On Tuesday afternoon, Jazz CEO Greg Miller shared his account of the events on the night of February 9, 2011 in which Jerry Sloan and Phil Johnson both chose to resign.
Miller’s recent account appears to contradict his previous statements as well as the overall narrative the organization projected during the official press conference which formerly announcing Sloan’s resignation. From that time on, the company line was that Sloan simply grew “tired” of coaching and decided to “quit.”
While some gullible fans may have bought that, there has been just as much information out that led many to believe that the organizations narrative was false from the beginning.
On February 10th, 2011 Ric Bucher, then a senior analyst for ESPN, reported exactly what Greg Miller did yesterday, saying “There was a disagreement between Coach Sloan and Deron Williams about how a play was run.” Bucher then elaborated, “There was discussion between Kevin O’Connor and Coach Sloan, and I’m told Coach Sloan wanted to penalize Deron in some way and there was a disagreement on how that was going to be handled and so this came to a head.”
This completely jives with other reports by respected national writers. The highly-regarded Adrian Wojnarowski from Yahoo! Sports wrote on the same date: “After feeling undermined, one source said Sloan told Jazz owner Greg Miller that if this is how he wanted to run a franchise, he could do it without him as coach.”
A few days later, Karl Malone further added fuel to this fire by saying “I know for a fact that (Sloan) was overridden on practices sometime on the road because Deron was calling our GM at that time.”
Finally, this past February Jazz president Randy Rigby also contradicted the party line. During his embarrassing weekly brag-fest on Ty Corbin, Rigby stated “He (Corbin) came in – in a very difficult situation, and immediately said to us, ‘Hey, I think I can work with Deron.'” Obviously, if difficulties with Deron weren’t a factor in Sloan’s resignation, there should have been nothing extraordinary about a new head coach claiming to be able to co-exist with his team’s franchise player.
The obvious counter is the fact that Jerry Sloan himself has repeatedly stated that the decision to step-down was his alone and that Deron had nothing to do with it. I think Jerry’s statements are admirable, understandable, yet admirably untrue.
First, it’s important to understanding the type of coach and man Jerry is. Routinely throughout his career Jerry would look to pass the credit on to someone else. (For example after a 4/1/99 Karl Malone game-winner Jerry’s remark on the final play was “We’ve run that play since Frank Layden was coaching the team.” Jerry had no ego whatsoever, and a great love for the organization that reached a pinnacle following Utah’s 26-56 season in which he was not fired. I believe by 2011 Jerry truly felt management was more closely aligned to Deron, yet because of his love and loyalty to the Jazz he didn’t want his resignation to spark a “Jerry vs. Jazz management” civil war. He wanted out of a no-win situation but he wanted to leave the organization in better shape than when he started (which he did). Yes it’s an incredible sacrifice of pride, but Jerry Sloan is an incredible man.
While there may have never been a “Jerry or Deron” choice made, it’s now undeniable the halftime confrontation was a main factor and extremely possible that the reported disagreement regarding disciplining Deron was the real breaking point.
Also, there is precedent of the Jazz refuting reports of internal conflict that risk negative exposure – Mark Jackson’s 2002-03 locker room politics being the primary example.
Both the NBA and the Utah Jazz were in different places in 2011 than they are today. Carmelo Anthony essentially held Denver hostage for the first-half of the season before finally landing in his preferred destination of New York. There was no Kyrie Irving in Cleveland and no 50-win seasons for the post-Melo Nuggets. The Cavaliers and Raptors were still reeling following the departures of LeBron James and Chris Bosh while small-market teams were terrified of ending up in similar situations.
Utah’s attempt to reload in the 2010 offseason had fizzled out. A surprising 27-14 start primarily behind the Jazz system (which routinely made journeyman into efficient role-players) and a brilliant start by Deron Williams turned sour. A recent stretch of losses pushed the insecurity over Deron’s pending 2012 free agency to an all-time high and it’s entirely conceivable how a franchise that had long supported coaches over their star players would begin to lose grasp of those priorities under new and inexperienced ownership.
Deron Williams reached a point where he was beginning to trump everything in the organization and that shift in priorities was exhibited in the immediate aftermath of Sloan’s resignation. Brian T. Smith of the Salt Lake Tribune reported the Jazz still hoped to retain Deron following Sloan’s departure, calling Corbin “a likeable players’ coach who key personnel within the organization believe can not only reach Williams but convince him that a new era in Jazz basketball has arrived. And with that, the hope: Williams will remain with Utah after the 2011-12 campaign.”
After an 0-3 start under Corbin and Deron’s “networking” during the all-star break, Williams was a New Jersey Net by February 23rd.
Less than two weeks before Jerry and Phil Johnson submitted their resignations, Johnson did a sit-down interview with KSL where he sounded like anything but a man anticipating his longtime friend and colleague was ready to step down. Phil made the following comments on January 28, 2011:
“I think [Jerry’s] at his best at this time. He is at his best at these stages where you’re struggling and the team’s not sure. I think he shows tremendous patience and doesn’t do a lot of yelling and screaming like a lot of people think, he’s very trusting and tries to develop confidence rather than criticizing.”
Johnson also offered this tidbit when asked about the longevity he and Sloan enjoyed with the Jazz, giving credit to ownership for understanding the importance of supporting their coaches:
“Larry Miller, although he was very demanding, he understood what was going on as far as coaching is concerned.
Another myth surrounding Phil Johnson’s resignation was that Phil left because he had always said he would go out with Jerry. That was false, as Phil made clear in an interview with KSL’s Rod Zundel directly following the February 10th press conference.
Zundel: “You always said that when Jerry goes, you’re leaving as well…”
Johnson: I haven’t always said that, earlier in our careers Larry Miller told me at one time ‘You have the job if you want it’ and so that’s been there forever, since Larry was here…he always told me that personally.”
Finally, when asked by Zundel what he would say on the reports that Deron Williams forced Jerry out, the words Phil didn’t say said more than the ones he did in his response:
“I just say let it play out and not worry about all that stuff, it was time for us to leave and we left.”
It has played out.
The Nets have gone through two coaches and are seeking a third in their 2 1/2 seasons since acquiring Deron Williams. Greg Miller’s story has changed from Deron having nothing to do with Sloan’s departure – to a halftime conflict which precipitated Jerry’s resignation. If the story emanating from the Jazz has changed to the point it now partially supports the initial reports the organization tried so hard to refute, what’s to say the truth doesn’t lie entirely in the story that management’s refusal to discipline Deron Williams evoked Jerry Sloan’s resignation?
I’m not sure we’ll ever learn exactly what happened between Jerry Sloan, Deron Williams, Kevin O’Connor and Greg Miller in February of 2011, but it’s as obvious as a 42’x24′ jumbotron that many more elements factored into it than simply one man’s solitude choice to retire.
Footnote: I’ll close with this video (courtesy of jazzfanatical) from a 113-106 Utah win in Denver – just 5 nights before Jerry would decide to step down. During the confrontation, take note of how worn down, tired and uninvolved Jerry appears* to be. (*He showed more emotion and in-game involvement during that skirmish than Utah’s current head coach has exhibited in over 2 years)