Trade of Williams is O'Connor's biggest gamble
Indianapolis • To Kevin O'Connor, losing All-Star guard Deron Williams is not the end of the world.
Yes, it hurts. Yes, replacing the face of the franchise will take time, well-plotted moves and almost perfect execution.
But O'Connor believes in his plan and he believes in the Jazz. And while many questioned the rapid-fire trade Wednesday of Williams and the disparate pieces that Utah received in return, O'Connor is confident in his long-term vision, one that blends small-market values with big-time ideas. And one that he hopes will allow a Jazz organization loaded with draft picks, tradeable talent and increased salary-cap space to perform like a major-market contender in an ever-changing league.
"You've got to look at the big picture and you've got to look at long term," O'Connor said Thursday.
The big, deep view will require patience and unmovable belief. Right now, though, the Jazz have entered the unknown, and change is the only word that matters. Williams cannot bail Utah out anymore and former coach Jerry Sloan is unable to hold the wheel. In turn, the reeling Jazz have dropped 14 of their past 18 games to fall into fourth place in the Northwest Division and ninth in the Western Conference. But as the team trembles and shakes, O'Connor is looking forward.
Working with chief executive officer Greg Miller and other Jazz personnel, O'Connor has made an educated but risky wager on Utah's future. Losing Williams will hurt a struggling Jazz team in the short term and could derail the team's fifth consecutive playoff appearance. But O'Connor believes that trading Williams was essential to the Jazz's continued success, despite the fact that the unshakable consistency that has been associated with Utah basketball for more than two decades has recently been shattered.
"We gave an up an All-Star in his prime," O'Connor said. "Miserable, miserable thing to do."
But the Jazz still have options.
Utah is positioned to emerge as a stronger, more viable organization when the NBA frees itself from what many predict will be a lengthy, debilitating lockout next season. Everything from increased revenue sharing and a hard salary cap to a franchise-player tag new CBA highlights in the eyes of many small-market teams could aid Utah, while the Jazz should be able to lure in at least one high-priced free agent this summer.
Utah also obtained the Nets' 2011 first-round pick in the trade, which will at least be a lottery selection and potentially could result in a No. 1 choice. Grouped with newly acquired 19-year-old forward Derrick Favors and rookie Gordon Hayward the ninth overall pick of the 2010 NBA Draft the Jazz will likely have three lottery players on their roster when the 2011-12 campaign tips off.
"If you're going to trade somebody like [Williams] you want younger players that are on their way up in rookie contracts or draft picks that are high enough to help your team," O'Connor said.
In addition, Utah is about to embark upon a journey that has been off limits during recent seasons the team will have free money.
The Jazz's 2010-11 roster is valued at $74 million, which places the franchise about $4 million above the luxury tax. Next season, though, the Jazz will enter the year with a roster worth $52 million. Andrei Kirilenko's albatross-like $17.8 million contract will have come off the books, while Mehmet Okur will play under a $10.8 million expiring contract.
Thus, the small-market organization will likely enter this summer with three stars Paul Millsap ($6.7 million), Al Jefferson ($14 million) and Harris ($9.3 million) - a couple reasonably priced veterans in Raja Bell and C.J. Miles, and a trio of lottery picks.
None of the players can individually replace Williams. But while many NBA teams shoot for the stars, loading up on big-money, top-tier talent, the Jazz are drawing from the model of a highly successful, share-the-wealth Detroit Pistons franchise one that advanced to six consecutive Eastern Conference Finals from 2002 to 2008.
Millsap, Jefferson, Harris, Miles and Bell are Utah's new core. And as Utah attempts to avoid the heavy burden of guaranteed maximum contracts, the franchise hopes that the loss of Williams can be overcome by ingenuity, small-town values and a renewed emphasis upon sacrifice and teamwork.
"We made the move because we think today, tomorrow and at the end of the day it was the best deal that we could possibly get with the least amount of risk," O'Connor said.
Jazz roster value
2010-11 • $74 million (luxury tax)
2011-12 • $51.9 million
2012-13 • $34.1 million
Utah salaries coming off the books after the 2010-11 season:
Andrei Kirilenko • $17.8 million
Ronnie Price • $1.3 million
Earl Watson • $1.2 million
Francisco Elson • $1.1 million
Kyrylo Fesenko • $1.0 million
After the 2011-12 season:
Mehmet Okur • $10.8 million
C.J. Miles • $3.7 million
Jazz at Pacers
P Friday, 5 p.m.
TV • FSN Utah