Getting worse to get better

Ever since we moved to Utah over twenty years ago, I have been a fan of the Utah Jazz basketball team.  (I’m from Indiana–I’ve been a basketball fan since I could walk.  Something about Hoosier drinking water).  This year, for the first time in that history, the Jazz are terrible.  They’re probably the worst team in the entire NBA.  They won last night, beating the also-terrible New Orleans Pelicans, having lost their eight previous games.  (Did you hear that New Orleans is marketing team underwear?  Yep, the Pelican briefs.  Rimshot).  Anyway, the Jazz are awful.  And I couldn’t be more delighted.  I don’t care if we lose every game.  I know what they’re doing, and I fully approve.

Sometimes you have to get worse in order to get better.  It’s even a principle of Mormonism–the way repentance may require excommunication before you can begin getting your act back together.  This happens all the time in other aspects of life. Suppose you’re working at a job you hate. Don’t you get training for a better job? This happened to my son.  He graduated from college, got a good paying job as a stock broker.  Hated it.  Hated everything about it.  So he decided to switch careers, went to grad school.  He loves his field, and loves his new life.  His income took a big hit, but only temporarily–he’s now getting a first-class education that will prepare him for a career he loves.  Took a step back, in order to take a big step forward.  I have a son-in-law; terrific guy, works as a truck driver.  He decided to buy his own truck, essentially go into business for himself.  Short-term, of course, he’s going to have to pay for the truck.  But long-term, his financial outlook is vastly improved.  Small step back; big step forward.

That’s what the Jazz are doing.  Boy are they going to be awful this season. They’re an odd team; a mix of over-the-hill veterans and raw, talented young guys who haven’t quite figured out how to win in the NBA.  But help is most decidedly on the way.

Here’s what they’re doing: basketball is a game played with five on a side.  If you replace a weak player with a star, you can improve your team by a tremendous amount immediately.  For example, the 1968 Milwaukee Bucks were a terrible basketball team.  They won 27 games, lost 55.  Their best player was probably Jon McGlocklin (from Indiana!)  Jon McGlocklin was a pretty good shooter, but that’s all.  If he’s your best player, well, you’re going to go 27-55. 
But by going 27-55, they got the first pick in the 1969 NBA draft.  And with that draft pick, they drafted a tall skinny kid from New York by way of UCLA, a guy just in the process of converting to Islam, which meant changing his name from Lew Alcindor to Kareem Abdul Jabbar.  Greatest low post scorer in the history of basketball, plus a tremendous shot blocker and rebounder, back then.  Same coach, all the other players stayed the same.  Jon McGlocklin went from their best player, to their second best player.  They went 56-26.  They went from a terrible team to a very good one. Next season, they traded for Oscar Robertson, one of the best point guards in the history of basketball (the Magic Johnson of his era; also from Indiana).  Jon McGlocklin went from their second best player to their third best.  (They also added a rookie forward named Bobby Dandridge, terrific defensive forward).  They won the NBA championship. 
You take an awful team, add a superstar, and become an excellent team.  Add another superstar, and you win a championship.  That’s how basketball works.  That’s what happened with the Boston Celtics, when they added Larry Bird.  Cornbread Maxwell went from their best player to their second best player.  And the team improved from 29-55 to 61-21. (Larry Bird, allow me to note, is from Indiana).  ‘
Right now, the Utah Jazz’ best player is Gordon Hayward.  He’s a fine player, can play guard or small forward, an excellent shooter and passer, very good defensive player, from Indiana.  So, you know, quality guy.  (Also, I’m reliably assured by my youngest daughter, a hottie).  But Hayward is really miscast as a star. 
But if we’re bad enough, we’re going to get a star.  Oh my heck, are we getting a star. 
Talent flow into the NBA tends to be cyclical.  Some years, the best college players are frankly not superstar quality.  Last year, the number one pick in the draft was a guy named Michael Bennett. (They should have drafted Victor Oladipo instead.  Best player on the Indiana team–obvious first pick). Right now, Bennett looks like a bust.  Looks a little over-matched out there.  There were some good players in last year’s draft, but no stars.  It was generally seen as a mediocre draft.  Happens.  
Monday night, ESPN showed two college basketball games, involving, obviously, four teams.  On three of those teams, the best player (by far the best player), was a college freshman.  Kentucky, for example, has this guy, Julius Randle.  Boy did he not look like a college freshman. Huge, incredibly athletic, insanely skilled.  Kentucky trailed badly at the end of the first half, and in the second half, Randle clearly just decided, ‘all right, enough’s enough.’  Just took over the game.  Unguardable.  You watch him play and you just know–barring injuries, he’s going to be a star. 
And he wasn’t the best player out there.  Duke was up next, and we got to say Jabari Parker play.  Jabari’s from Chicago, a town that, for basketball purposes, is essentially an Indiana suburb.  He’s also active LDS, a straight-A student, a first-class guy from a strong-supportive family.  Monday–well, there’s dominating, and then there’s dominating.  In his second game as a college player, he scored basically anytime he wanted to, grabbed 9 rebounds, made 3 steals, passed for a bunch of assists, guarded the other team’s best scorer and shut him down.  Afterwards, he was mad at himself–said he would give himself a C-minus.  Because his team lost.  To Kansas.
Kansas has a guard, Andrew Wiggins (and why he hasn’t been given the nickname ‘Ender’ I have no idea).  He made some stupid fouls in the first half, looked a little intimidated, didn’t show much.  Went out in the second half, and exploded–27 points, in barely half a game.  Led his team to victory.  And showed off an athleticism that even Randle and Parker, great as they are, couldn’t quite match. 
Those three guys are going to be the first three players picked in next year’s NBA draft, assuming they all decide it’s time to play in the NBA.  (Which they probably will, except possibly Parker, who wants a college degree).  One two three.  Randle, Parker, Wiggins.  Or Wiggins first.  Or Parker. And they’re going to be superb.  Five years from now, LaBron James will be contemplating retirement, and people will be arguing about who the greatest player in the world is, and it’s going to be one of those three guys.  
And if the Jazz continue to be terrible, one of those guys will be a member of the Utah Jazz, I think, and Gordon Hayward will be the second best player on the team.  I look at the Jazz, and I see a very talented forward, Derrick Favors, excellent rebounder and defender, who gets out of position too much, because he’s very young.  I see a capable big guy, a center, Enes Kanter, from Turkey.  Good athlete, can rebound and shoot, doesn’t really know what he’s doing out there.  I see a huge kid, Rudy Gobert, very tall, long arms, French–doesn’t really know how to play basketball.  Fabulous potential, though. That’s the whole team.  Talented, inexperienced.  Potentially potent.  Add Jabari Parker, and . . . wow.  (And an LDS kid?  In Utah?  Double wow). 
The Jazz stink right now.  I hope it continues.  Step back, so you can step forward. 



