Jazz brain trust seeks solutions
Greg Miller walked away from the table and left the room, allowing Kevin O'Connor to say anything.
Miller, the Jazz's chief executive officer, spent more than 30 minutes during an afternoon in early April calmly and quietly discussing Utah's disappointing 2010-11 season. Nestled high inside a spacious office building in Sandy, Miller recounted how the organization underachieved, losing money and failing to qualify for the postseason for the first time in five years. Former coaches Jerry Sloan and Phil Johnson resigned during the fallout, while All-Star guard Deron Williams was traded. A year that began with so much promise and the push for a premier playoff seed was ultimately characterized by turmoil and shocking change, leaving Miller to deliver a new plan: how a rebuilding, small-market franchise would return to elite NBA status.
The boss was gone now, though, off to attend to another matter. The floor suddenly belonged to the proud, passionate O'Connor, who carried the heaviest weight during a rough season. Demanding attention, the Jazz general manager strengthened his voice while President Randy Rigby looked on. Rather than vent, O'Connor dug in.
O'Connor said that Utah was united behind its CEO as the organization heads into its most important summer since John Stockton and Karl Malone left Salt Lake City. The franchise was down before, and former owner Larry Miller lifted it up. The team now belongs to Larry's son Greg and Larry's widow, Gail Miller. The same blood that ran through the father's veins still runs through the son's.
"Don't mistake the calm or the quietness, as compared to what Larry was, for the lack of interest or the lack of competitiveness," O'Connor said. "Because it's there. â¦ The competitiveness that they have as a family was certainly passed down generationally."
So was the vision.
Throughout an hour-plus interview, Utah's executive big three of Greg Miller, O'Connor and Rigby were aligned, supportive and complimentary. They were also distinct. Each has a crucial job to perform during a period of decade-defining change, and each respects the other's place in the organization.
Together, the trio acknowledged the Jazz's recent shortcomings and the uncertain road ahead. But where franchises such as Cleveland and Minnesota bottomed out after big-name All-Stars left town, the three people with more to lose than anyone during Utah's unexpected overhaul share a belief that the Jazz are still in the game.
"I think everyone thought when John and Karl left that Utah would never raise its head again," O'Connor said. "That's a challenge that you like to have. We like to be able to compete."
Growing into his role • Greg Miller's day-to-day involvement with a team that was once represented by his father's hard work has intensified as the Jazz have come to a crossroads.
Miller was only a listener when he took over in July 2008 as Utah's CEO. When a decision had to be made just two days into his tenure about handing an unproven C.J. Miles a contract extension, an unsure leader sat back, observed and trusted the professionals.
"That was just blind faith," Miller said.
He has since been to every NBA Board of Governors' meeting and was recently named to a league relocation committee evaluating Sacramento's proposed move to Anaheim, Calif.
Miller's increased leaguewide involvement parallels his new role with Utah. Three seasons after intentionally holding his tongue during his first days on the job, Miller has been directly involved in two of the franchise's biggest moves since the Jazz logo was transferred from New Orleans to Salt Lake City.
First came the stunning resignations of Sloan and Johnson, who were landmarks for an organization long associated with a stable, small-businesseslike structure. Then there was the Williams trade, which initially left many Utah fans questioning the future of the organization as well as the mindset of those running it.
"They're two very separate, but related, issues," said Miller, who has learned how to balance democratic collaboration with a willingness to make the final call. "One of them was our decision; one of them wasn't."
A final grade for the Williams deal won't be available for years. However, the intricate planning and overall orchestration involved reveal how a franchise known for closed doors and sealed lips is handling operations during a time of unprecedented change.
The Jazz's power structure technically runs from Gail to her son, then to Rigby and O'Connor. Gail Miller, Utah's owner and chairman of the board, has evolved into more of a figurehead than an overseer, though. She attends home games and appears in television commercials, but she truly made her presence known only one time this season during a teary-eyed news conference following the resignations of Sloan and Johnson.
Gail was informed of the Williams trade prior to its completion. But Greg Miller initially answered, "Um," when asked whether his mother green-lighted the deal.
"She was very concerned that we were doing the right thing. I think she had the same reaction that a lot of fans have: 'You're trading away our point guard? Explain that to me. I don't get it,' " Miller said. "When I said it's a move for the future and we're getting a lot of value in return and we're controlling the situation, once she heard that, it made a lot of sense to her and she supported the move."
A trusted aide • To trade Williams, Miller relied on and trusted O'Connor, whose power has only increased since Sloan and Johnson stepped down Feb. 10.
The Jazz entered the season with at least three different scenarios focused on keeping the organization in the win column during 2010-11 and competing at an elite level in the long term.
