FACEOFF LAKERS : Lakers Versus Jazz Is More Than an Exercise in Revenge
It started off as another conversation, Laker Coach Del Harris and Washington Wizard Coach Bernie Bickerstaff chit-chatting in the Great Western Forum hallways before their teams played a game in March.
Pretty soon it turned into a full-scale testimonial to the Utah Jazz. Utah had smacked the Lakers, 106-91, the night before and Harris couldn’t stop talking about how well the Jazz played. The way they executed their plays. Their game-long diligence. The dedication of their franchise to stick with the same core players and same core system, all these years.
Harris was at the end of a tumultuous month in which his future with the team had come into question. He sounded almost envious of the patience the Jazz showed with Coach Jerry Sloan. It was as if Harris was picturing what he could accomplish if given a few more years with this talented Laker roster.
Maybe all of us, players and management included, should take a look at what the Jazz has accomplished. And the way they have accomplished it.
Utah’s back-to-back 60-win seasons, four trips to the Western Conference finals in five years and first appearance in the NBA finals last year were a long time coming.
Karl Malone and John Stockton have been doing their thing together here since 1985. Jazz regulars Antoine Carr, Jeff Hornacek, Adam Keefe and Bryon Russell have all been here since 1994.
Jerry Sloan is the longest tenured coach in the NBA. He became Utah’s head coach 17 games into the 1988-89 season, when Frank Layden left the bench and moved upstairs into the front office.
“We always felt like that was the right way to do it,” Sloan said. “I did too. That’s why I didn’t leave and go to another team.
“We were told five or six years ago, when we didn’t beat Golden State or somebody, we should break this team up--especially Malone or myself. If they had done something like that then the team, in my opinion, would have gone downhill for another five or six years.”
Patience. Refusing to panic.
“They’ve kept things stable,” Sloan said. “Players know in a New York second when a coach is in trouble. That’s why so many guys are jumpy and scared to death with all that stuff that you see happening with owners and coaching situations. The players start running the team. As soon as you see that happening, there’s not going to be any stability there.”
“That’s the way it was taught to me when I played in Chicago,” said Sloan, who spent a decade with the Bulls and had his jersey retired by the team. “That was very obvious. We don’t have a guy who will ever be in the Hall of Fame. We won 50 games almost every year simply because we were together, we did what we were supposed to do. It wasn’t a big deal. We played against some pretty high-powered teams and still were able to beat them. We couldn’t win any championships, but we played 82 games, rather than wait until the playoffs started.”
Consistency and execution.
“Teams used to say, ‘The Jazz are predictable--they’re going to get it to John, they’re going to get it to Karl, they’re either going to score or pass,’ ” Malone said. “Now everybody’s running our plays. We look at the Lakers, they’re running a couple of our plays. Our plays work. We realize that.”
So does the rest of the league. They know exactly what’s coming and they still can’t stop it.
That will be the next challenge for the Lakers, to see if they can maintain their intensity and focus on defense while the Jazz run the shot clock down for almost the entire 24 seconds. The Lakers must get good shots when they have the ball, because they know the Jazz will on the other end of the court.
The Lakers have matured so quickly in the past week it’s as if we’re watching them in time-lapse photography. We’ve seen this before in a team led by Shaquille O’Neal. In 1995 his Orlando Magic went from winning their first playoff game to approaching the verge of a dynasty. But Michael Jordan came back to thwart their plans, Shaq jetted to L.A., Brian Hill was fired as coach.
Orlando didn’t make the playoffs this season.
For the Lakers to avoid the same fate it will take dedication on all parts. Patience by management; no knee-jerk firings or quick-fix trades. Commitment by the players, even if it means taking less money to stay in L.A. Win rings, and they will be repaid in many ways.
Los Angeles is a different market than Utah, where the Jazz is the only major sports franchise in the state. L.A. fans don’t want to wait for reloading, let alone rebuilding.
That doesn’t mean the Lakers can’t learn from the Jazz. The New York Knicks, under even greater hometown scrutiny than the Lakers, keep making quick fixes and are getting farther and farther from the championship. Which franchise makes for a better model?
Malone said repeatedly Friday that the Lakers right now are playing better than any of the four surviving teams in the NBA playoffs. Of the four, only the Lakers are young enough to sustain this level--or even improve--through the year 2000.
If the Lakers do what’s proper, it should be Jerry Sloan who is envious of Del Harris right now.