2 thoughts on “Getting worse to get better

  1. Mike

    If you’re discussing the ULTIMATE example of getting worse to get better, some mention of the past several years of Indiana University basketball is completely mandatory.

    The powers that be at IU had spent many years taking the wrong turn at every opportunity, which led to the hiring of (cringe, ptooey!) Kelvin Sampson. His solution for trying to drag the program out of the stuck-in-the-mud doldrums of Mike Davis: go for the quick fix by (1) cheating, and (2) establishing a character-deprived thugocracy of players where flunking classes and drug tests were equally routine.

    Enter Tom Crean, who quickly discovered that the termite-ridden house he’d been left was too eaten up to save. With some interim help from Dan Dakich before his arrival, he set about wrecking the remaining structure to allow for the re-construction of Indiana University Basketball. Players who would have been contributors, but were part of the problem, were rightfully let go. This left a team whose only returning scholarship players, two of them, were former walk-ons. Crean didn’t start with a wrecked building, he started with a smoking crater. Far worse than he’d expected when he took the job.

    That first year the team went 6-25, the worst season in their history. Worse even than last year’s Jazz. They fought like irritated tigers, but, boy, were they terrible. Crean started the process he knew he had to, using what he knew he had to: get a great staff, promote absolutely anything positive, and use the energy and passion of hoops-crazy Indiana for all it’s worth. A 6-25 season had big, noisy crowds, giving Tom a foundation as solid as the limestone over which Assembly Hall is built. This was the hole card he held with every new hand, and it always paid.

    From that time, with a slow, undersized walk-on starting at center (Kyle Taber, a man with the heart of a warrior), the build began. Slow progress every year, then…boom! Christian Watford’s dagger against Kentucky, wins at home and on the road, and an undisputed Big Ten championship…in a year when the Big Ten was beyond doubt the strongest overall conference. The Hoosiers were indeed back.

    Thanks for taking those backward steps, Coach…and bravo, Kyle Taber. Hoosiers!


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