Thursday, September 11, 2008

The Five Epic Errors of Jerry Eugene Sloan

I like Jerry Sloan and respect him for what he has done for the NBA, and what he has brought to the game. He and his staff (Phil Johnson, and any combination of Ty Corbin, Gordon Chiesa, Kenny Natt, Scott Layden, etc) are undervalued developers of talent and teachers of the game. For example, DeShawn Stevenson was not an NBA player when he joined the league -- 4 years learning in Utah made him a player. For one, they completely broke down his shot, and rebuilt it like the $6 Million Dollar man over those 4 years as he worked with Hornacek for quite a bit -- now he's a capable three point shooter, not an athletic Desmond Mason type with ugly mechanics and no outside shot. Another thing that is undervalued is the fact that Jerry Sloan (and staff) is quite good at making game to game adjustments. (Some will argue that he doesn't make meaningful adjustments -- but those are in-game adjustments, which I readily agree he is poor at -- his game to game adjustments are among the best in the league. For proof watch the NBA playoffs)

Can I has technical foul?

Sloan is well respected in league circles, though he is consistently regarded as a few notches down from the likes of Phil Jackson, Gregg Popovich, Pat Riley, Don Nelson (who has 3 CoY awards!), Larry Brown, Rudy Tomjanovich, Jeff Van Gundy (who is not currently employed as a coach) and others.

Sloan is well respected, but guys like Bryon Scott, Sam Mitchell, Rick Carlisle, Doc Rivers and Don Chaney have won Coach of the Year Awards. [Opinion Alert: I think that Sloan is a better coach than any of those guys]

Scott is an okay coach, Mitchell is a 5 game loss streak away from being fired, and Doc Rivers was fired as a coach something like 7 times already. Don Chaney has a .406 winning percentage, of if you will allow me, roughly a 60% losing percentage. He has two playoff wins in his career as a coach. He has been a CoY, while Sloan has not.

It's not about Coach of the Year Awards though, as Sloan's top assistant coach (Phil Johnson) was NBA Coach of the Year in 1974-1975. What it is about, though, is understanding why Sloan (for all of his good attributes) seems to be a step behind that first group, and stuck in a situation where former Players with little coaching experience get awards that have so far eluded him. What are the major lacunae in Jerry Sloan's abilities as a coach?

1. Playing Time / Rotation Management:

Only John has retained his hair from those days Not pictured: ref awarding Jordan two free throws Jerry Sloan has had the benefit of having John Stockton QB his teams since Jerry Sloan first became the Head Coach in '88. Stockton has always heeded Jerry's command (like any good soldier), and as such, he was at the mercy of Sloan during the most important 12 games of John Stockton's career -- the NBA Finals in 1996-1997 and 1997-1998. Jer' has coached John for quite a while, so you'd think Jerry knew how important these games were to John's career and future legacy.
Photographed by Andrew D. Bernstein/NBAE via Getty Images    

But one of Jerry Sloan's major flaws was expressed in those 12 games. Sloan likes to stick to a rotation, which may or may not have contributed to prolonging the careers of his players at the expense of wins. Malone and Stockton both played up to the age of 40 -- but a few seasons before they'd reach those milestones they were in the NBA Finals. In those years Sloan's regimented playing time and rotation scheme called for Stockton to exit the game at the 6 min mark of every first quarter -- regardless of any other circumstances in the game (who was on the floor, were the Jazz on a run, who had fouls, who were they playing against, what the score was, etc). Sure, this may have saved John for the playoffs -- but when the Jazz finally got to the finals, why did he continue to hold John back?

Stockton was easily the best and most consistent player during those finals runs, and it would be pure folly to imply that the Jazz weren't a better Jazz team with Stockton on the floor (no matter how very adequate, and sometimes amazing Howard Eisley actually was during those same years -- you know, like having your back-up PG go coast to coast to hit game winning threes with the audacity to not call a time out, or pass to a starter). The fact that the Jazz were better is not debatable. While there are many factors which influence a win (especially in the NBA Finals), in the games that the Jazz won against the Bulls over those two seasons had John Stockton averaging 37.0 mpg. What about in the Jazz losses? John was anchored to the bench for 33.8 mpg. Correlation does not always translate to causation -- but really Jerry, what were you saving Stockton for when you had him playing 31 mins and 33 mins in game 4 and 6 in the 1998 Finals -- games where the Jazz lost by a COMBINED 5 points, were you saving him for the next round after that, or the off-season? Now, I'm not saying that if Jerry played Stockton more that we would have won the title, no one can say that. What I am saying is that perhaps if he was on the floor more (like to end the 1st quarter, so the Jazz wouldn't start the 2nd quarter already behind and have to fight their way back into every game), the Jazz would have had a better shot to win more games.