One of the plans included eventually re-signing Williams, while adding new pieces to complement his talent. But after watching the Jazz start to unravel, O'Connor's vision narrowed. Deal the sullen face of the franchise, and the organization would take a temporary step back, stock up on youth, then reposition itself, while Western Conference powerhouses grew older and the league restructured itself under a new collective-bargaining agreement.
"The only thing I've thought about is how to get this thing done how to move forward and use the draft picks," said O'Connor, who has no plans to follow Sloan and Johnson into retirement. "We've got a lot of responsibilities. â¦ We've got to make some right decisions now. We've put ourselves in a place to take a swing. Let's see how we swing out."
After working behind the scenes for months with Jazz executive vice president Bob Hyde and basketball-operations sidemen Richard Smith, Dave Fredman and Walt Perrin, O'Connor informed Miller just 24 hours ahead of shipment that Williams was ready to be packaged. To Utah's CEO, it was perfect timing. The deal made basketball and business sense the autonomous O'Connor had delivered, capitalizing on 12 seasons of earned trust. Soon, the Millers and Rigby were ready to swing.
"Kevin knows more about basketball than I ever will," Greg Miller said. "And so I'm content to rely on Kevin and his judgment and his expertise and his connections in the basketball world to bring us the best options to be as competitive as we can be. And it's worked very well so far, and I intend to continue that approach as long as I'm doing what I'm doing."
O'Connor was quick to deflect the spotlight. Rigby is his primary boss, while he works for the Miller family. All the GM does is do his job.
"Greg and Gail make the decisions," O'Connor said. "We don't bring anything to them until we feel comfortable that there's a possibility that there's something that will happen. â¦ They can either say yes or no, or here's the reasons why. We go into financial. We go into the future. We go into business. And Greg digests everything, so they can sit down and talk it over and go on from there."
After a dramatic, chaotic season, Sloan, Johnson and Williams are gone. Utah's long-term future is promising, yet uncertain. But Miller is more involved, O'Connor has more trust than ever and Rigby sees room to grow.
The Jazz insist they are still the Jazz.
"I've always told people worried that we've been rocked, 'No, this has reinforced [us],' " Rigby said. "We've always talked the talk. We've actually now shown that we walk the walk."
More than money
Jazz chief executive officer Greg Miller said that the franchise will lose "quite a bit" of money this season. Miller is willing to accept the loss, though. "As a family, we don't own the Jazz to make money," he said. "We have other businesses, fortunately, that do quite well and allow us to pay our bills from the profits they generate." Meanwhile, Miller and Utah general manager Kevin O'Connor pointed out that the small-market organization turned down at least two opportunities to unload in excess of $10 million during the past two seasons one of which involved a proposed $16 million salary dump last year. "It's not about the money. It's about winning," Miller said. "I think the fact that we're spending $77 million this year illustrates it's not about the money."
Increased salary-cap space and the possibility of four first-round draft picks in the next two years have the Jazz feeling positive about their potential in an NBA that will likely undergo major reconstruction after a new collective-bargaining agreement is finalized. However, Utah's ownership of EnergySolutions Arena a modern facility with upgrade potential located in the heart of downtown Salt Lake City is just as important to the Jazz's future. While small markets such as Sacramento struggle and consider relocation, professional basketball in Utah should be around for the long haul. "For many people, 20 years is about the useful life of an arena. I see this building having a useful life for us of probably 40 years," said Jazz President Randy Rigby. "And what we can still do and add and expand to ... it's allowing us a real solid base of why we can continue to grow and develop with force here."
Jazz general manager Kevin O'Connor on his future with the organization:
"The only thing I've thought about is how to get this thing done how to move forward and use the draft picks. We've got a lot of responsibilities. â¦ We've got to make some right decisions now. We've put ourselves in a place to take a swing. Let's see how we swing out."
Jazz chief executive officer Greg Miller on owner Gail Miller's initial reaction to the news that the Jazz were going to trade All-Star guard Deron Williams:
"She was very concerned that we were doing the right thing. I think she had the same reaction that a lot of fans have: 'You're trading away our point guard? Explain that to me. I don't get it.' When I said it's a move for the future and we're getting a lot of value in return and we're controlling the situation, once she heard that, it made a lot of sense to her and she supported the move."
The Jazz's home attendance during the past five seasons
Year Record Total Average Rank
2010-11* 39-43 799,982 19,511 7
2009-10 53-29 794,512 19,378 6
2008-09 48-34 816,042 19,903 6
2007-08 54-28 816,211 19,907 5
2006-07 51-31 802,214 19,566 6
* Failed to qualify for playoffs