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Basketball Notes

In Utah, there is plenty of blame to go around

By Gary Washburn
February 13, 2011

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Hyperextended right wrist or not, Utah guard Deron Williams was obliterated by Derrick Rose in the fourth quarter of the Bulls-Jazz matchup Wednesday night. And that ended up being the final straw for Utah coach Jerry Sloan, who suddenly resigned as his long fuse finally ran out.

Williams committed three turnovers in the final 65 seconds of the 91-86 loss and then allowed Rose to dart past him for a layup. The pivotal play of the game occurred when Williams, stuck in the key after losing his dribble, fired a pass for Raja Bell at the 3-point line that was intercepted by Ronnie Brewer.

That it was Brewer who picked off the pass was even more infuriating for Williams, considering that the Jazz had essentially given Brewer away to the Grizzlies to avert the luxury tax. That move had angered Williams, as well as the Jazz allowing Carlos Boozer and Kyle Korver to walk in free agency.

And on Wednesday, he saw that trio playing for Chicago, a team rejuvenated by coach Tom Thibodeau into an Eastern Conference title contender.

The Jazz, meanwhile, following a spirited 15-5 start that included stirring road rallies, are near the bottom of the Western Conference playoff lot. Utah is a team trying to compete with just two standouts — Williams and Al Jefferson — and a group of aging veterans and players falling short of potential.

So Williams can’t be blamed for his ire, but his relationship with Sloan — who was the longest-tenured coach in American professional sports — had deteriorated. And it didn’t help that Williams free-lanced on that final play, the pass intended for Bell.

With all that said, Williams shouldn’t be blamed for nudging Sloan into retirement. The coach had become increasingly disenchanted with the makeup of his team and the players’ refusal to toughen up and adhere to his system. Williams was on that list, probably at the top, but he can’t be accused of storming into the front office and demanding his firing.

“It’s sad to see him go, especially in the middle of our season,’’ Williams said. “I can’t stop the speculation. My teammates know what happened. We had an argument. We’ve had them before.

“Am I the reason coach resigned? I highly doubt that. I never did once say, ‘It’s me or him.’ I haven’t even had a meeting with management this year.

“It’s not a funny situation at all because we lost our coach. But I think it’s funny all the stuff that’s out there. But I can’t control that. Nor do I care.

“I’m not the smartest guy but I’m also not stupid and I wouldn’t force out a Hall of Fame coach who’s so beloved in this community.’’

Williams wasn’t heartbroken over Sloan’s departure and he gets an opportunity to begin a fresh relationship with Tyrone Corbin, a 16-year NBA veteran who has waited for his opportunity to coach.

Williams will reluctantly accept his share of blame but Sloan had refused to change with the times. And Williams has a right to be irritated by general manager Kevin O’Connor’s horrible drafts since nabbing Brewer and Paul Millsap in 2006.

O’Connor selected Morris Almond, Eric Maynor (a luxury tax victim, traded to Oklahoma City), Kosta Koufos (traded in the Jefferson deal), and finally Gordon Hayward, who has been relegated to garbage-time player. And the Jazz signed the 34-year-old Bell as their major free agent offseason acquisition.

It’s not that the Jazz have necessarily been cheap — before moving Brewer and Maynor — but their money has been misspent. Mehmet Okur has been inconsistent and injured. Andrei Kirilenko is a shell of the player who signed a maximum contract five years ago.

Sloan was once a master of winning with lesser talent, but even he couldn’t succeed in this battle.

Before we label Williams a selfish player who used his clout to change the direction of the organization, consider that Sloan had never won an NBA title despite coaching two Hall of Famers in Karl Malone and John Stockton.

He was an excellent but not elite coach who won consistently and whose teams played with precision. Sloan maintained a high level over his 23 seasons, but unfortunately the game moves on.

It’s now Corbin’s job to inject some passion back into Jazz basketball and at the same time cultivate a relationship with Williams that will keep him in Utah for the long term as part of successful teams.

Sloan no longer had the patience to see that plan come to fruition or the desire to battle Generation X players who allow their arrogance to hinder their respect for authority.

Welcome to today’s NBA.

ZERO CONFIDENCE
Arenas can’t find his game It has been six weeks since Orlando general manager Otis Smith acquired Gilbert Arenas, Jason Richardson, Hedo Turkoglu, and Earl Clark in separate deals, and the consensus is that Turkoglu is struggling, Richardson has adjusted well, and Arenas is a mess.

Arenas admittedly is a shell of Agent Zero, the high-scoring, bubbly personality who averaged nearly 30 points a game five years ago in Washington. The Magic felt they were getting an Arenas healthier and more productive than he was a year ago, when he was dogged by a bad knee before getting suspended by the NBA for the final 50 games for possession of a gun on league premises.

Instead, Orlando has watched Arenas struggle to play point guard, struggle to keep up with anyone with moderate speed on defense, and struggle to score. In a combined 73 minutes in four games leading to today’s game against the Lakers, Arenas scored 22 points on 8-for-32 shooting with eight turnovers.

Arenas’s decline has been swift and painful for many parties. He left Washington in shambles and has been left to search for excuses for his downfall.

At 29, Arenas may be relegated to being a role player. Expected to give the Magic the boost they needed to become an Eastern Conference contender with Boston and Miami, Arenas instead is an afterthought, having scored in double figures in just 11 of 28 games.

To exacerbate his problems, a process server handed Arenas papers at halftime of a recent home game, part of a lawsuit filed by the mother of his three children.

