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Gordon Monson: The Utah Jazz could have replaced one legend with another, but … no, they whiffed on it, twice

Deron Williams was good, but Chris Paul has proved to be the point guard great Utah was looking for.

(Ross D. Franklin | AP Photo) Phoenix Suns guard Chris Paul smiles at the crowd after Game 1 of basketball's NBA Finals against the Milwaukee Bucks, Tuesday, July 6, 2021, in Phoenix. The Suns defeated the Bucks 118-105.

Chris Paul is the most interesting story of this year’s NBA Finals. His is a long, all-starring, storied pro career — with ups and downs, moments of disappointment and perhaps, at last, glory — that has passed through New Orleans, Los Angeles, Houston, Oklahoma City, landing in Phoenix. Where it will go next season, who knows?

For all of that, it is a career that would have been different, if …

The Jazz had made the right decision.

If …

The Jazz hadn’t blown it.

If …

Somebody else in the Jazz’s power structure had seen with a clearer view, had spoken with a louder voice.

It’s an if that would have altered Paul’s path and the Jazz’s, too.

Here’s what everybody knows: Chris Paul is an extraordinary talent.

Hindsight is a beautiful thing. But foresight is, as well.

Let’s say it the way it is. When Utah selected Deron Williams instead of Paul in the Great Draft Jive and Dive of 2005, they really did screw up in a big, big way. That mistake was preceded and fed by other mistakes in earlier Jazz drafts, one in particular.

All of which is being underscored by what Paul is currently doing for and with the Suns. He could — could — end up being the MVP of the Finals now, and could also lift Larry O’Brien’s trophy over his head when all is said and won, a privilege never achieved or enjoyed by any Jazz player.

I know, I know. Ouch.

It’s funny — not haha funny, but just kind of weird — how one mistake leads to another like that, but with just a shift here and another there, the Jazz might have that championship banner hanging from their rafters.

Shift happens. But only in the Jazz’s dreams.

Backing up to what occurred before the fateful June draft night 16 years ago when the Jazz went through all kinds of contortions to put themselves in position to potentially select Paul instead of Williams, moving up from the sixth spot to the third, they slammed a pan over their head by taking the wrong guy.

Not that Williams wasn’t good. He was. Paul is great.

It all started in 2001, when the Jazz made another boneheaded move by taking Raul Lopez in that draft instead of Tony Parker, perpetuating a problem that plagued them for years — the proper replacing of John Stockton at the point.

The reason the Jazz took Lopez instead of Parker was to save money. Stockton had not yet retired and management figured they could select Lopez and allow him to continue playing/developing in Europe and eventually extricate himself from his contract overseas while they saved that cash for a later date.

The sad story that followed went like this: Lopez blew out a couple of knees, sailing into mediocrity with the Jazz and ended up playing back in Spain in hampered form.

Parker? He went on to win four championships with the Spurs, playing a vital role in that team’s enormous success.

If the Jazz had taken him, there wouldn’t have been any need to make the mistake that followed four years later.

As the 2005 draft approached, the Jazz already experienced some lousy luck in the lottery, falling to the sixth position in that draft, via a New York Knicks high pick. They utilized some craftiness to trade a couple of late first-rounders to move up to third, knowing either Paul or Williams would be there at that spot. They needed a point guard because the Lopez thing fell flat, and Milt Palacio and Keith McLeod weren’t going to fill Stockton’s leftover talent void.

There was discord within the Jazz as to which point guard was preferred — the kid from Wake or the kid from Illinois.

There were varying opinions on the matter.

Then-general manager Kevin O’Connor later denied that any severe disagreements existed, straight claiming they did not.

“I talked to everyone,” O’Connor said five years after the fact. “We all wanted Deron.”

Nobody wanted Paul more?

“It was a win,” he said, in mid-backpedal, “either way.”

No, it was not.

Williams, as mentioned, was a fine player, stellar in some seasons, while he lasted, but …

But.

Not only was he no Chris Paul, but there were the subsequent troubles that led to Jerry Sloan’s sudden departure. And then, Williams being shipped off not long thereafter. There were high notes, too.

Williams led the Jazz to the Western Conference finals in 2007. At one juncture, he was impressive enough that it called for and marked the only time I spent an entire follow-up column, after singing Paul’s praises for so long, saying I was wrrrr … wrrrr … wrrrrong.

Usually don’t do that.

I never said Williams was better than Paul, just said that Williams was a nice fit, by way of his embattled sort of attitude, his surly play, his toughness, his focus on force and on winning with the Jazz.

He was all that, then he wasn’t.

Then came the eruption/disruption against Chicago, a coach’s resignation, and then the point guard was gone, shipped away.

How it all would have turned out had the Jazz taken Paul, nobody knows. But it’s safe to say it likely would have been better — for Utah. The Jazz may never have needed another point guard clear through the present.

Obviously, through a strange set of circumstances Paul didn’t last in New Orleans, the team that took him in 2005, and there’s no way of knowing whether he would have eventually left the Jazz, nomadic as his career has been. Maybe it would have been a matter of whether the Jazz would have paid him and would have put the necessary talent around him to keep him interested.

He’s a leader, a guy with an ego, a demanding dude who can be rough on teammates and on opponents.

But when you watch Paul perform at the level he’s at in these playoffs, when you see the effect he’s had on a team that’d lurched badly before sloping slightly upward ahead of his arrival, and now … and now they very well could achieve what the Jazz never have.

Yeah, the lifting of the trophy.

There’s other talent on that team, Devin Booker included, but Paul has been the difference-maker, the straw that stirs the drink, the player the Suns had to have to do what they’re doing.

Could it have been the Jazz? Paul couldn’t boost the Clippers, the Rockets (almost, if he hadn’t gotten injured in Game 7 against the Warriors), and, of course, not the Thunder. But he made all of them better, even with some of his foibles, like punching a few guys along the way.

But he’s one helluva player. One of the best point guards ever. Man, could the Jazz have used that through so many seasons and postseasons.

Like this last one.

If the Jazz had had a healthy Chris Paul, they would have beaten the Clippers a few weeks ago, and they probably would have beaten the Bucks.

If …

Easy to say all that, no way to prove it.

No way to prove it wrong.

The Jazz should have taken the kid in 2005, and they could have been enjoying the benefits of his skills and leadership as the man.

Everybody knows, they did not.

Pity.

GORDON MONSON hosts “The Big Show” with Jake Scott weekdays from 2-7 p.m. on 97.5 FM and 1280 AM The Zone.

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