As NBA changed, Sloan stood his ground

As snapshot framings go, the easy thing is to turn Deron Williams(notes) into the belligerent All-Star responsible for running a legend out of his job, running an old farmer back to his tractor. Things had grown worse and worse between them, and reached a loud and contentious ending on Wednesday night in the halftime locker room of the Utah Jazz.

Jerry Sloan had something of an epiphany in a shouting match that some Jazz feared could get physical: He was too old for this, too tired. He thrived on this kind of confrontation, about how it enhanced his John Wayne image in the locker room. Well, it wore him out, too. He would’ve retired a long time ago without Williams. He’s the franchise guard the Jazz forever had, but it was just that Carlos Boozer(notes) was never the Karl Malone to Williams’ John Stockton.

Sloan is 68, tired and done for good now. The Jazz no longer contend for championships and this has been excruciating for Williams. He’s a winner. He cares deeply. Sometimes, he’s gone too far this season. He hasn’t been blameless. Yes, Williams took a lot out of Sloan, but this is the price of business in the NBA. Great players challenge great coaches every day. God bless Jerry Sloan, because he understood there was nothing left but a slow, sad spiral for the Jazz.

Utah’s Jerry Sloan coaches in the NBA Finals against the Bulls. The Jazz lost to the Bulls in the finals in 1997 and 1998.
(AP Photo)
Sloan’s career

Jerry Sloan was an NBA head coach for 25-plus seasons, reaching the NBA Finals twice.

  Reg. season   Playoffs
  W L % W L
Chicago Bulls
79-80 30 52 .366      
80-81 45 37 .549   2 4
81-82 19 32 .373      
Utah Jazz
88-89 40 25 .615   0 3
89-90 55 27 .671   2 3
90-91 54 28 .659   4 5
91-92 55 27 .671   9 7
92-93 47 35 .573   2 3
93-94 53 29 .646   8 8
94-95 60 22 .732   2 3
95-96 55 27 .671   10 8
96-97* 64 18 .780   13 7
97-98* 62 20 .756   13 7
98-99 37 13 .740   5 6
99-00 55 27 .671   4 6
00-01 53 29 .646   2 3
01-02 44 38 .537   1 3
02-03 47 35 .573   1 4
03-04 42 40 .512      
04-05 26 56 .317      
05-06 41 41 .500      
06-07 51 31 .622   9 8
07-08 54 28 .659   6 6
08-09 48 34 .585   1 4
09-10 53 29 .646   4 6
10-11 31 23 .574      
  1221 803 .603   98** 104

*Western Conf. champions
** .485 playoff win percentage

He never changed, but everything else did. As much as this was a blessing for him, it was a curse too.

“The player isn’t always wrong,” one respected GM said Thursday.

No one wants to hear that with Sloan, one of the greatest ever, but no one thinks stars are dying to play for him anymore. Everyone respects, admires Sloan, and has a hard time thinking about an NBA without him. Yet, it is hard to coach without a partnership with your best players, and Sloan hasn’t had that in a long, long time. Everyone can make Williams the scapegoat because of some ideal that Sloan represents – and he does represent the best ideals of basketball.

Yet, this is an unmerciful sport where talent trumps everything, where the best players always beat the best coaches. He’s lost most of his star players, and eventually Williams will leave the Jazz in 2012 the way small-market stars are leaving everywhere else. They’ve been a model franchise, disciplined in drafts and trades, but they’re no longer a contender. This ate at Williams, and it made for a combustible environment in Salt Lake City.

“People need to leave D-Will the [expletive] alone on this,” Kobe Bryant(notes) told Yahoo! Sports on Thursday night. Bryant and Williams have competed in the Western Conference for years and won an Olympic gold medal together for USA Basketball at the 2008 Beijing Games. “Leave him alone. He doesn’t deserve to be at the front of this. That’s horse…. He’s a great competitor. He works his butt off. He’s always been a great leader. He’s clutch, performs under pressure. Enjoy the 23 great years that Jerry Sloan gave them, but don’t put this on Deron Williams.”

