It’s really fucking hard to build a successful NBA team.
We all like to sit back and laugh at the David Kahns and Billy Kings of the world, but we also seem to conveniently forget that widely-respected basketball savants like Michael Jordan, Steve Kerr, and Doc Rivers floundered when given similar tasks.
It’s especially tough for small market teams. Sure, we’re in a bit of a golden era of bumblefuck basketball, thanks in part to some terrible management in top-tier cities like Los Angeles, New York, Philadelphia, and Chicago, but the fact remains that historically successful and popular teams will always have an easier path to success.
Right about now, you probably expect me to go on about how amazing the Spurs are. Maybe there’ll even be a quick shoutout to Cleveland. Truth is, they deserve recognition. And they get it. Mostly because both teams actually got to hold up that championship trophy.
See, a ring will always buy you national respect, and it’ll permanently notch you up a rung on the ladder of NBA franchises. Problem is, even the most stacked teams require ineffable amounts of luck to ever reach that coveted zenith. Just look at what happened to the Warriors last year.
If you have a below-average market and no recent rings, you’re kinda screwed. Dallas gets mountains of respect, and deservingly so. Philly, New York, and LA will get headlines no matter how bad the on court product is. Even Brooklyn feels the love sometimes. But the Utah Jazz, who have quietly just kept on winning and winning and winning, remain an NBA afterthought.
Yes, a championship still eludes them, and I think that’s significant. Much to the chagrin of most Chris Paul stans, I feel that playoff success is an absolutely crucial cog in evaluating a player, or team’s, overall greatness, and it’s often a deciding factor in comparisons. You need that ring to get that A+.
Utah never got that ring, so they might not be getting into Harvard, but they have accrued a 4.0 report card that would make any parent proud. Well, maybe not LaVar Ball, but that’s besides the point.
Here, let’s look at some numbers.
Going back to the 1983-84 season, the San Antonio Spurs have finished at or above .500 28 times out of 34 total seasons. They made the playoffs a total of 30 times, including a season in which they went 31-51, somehow.
In that same stretch, the Los Angeles Lakers finished at or above .500 27 times, and made the playoffs on 28 occasions. The Chicago Bulls did the record thing 23 times (lol) and avoided an early summer in 24 seasons.
The Utah Jazz, meanwhile, finished ≥ .500 29 times and made the playoffs in 26 seasons. That’s more winning seasons than the freakin’ Spurs!
If the Spurs are the most consistently successful franchise in basketball, then you probably have to call the Jazz the most consistently successful team in the league. Yeah, Utah’s finest only made a couple Finals, and they had more than their fair share of early exits, but that kind of prolonged success is still absolutely absurd.
But, as any businessman will happily tell you, sometimes you just gotta make your own luck. Teams generally do just that by throwing money around like they’re at a Miami strip club. Teams like the Lakers, Bulls, and Spurs generally grow their own core, but they’ve also always been more than capable of paying plenty of support pieces to come in and take the team over the edge. Utah has never really been afforded that luxury.
Unfortunately, I was completely unable to find any usable historic NBA payroll data. Seriously, it’s crazy. I spent the better part of an hour combing through the dustiest corners of the basketball web. No luck. Despite that, I think it’s pretty safe to guess that the Utah Jazz spent less money over the past 35ish years than any of the other teams listed.
So, how did Utah do it? They didn’t have money or cultural clout to bring free agents into town, and were never really bad enough to get more than a couple high draft picks. How the hell did they stay so good for so long?
Well, you have to look at a couple of things. In my eyes, the franchise’s ridiculous stability has always been its greatest asset. The Jazz have never had any ownership drama, and in the long history of the team, they’ve only had eight head coaches. Cut it down to our 34-season window from earlier, and that number drops to only four. Four head coaches in 34 years. Meanwhile, the Kings, in those same 34 years, have had 21.
In the NBA, stability tends to breed success, but it has its limits. At some point, you need to find some natural talent. The Jazz have done that with astonishing consistency, and they’ve done it by mostly utilizing the biggest crapshoot in sports. The draft.
The Bulls picked Pippen, Jordan, and Rose with top 5 picks. The Spurs did the same with Robinson and Duncan. The Lakers did it too with Worthy and Magic. All three organizations filled out their rosters with a varying mix of impressive draft steals, but most of their top talent either came from elite prospects or free agent signings.
The Jazz, though, are a different story. They drafted Karl Malone with the 13th pick in the 1985 draft. Stockton was selected with the 16th pick in the prior draft. Sure, Deron Williams was a 3rd pick, but AK47 was a 24th pick and Millsap and Okur both came out of the second round. Their current roster, while not yet on the same level as the other two great Jazz teams, is set up the same way. The current squad’s two stars, Gordon Hayward and Rudy Gobert, came from the 9th and 27th picks of their respective drafts.
So, in the team’s history, they had a single top-3 pick in the core of one of their great teams. Even the Spurs, draft savants that they are, can’t claim that.
That’s not to say that the Jazz have always totally avoided the free agent and trade markets. Guys like Carlos Boozer, Jeff Hornacek, and George Hill all played massive roles on their respective teams, and there are plenty of significant contributors there too.
The Utah Jazz are up there with some of the best-run franchises in sports, and nobody seems to say so. This is an organization that had risen above its fair share of strife and truly had some incredible successes, especially when one considers the hand that the team’s been dealt. Sure, they might not have the long list of accolades that some other franchises show off, but the Jazz deserve more respect than they’ve been given.
Nobody should be surprised to see the Jazz back in the playoffs. And nobody should be surprised when they prove that they’re gonna be regulars for years to come. It’s only a return to the norm. Utah’s diehard fan base knows it, and you should too.