  1996-1997       1997-1998    
Finals Game # Stockton's
Minutes Played
Outcome Difference   Stockton's
Minutes Played
Outcome Difference
Game 1 38 Loss -2   35 Win +3
Game 2 39 Loss -12   31 Loss -5
Game 3 37 Win +11   26 Loss -42
Game 4 38 Win +5   31 Loss -4
Game 5 36 Loss -2   38 Win +2
Game 6 37 Loss -4   33 Loss -1

Stockton's MPG in Wins: 37.0 mpg -- Stockton's MPG in Losses: 33.8 mpg.

Current examples of Jerry Sloan's crazy substitution pattern exist in the whole Matt Harpring / Andrei Kirilenko dynamic (where Harpring's mins have been cut a bit, but he still gets way more burn than he needs in the face of evidence that Andrei's magic number is 37 mpg, any less, and he's not amazing). And let's not even get into the whole "younger player" issue (you know, like playing Deron Williams so little as a rookie, and at that, playing him at Shooting Guard instead of Point Guard, and so forth -- but more on that below).

Jerry's use (or disuse) of Stockton at a very critical time is probably the best example of him being bull-headed and sticking to his system against evidence that suggests that it may be okay to run the horses a bit. Then again, this was the Jazz Sloan who used to play Adam Keefe 27.5 mpg or something insane like that.  

2. Very slow to adapt to changes in the game:

Do you ever watch games on TV and when one team goes on a run, to stop the momentum and regroup, the other team's coach may call a time out? Yeah, Jerry Sloan hardly ever does that. Jerry Sloan hoards time outs and possibly thinks that they are like roll-over minutes with his cell phone plan. Unfortunately they are not.

Some coaches can get away with not calling a time out, like Phil Jackson, but that's only because he has some heady vets on his team (like Kobe and Fisher, who have played in a few NBA Finals games) -- Sloan could get away with this back when the average age of the team was 33 and everyone was battle tested in the playoffs like in those Finals teams.

That's not the case with this team -- he should probably use time outs a bit more. Especially when other teams go on their 2nd quarter runs.
Jerry Sloan calls Time out by accident
  Photographed by unknown, NBAE/Getty Images

That's just one thing though . . . adaptation is the key to survival -- in nature and in the NBA. (unless you have tenure, like Sloan does) Sloan does an okay job making game-to-game adjustments as I've already mentioned . . . but he loves his game plan. He will go into a game with one plan, and one plan alone. If the plan does not work, he will continue with that plan just to prove a point or because he is stubborn, or maybe, because he honestly did not believe than an alternative plan was even needed. (As he sits dumbfounded with his mouth agape as the Jazz get blown out in the finals by 42 points in one game) If another guy is really hot, how often do we see any defensive scheme changes to counter this? Jerry Sloan's idea of changing things up defensively seems to just mean shuffling around who defends a particular player. (Hmmm, Tim Duncan is killing Memo one on one, let's put Boozer on him . . . hmmmm . . . Tim Duncan is killing Boozer one on one, let's put Jarron on him . . . . hmmmm . . . Tim Duncan is killing Jarron one on one, let's put Hoffa on him . . .  ad nauseam)

3. His Personal Pet Peeves hamstring the teams he coaches:

You ever wonder why some players just go off on the Jazz? It's partly because of the whole inability to make in-game changes. The other, probably more chronic, issue is the fact that Jerry Sloan has a very diverse and particular set of pet peeves. No, I'm not talking about everyone having to have their shirt tucked in, or no head bands or whatever . . . I'm talking about the fact that he'd rather kiss Phil Jackson's ass than actually set up a defensive scheme that calls for double teaming someone. Do you guys remember that game where LeBron James had his first 50+ point game of his career? The game where it was basically Devon Brown, Matt Harpring and Andrei Kirilenko guarding him one on one for 48 minutes? [just watch that video, each one of his baskets is made by being defended one on one, even after he had scored 39 points, Sloan keeps the Jazz in single, man to man defense] I know LeBron is good, Jerry should too by now. I know he can win a game by scoring 50+ points -- I'd rather go with him passing it up to Anderson Varejao or Eric Snow (who was on the team back then) and have them try to beat us instead.

Sloan asks the ref what this symbol means, and why the other team has the ability to make open jumpers . . . while Scott Layden attempts to eat his blue highlighter Forget the scrubs, if there is anywhere that the Jerry Sloan Jazz want you to beat them from it is from the outside. Utah has always seemed like they just wanted to dare other teams into taking outside shots. This strategy may be a remnant from the Sloan's Dick Motta inspired playbook that was created back when teams did not really shoot often from deep, nor did they have players who were good at that. Times have changed and today's NBA features many teams that not only like to take open three point shots, but have multiple threats from downtown. For example, just look at the LA Lakers who have tons of outside shooters (Kobe, Fisher, Sasha, Vlad-Rad, Farmar, Walton, Ariza and even Odom can knock down jumpers), is it any wonder why we lost to them?

