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12-09-2003, 03:17 PM
Can Jerry Sloan save Shareef?

Is Jerry Sloan the best coach in the NBA?

Phil Jackson has more rings. Larry Brown has more accolades. Pat Riley has a longer reputation. But Sloan has gotten the most from the least in his career. Isn't that what good coaching is all about?

"The media weren't the only ones who missed on the Jazz this year," one GM told Insider. "I didn't talk to one person in the NBA who thought they'd be this good."

To put it into perspective, good is a relative term. The team is 11-9 and just got blown out by the lowly Celtics at home. But for a team many thought would be one of the worst ever, 11 wins in early December is down right amazing.

Even more amazing is who Sloan is getting production from. Only one player on his roster, Andrei Kirilenko, looked like he had the makings of a star before the season. One more, Matt Harpring, was Sloan's success story last season. Under Sloan's tutelage, Harpring when from a decent role player to a breakout star with the Jazz last season.

No one gets the most out of his players like the Jazz's Jerry Sloan.
The rest of this season's roster was a hodgepodge of rookies and journeymen who had never done much in the NBA. Carlos Arroyo, DeShawn Stevenson, Greg Ostertag and Raja Bell are all having career years, exceeding even the most optimistic of projections. Rookies Raul Lopez, Alexsandar Pavlovic, Maurice Williams, Curtis Borchardt and Ben Handlogten are having unusually good freshman seasons.

The credit goes to Sloan. "He's such a great teacher," Jazz GM Kevin O'Connor told Insider recently. "I think a lot of people expected Jerry to step down when Karl [Malone] left and John [Stockton] retired, but he really wanted this challenge. Deep down Jerry believed that hard work and a good system could overcome our lack of experience."

For many years, folks wrote of Sloan because he had two dominant players running a simple pick-and-roll offense to perfection. With Stockton and Malone gone, everyone is seeing that Sloan has plenty of other tricks up his sleeve. Two months after I sat down with Sloan during the Jazz's training camp, his words seem prophetic.

"Basketball hasn't changed," Sloan told Insider then. "All it is is basketball. Some teams are going to be better than others. But if you love basketball, you keep working your butt off."

"Hard work will give them the chance to get better," he said. "If players work hard they usually improve ... Will that add up to a lot of wins or a lot of losses? People say that it will add up to a lot of losses but I don't think you try to go out and get better with the idea that you're going to lose. I've always believed that you try to win. Anything less than that you're a loser."

"We're here, we've got a job to do -- so go out, bust your butt and go home."

On most nights, the Jazz do bust their butts. Sloan's decision versus the Lakers on Sunday to play a roster of Williams, Bell, Pavlovic, Handlogten and Collins the entire fourth quarter against future of Hall of Famers Shaquille O'Neal, Kobe Bryant and Gary Payton defines him.

With Sloan's three best players sitting on the bench, he challenged a group that would struggle to win in the NDBL to come back from a 20-point deficit and defeat the mighty Lakers. The reserves outscored the Lakers 32-20 in the fourth and were a last-second Devean George 3-pointer away from toppling the Lakers at the Staples Center.

Said Sloan of his decision. "Whenever we can't find somebody, we keep searching to find someone that wants to play hard," Sloan said.

The Sloan Resurrection Program

Since when did Sloan get the title of Master Teacher added to his name?

"I think Jerry's been doing this for years," another GM said. "Matt Harpring, Shandon Anderson, Howard Eisley, Donyell Marshall and Bryon Russell did things in Utah that they haven't done anywhere else. There's a pattern there of Jerry maximizing a guys talent and putting him into situations where he can be successful."

All of this makes you wonder. If Sloan can get this type of effort out of Arroyo and Handlogten, what could he do with a couple of talented, but underachieving players who haven't found a way to take their game to the next level?

O'Connor has major cap room again next summer, but the free-agent class of 2004 looks pretty weak. Maybe O'Connor should use some of that cap room to trade for an enigma or two and see if Sloan can figure them out. If he could, the payoff would be enormous.

Here's a look at three players we'd love to see Sloan work his magic on.

