Canis Hoopus would like to express our deepest congratulations and sincerest gratitude to Jerry Sloan for everything he has accomplished in his career and everything he has meant to this league and this sport. And I, personally, would like to extend my sympathy for how all of this came about. I don't know the exact details of what happened...I'm not sure anyone does....but it shouldn't have happened this way. Stepping away from the game he dedicated his life to with a thundercloud over his head is less than Jerry Sloan deserves....far less than Jerry Sloan earned.
Thank you, Jerry, for everything, and may you be blessed as you enter the next chapter of your life.
*From Ian Levy at Indy Cornrows:
Games Played by the Utah Jazz under Jerry Sloan: 2,226
Wins by the Utah Jazz under Jerry Sloan: 1,138
Playoff Wins by the Utah Jazz under Jerry Sloan: 96
Points Scored by the Utah Jazz under Jerry Sloan: 183,770
Rebounds by the Utah Jazz under Jerry Sloan: 75,859
Assists by the Utah Jazz under Jerry Sloan: 46,163
Minutes Played by the Utah Jazz under Jerry Sloan: 440,940
Baskets Made by the Utah Jazz under Jerry Sloan: 68,500
Players who played for the Utah Jazz under Jerry Sloan: 133