At the beginning of the season there was a real fear that the NBA would be a two-horse or at best a three-horse race between the Miami Heat , the Los Angeles Lakers and the Boston Celtics. Those worries have proved groundless as the New Orléans Hornets , the Utah Jazz and the San Antonio Spurs have played extremely well and the Phoenix Suns and the Milwaukee Bucks among others have been pleasant surprises. At least for now , it looks like the pre-season favorites will not have things all their own way.
The New Orléans Hornets have been the biggest surprise . Before the season started they seemed to be in complete disarray. They had a new coach and GM, star guard Chris Paul was demanding a trade ( kind of ) and the replacement of Tyson Chandler with Emeka Okafor was not a popular move. The trade of last year’s starting guard Darren Collison to the Indiana Pacers also was heavily criticised.All those minuses have since turned into plusses.New coach Monty Williams and rookie GM Dell Demps have formed a close working relationship and their shared vision has transformed the Hornets into the league’s top defensive team , one that has held all opponents to under a 100 points / game. Chris Paul and F David West are as good as ever , Okafor is more involved and newcomers Marco Bellinelli and Trevor Ariza have fit seamlessly into the starting five. The bench with Jason Smith , Marcus Thornton, Jerryd Bayless and Peja Stojakovich is deep and , best of all , the Hornets are a young team with a bright future.
The Utah Jazz have been just as impressive . Playing without starting center Mehmet Okur and with several key players suffering from injuries , the Jazz still put together a five -game win streak . During the streak, they came back from double-digit second half deficits in five successive games to defeat Orlando,Miami and Atlanta, among others. I was watching the Jazz – Heat game and even when the Jazz were behind , I sensed that they were going to claw back into contention.Deron Williams is showing why he’s considered the top point guard in the league , Paul Milsap is making Jazz fans forget the departed Carlos Boozer and Al Jefferson is proving a force off the bench. However , for THE reason for the Jazz’s success , we need look no further than the coach Jerry Sloan. Sloan has molded the Jazz into a scrappy , hard-nosed team that never gives up and fights to the final buzzer.
In San Antonio, the Spurs were expected to be on the decline along with aging big man Tim Duncan but he and they have shown plenty of fight in bursting out of the gate with a 8-1 record. The Nuggets , the Bucks and the Suns are also no pushovers as they have shown in ambushing some of the league’s top teams .Oklahoma City too seem to have snapped out of their early season malaise and look more like last year’s surprise team which gave the Lakers their toughest test before the finals. If the Portland Trailblazers had not been rocked by the season ending injury to Greg Oden ( again) and worries about G Brandon Roy’s knees they too would have been the mix . Even so, just qualifying for the Western Conference playoffs will be a dogfight , much as it has been the past three years .
It is heartening to see these small market teams doing so well and proving that basketball is a team game , not the preserve of a bunch of superstars. Each of these teams has been put together the old-fashioned way through the draft and with some judicious trades. They have been built intelligently and patiently , not in one fell swoop as at Miami and they’ve had to do it with a limited payroll. As a long time Laker fan , I can’t abandon my Lakers but , if they should falter, I hope one of these three – Oklahoma City , Utah or New Orléans – wins it all.
I am glad to see Jerry Sloan finally receiving some recognition as one of the finest coaches in the game . For twenty years and more , he has done a sterling job in Utah but it has been his misfortune to come a cropper each year in the playoffs against one juggernaut or another. In fact this has been true of him even during his playing career with the Chicago Bulls . I think I can recall the entire starting unit : Sloan and Norm Van Lier at the guards , Bobby Dandridge and Chet Walker at the forward spots and the gallant but undersized Clifford Ray at center. They played like a well oiled machine ( much like the Willis Reed led Knicks of the early seventies ) but those years ( 1965- 1976) were dominated by the Celtics and later the Knicks. Even though Sloan won plenty of individual honors , particularly for his defensive play , he never even made it to the NBA finals . Much the same has happened to him in his coaching career. Even though he had some great players ( Karl Malone , John Stockton , Jeff Hornacek , Tom Chambers ) , his teams came up short against the super teams like the Magic Johnson- Kareem Abdul Jabbar- Lakers , Tim Duncan’s Spurs and again the Lakers with Kobe Bryant and Shaq and now the latest edition with Bryant and Gasol . On the two occasions the Jazz made it to the finals , they came up against the Michael Jordan -led Chicago Bulls . Talk about bad luck !
Throughout it all , Jerry Sloan has comported himself with class and dignity. In many ways , he reminds me of my all-time favorite Jerry West . West, too, after a sterling career on court went on to success, though as a GM , not as a coach. West did win one NBA championship as a player and many more as a GM . I hope that Jerry Sloan tastes success at least once before he decides to call it a day but , win or lose , in my book, he will always be a class act.