Recently, we looked at the fact that P.J. Carlesimo had only one win as a Oklahoma City Thunder coach and reviewed each franchise’s least successful coaches. Just so you don’t think we dwell only on depressing things like coaches being fired, it bears noting that Jerry Sloan is now in his twentieth year of coaching and going pretty strong. Sloan’s years in Utah are marked mostly by success and a rage that few other coaches can match. But how did we come to have Sloan in Utah? Do we remember the back story?
When Sloan took over as head coach in early 1988-89, he replaced a famous Utah personality and coach in Frank Layden, who was widely credited for turning the franchise around. Layden had coached the Jazz for most of their Utah existence (about seven years) and had just taken the Magic Johnson Lakers to seven games in the playoffs in 1987-88. There was young core in John Stockton and Karl Malone at their peaks and plenty of other good players (Thurl Bailey, Darrell Griffith, Mark Eaton). Most coaches would’ve kept coaching such a promising team as long as they could. Why did Layden quit? According to Michael C. Lewis in “To the Brink”: “The job was no longer fun for [Layden], and he believed the referees were out to get him. So Layden handed the team over to the man he had groomed for it, his top assistant coach, Jerry Sloan….”
Sloan’s first head coaching wasn’t actually with the Jazz. In fact, he had coached the Bulls for a few seasons in the early 1980s. Sloan didn’t do a bad job in Chicago with a mediocre Bulls team (one playoff season but two other losing years) and was forced to go to the CBA after he was fired in 1982. After being hired to assist Layden in 1984, he bided his time rejecting several job offers and waiting for the top job in Utah, whenever Layden might choose to vacate the position. When Layden abruptly retired, Sloan got the shot. The Jazz were 11-6 when Layden quit and Sloan stayed near that pace by going 40-25 the rest of the way. The Jazz won the division at 51-31 but were upset in a sweep in the first round by the usual freaky Don Nelson squad in the playoffs (Chris Mullin played great and Terry Teagle and Rod Higgins were unusually effective off the bench). The Jazz improved to 55-27 in 1989-90 but again lost in the first round, this time in a tough five game series to the Kevin Johnson/Tom Chambers Suns. In 1990-91, the Jazz again won 54 games and this time beat the Suns in the first round, only to be beaten soundly up by the great Clyde Drexler Blazer team in round two.
The perception of the Jazz by 1991-92 was as a team that was good but not a true contender who could beat the Blazers (the Western power at the time). The Jazz had a nice semi-run in 1991-92 winning the division and getting to the Conference Finals, before losing to the Blazers again. In 1992-93, the Jazz regressed, winning 47 games and getting upset by the Sonics in the first road in a tough five game series. The series was most noteworthy for a blow up between Layden (who was then the team president) and Sonics coach George Karl. The story is relayed by Curt Sampson from a Sonic-centric point of view in “Full Court Pressure”: “Utah was up two games to one in the first round best-of-five series and were at home for game four. An hour before tip-off, Karl was standing with [GM Bob] Whitsitt outside the visitors’ locker room when Layden approached, a corpulent Santa Claus gently breaking the bad news: no pony this year. He shook Karl’s hand and patted him on the back. ‘George, don’t worry about it. No matter what happens, you had a great season.’ Karl stood, incredulous, after Layden left. ‘Did you hear that? We had a great season?’ He returned to the locker room and addressed his team. ‘You know what Frank Layden just told me? ‘You guys had a great season.’ He thinks he’s already won! That’s bullshit.’ The Sonics took the next two games to win the series, and Layden was furious when he head that he had supplied the fodder for Karl’s motivational speah. ‘High school stuff,’ Layden called it.”