To sell the nobility of how Sloan never changed, never deviated goes two ways. The core principles of fundamental, physical team basketball made the Jazz unique, but there was a price to be paid, too. How much more could a different coach have gotten out of Andrei Kirilenko(notes) when the fragility of his emotional status turned his career sideways? Sloan confessed: He hadn’t a clue how to handle a player weeping on the bench. Now, everyone can see: Good for him. Why should he bother? Well, the Jazz invested $86 million into Kirilenko, and the coach’s job is to get the most out of him. It’s a reasonable expectation.

Sloan’s a forever figure in NBA history, but nothing’s forever in basketball. Williams has watched one talented player after another leave the Jazz – for free agency, for more money and, yes, to leave the unbending coach. Sloan insisted himself: He’s been confronting players for decades, but it says as much about him as it does Williams that he could no longer hold his own with a tough-minded, tenacious star.

Everyone starts with the inmates-run-the-asylum hysteria now, but the players aren’t prisoners, the coaches aren’t wardens and the relationships between Sloan and his stars have always been complex. Sloan never changed, but the times did. Players are different now. Maybe he isn’t, but coaches and general managers are different too. Values have changed. Blame the players all you want, but there’s as much petulance and selfishness in the coaching profession as there is in the players.

Sloan was always insulated, and never had to deal with the realities that coaches do. He didn’t take the calls of player agents or take meetings with them. He always had the support of late owner Larry Miller, but Miller’s son, Greg, has never had the passion for basketball his father did. Larry could get between Malone and Sloan, get things smoothed over.

“Players know in a second when the coach is in trouble,” Sloan told me in December 2008. “Lose three or four games, and everybody says, ‘Well, the coach isn’t doing this or doing that.’ And right away the player runs to his agent. Their agent tells them, ‘Well, I wouldn’t let myself get injured in that situation. I wouldn’t do anything to get me hurt until the next coach comes in.’

“Agents know when a guy is going to get fired. They know it better than coaches. But that doesn’t work too well here. You have to call me and see if I’m ready to go. And they don’t call me.”

Finally, Sloan was prepared to go, and it ended the way it probably was always going to end with him: Emotional, raw and without formal farewell.

Williams’ frustration has been with management and the coach. Lately, he’s watched more talent leave than talent arrive. He has tremendous character, a will to win that stands shoulder-to-shoulder with Sloan. He’s one of the two or three best point guards in the world, and he had an idea of expanding the playbook, making the rotations less predictable and never could make that resonate with Sloan.

As a younger man, Sloan would wage battle with Malone, too. They were famous for going back and forth, but those were championship contenders and there was always a belief they could win a title together. That’s gone now. The Jazz are just one more mid-market team good enough to make the playoffs but unlikely to advance.

Williams is so much like Sloan: tough, proud, professional and caring deeply about winning. Around Team USA, Williams had always been a favorite of officials and coachers for his maturity. When peers LeBron James(notes), Carmelo Anthony(notes) and Chris Paul(notes) were younger, behaved immaturely and acted like followers, one source says: “Deron was always the grownup. He has always been his own man.”

This doesn’t make him completely innocent this season, but it makes him like most star players. Sloan chased a championship for a long time, reached the NBA Finals twice, but he’s no longer close and the Jazz are moving further away. Yes, Sloan was tired of fighting with Williams, wanted it to stop and did what he had to do: He walked away. Yet, Sloan wouldn’t leave midseason with a contender in his locker room. Never. This was just another one-and-done playoff team playing out the regular season in the Western Conference, and the timing was right for an old farmer to climb back onto his tractor.

Jerry Sloan goes home now, but there’s no blood on Deron Williams’ hands. The world had changed around Sloan, and that was no fault of one player. In that moment on Wednesday night in the locker room, it hit Sloan: There’s nothing left to chase with these Jazz, nothing left worth fighting for in the NBA.