Last week brought a milestone victory for a tall, lanky leader who hails from the state of Illinois. Yes, Jerry Sloan earned his 1,000th win as head coach of the Utah Jazz last Friday.
(What, you thought Barack Obama?)
Sloan was in elite company already, as one of five coaches with at least 1,000 career wins (Phil Jackson will surely become the sixth later this season), having reached that mark two years ago thanks in part to 94 wins while coaching the Chicago Bulls. Hitting the thousand mark with a single team, however, is an unprecedented feat. Nobody else in NBA history has more than 800 wins with the same team. San Antonio's Gregg Popovich is Sloan's nearest active rival in this regard, and even if Sloan retired immediately and the Spurs won 60 games a year ad infinitum, it would take Popovich until early in the 2014-15 season to surpass Sloan.
Somehow, Sloan's 1,000th win with the Jazz passed with relatively little fanfare. The only national outlet with a reporter in attendance was apparently NBA.com and Art Garcia. Of course, that's exactly how Sloan surely wanted it.
"It's uncomfortable to me," Sloan, told media eager to ask about the milestone. "I'm not comfortable in that setting. We should be talking about the game."
Whether because of his tendency to deflect attention elsewhere or because the Jazz have tended to be more consistently successful than spectacular during his reign--two NBA Finals appearances aside--the NBA's own election has not been kind to Sloan. It is simply remarkable that he could be so successful for so long without winning a single Coach of the Year award, having finished as the runner-up in both 2003-04 and 2005-06. At this point, it's probably going to take a conscious decisionby the electorate to vote him a lifetime achievement award of sorts, seeing as his current Utah team is too good to dramatically exceed expectations.
Evaluating coaches remains an extremely difficult task for statistical analysts in all sports. My favorite method is the "wins vs. expectation" framework developed by John Hollinger, which establishes a baseline expectation based on performance the previous two seasons and teams' tendency to drift towards .500 and gives coaches credit or blame when their team beats or exceeds the expectation. Sloan's career mark of +59 puts him in elite company, naturally, though behind turnaround specialists like Larry Brown (+104 even after the debacle that was his year in New York).
As well-reasoned as is Hollinger's method, it can't accurately rate what might be Sloan's defining season--2003-04, when Utah finished 42-40 against an expectation of 45 wins. That doesn't take into account that John Stockton retired before the season or that Karl Malone left as a free agent for the Lakers, leaving the Jazz with a starting lineup so devoid of talent beyond Andrei Kirilenko that one ESPN.com writer predicted that Utah would break the record for NBA futility, 9-73, set by the 1972-73 Philadelphia 76ers. (My prediction was way more accurate--17 wins.)
While most everyone save stat geeks underestimated Kirilenko, an All-Star that season, for the most part the assessment of the Jazz's talent was dead on. We're talking about a team that gave a combined 47 starts to a long-expired Tom Gugliotta and Michael Ruffin, its only options at power forward the second half of the season. Yet somehow Sloan got more out of this group of cast-offs than anyone could have imagined, keeping Utah in playoff contention until the season's final days.
Gordon Chiesa, an assistant on that team, later worked in Seattle, where I had the privilege of spending a lot of time picking his brain about the game. In talking to Chiesa, he almost seemed prouder of what the Jazz accomplished in 2003-04 even than the two NBA Finalists he also coached.
Even when he's been blessed with talent like Stockton and Malone or now Deron Williams and Carlos Boozer, Sloan has had a knack for getting the most out of role players. Think of the litany of guys who played small forward or backed up Stockton on the '90s Jazz teams only to fall on their face once they went elsewhere, players like Howard Eisley, Shandon Anderson and Bryon Russell. A similar story could be told early this season as Utah started 5-1 with Ronnie Price and Brevin Knight stepping in for the injured Williams.
One of the reasons Sloan has been able to plug players into his system with great success is that the Jazz's offense tends to produce good shots for players who would struggle to create them on their own. There are two great myths about Utah under Sloan. The first is that the Jazz has been a balanced team at both ends of the floor. In fact, the great Utah teams of the '90s were much better on offense than on defense. Check out the Jazz's year-by-year Offensive and Defensive Ratings during the Sloan era.
Despite the presence of a young Stockton and Malone--the latter already an All-Star--Sloan inherited from Frank Layden a team that was much stronger at the defensive end, anchored by 7'3" center Mark Eaton. That remained true as Sloan took over midway through the 1988-89 season, but by the following year the Jazz's bias had flipped to offense. While Utah has been stronger on D at times in the ensuing two decades, when the team has been at its best the offense has led the way.
The other misconception is that the pick-and-roll is the dominant facet of Sloan's offense. While that call has certainly been a staple with the Jazz's point guard/power forward duos, the first option is generally to get something out of the precise cuts Utah runs as frequently as any Princeton offense. It was the cutting and ball movement that allowed players like Raja Bell and Matt Harpring to take on a heavy scoring load in 2003-04. Failing to get an easy score early in the clock, the Jazz turns to the pick-and-roll. If the first shot misses, the Jazz have been a dominant offensive rebounding team for years. Little wonder, then, that the offense has been so successful.
More generally, Sloan is also unique in the definable traits of his teams. In this sense along with his longevity and the culture he has created, Sloan is much more like a college coach than he is similar to his NBA peers. Yet, like the great college coaches who have stood the test of time, Sloan is also capable of adapting his style as needed. No Sloan team had ever played faster than league average before last year, when the Jazz's pace ranked in the league's top 10. Somewhere along the way, Sloan has also gotten more comfortable with giving young players chances while still bringing them along slowly, which explains how the 24-year-old Williams--just four when his coach took over the Jazz--is now the team's oldest perimeter starter.
Overall, it's been a remarkable 20-year run for Sloan. Given the circumstances, it is one that is unlikely to be duplicated any time soon. He may not want the credit, but I'm offering it anyway.
Kevin Pelton is an author of Basketball Prospectus.
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