The philosopher once said: “Look forward with hope, not backward with regret.”
I was thinking about that while watching Deron Williams lead the Nets’ effort against the Bulls in the first round of the playoffs on Saturday. Playing 58 minutes in a three-overtime loss, Williams had his ups and downs in Game 4, but he still scored 32 points and dished 10 dimes.
It seems like a long time ago that the All-Star point guard played for the Jazz, starting with his being drafted with the third pick, instead of Chris Paul, in the first round in 2005 and ending in 2011 with his being shipped to the Nets for Derrick Favors and Devin Harris, along with two draft picks, one that was used to select Enes Kanter and the other that’s yet to be utilized.
Everyone remembers Williams’ departure was caused and clouded by his troubles with — and the subsequent resignation of — Jerry Sloan. The whole thing was awkward. But it’s fascinating to wonder what would have happened had that deal with the Nets not gone down. What would the Jazz have accomplished — what would they yet accomplish — had Williams stayed in the fold, had he extended his time in Utah, had he remained the centerpiece here?
Some speculate — guesses, all around — that that was never going to happen, that Williams was an automatic goner once free agency hit. But nobody knew that back then, not even the player himself, not with certainty.
One of the reasons that question is so compelling is that Williams is the exact thing the Jazz so badly lack. They do not have an elite point guard, they have not had forthright leadership on the court, they don’t have and haven’t had a player strong enough to consistently step up in clutch situations, and they fall far short of the one ingredient almost every team that has reached the heights the Jazz want to achieve has: a star.
Those kind of difference-makers are rare in a competitive league that requires them for real success. Having one doesn’t guarantee that success, but not having one, the record shows, almost always guarantees success somewhere south of the desired result. Which is to say, you can go ahead and have a bunch of good players, but if you don’t have a great one, you’re pretty much capped.
That then raises the question, once a club has that premium player, should it do whatever it can to accommodate him, to remunerate him, to surround him with good players? Should it build and build and build around him? Build around him until — and even though — it hurts? Remember how Karl Malone, back in his prime in Utah, wanted a say in personnel decisions? He wanted a say in everything. Remember how he used to be preposterous in some of his public statements and a major pain to Jazz management? The man once had it put into his contract that when the team was on the road, a big bowl of fruit had to be provided in his hotel room. Whatever. Turned out, he was well worth tolerating because he was so darn valuable. He was one of the rare ones.
Now, the Jazz have no rare ones, not even a semi-rare one. The past two seasons have proved that. Look around at the current best teams in the league — Miami, OKC, San Antonio, the Clippers, etc. — and see what they have: yeah, at least one extraordinary player.
Kevin O’Connor has been widely praised for pulling off that Nets deal. Maybe such praise is warranted. It definitely will be if Favors or Kanter ends up being great. We’ll have to wait and see. They should have been on the floor more than they were in 2012-13 to expedite that ascension, and only Tyrone Corbin can explain his curious decision to hold them back as much as he did, the way Sloan once temporarily held back D-Will before coming to his senses. Long before the troubles of 2011, Williams said he “hated” Sloan for getting in his way.
Coincidentally enough, all three of those guys — Williams, Favors and Kanter — were No. 3 overall picks.
The Jazz now need them to have a whole lot more in common than just that. Because they cannot seem to lure top free agents here and do not typically make blockbuster trades with and for veterans, they will have to draft and/or grow their rare, great stars. It’s the only thing that will lift them to where they want to be and make what the philosopher said tolerable for those who live and die with the Utah Jazz.
GORDON MONSON hosts “The Big Show” with Spence Checketts weekdays from 3-7 p.m. on 97.5 FM, 1280 and 960 AM The Zone. Twitter: @GordonMonson.