Losing a franchise player, especially one acquired in the draft and beloved by the fans, is a gut-wrenching process. But by understanding why stars leave and pro-actively accelerating the rebuilding process, Utah is in a much better position than any of the other four franchises who lost one.
By the end of the 2010 season, after three straight playoff defeats to the Los Angeles Lakers, it was clear the Utah Jazz had reached their ceiling. They had averaged 51.5 wins in their last four seasons, but were not in the possession of cap-room, high draft position or the internal flexibility to acquire a difference maker. And the core they had assembled around Deron Williams -- Mehmet Okur, Carlos Boozer and Andrei Kirilenko -- just wasn’t good enough to win a title.
Williams, like the other players in the ‘03 -- ‘05 draft classes, couldn’t overcome the assembled star power of the Lakers or the Boston Celtics, who had rosters overflowing with Hall-of-Famers and All-Star caliber players. With Los Angeles and Boston winning three straight championships and combining for five of six conference titles, the younger generation of superstars saw super-teams as their best chance to win a ring.
The Jazz knew better than to appeal to Williams’ sense of loyalty; great players are playing for their legacy, which depends in large part on their ability to win championships. So instead of sacrificing future assets to bring in role players in a desperate attempt to convince their franchise player to re-sign (Shaquille O'Neal and Antawn Jamison in Cleveland, Jarrett Jack in New Orleans, Hedo Turkoglu and Gilbert Arenas in Orlando), they took the opposite tack: dealing him with 1.5 years remaining on his contract, while they still had leverage in trade negotiations.
The resulting bounty was huge: they acquired a 28-year old point guard (Devin Harris) who had already made an All-Star team as well as two lottery selections -- the Nets’ picks in 2010 (Derrick Favors) and 2011. Almost as importantly, by dealing Williams and tanking the rest of the season, they acquired one more lottery pick -- their own. In contrast, Cleveland had already dealt their first round 2010 pick in the Jamison deal, creating a lost transition season where the team was neither competing for the playoffs nor developing good young players.
Now, after acquiring two lottery picks in consecutive drafts and potentially another one next season as they own Golden State's in 2012, Utah is one of the NBA’s most promising young teams. They have four long-term starters on rookie deals who “fit” well together: Favors, a 6’10 250 athlete who can protect the rim and defend 4’s and 5’s, will handle the interior defense; Kanter, a 6’11 260 low-post scorer who can also step out and knock down 18-foot jumpers, will handle the front-court scoring. On the perimeter, Gordon Hayward, a 6’9 shooter, will create driving lanes for Alec Burks, a 6’6 slasher.
And with a strong core in place, they have the luxury of trading their three remaining veterans -- Harris, Al Jefferson and Paul Millsap -- to find complementary pieces.
Unlike their contemporaries, Utah understood that sometimes you have to take two steps backward to take a step forward. Compare them with their division rival in Denver, who tried to reload instead of rebuild when dealing Carmelo Anthony. They were able to stay in the playoff picture, but now they have a roster full of young players coming up for free agency who don’t have All-NBA upsides. As a result, the Nuggets are going to be stuck in the 5-8 playoff range the next few years while the Jazz eventually rocket past them, in much the same way as the Thunder did.
Having an All-NBA player is essential to winning a title, but it’s only the first step in a long process. And because of the reverse-order draft, the soft salary cap and the nature of guaranteed contracts, there is only a small window to build a championship-nucleus around a great player in the modern NBA.
If you miss that window, as the Jazz did, you’re better off confronting reality as soon as possible. Great players aren’t going to be fooled by half-measures and late first-round picks. Just look at the situation in New Jersey: in a draft-night interview, Nets coach Avery Johnson cited Brook Lopez, Kris Humphries, Anthony Morrow, Jordan Williams and Marshon Brooks as the core they would build around Williams. This is the group supposed to convince a 27-year old in the prime of his career not to test free agency?
Deron Williams is the best player on either the Jazz or the Nets, but going forward, I’d rather have Utah’s roster than New Jersey’s.