Shareef Abdur-Rahim
Power Forward
Atlanta Hawks

21 20.7 9.8 2.4 .518 .886

Shareef Abdur-Rahim, F, Hawks Since coming into the league at 19, Abdur-Rahim has averaged 2 ppg and 1.5 rpg more than he did his rookie season with the Grizzlies. Scouts agree that Abdur-Rahim has an enormous amount of talent, but he's lacked the fire and the discipline to keep improving his game.

"I think he'd be the perfect player for Sloan," one NBA scout told Insider. "He's very consistent and he can be devastating in the paint when he wants to be. Jerry would toughen him up, constantly ride him and the Jazz's staff would force Shareef to improve his one weakness, that perimeter shot. He's only 26 years old. It isn't too late for him. I think he could be a superstar with the Jazz if Sloan worked with him for a year."

A trade of Keon Clark and the Jazz's No. 1 pick next summer might tempt the Hawks into making the deal. The move would get the Hawks under the cap for next season and would give them two high picks in the 2004 draft.

Keith Van Horn, F, Knicks Rumors that the Jazz have been high on the former University of Utah star have been floating around for years. Like Abdur-Rahim, Van Horn has never really progressed much after a stellar rookie campaign. He's a good offensive rebounder and he can be dominant when he plays aggressively, but he's rarely done that the past three seasons.

"I think it would be a great fit," the same NBA scout said. "He spreads the floor, is a good rebounder and would have a lot of support from the fans. Jerry would find a way to maximize his talents. On his last few teams, Keith's really been an after thought. He'd have more responsibility in Utah. I think it would make a difference."

Would the Knicks be willing to give up on Van Horn so quickly? Maybe. It would probably cost the the Jazz Harpring and Clark in return, but on a team that is challenged for size, Van Horn might be worth the sacrifice.

Kwame Brown, F, Wizards Sloan's track record with his high school player, Stevenson, has been so-so. Stevenson has started to progress this season, but it comes after three years where Sloan was ready to choke him. Brown, however, has much more talent. Michael Jordan and Doug Collins couldn't motivate him. Eddie Jordan doesn't seen to be getting through. Could Sloan?

"I think it would be a rocky relationship at the start," the same scout told Insider. "Sloan likes smart players who play hard all of the time. That's not really Kwame right now. But I will say that Kwame's really never been put in a chance to succeed. Jerry's offense would get him good shots. With a boost of confidence, maybe he'd turn around. I hear he's a very good kid."

Getting Brown from the Wizards wouldn't be easy. They're still reluctant to give up on him, despite his recent benching. A swap of Laettner and Brown for Ostertag and the Jazz's No. 1 would give the Wizards roughly $15 million in cap space next year to make a splash in the free-agent market. Would that be enough to get them to part with Brown?

Around the League

-The dust on the Bonzi Wells deal hasn't even settled, and already there's talk that the Grizzlies are on the prowl for a blockbuster deal. There's no question that they have a lot of talent stacked at the two, three and four. Are people just doing the math or does Jerry West have more tricks up his sleeve?
"We're just trying to get better," West told Insider. "I'm not going to get into every conversation we do and don't have, but I think it's safe to say that when deals like this one with Bonzi come along, you have to be prepared to pull the trigger. To be successful in the league, you have to take some risks. We want to win games period. I'm not interested in draft picks or potential. I'm looking for guys who can play."

Read into that what you want. West isn't in love with raw potential the way some GMs in the league are. He knew that the first-round pick he gave Portland wasn't going to produce a player as talented as Wells in the next three years, so he didn't hesitate to give it up. It also looks like owner Michael Heisley's wallet is open wide, meaning West doesn't value expiring contracts the way most teams in the league do.

West's old school approach to things (talent over potential and cap savings) may just get him to the promised land. He's got a number of young talented players with small contracts. Is it just a matter of time before he parlays two or three of them into a rugged big man to patrol the paint? With Shane Battier and Stromile Swift apparently expendable after the Grizzlies' last two trades, West has some pretty valuable trade bait if he wants to use it.

