Reason to be jazzed up in the smaller markets
What tipped off Utah general manager Kevin O’Connor was Deron Williams’s lack of commitment the past few years. Williams nearly the flooded the Great Salt Lake with “we’ll sees’’ and “not sures,’’ giving O’Connor an insecure feeling.
Williams was unhappy with the direction of the Jazz, sought more influence on roster decisions, and was convinced the system and philosophy were antiquated. And considering recent NBA history, many expected the Jazz to spend the next year trying to persuade Williams to stay and making all the necessary changes to accommodate their franchise guard.
Or they could trade him at market value before he even had a chance to contemplate a cold-blooded exit.
O’Connor took the latter option, dealing Williams to New Jersey in such secretive fashion that Williams himself found out about the deal on “SportsCenter.’’ The Jazz were proactive, refusing to allow Williams to hold the organization hostage for the next year while he toyed with their emotions and not-so-inconspicuously criticized the team and management.
Williams, a two-time All-Star, is playing for the Nets because he never made a true commitment to the Jazz, and because O’Connor realized that the Nets had assets to give and were looking for a franchise-altering player. And now they are the ones left to woo Williams to stay in 2012, when he becomes a free agent.
The Jazz will take 19-year-old Derrick Favors, solid point guard Devin Harris, and two first-round picks and build from there. The mercurial Williams is someone else’s issue.
“I’ve always respected Jerry West, and guys who have made [tough] decisions,’’ said O’Connor. “I respect Danny Ainge for making a decision on getting Ray Allen and risking [his roster] to get Kevin Garnett.
“I think you have to take risks to get rewards; it’s contingent. We just felt like this deal was something that was acceptable for the risk/reward.’’
The Jazz have acquired a potential cornerstone along with a starting point guard in exchange for Williams.
O’Connor decided that Utah wasn’t going to join Cleveland and Toronto in small-market hell. Those teams banked on the loyalty of LeBron James and Chris Bosh but were left with trade exceptions and little hope.
Perhaps O’Connor’s quick trigger will set a trend for smaller-market teams that want value for their soon-to-depart superstars. Younger pieces and draft picks are essential to rebuilding, and larger-market teams seeking validity will have those to offer. The Knicks, for example, have practically given the Nuggets new life with the Carmelo Anthony trade.
Not every superstar wants to play in a big city with a storied franchise. There are those who just want to play and be appreciated. Harris talked about playing in front of a full house in Utah instead of a mausoleum in New Jersey.
O’Connor is banking that Harris, who has not been in a winning situation in years, and Favors, who had been the subject of trade rumors from the moment the Nets drafted him, will enjoy Salt Lake City and its upside.
“We’ve had one losing season in 23 years, so I think we’ve been successful,’’ said O’Connor. “But I feel like, again, that it just got to a situation where we were concerned with the uncertainty of next year. I said, ‘Wow, that’s a lot that New Jersey’s offering,’ and New Jersey got a great player, so I thought it was a win-win situation.’’
The trade offers hope to the ignored and overshadowed franchises. If smaller-market general managers were asking the league for more ammunition in the fight against being squeezed out, O’Connor may have provided some negotiating power they didn’t believe they had.
While Cleveland trading James or Toronto moving Bosh would have been wildly unpopular at the time, fan bases now may be more understanding about the business of the game.
That’s why Harris and Favors were given standing ovations. That’s why Jazz fans didn’t mourn the trade but moved on. Trade exceptions don’t motivate fans to buy tickets; young and talented players do.
“Somewhere along the line, you can’t keep using [the small market] as an excuse,’’ said O’Connor. “You have to compete. So how do you compete? You try and be a little creative. You try and get good players. You try and get good coaches.’’
O’Connor is convinced that Utah can be successful in the long run and can cultivate stars instead of reshuffling lottery picks who eventually become disgruntled.
While Toronto has had an awful time holding on to superstars because of a lack of prolonged success, the Jazz don’t have that issue. EnergySolutions Arena remains one of the five toughest road stops, and the Stockton-Malone era proved that superstars can thrive in less-heralded cities.
“There’s a lot of guys that want to come here because they see a market that they can play in front of a full house, good players that they’re playing with, and stability in the organization,’’ said O’Connor.
It’s the same old issue. A once-adequate arena has lived beyond its years and money-losing owners are seeking refuge. Sacramento spent years supporting the Kings and was one of the toughest places for a visiting team to play, but as the area around Arco Arena has grown exponentially, the arena itself has stagnated.