“I don’t actually pay attention to it because I got my lawyers that deal with it,’’ he said, addressing the lawsuit. “I guess that person’s not paying attention to their lawyers and trying to chalk up everything for the world to see.

“I can’t pay attention to that. I have kids to worry about. They used the media to get their point across. I’m not going to go back and forth. My kids have to read this one day.’’

Arenas realizes he has hit a low point, and his personality is less bubbly but still revealing.

“I’m just trying to find a rhythm,’’ he said. “At the All-Star break, I’ll get a chance to work on my game and try to get my feel back.

“I’m still upbeat about it, but it’s frustrating at times when you are working out and you make every shot you take and then you come out there and you miss the easiest shots in the world.’’

Multiple knee surgeries have robbed Arenas of his explosiveness; he looked hopeless defending Rajon Rondo last Sunday. And on offense, he is shooting 35 percent with the Magic, 26 percent from the 3-point line.

“I expected to struggle a little bit because I am the point guard,’’ Arenas said. “I can’t be as aggressive as I want to. I can’t go down and play my basketball. That’s not what we do here.’’

Part of the issue is mental.

“Everything is about rhythm and confidence,’’ he said. “When your confidence is high, everything works for you. In practice, I feel I can’t be beat, that’s how I shoot. But in a game, I’m so worried about missing shots, so that’s what I end up doing.

“It’s just like Rondo at the free throw line. His whole mind-set is not missing it, so he does miss it.’’

Smith, who said he considered Arenas like a son as their relationship has grown over the years, doesn’t appear concerned.

“He’s a conversation that everybody likes to talk about,’’ Smith said. “But I think all the other guys are making a similar adjustment.

“We like to talk about [Arenas] because he’s the easiest one to talk about. I can tell you that [Turkoglu] is probably having a harder time than those other guys.

“As I say, it’s still one of the top five hardest things to do, change jobs and change bosses in different cities.’’

Arenas promises improvement as his surgically repaired and arthritic knees regain flexibility. But we may never see the same Arenas who wowed crowds with his scoring prowess and engaging personality. That man is dissipating in front of our eyes.

TRADE BARRIERS
Cuban expects late movement With the NBA’s collective bargaining agreement set to expire in June and a high degree of uncertainty about what to expect next season — if there is a next season — there has been little talk about potential deals as the Feb. 24 trade deadline approaches. Teams are reluctant to take on pricy long-term deals when the salary cap may decrease or even become a hard cap.

The only news has been the ongoing Carmelo Anthony drama, and as it stands, the Nuggets are far from a deal to send their franchise player to the Knicks. Mavericks owner Mark Cuban believes the market will heat up as the All-Star break nears.

The Mavericks are one of the league’s hottest teams but are never afraid to make a significant move. Dallas could use a replacement for the injured Caron Butler but is still expecting Rodrigue Beaubois to return from a season-long foot injury, while Peja Stojakovic is rounding into form after joining the club a few weeks ago.

The Mavericks are unlikely to catch the soaring Spurs in the Southwest Division but they have a legitimate chance of knocking the Lakers down to the No. 3 seed, meaning they would own home-court advantage in a conference semifinal.

“We knew it would take some time,’’ Cuban said. “We knew we would be better. We will have Roddy back shortly. The Western Conference hasn’t gotten any easier. It will take really to close to 50 wins to get in [the playoffs], where you’ve got teams in the East that haven’t won any games on the road or period.’’

Cuban is always open to trade and the market should expand in the coming days.

“Relative to other years in terms of trade talk, I don’t think it’s really any different,’’ he said. “It always goes through the same process. There’s one or two early trades. We saw that with Orlando, and then everybody waits until the last possible second. And then you hit the trade deadline and they recognize it’s the last chance to save money or to do something. That’s when things happen.

“That’s one of the challenges and problems the league has is that a lot of GMs like to wait until the last second.’’

ETC.
Oden worth a closer look While Greg Oden is a forgotten entity as he recovers from a third knee surgery, his name will be bandied about during the summer when he becomes a restricted free agent. The Trail Blazers have the option of matching any offer to Oden or just allowing him to leave via free agency. If the Celtics lose Kendrick Perkins to free agency, perhaps they would take a flier on Oden as a part-time center. Shaquille O’Neal and Jermaine O’Neal are expected to return next season (although Shaq has a player option), and the addition of Oden could provide depth. Something to watch.

Layups The Cavaliers finally ended their record 26-game losing streak Friday night, so now perhaps they can begin dealing some of their impending free agents to get a fresh start. What’s left of the LeBron James era remains in Cleveland — players such as Anthony Parker, Jamario Moon, Mo Williams, and Antawn Jamison. Parker and Moon, who will be free agents after the season, have market value and would draw interest from teams such as the Celtics. Williams will generate little interest because of his contract and swift decline. He returned to action this weekend and will need to play well to draw any interest. Jamison is still useful but his $15 million salary for next season will scare teams off. The Cavaliers still have a trade exception from the LeBron sign-and-trade and they also have a chance at the No. 1 overall pick next season. Columbus native and Ohio State star Jared Sullinger would be a welcome addition to a region still reeling from LeBron’s exit. There was speculation eight years ago that commissioner David Stern somehow ensured that the Cavaliers would win the lottery and have the chance to draft James. Maybe history will repeat itself when Cleveland needs it most.

Gary Washburn can be reached at gwashburn@globe.com. Material from interviews, wire services, other beat writers, and league and team sources was used in this report.

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