Sloan: oh noes! Teams that can make wide open jumpers when no one is even close to defending the open man -- my ONE weakness . . . how did you know?
Photographed by Barry Gossage, NBAE/Getty Images  

The whole three point line thing seems to be just an under-explored and confusing aspect of the game for Sloan (like the concept of the female orgasm in good, old fashioned, 1950's America). Local heartthrob Kyle Korver admits that the Jazz do not have plays in the playbook for a last second three -- or any plays that really have the three point shot in mind at all. (Which explains why our last offensive play of the 2007-2008 season was a sequence of bricked shots, or why Matt Harpring was taking awkward looking, last second mid-range jumpers for us in previous seasons when we needed a bucket.) 

So he doesn't like to double team, which allows for the other teams' best offensive player to go to work and score a lot of points. He also doesn't like the outside shot -- and that would work great if there was a specific code of honor that all coaches lived by: 'I won't use the three point line, and you don't use it either, deal?' Jerry, other teams will take what you give them, and if you give them open looks from deep, they will take those shots and burry us with them. (And have been for seasons) Anything else?

He is pretty old school, and that old-school-ness can work for some players and be absolutely horrible for others. Greg Ostertag was a flawed player, but I have no doubt that if Ostertag had a more touchy-feely coach that he could have been no lesser than a Luc Longley (who was a solid starter), rather than a guy who was dunked on slightly less than Shawn Bradley.

His major pet peeve is perceived effort. Which probably explains why guys like Adam Keefe and Matt Harpring get burn over the more talented, yet apparently less hard working guys like Chris Morris and Gordan Giricek (when he was here). [Btw, look at Giri's career stats, he wasn't a bad player at all, neither was Morris . . . yet look at how they were used in our system. Were they bad players, or just used poorly?] I understand the meritocracy involved in rewarding hard working players with playing time, but what about wins?  Giricek and Sloan never saw eye to eye
  Photographed by Matthias B. Krause/Icon SMI

Chris Morris and Giricek would absolutely smoke Harpring and Keefe in a game of 2-on-2. They were better players, even if Sloan did not treat them as such. Which brings us to how Jerry Sloan . . .

4. Revels in Power Distance:

Jerry Sloan is the boss. His staff knows it. The owner of the team knows it. The media knows it. And most importantly, his players know it. And as far as being the boss, he's far from the most approachable, understanding, and cooperative one around. He takes issue with star player and scrub alike -- he admitted that if you could freeze time during that moment when Stockton got the defensive rebound and threw the football hail marry pass to Malone in the finals for a key bucket in the 4th quarter that he would have liked to strangle Stockton while the ball was in the air. (Really, who says these things, even if they are true?) The issues that he has with players can stem from a lot of root causes: perceived self-worth (Carlos Arroyo), consistent effort (Greg Ostertag), sexual orientation (John Amaechi), degree of free will and autonomy (Gordan Giricek), inability to read minds and/or complete objectives that are never fully explained or consistent from game to game (Andrei Kirilenko).

How many times do I have to tell you Andrei? You're only allowed to touch the ball on defense when you get weakside blocked shots because Memo and Booz don't play defense! I freely admit that I'm kind of an AK-47 homer. He used to be 'The Man' and has had to adjust to different roles on the fly -- while getting none of the credit that he deserves from Sloan. One season, he's the Point Forward and earns a trip to the All-Star game. The next, he's a leper. The next, he starts off as a leper, but due to injuries, his role is expanded. (Guess what, he started to play better!) His role has oscillated like a yo-yo for the last couple of seasons depending on roster moves and injuries to other guys. (as has his playing time) He can do everything from get a triple double or 5x5 to play point guard in the Western Conference Playoffs against Baron Davis. It is insane to think that he's not the most versatile and over-all talented player on the team.
Photographed by Matt Slocum, AP Photo  

Deron is the best player, and most consistent. This is not up for debate. Neither should be the fact that Andrei is paid on a scale that only makes sense based on his talent and ability -- and not how he is used or applied. (Who chooses how he is used again? The Head Coach.) As good as Andrei is the last few seasons with Jerry Sloan have pretty much ruined him. It would not surprise me to see Andrei leave the NBA for good after his contract is over and return to his native Russia a hero. Why am I blaming Jerry Sloan?

I'm blaming Sloan because he's the one who should be the guy who helps manage players -- especially players who have changing roles and need to make transitions. Probably no transition is harder to make than from being 'The Man' to being the 5th option on offense, yet the thankless workhorse on defense. Phil Jackson, for all of his smarmy-ness and douche-baggery , has been able to coax nutcases like Dennis Rodman, Bison Dele, Ron Harper, J.R. Rider and others to perform at a high level. Sloan and AK have worked together for 8 or so years now, why does AK still not know what he's supposed to be doing?

