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Jazz analysis: Sloan loses the Will

Published February 11, 2011 2:08 pm

This is an archived article that was published on sltrib.com in 2011, and information in the article may be outdated. It is provided only for personal research purposes and may not be reprinted.

Jerry Sloan's legendary coaching career with the Jazz will be defined by 1,221 victories, two NBA Finals appearances and 23 years of enviable consistency.

But his final season with Utah was derailed by maddening inconsistency, increasing frustration and unrealistic expectations.

Sloan unexpectedly announced his resignation Thursday, stepping down in tandem with longtime friend and assistant coach Phil Johnson.

The news caught many off guard, while everyone from team president Randy Rigby to newly promoted Jazz head coach Tyrone Corbin expressed sadness and disappointment during a news conference that was loaded with remembrance and recollection.

Sloan's decision to leave the game behind had clearly been building for months, though. His uneven relationship with All-Star guard Deron Williams played a crucial role, sources said. But so did the increasing alienation of other key Jazz players, as well as Sloan's fading desire to endure another long NBA season in the hope of capturing the franchise's first-ever championship.

"My energy level has dropped off a little bit," Sloan acknowledged.

The seeds of Sloan's resignation were planted years ago, but truly took root last summer. Utah was coming off its third consecutive playoff exit to the Los Angeles Lakers, and a small-market franchise burdened with luxury tax payments was forced to watch key players Carlos Boozer, Wesley Matthews and Kyle Korver depart via free agency. On paper, the Jazz were not rebuilding. In reality, they were. More teaching and increased attention to detail once again topped the board for Sloan, who compiled 45 years in the league as a player and coach.

General manager Kevin O'Connor added veterans such as Al Jefferson, Raja Bell and Earl Watson to help fill in holes and move Utah forward. A perfect 8-0 preseason followed. But the Jazz were blown out by a combined 38 points during their first two regular-season games. At that point, Williams went public with his unhappiness.

Utah's captain and the undisputed leader of the team asserted that the players he was surrounded with did not know the plays they were running. On some teams, such a comment would make minor waves. But in Sloan's highly revered offensive system, the statement signaled a rebellion. And it was just the start.

As the one Jazz player besides Bell with a strong public voice, Williams made numerous critical comments throughout the season, complaining about everything from Sloan's lack of flexibility to a new cast of teammates that were united in the locker room but clearly failed to mesh on the court. Meanwhile, a Jazz team that started 15-5 and moved to 24-13 spiraled downward, bottoming out in mid-January with an 0-4 East Coast road trip. It was at this point that other Jazz players, besides Williams, began questioning the direction of the team and Sloan's coaching decisions.

Williams wanted change — more autonomy, control and freedom for himself and his fellow Jazzmen. But the highly competitive guard also simply wanted to win. The balance — coupled with the similarity in Williams' and Sloan's unrelenting nature — was sometimes volatile.

Williams respected Sloan and the longtime coach often offered high praise for his All-NBA guard. But the like-minded duo also battled.

Williams and Sloan engaged in at least three heated arguments this season, sources said. The first occurred prior to Utah's 109-107 overtime home victory Nov. 6 against the Los Angeles Clippers. The second took place about two weeks ago. And the third happened Wednesday, during halftime of the Jazz's 91-86 home defeat to the Chicago Bulls. Sloan acknowledged two of the blowups, but stressed that his up-and-down relationship with Williams was not out of the ordinary.

"I've never had a team do everything I wish they would do out on the court, and that's a good thing," Sloan said.

He added: "I don't think any coach bats 100 percent with his team, day in and day out."

But with Williams — the face of the franchise who can become a free agent after the 2011-12 season — alternating between criticism and vows of silence, Sloan's already dimming energy for the game began to flame out.

After the loss to the Bulls and yet another confrontation with Williams, Sloan spent more than 30 minutes behind closed doors, discussing his future with O'Connor and owner Greg Miller, among others. A visibly shaken and upset Sloan then hinted during an awkward postgame interview that an update about the mysterious discussion would be provided Thursday.

It was: Sloan was gone. And a season filled with thrilling comebacks and uninspiring slow starts was suddenly over for the 23-year Jazz coach.

The divide between Sloan and his star player was nowhere clearer than Wednesday night. While Sloan contemplated his future, a source close to Williams said that the guard went out to dinner with several teammates in an attempt to clear the air, tie up loose ends and move the season forward.

This was followed by a lunch Thursday between Williams and Corbin, a likeable players' coach who key personnel within the organization believe can not only reach Williams but convince him that a new era in Jazz basketball has arrived. And with that, the hope: Williams will remain with Utah after the 2011-12 campaign, helping deliver the NBA championship that Sloan was never able to grasp.

"We'll see [Friday]," Corbin said. "We're going to meet and talk. See where guys are. Hopefully everybody come in with a positive attitude and want to continue to build what we got going."

bsmith@sltrib.comTwitter: tribjazz