Utah Jazz in More Stable Position One Year After Trading Deron Williams

Utah Jazz in More Stable Position One Year After Trading Deron WilliamsNestled into the Wasatch Range of the Rocky Mountains, Salt Lake City is about as old-school as NBA cities come.

A pickup truck or sport utility vehicle is nearly a prerequisite for existence there, and within blocks of downtown there is ample parking beside low-set buildings. Owing to the small-town feel, regional fast food chains like "Arctic Circle" and "Astro Burger" still compete with mega-chains like McDonalds and Wendy's.

Stepping into the Beehive State is a little like stepping back in time. Not far back in time, but far enough that music on the radio features the "latest hits" that were in regular rotation on the East coast months ago.

So it was not surprising last season when the Utah Jazz analyzed the impending free agency of Deron Williams at the end of the 2011-12 season, took note of the circus that had unfolded with Carmelo Anthony in Denver, and promptly directed the All-Star point guard out of town.

The message was clear. If you're not 100 percent dedicated to the team, you can either depart voluntarily (as longtime coach Jerry Sloan had two weeks earlier) or they can ship you out to New Jersey for Devin Harris, Derrick Favors and two first-round draft picks.

As the Jazz prepare to visit the Boston Celtics on Wednesday, their performance this season is evidence that Utah's front office played the situation perfectly. Williams has yet to commit to the Nets beyond this season, and the Dwight Howard saga (which is far from over, despite Howard opting to return to Orlando for one more year) has created the perception that stars can hold teams hostage in the NBA.

The Jazz' tale reveals that is not so. While Williams languishes in New Jersey, where a few home fans could be heard booing him during Monday's game, the Jazz (27-23) hold the seventh seed in the Western Conference. They are 11-5 in the month of March and boast convincing victories over the Oklahoma City Thunder, Los Angeles Lakers and Miami Heat.

They confound experts with a point differential of only plus 0.3, which should put them on the outskirts of the draft lottery. They are known for post play even though starting center Al Jefferson and starting power forward Paul Millsap are undersized for their positions. Four of their five top players in terms of minutes are supposedly poor individual defenders, yet the team gets stops when it needs to.

In the brutal West, the Jazz are one of four teams within a half-game of both the sixth and ninth spots in the standings. But they are as close to being fourth (1.5 games) as they are to being 10th.

The haul the Jazz received in the Williams trade has played a huge role in the team's resurgence. Harris has started 64 games at point guard for the Jazz since the deal. Favors has transformed into a first-rate finisher at the rim and a defensive force. The Jazz used last year's draft pick on Enes Kanter, a 6-foot-11, 260-pound earth mover whom the franchise sees as its pivot of the future. They will get the Golden State Warriors' first-round draft pick this season, via the Nets, as long as the pick does not fall within the top six. Otherwise the pick gets pushed back to 2013 or 2014, when it is top-seven protected. (If you're confused, then welcome to the NBA!)

Most importantly, they have an impressive young coach in Tyrone Corbin, a Sloan protégé, who could follow in his mentor's footsteps by leading the Jazz to the playoffs in his first year as head coach.

Williams may not be as dominant as Howard or have the star power of Anthony, but the Jazz managed to get a better combination of talent for Williams than the Nuggets got for Anthony. The deal the Nets reportedly had on the table for Howard was made up largely of the parts left over after the Williams trade. By dealing Williams a full year before he was due to hit free agency, the Jazz were able to recoup more assets for their franchise player.

Beyond stockpiling talent, the Jazz' proactive approach to its potential free agent problem showed that teams can still hold the upper hand in dealings with the players, if the team handles it properly. In contrast, the Cavaliers merely hoped LeBron James would come back, and he took his talents to South Beach. The Nuggets waited for Anthony's relationship with the team to become untenable, forcing them to send him exactly where he wanted to go. The Magic tolerated every shift in Howard's fancy, and now face another year of worrying whether he will stay in Orlando.

When Jazz fans enter the Energy Solutions Arena — which is almost always packed — they walk past twin monuments to John Stockton and Karl Malone. Stockton, with his short shorts and boy's haircut, bounce-passed his way to the Hall of Fame, forgoing an agent to negotiate his own contracts up to the day he retired in 2003. Malone, a cowboy hat-wearing outdoorsman, loves to ride around on his motorcycle or in his big rig alone, without an entourage or reality TV cameras.

They are part of the Jazz' past, but also part of its present. On and off the court, the Jazz have always been old-school, even if the rest of the league yearns for the good old days.

Have a question for Ben Watanabe? Send it to him via Twitter at @BenjeeBallgame or send it here. He will pick a few questions to answer every week for his mailbag.

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