Erick Dampier
Golden State Warriors

18 12.1 13.6 0.8 .497 .548

After failed attempts to steal Erick Dampier away from Golden State this summer, don't be surprised if West goes after him again. There's talk that Dampier might opt out of his contract next summer and try to get more than the $16.8 million he's due the next two seasons. Despite Dampier's solid play, that may be enough to scare the frugal Warriors into trading him. Would a combo of Battier, Swift and Jake Tsakalidis be enough to lure the Warriors into a trade?

Other possibilities include Cleveland, which will move Zydrunas Ilgauskas for the right price. Battier, Swift, Tsakalidis and Bo Outlaw for Z and Chris Mihm may make some sense. When healthy, Ilgauskas is one of the best centers in the league, and Mihm has started to produce. The move would give the Cavs some much needed depth in the frontcourt to balance an already deep backcourt.

Seattle has Jerome James (a West target in 2002) back on the block. You've got to believe the Sonics would do a Swift-James trade in a heart beat. However, with the way James has regressed the past two seasons, it's just as hard to believe that West still has interest.

The other interesting name is the Jazz's Greg Ostertag. Ostertag is having a career year in Utah. He's one of the strongest centers in the league and one of the few guys who can guard Shaq. He's an unrestricted free agent next summer, so the Grizzlies' risk would be minimal. Would O'Connor move Ostertag (whose likely gone at the end of the season anyway) for a chance at a couple of nice young players in Battier, Swift and Tsakalidis?

-Teams are getting nowhere in their attempts to pry Al Harrington away from the Pacers. GMs have looked at the Pacers roster and felt that Harrington would be expendable at the right price. With Jonathan Bender coming back from injury and the Pacers promising minutes something has to give, right?
Over the last five games Harrington has averaged 18.8 ppg, 8.8 rpg and 2.6 apg on 48 percent shooting from the field. He's firmly entrenched into the rotation and helped the Pacers not miss a beat when Ron Artest was out with back spasms. Harrington has found a way to be effective whether he starts or not.

"Let's face it, we have six starters on this team if you really look at it," Pacers coach Rick Carlisle told the Indianapolis Star. "Al's a guy that's certainly deserving to be a starter on most teams in this league. And his day will come, there's no question about that. The fact that he's been professional enough to accept the role we've asked him to says a lot about what kind of person he is. And make no mistake about it, he's a big part of what we're doing whether he starts or not."

Pacers president Donnie Walsh has been patient with the Pacers kids for years. Now that they are starting to produce, he's extremely reluctant to let them go. Walsh remembers when the Blazers, who needed a veteran big man, gave up Jermaine O'Neal to Indiana for Dale Davis. It turned out to be one of the most lopsided trades in NBA history. Walsh doesn't want to be on the wrong end of the next one.

"I still don't think we've seen everything Al's capable of," Walsh told Insider recently. "He's still just 23 years old and is just now getting regular playing time. He's going to be a special player in the league. I don't think you can trade away a guy like that unless your getting a top player in return."

-Cavs coach Paul Silas said he'd like the Cavs to re-sign Darius Miles when he becomes a restricted free agent this summer. After a slow start, Miles has started to break out a little, averaging 11.3 ppg, 5.0 rpg and 2.0 apg on 43 percent shooting in his last three games.
"I've only been around him a couple months," Silas told the Morning Journal. "I've seen a change in him in recent weeks. If he continues to do that, he'll be a heck of a player. He'll continue to get better."

While Miles isn't thrilled about coming off the bench, he's taken the demotion in stride.

"As a player, you always want to start," Miles said. "We were down and out as a team. We still haven't won a road game. I'll do whatever it takes. I have a lot of respect for the coach. Hopefully, it's the right decision by the coach. I don't make the decisions around here. If I just play two or three minutes, I'll play hard and try to (put up good numbers). I'm trying to stay focused."

Given all of the turmoil he's faced in Cleveland, does Miles really want to keep playing there?

"I wouldn't mind. That's up to the two men upstairs (Cavaliers owner Gordon Gund and general manager Jim Paxson)."