Maybe it happens to be because Sloan keeps changing his expectations of him, and due to his power distance, AK is the only one who gets the blame when things go wrong. Other players have long since gotten the boot for getting 'sideways' with Jerry Sloan. (Sloan just knows that AK's defense is so valuable that he can't completely kick him off the team) Personality is a big part of communication, and when you give someone so much power it's hard for their sense of 'right' to not come out in their personality. The psychological aspects of motivation are just as puzzling to Jerry Sloan as the three point shot appears to be. I guess in his hard headed universe (you know, the kind where there is no back up plan for any given game) there is only one way to motivate -- by yelling, swearing and saying mean things. This is probably a contributing factor as to why when AK is taken out of the game he sits as far away from Sloan as possible -- Sloan is just an impossible guy sometimes.

5. Makes mistakes, admits to making mistakes, does not change so mistakes can continue to be made in the future:

Jerry Sloan can be 'like' an abusive spouse in his consistent merry-go-round of making mistakes, admitting to making mistakes, suggesting that changes will be made, but actually no real changes are made, and mistakes continue to occur. How many times do we hear (after a season is over) that "I probably should have played __________ (insert breakout player's name here, some recent examples include Mehmet Okur, Deron Williams, and Ronnie Brewer) more during the season"? Pretty much every season. Memo had a break out year, and Sloan said that it was a mistake to not have played him more. The next season they draft Deron -- and again, Sloan does not play him as much as he should -- only to say that he should have, after the fact. What happens the next season? Ronnie Brewer doesn't play, and after his 2nd season Sloan basically says "My bad" again. And we just eat it up -- our neutral reaction to his maladaptive behavior reinforces his psychopathology.

Sloan is an old dog, and he does not want to learn new tricks. He has shown some improvement over time (that probably only I have noticed), he allows guys like Memo to shoot threes, and is not completely against a guy throwing an alley-oop now and then. (He still may not like it, but he's not going to bench a guy for getting an assist) Unfortunately, the majority of his change seems to occur over a span of 10 games. I don't want to belabor the point but part of the whole AK situation is that Andrei will complain because of how he is used, Sloan and him will talk and Sloan will agree to make changes, the next few games things are better and AK is more productive, then after 10 games or so, things will revert back to normal and the cycle will start again. (Part of the reason why this Sloan/AK deal is less resolved than it should be happens to be because it is never really resolved fully.)

Don't talk to me about Coach Sloan right now, I'm on vacation How many coaches would make a habit of pissing off their best players by not giving them the playing time that their skills deserve? Deron Williams will never fully heal, and while he respects Sloan as a coach (and his Boss), he still isn't shy about admitting that he knows he should have played more as a rookie (you know, the season where everyone was all about Chris Paul, and no one mentioned Deron because he wasn't playing?). I don't know if Memo cares about how he was treated, but the younger guys probably do care (like Brewer, and likely, C.J.). For the record, Deron, Ronnie, Andrei and Memo comprise 80% of the starting line-up. Those are all guys that Sloan has made significant impressions (first or most recent in the case of Andrei) on as 'the guy who is going to be a dick and not play you, even though you are better than the guys who get playing time'. One wonders who the 'next' guy he'll come out and suggest he should have played more will be? My money is on Fesenko, after next season when he starts off averaging 4.3 mpg with the Jazz only to end up being better than Jarron Collins and finally usurp his mpg.
Photo from  

Sloan is old school and I appreciate and respect the fact that when he is wrong he is really okay with saying it like it is. He will admit to being wrong in the instances where he understands that he is wrong. (Unlike a guy like Phil Jackson who will make an infinite number of excuses for anything bad that happens, like blaming the physical play of the other team, their fans, injuries, etc) I would appreciate Sloan even more if he actually stuck to fixing the mistakes, even if that would prevent him from admitting to making them in the first place.


Wow, if you add it all up these 5 errors truly are epic. This is pretty much a negative review of the only coach my team has had for the last 20 seasons . . . so I'm sure it will have to write a piece about the 5 great things that Sloan does. (And there are at least 5 of them) I don't hate Sloan, but that does not mean that I'm blind to the faults that he does have. I try to be objective on this regard. I think that there is room for improvement (and his staff helps out with this), and I do not know which coach I'd rather have take over my team if you gave me the choice to do so this moment. (Maybe years down the line after Phil Johnson says 'no thanks' I'd be okay with Ty stepping up) All coaches have their flaws, I'm just more intimately aware of Sloan's because I've been an obsessive Jazz fan for the over 60% of my life.


UtesFan89 said...

You nailed it on the head here.
Great job!