When I chose Jerry Sloan for Coach of the Year in our preseason picks it was more an act of stubborn optimism than actual prognostication. He’d lost leading scorer Carlos Boozer and top three-point shooter Kyle Korver, so I didn't expect a stellar season. Still, Sloan’s been too good for too long to go his entire career without ever winning the coach of the year award. I’ll keep hoping and calling for him to get it until he does.
All of a sudden I don’t expect the wait to last much longer.
We’re only 10 percent of the way through the season, but you can’t tell me any coach has done a better job than Sloan so far. Certainly no team has done better on back-to-back nights than the Utah Jazz in comeback victories at Miami Tuesday and Orlando Wednesday.
Sloan made some critical second-half adjustments, including playing Deron Williams at shooting guard in Miami and using a zone defense in Orlando. Another tactical decision wound up paying unintentional dividends. Sloan sat Al Jefferson for much of the second half of the Miami game and Jefferson played only 28 minutes total. So who had fresh legs the next night and carried the Jazz down the stretch with nine points in the final 4 minutes and 30 seconds against the Magic? Al Jefferson.
Jefferson also had some telling comments after the game.
“Every Jerry Sloan team is going to come out playing with heart,” Jefferson said, according to the Salt Lake Tribune. “There’s just no doubt about it. That’s something that he always has proved since he been coaching. Everybody should know we shouldn’t give up. Don’t put your head down. Just keep playing. You never know what can happen.”
Well maybe they haven’t come out playing with heart. After all, they’ve trailed big and early in their past three games, starting Saturday at home against the Clippers. But they’ve kept playing, becoming the first team in the shot clock era to win three consecutive games after trailing by 10 points or more at halftime. They refused to use the excuses of fatigue or complain about a schedule that put them on the home court of two of the league’s most talented teams on back-to-back nights. That’s because if Sloan heard anyone whining they wouldn’t be allowed on the next flight.
You certainly haven’t heard him gripe about the task of working six new players onto his team. That’s a drastic turnover for a coach who values consistency, practice repetitions and game execution. His teams win so regularly (only two losing seasons in 21 years in Utah) because he maintains such faith in his way of doing things.
“I know people look at talent,” a scout told me Wednesday, “But systems can play a very large part in it.”
Sloan has had to incorporate newcomers such as Jefferson and rookie Gordon Hayward into his system. The Jazz were so out of sync in the first two games it looked like Deron Williams was trying to converse with them in a different language.
The progress they’ve made by winning five of six games since then has been one of the great turns of the early season. Jerry Sloan finally winning Coach of the Year would be an even greater step forward.