Are old-school Jazz the blueprint for Popovich's Spurs?

May 22 2012 - 7:15pm


Perhaps it comes as hollow praise at this point, but 19 days ago Tony Parker sat inside an interview room at EnergySolutions Arena and admitted the Jazz were once role models to his San Antonio Spurs.

"When I first came to the Spurs (coach Gregg Popovich) always used the Jazz as a reference, with Karl Malone and (John) Stockton and the way they played very physical," he said. "They used to beat up the Spurs."

For Jazz fans, that must seem like a long time ago.

Including postseason games, the Jazz have gone just 12-26 against the Spurs since the 2004-05 season. San Antonio, meanwhile, won two NBA titles in that time, presumably doing so with a Jazz blueprint hidden somewhere in Popovich's office.

"They're a class team, a class organization," Popovich said on May 7, moments after San Antonio swept the Jazz in their first-round playoff series.

Nobody here is doubting Popovich's sincerity, his appreciation for the Utah franchise or his affection for former Jazz coach Jerry Sloan. The Jazz's success in the late 1990s surely was an inspiration for the small-market Spurs, who will face Oklahoma City beginning Sunday in the Western Conference finals.

But if the Jazz were once the standard by which Popovich and the Spurs measured themselves, the student now has clearly become the master.

Although Utah did itself proud by making an impressive late-season run just to earn the No. 8-seed in the Western Conference playoffs, the Jazz were embarrassed by the Spurs.

San Antonio dominated them in almost every way. Whether it was with their experience, depth, defense or surgically-precise offense, they gave the Jazz a taste of what real playoff basketball looked and felt like.

Watching Popovich systematically dismantle Utah's gameplans was like watching a how-to clinic.

"It was a learning experience for all of us," Jazz coach Tyrone Corbin said.

Corbin and his players felt they were prepared for San Antonio, but as the series went on it became apparent they were in awe of the Spurs' combination of talent and experience.

"I was disappointed at times," general manager Kevin O'Connor said. "I thought we competed at times and at times I thought we deferred a little bit, that we had too much respect for the other team."

Hopefully, during exit interviews with their players, O'Connor and Corbin issued a homework assignment. Without asking them to become hero worshipers, hopefully they asked Jazz players to keep an eye on the Spurs as they run through the playoffs.

See, years ago the Spurs looked at the Jazz and said, "If they can, we can." But now it's Utah's turn to draw inspiration from San Antonio.

Like the Spurs and the Thunder, the Jazz are among the NBA's smallest markets. They're one-horse towns, so to speak.

But in an NBA landscape where teams from Miami, Chicago, Boston and Los Angeles make the headlines, the Spurs and Thunder are proof the little guys can win.

The Jazz believe they can follow the same path, and if you call yourself a fan, this season has offered a glimmer of hope for the future.

Granted, teams like the Spurs, Thunder and Jazz cannot afford to throw money at their deficiencies and make them go away. However, commissioner David Stern believes the league's new collective bargaining agreement will make it possible for small-market teams to compete at the highest level, provided they use creativity, restraint, opportunity and, of course, good luck, to piece together a winning roster.

The two teams competing for this year's Western Conference title have followed that blueprint.

Here's hoping there's another copy hidden somewhere in the Jazz offices.

Jim Burton is the Standard-Examiner's sports columnist. He also covers the Utah Jazz and the NBA. He can be reached at 801-625-4265 or at He tweets at

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