Uncertain offseason awaits Jazz
On the heels of an ownership change, Utah soon will face a very busy offseason
The Jazz say they may not be able to afford Carlos Boozer and Paul Millsap
More topics: The future of Team USA; appreciating Dikembe Mutombo
The NBA could spend years saying goodbye to Larry Miller, the man who saved professional basketball in Salt Lake City, who was in his 24th season as Jazz owner at the time of his death on Feb. 20, who fostered stability as everyone around him played musical rosters, who helped shag balls under the hoop during pregame warm-ups, who gave hundreds of college scholarships to children of full-time employees at his 80 or so businesses.
There are a couple of months' worth of riffs on his unbridled emotions alone, the way Miller would publicly air out Karl Malone for wanting to restructure his contract again or Andrei Kirilenko for substandard play, just as Miller was known to get in arguments with opposing players at games. What an original.
But it's time to get impersonal. Miller is, unfortunately, gone. The Jazz blew the end of the regular season and tumbled into the No. 8 spot in the West and the dreaded Lakers matchup. They were down 2-1 after Thursday's home victory and staring at a fast-approaching summer vacation that could include the departure of at least one major free agent and coach Jerry Sloan.
These months are the Jazz at the intersection. Not at the historic level of 2003 and the departure of John Stockton to retirement and Karl Malone to free agency, but this offers the possibility of losing their forever owner, their forever coach and two starters in a short span. A franchise raised on stability doesn't do that.
The Greg Miller style is to be more behind the scenes than his father, so there's at least that noticeable change in the ownership. But the oldest of Larry's and Gail's five kids, the appointed successor months before complications from diabetes took Larry, said the basketball approach will remain the same, a telling statement at an important juncture for the franchise.
"I'm completely committed to carrying on those things," Greg Miller said in an interview this week.
The interpretation on several fronts:
He's hoping Sloan will stay. No surprise. Larry understood Sloan and the coach's famous job insecurity and made it a policy to ideally avoid having Sloan enter the final season of a contract. There would always be an extension before that. And since Sloan is still his usual grumbling great self, and was just elected to the Hall of Fame, the new owner said Jerry should feel just as wanted.
But Sloan for several years has waited until the offseason to decide if he had another season in him, and this time will be no different even though he agreed to an extension in January. As always, it's impossible to detect a leaning, only that he will consider retiring to a farmer's life in downstate Illinois. Maybe making the Hall and the change in ownership will be read as the right time to break. Maybe not. There were years Larry thought Sloan would call it quits and it didn't happen, so good luck at anyone else guessing.
Kevin O'Connor is highly valued as head of basketball operations. Also no surprise. Without nearly the attention of many of his peers, O'Connor, an understated executive in a small market, is one of the best in the league.
There is little chance the Jazz will re-sign both Carlos Boozer (if he goes through with the stated plan to opt out) and Paul Millsap at power forward, setting the stage for an interesting, risky call. Boozer is the All-Star, Millsap the backup. But Boozer will command a much larger salary, and Millsap just averaged an encouraging 13.5 points and 8.6 rebounds in 30.1 minutes in the regular season. It gets especially problematic if a team gives Millsap, a restricted free agent, a quick offer sheet and puts Utah on the clock early in the process.
Miller did not want to discuss specific players with the season still going but confirmed it is unlikely Boozer and Millsap will both get jackpot deals to stay.
"If you just do the math on a cursory level, it's obvious that puts us into the luxury-tax level," he said. "And that's a place we're not comfortable going."
Plus, Mehmet Okur can also opt out. Having the starting center, starting power forward and top reserve big man as free agents at the same time forces the Jazz into major decisions at every turn.
One area that's difficult to interpret: Sloan's successor, if the call has to be made this summer. Larry Miller had long stated that top assistant Phil Johnson would get the job in a seamless transition to another respected, unpretentious basketball lifer in the mold of close friend Sloan. Greg Miller said his father never told him of that desire, but quickly added, "If Phil is under the impression that he's the unofficial successor, if Phil felt that way, we'd have an obligation to honor that." The matter gets complicated when one considers another Jazz assistant, Tyrone Corbin, is getting mentioned as a head coach in the making.