Why the Jazz will stand pat

By Greg Anthony
ESPN Insider

This past week in the association has been interesting, as I expect the entire season to be. There were the usual suspects in terms of coaching and player speculation, and the trigger was pulled in Portland regarding Bonzi Wells. But let's get right to the e-mails and see what concerns you, the fans, have.
I was wondering with the surprising success of the Jazz, do you think they will make a trade to further themselves in the playoff picture or not? Also, if they do, what kind of trade do you think they can pull off?
Charles Foreman
Orem, Utah

I would be very surprised to see the Jazz pull the trigger for a few reasons. One, this is a team that will have money to spend this offseason, and the fact they are competing for the playoffs while they are rebuilding is a plus for Larry Miller, fiscally. It also allows the growth of a lot of their young players to be expedited, because they have the responsibility of making plays (offensively and defensively). I believe the plan here is to see who can be a part of the long-term plan, then address the areas where they feel they need to improve via free agency and the draft.

This is a young and exciting team in Utah (I never thought I would say that) and patience is the key to this team contending in the future. They don't have the type of roster where there are teams drooling over their talent, but they are in great shape moving forward with a great coach.


When will Darko Milicic get to play? If he was such a project, why didn't the Pistons pick Carmelo Anthony, who is ready and getting it done now?
Long Island, N.Y.

There is no doubt that Melo is getting it done in Denver, but in Detroit the combination of Darko's potential at the power forward/center position and the fact they have a pretty good combination at the small forward with Tayshaun Prince and Corliss Williamson is why they went with Darko.

Jermaine O'Neal
Power Forward
Indiana Pacers

20 20.6 10.6 2.4 .454 .683

Not all players develop at the same rate. Remember Jermaine O'Neal in Portland? It took him three years to be ready and another two to emerge as a dominant force. He was in similar situation as Darko, with Rasheed Wallace, Arvidas Sabonis, Kelvin Cato and Brian Grant ahead of him. But the patience (at least for Indiana) paid off, and he has become the dominant force that most had predicted. Plus he didn't pick up as many bad habits as some other young players.

Couple that with having Larry Brown, one of the great teachers in the pro game, and long-term the move makes sense for Detroit if the kid emerges into a big-time player. Don't forget he's only 18. Give him and the Pistons time, and if you're in Denver be thankful, because they needed an impact player today and got one in 'Melo, who fills a need on a team that didn't have much impact at the small forward position.


Who is the better player now, and who will be a more complete player -- Michael Redd or Ray Allen?

Michael Redd
Shooting Guard
Milwaukee Bucks

20 22.6 6.1 2.8 .450 .851

It's a little unfair, because Ray is injured, but long-term if you are in Milwaukee you should be thrilled to have Michael Redd. Remember, this is his first year as a full-time starter, and he has a lot more room for improvement. He doesn't pass it as well as Ray, and while shooting is comparable, I give the edge to Ray by a smidgen. But Michael is a lot younger and a better rebounder, and he has a chance to get to that superstar level in the next couple of years (he should be an all star this year, which will give him even more confidence).

Also, this is a business, and since Michael makes a third of what Ray makes, salary-wise it's a no brainer for Milwaukee. Both are great guys (I played with both), but there's a lot to be said for a guy picked in the second round. He will remain hungry and always feel the need to prove himself.


When is C-Webb making his triumphant return?
Dan Piasecki
Monmouth, N.J.

I'm hearing mid-January, which should give that team a chance to compete with the Lakers come playoff time. The blessing is his absence has allowed Brad Miller an opportunity to find his niche on that talented Kings team and will help his transition once Chris returns.


When the Timberwolves are healthy, do they have enough to compete with the Lakers in a seven-game series?
St. Cloud, Minn.

Michael Olowokandi
Minnesota Timberwolves

15 6.4 3.7 0.4 .436 .615

This is by far the best team they have had (even with the injuries). The big question for me is does Michael Olowokandi have the mental toughness -- and health, for that matter -- to compete against not only the Lakers but the Kings and Spurs? That's my biggest concern. Everyone else is battle-tested and up to the task. He is the only core guy on the roster without playoff experience, and trust me -- it matters.