As in Seattle, the city council has botched the arena-building process while the team’s overanxious owners have been ready to bail for years.
There is little the NBA can do to stop this. Commissioner David Stern wouldn’t be against a third team in the Los Angeles market because Anaheim geographically is dramatically different. A new team could draw fans from the San Diego area, Inland Empire, and the Imperial Valley. The
The irony of the situation is that Sacramento’s mayor is former NBA point guard Kevin Johnson, who was elected with the express purpose of saving the Kings and fostering construction of a sports complex. At a press conference Thursday, Johnson expressed little optimism for Kings fans who have suffered through the team’s swift decline.
“We asked them whether they would sell the team to a local owner, and they said no,’’ Johnson said. “Their issue was clearly not that we don’t like Sacramento, that we don’t like the city. They love Sacramento. It’s the economics of it.’’
Johnson pointed out that the Kings would receive more corporate support, more revenue streams from luxury boxes, and a sweeter television deal in Anaheim.
There has been speculation that the uncertain labor situation may lead the Kings owners, the Maloofs, to postpone the move until next season, but the last thing the NBA wants is a lame duck season in a once-thriving market. It was able to avoid that in Seattle when the city council and mayor agreed to a buyout of the lease.
Stern is not generally in favor of relocation unless it makes for a financially healthier league, and when an ownership group is taking a bath as the Maloofs are, he has no problem moving into the No. 2 media market. Now comes the difficult part of persuading the Lakers and Clippers to accept a new tenant in their territory.
On Thursday, he visited Brookline for the first time since making it to the NBA. It was a humbling experience, as was playing at the Garden as a member of the Golden State Warriors.
Adrien’s road has not been easy. He has bounced around from summer league, to training camp, to Developmental League, and to 10-day contracts. The Warriors released Adrien earlier this season in a numbers crunch, then invited him back after a trade with New Jersey opened two roster spots.
“You just have to stay mentally strong and believe in what you do,’’ he said. “For me, in the D-League, I had to prove I belong up here and maximize my efforts for a long period of time.
“As far as being in the NBA, I’ve got to do the little things to keep me here and get me on the court. Setting screens, running the floor hard, playing defense, being efficient around the hoop. I’m not looking to score 15 points a night, I’m looking to grab 15 rebounds.’’
Adrien knew there would be doubters once he left UConn as an undersized power forward (he is listed at 6-7 but is more like 6-4). But a relentless workmanlike attitude kept him on the radar of NBA scouts, and landed him in the Garden Friday, playing against his hometown team.
“It was great,’’ he said. “I walked in here and it’s like now I am walking in here to play. There’s no other atmosphere like playing the Celtics at the Boston Garden. Great fans, diehard fans, and I know that from being here.’’
And the return to Brookline as a grown man and a role model was the most moving experience.
“Being there as a professional basketball player . . . those people over there saw me grow up,’’ he said. “There’s a lot of emotions coming back here.’’
Difficult to curry favor There is a free agent center out there ready to sign with a contending team. But Eddy Curry has such a poor history with the Knicks that he is considered untouchable, according to many NBA scouts. Curry apparently told friends he was ready to sign with the Heat, but Miami may not be interested. Curry has said he’s been ready to play for the past two years and only Knicks coach Mike D’Antoni has prevented a return to action. Curry is only 28 but his best years are far behind him, unless he somehow gets the opportunity to play.
Layups After two months, Antoine Walker is still toiling in the NBDL, and with his subpar performance in January’s D-League Showcase, his shot to return to the NBA disappeared. Walker is averaging 16.1 points and 5.8 rebounds, while shooting 44 percent, and is eligible to sign with any NBA team. But he may have to improve his stock in summer league — if there is one, barring a lockout — and then perhaps join a training camp next year . . . The Players Association and the league can take a page from the NFL by being proactive in negotiations. Players Association director Billy Hunter said the sides were expected to schedule an informal meeting in the next couple of weeks but they have yet to begin negotiations. The current CBA expires July 1, and there is speculation that many players don’t have enough savings to survive a long lockout. Hunter said he has advised the players to start saving. The NFL is setting the tone for the NBA, hiring a mediator to facilitate discussions and postponing a lockout deadline. If the NBA truly wants to avoid a stoppage, it should get serious and begin laying the framework for serious negotiations.
Gary Washburn can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Material from interviews, wire services, other beat writers, and league and team sources was used in this report.