Drama aside, the loss was particularly noteworthy because observers couldn’t help but see the juxtaposition between the Sonics young point guard/power forward combination (Gary Payton and Kemp both of whom were 24) with Utah’s duo, who were already pushing 30. After three first round losses in five years, it felt like Sloan and the Jazz had maxed out their potential. In a big city, it’s possible the call would’ve been to trade Stockton and Malone and dump Sloan. But there was an object lesson to remember: no matter where you are, however, you don’t trade All-Star level players just because you’re annoyed that you lost. Stockton and Malone both played pretty well that series and better things were yet to come. By sticking with Stockton, Malone, and Sloan, Utah enjoyed the best run in franchise history over the next five years. Stockton and Malone aged as well as any NBA player and Sloan did a great job value out of all sorts of role players like Howard Eisely, Bryon Russell, David Benoit, Shandon Anderson, and Greg Ostertag. Throw-in the absolute steal trade by getting Jeff Hornacek for the remnants of Jeff Malone and all of sudden Sloan had a real contender.
Here’s the part you probably remember better: the Jazz made the Conference Finals in 1993-94 and 1995-96 and then lost two tough NBA Finals series to the Bulls in 1996-97 and 1997-98. The Jazz had two more years as serious contenders but were just too old and not deep enough to contend with the emerging powers (they lost to a new deep Blazer team in the second round in both 1998-99 and 1999-00). Sloan stuck through a couple of weak playoff teams with declining Stockton/Malone core in the early 2000s and then oversaw a rebuilding effort for a few years before getting a new contending team behind Deron Williams and Carlos Boozer. In all, it’s been a very nice run for Sloan and it hopefully shouldn’t end any time too soon.
Throughout the entire run, we’ve tended to think of the Sloan teams as tough, deliberate, defensive-oriented teams. How true is this? Not sure but let’s look at the Jazz’s year-by-year efficiency and pace ratings to see:
Year Offensive Eff. Defensive Eff. Pace
1988-89 17th 1st 21st
1989-90 10th 5th 21st
1990-91 11th 6th 20th
1991-92 4th 7th 16th
1992-93 6th 13th 12th
1993-94 7th 7th 23rd
1994-95 4th 7th 16th
1995-96 2nd 8th 25th
1996-97 2nd 9th 17th
1997-98 1st 16th 21st
1998-99 3rd 7th 22nd
1999-00 4th 11th 27th
2000-01 3rd 12th 21st
2001-02 10th 14th 15th
2002-03 8th 15th 24th
2003-04 19th 14th 28th
2004-05 22nd 26th 26th
2005-06 22nd 21st 26th
2006-07 3rd 18th 15th
2007-08 1st 12th 10th
The perception is largely true. Until Deron Williams became an All-Star, the Jazz have almost always been varying degrees of slow in pace and tough defensive team. The Jazz’s real peak under Sloan, however, was offensive driven. The trick was keeping the good defensive and getting offensive efficiency. In the mid-1990s the Jazz were deadly efficient and this improvement coincides with the acquisition of Hornacek in 1993-94. It’s possible Sloan changed his style in that time but he should provide some credit to Hornacek (and the Sixers for their generosity). More recently, the new Jazz aren’t actually great defensive teams. They move the ball and score and play modest defense. While Sloan’s demeanor hasn’t changed, he’s really adapted well to his changes in personnel, another hallmark of a good coach. The key to taking the Jazz to the next level now, however, is by jumping up the defensive efficiency like they did to the offense a decade or so earlier. This could be rectified by getting a real shot blocker, instead of relying on only offensive players up front.
The All-Jerry Sloan Line Up
PG: John Stockton, 1994-95: 14.7 ppg, .542 FG%, 3.1 rpg, 12.3 apg, 23.3 PER
SG: Jeff Hornacek, 1995-96: 15.2 ppg, .502 FG%, 2.5 rpg, 4.1 apg, 19.1 PER
SF: Andrei Kirilenko, 2004-05: 15.6 ppg, .493 FG%, 6.2 rpg, 3.2 apg, 24.4 PER
PF: Karl Malone, 1996-97: 27.4 ppg, .550 FG%, 9.9 rpg, 4.5 apg, 28.9 PER
C: Mehmet Okur, 2005-06: 18.0 ppg, .460 FG%, 9.1 rpg, 2.4 apg, 19.0 PER