Utah's Kevin O'Connor is in his ninth season overseeing the basketball operations arm of one the NBA's model franchises and has become one of the most respected and under-appreciated executives in the NBA. O'Connor was the architect of the transition from the team's golden era of John Stockton and Karl Malone to the current team, led by another point guard/power forward combo: Deron Williams and Carlos Boozer. O'Connor is a friendly sort, speaking with a slight accent that gives away his background as a native of Staten Island. He has the presence of a gym rat and, indeed, gives you the feeling that he could talk hoops till the sun comes up. I was able to spend a few minutes with O'Connor during a recent trip to Salt Lake City.
Bradford Doolittle: During the last month (December) when the Jazz have been up and down, it seems like one of the problems has been getting the key stop when the other team goes on a run. Defensively speaking, what is the biggest difference between this year's team and last year's team?
Kevin O'Connor: One of the things that happened last year is that we got off to a terrific start and we did this year, too. But we made shots at the end of games. And this year, we haven't made shots at the end of games. Most teams have run us down a little bit late in games. Part of it is offense, part of it is defense.
From a defensive point of view, we're long at three (small forward), but our four and five men (power forward and center) are not big. They're not great jumpers. They're strong, but they're not great jumpers. So defensively, we've got to help each other and I don't think we've done as well at that as we should.
BD: Does part of that have to do with some guys with some inexperience that are in your rotation this year?
KC: Yeah. If you look at the make-up of this team, I think we're the second-youngest team in the NBA. Everyone wants us to have the success we had last year. I've said that last year, we had an elite year. We have to prove it to be an elite team. The schedule has hurt a little bit. All that being said, with the exception of about three games, we've been in it in almost every game this year. Some of them, I think five or six games, in the fourth quarter on the road, we've had the lead but haven't been able to finish them out. Last year, we were.
NOTE: As I calculated here, the Jazz are actually towards the middle of the pack in terms of team age. It's a young league.
BD: How much does the inexperience on the defensive end effect somebody like Andrei (Kirilenko), who does so much freelancing, coming off his man to block shots and get steals?
KC: If you get beat off the dribble badly or if you don't show on a pick and roll, then it really puts you at such a disadvantage from a defensive point of view. You've got to be able to control the dribbler and that's one of the things coach (Jerry Sloan) has really been working on. But, again, in all fairness--and it's not an excuse--but our backcourt has three years of NBA experience. Total. So we'd like to think that they'll continue to get better at it.
BD: In the latter part of the Stockton/Malone era, at what point did you realize that you were going to have to start transitioning the team? You were able to build the organization back up in a relatively short amount of time. What were the basic tenets of your rebuilding plan?
KC: I think it goes back to a couple of things. Our owner (Larry Miller), would not, there were orders, not to trade John or Karl. He felt that he needed to give them the respect of finishing their careers here if they so chose. It so happened that when John retired, Karl decided, you know what, "I'm going to try for the brass ring one more time and I'm going to go where I can help a team" and he did. Probably, if he didn't get hurt (the Lakers' outcome) would have been different.
At that point, what we had said two and three years before was that we were not going to commit ourselves to contracts that going forward, were not going to be able to help us compete for a championship. Our whole goal was to have enough money in the free agent market and to have some young kids who would compete to try and hold us through that period. We really felt like we were an expansion team four years ago. Jerry (Sloan) did a phenomenal job that first year, winning 42 games. We had a team--Matt (Harpring), Andrei (Kirilenko) and Raja (Bell)--that overachieved.
That put us back into being 14th in the draft again. We were fortunate to be able to sign a couple of free agents because of the way the rules were structured, second-round guys (Carlos Boozer and Mehmet Okur). The year before that, we were able to sign Corey Maggette and also Jason Terry. Both of those guys had wanted to come play here, but their teams matched. So that year, again, we were not going to go out and sign guys that weren't going to help us succeed. There were players who were taking certain numbers and we just weren't going to go there.
We felt like in order to build, we were going to do it the right way. Our whole framework was not to overpay guys that couldn't help us succeed.
BD: So the keys were really management of the salary cap and maintaining that payroll flexibility?
KC: Yeah, I think it was. And it was ownership and Jerry--Jerry is really a franchise-first guy. He said, "We really need to try to do this the right way." We had a kind of a mantra, saying "No short-term gains for long-term losses." It's been used a lot before, but we really tried to work off that. With the way we worked the cap and the guys we signed, we were still able to add players and that's why we took a lot of the contracts straight across. So we were able to add a Kyle Korver to the mix.
BD: What is the organizational attitude towards the cap? Pretty much every team goes over it but how close to the luxury tax are you allowed to go?
KC: I think we have like the 24th or 25th or 26th--depending on the time of day--payroll in the league. In that range. We've got Deron (Williams) coming up, as far as a contract goes. Larry has been aggressive, but not foolish.
BD: You mentioned Larry Miller. I read an article this year and saw a graphic in Sunday's Salt Lake Tribute containing something called "Miller's Metric." The paper refers to it as "a formula used by the Jazz to evaluate a player's value." To what extent do you actually use this formula?
KC: We absolutely use it. Larry's the owner. (Chuckling.) It's part of our process. We do an awful lot of statistical analysis.
NOTE: The aforementioned formula is basically like a standard efficiency rating (good stuff minus bad stuff) only figured on a per minute basis rather than the typical per game number you see at NBA.com. Miller refers to it as a player's "batting average."
BD: Do you have a full-time statistical analyst? (That's me bobbing for a job. Just kidding--I'm a writer.)
KC: Yes. The guy's name is Robert Hyde. He really started all of this stuff with batting averages and other formulas. He's our CFO but he's also a capologist. He deals with all that. We put together a pretty comprehensive book rating players, rating plus/minus and that sort of stuff. But this is not something we invented. A lot of people use it.
One of the toughest parts, and we've come up with a formula, is defense. We've come up with a couple of things to kind of evaluate that.
BD: That's the tough part.
KC: It really is. You can go back and say a guy got 24 points. But if you go back and evaluate it, did he do everything on a particular possession he could to defend? Did he get screened? You try to evaluate that, too. We have our video people work on that religiously.
BD: What sort of effect have you seen so far from the change to an age-limit of 19 years old to be draft eligible?
KC: I think it's helped players mature for that one year, where they have to be under the shotgun a little bit. They understand that they've got to compete, they've got to live away from home, live in a dormitory, go to class. We've seen that a little bit. Would I like to see it go two years? Sure.
From a personal standpoint, I'd like to see (a higher age limit) because you can really evaluate more. I mean, you knew how good Tim Duncan was going to be and you knew how good Andre Miller was going to be. If they play four years, it makes your job easier. But I think the one year has helped.
BD: So that one year really helps you from an evaluation standpoint, or would have when you selected a guy like DeShawn Stevenson straight out of high school?
KC: I would have really liked to see him go to Kansas. That would have been nice. There's always the LeBron Jameses of the world. But look at what Carmelo Anthony did, going the one year.
BD: What do you think of a guy like Houston's Daryl Morey, who is running a team with a statistical background and an MBA from MIT but doesn't really have a basketball background?
KC: It's very interesting. I think his background just puts him under the microscope that much more. It'll be interesting to see how it works out.
Bradford Doolittle is an author of Basketball Prospectus.
You can contact Bradford by clicking here or click here to see Bradford's other articles.