So in Greg Miller's first offseason as boss he may have to deal with only ... everything. One of the prevailing messages he got from his dad in the final year of Larry's life was, "It's your turn now," a call to make the decisions that make sense and not the ones Larry would have wanted. These are Greg's calls now.
As he said with his team in the playoffs and a potential flurry of major calls ahead: "I do feel a higher sense of -- what's the word? -- being watched."
Good choice of words.
The once and (probably) future U.S. coach
USA Basketball boss Jerry Colangelo wants Mike Krzyzewski to continue as coach of Team USA, for the 2010 world championships in Turkey through the 2012 London Olympics, and Krzyzewski wants to continue. That was the clear message as the friends shared conversation and a bottle of wine last week in Chicago after Colangelo was honored at the National Association of Basketball Coaches banquet.
Colangelo, though, is encouraging Coach K to wait at least a few months before making a firm commitment. As there is no tournament this summer, there is no rush. Colangelo wants Krzyzewski to make sure he's up for another long haul while also balancing family and that Duke thing that's not exactly part-time work.
"His gut is, 'Let's do it,' " Colangelo said. "That's the way we all are. But you need to take a step back and look at the ramifications."
If Krzyzewski unexpectedly declines, either Mike D'Antoni, Nate McMillan or Gregg Popovich almost certainly will get the job. One coach not among that trio said the choice would be D'Antoni because of his previous coach-owner relationship with Colangelo in Phoenix. Plus, D'Antoni has extensive background in the international game.
In the meantime, the closest thing to pressing business for Team USA is preparing for a July minicamp in Las Vegas of young players considered to have the best chance of making the team for the world championships. Among the interesting invitations: Greg Oden, despite an underwhelming start to his career, along with Andrew Bynum, LaMarcus Aldridge and projected No. 1 pick Blake Griffin among the big men. Not on the initial list of 24 players, though, is Brook Lopez, the best rookie center of this season. Nor is Kevin Martin, who showed well on the select squad that practiced against Team USA last summer and was once thought to have a chance to make a backcourt that will likely replace at least Michael Redd and Jason Kidd.
This is the week that makes the Chauncey Billups-Allen Iverson trade look worse than ever -- Billups lighting up the Hornets while water gushes into the hull of the Pistons -- but some perspective is in order. Detroit would not be better than Cleveland if it still had Billups and Detroit would not be in as good of a position to respond to the 2008-09 comedown if it still had Billups' contract. Iverson's expiring deal at least gives Joe Dumars maneuverability in the summer. Besides, the development of Rodney Stuckey meant Billups was not long for the Pistons anyway.
Most Improved Player is a great debate. Kevin Durant ordinarily shouldn't be in contention -- his strides came from the first season to second, when players should make their big move with the rookie learning curve complete. But Durant, who was drafted No. 2 overall in 2007 and projected for stardom, has exceeded the normal trajectory. It wasn't hard to find a coach or executive who would knock him last season as a gunner more than a scorer without a clue about defense. This season, with much more discipline in his offense, Durant went from shooting 43 percent to 47.6, and from 20.3 points a game to 25.3, despite just 24 more attempts.
The stars of the Warriors season were the fans who had no reason to continue to pack Oracle Arena but did anyway. Bad team, horrible Northern California economy, the presence of NFL clubs, two in Major League Baseball, one in the NHL and two Pac-10 Conference schools in a fight for the entertainment dollar, and Golden State still finished ninth in attendance. The Knicks (seventh) were the only lottery team that did better, except that New York went from 23 to 32 wins and had new energy with new coach D'Antoni and new president Donnie Walsh while the Warriors went from 48 victories to 29.
All anyone needs to know about Dikembe Mutombo is that his résumé of being Defensive Player of the Year four times, an All-Star eight times and the only person to lead the NBA in blocks three consecutive seasons isn't close to his greatest legacy. Mutombo heads into retirement as one of the exemplary citizens of this or any other league, a man saluted by presidents and lesser-known fans for humanitarian work and treasured as a teammate. He is scheduled to receive the J. Walter Kennedy Citizenship Award on Friday as the only two-time winner of the honor from the Professional Basketball Writers Association. The perfect send-off. The second best: saying goodbye to Deke with a wave of the index finger.
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