Are the players of a decade ago better than the players of today?
Austin, Texas

The players who were responsible for impacting the game from 10 years ago were a little more polished than today's players, because they were more fundamentally sound. But also coaching and the fact there is less transition basketball have had an impact, as well.

Not to mention that those who evaluate talent as whole is on a bit of a decline (in fairness, it is much harder to evaluate high school kids, college freshmen and international players, which doesn't help). There are still a lot of great people in the game, but the overall youth movement has negatively impacted the way the game is coached and played.

Thanks again, and keep the e-mails coming. While I can't respond to all, I do read them and get great ideas for future talking points.

Peep Show

New York Knicks: As far as NBA players go, Antonio McDyess knows suffering and he doesn't see enough of it on his team."We're not taking it so hard," said McDyess in the N.Y. Post. "We lose a game, we just leave it in the past and say we lost a game and move on to the next game. I don't think we take it seriously enough. I take losses hard. Some nights I just sit there, thinking about what I could've done, I should've done. I don't want to point fingers, but I think as a team we need to step up and play a little harder. We can be up, but we stop concentrating and lose the lead." The Knicks are 0-4 since McDyess returned from the injured reserve list and some players feel he may be the problem. "It's all part of it," Allan Houston said. "You can't let that distract you from what your job is. You can't worry that 'Dyess is back. A lot of that is what's going on. Guys are worried about the wrong things - me included. I'm worried about can I play if I'm injured? It's taken away from that one goal - to win."

Dallas Mavericks: For Dirk Nowitzki, it isn't whether you win or lose but how you soon you get back to practice following an injury. "Dirk looked OK," Mavericks coach Don Nelson said in the Fort Worth Star Telegram. "It was just good to have him back. I'm not going to say he was sharp or anything -- he wasn't -- but it's good to have him back on the floor." Nowitzki missed five games with a sprained ankle and is scheduled to return Wednesday against the Clippers. "I've missed a lot of time now, and it was about time for me to get back out there and play the sport I love to play," Nowitzki said. "The foot felt great. I feel really happy about that, but I was really tired and fatigued. I'm not really happy with the practice I had. It's going to take me a while to get back in my rhythm again and come back to what I was."

Washington Wizards: Head coach Eddie Jordan benched a few players and promoted a few players and then both sides lined up to thank him. "We supported it," said Larry Hughes in the Washington Times. "All the guys who were starters who came off the bench supported the guys who started in their place. It was a team effort." New starters included Christian Laettner, Steve Blake and Etan Thomas. New bench players were Kwame Brown, Brendan Haywood and Chris Whitney. "It was a chemistry thing and our chemistry recently just wasn't very good," Brown said. "The most important thing is that [Jordan] made a switch to get a pass-first point guard on the floor. That helped us get easy buckets. We don't usually get easy buckets."

San Antonio Spurs: Malik Rose has fallen and head coach Gregg Popovich is still waiting for him to get up. "He said it's going slower than he expected," Popovich said in the San Antonio Express News. "We'll point toward Portland and see if he's any better for Wednesday." Rose has missed the last three games with a strained right ankle.

Cleveland Cavaliers: The Lorraine Morning Journal is reporting that shooting guard Dajuan Wagner is ahead of schedule after having knee surgery and actually took 100 shots in practice on Monday. "He got up and down a little bit, too," Cavaliers coach Paul Silas said. "He may be ahead of schedule. He'll add another dimension. He can score. He's a legitimate 2. He reminds me of (Hornets guard) David Wesley. He's got a lot of skill. I'll welcome that." He is expected back sometime in January.

Miami Heat.: Will the real Caron Butler please stand up? "When he was out there before he wasn't himself," point guard Dwyane Wade said in the Palm Beach Post. "He'll give us more versatility. We'll get smaller but we'll get better at the offensive end." Butler played a brief eight games earlier in the season but had no explosion in his surgically repaired left knee and is trying to return again from the same operation with more time to recuperate. "Can he go 12 or 14 straight minutes? I don't know, we'll find out," Stan Van Gundy said. "It might be more like six minutes at a stretch. I don't have expectations. I have more expectations after I've seen a guy play a few games."