Monday, April 21, 2014

The end of Tyrone Corbin

After three and a half miserable seasons, the Utah Jazz have finally let Tyrone Corbin go as head coach. I feel relieved for the Jazz — it's felt like we've just been spinning our wheels the whole time he was here. But I do feel a little bad for Corbin, since he is genuinely a nice guy. I only met him once, but he made an impression on me. Really good guys like that are a rarity in this field. But in the cutthroat business of the NBA, you can't keep a guy around just because he's really nice. You've got to perform, and Corbin certainly underachieved. To Utah's credit, they let him go in the nicest way possible. They simply waited for his contract to expire, then chose not to renew it.

Corbin's surprise hiring as head coach in Feb. 2011 came during one of the most tumultuous time in recent Jazz history. Kevin O'Connor's carefully constructed team had collapsed under its own weight, and the drama and egos of certain players (including but not limited to Deron Williams) had become too much for Jerry Sloan to bear. Had Larry H. Miller not died in 2009, I believe he could have sorted this out. But instead, this problem fell into the lap of Miller's son, Greg, who was unable to persuade Sloan to stay.

Since Sloan's top assistant, Phil Johnson, decided to retire with him, the Jazz decided to go with the No. 3 guy, Tyrone Corbin. He had been an assistant coach in Utah since 2004, and by 2011 had built up a bit of a reputation for himself, and I occasionally heard his name come up as a candidate for other coaching positions around the league. But it still was a bit of a surprise for him to replace Sloan so suddenly. Or rather, it was surprising that he wasn't first named interim coach, but immediately promoted to head coach and given an extension as soon as possible. I suppose Miller wanted to promote stability, but I think it would have been better to take some time to find the best possible candidate.

I know a player's career is not indicative of his coaching career, but just for fun, here's Corbin's playing resume: He spent four years with DePaul, and averaged 15.9 points and 8.1 rebounds per game his senior year. He was then drafted in the second round by the San Antonio Spurs with the 35th pick in 1985. He only played 15 games his rookie season, and was cut 31 games into his second. Corbin then signed with the Cleveland Cavaliers, but the next year, he was included in the trade that sent Kevin Johnson to Phoenix for Larry Nance.

The 1988-89 season was the first full season Corbin spent with one team, and he even started 30 games for the Suns, averaging 8.2 ppg and 5.2 rpg. But then Phoenix left him exposed to the expansion draft, and he was picked up by the Minnesota Timberwolves. Corbin spent two and half seasons in Minnesota, putting up the best numbers of his career for those terrible teams. In 1990-91, he started all 82 games and averaged 18.0 ppg, 7.2 rpg and 4.2 apg. He also became the first Timberwolf to record a triple-double. But the next season, he was traded to the Utah Jazz for Thurl Bailey.

That trade wasn't very popular at the time, since Big T was popular among fans and teammates. John Stockton even expressed his disappointed of this trade in his autobiography. But the Jazz had more need of a small forward than another power forward, so the trade made sense. Corbin only spent two and a half years in Utah, peaking in 1992-93 with 11.6 ppg and 6.3 rpg. In 1993-94, the emergence of Bryon Russell relegated Corbin to the bench, and the next year, he was traded to the Atlanta Hawks for Adam Keefe. Keefe never put up big numbers, but he was an important role player on the Jazz teams that made the Finals, and at least Stockton and Jeff Hornacek have publicly named him as one of their favorite teammates because he set great screens and always boxed out. Most people remember Corbin's playing days in Utah for his milk commercials.

Corbin only spent one year with Atlanta before being traded to the Sacramento Kings for Spud Webb. Half a season later, he and Walt Williams were traded to to the Miami Heat for Kevin Gamble and Billy Owens. Miami cut him after 22 games, and he signed with Atlanta, where he enjoyed the longest uninterrupted stretch of his career with one team — three full seasons. Combining his previous stint with the Hawks, Corbin played 277 games in Atlanta — more than he played anywhere else. His second longest tenure was with the Jazz at 233 games, although he played more playoff games with Utah, 37 to 26.

In 1999, Corbin was waived by the Hawks, and he signed a one-year deal with Sacramento. For the first time in his career, his tenure with a team didn't end by being cut or traded. After his second stint with the Kings ended, he signed with the Toronto Raptors in 2000. But he only played 15 games with them before he was included in the trade that sent Corliss Williamson to the Detroit Pistons for Jerome Williams. He was promptly cut by the Pistons and never played another NBA game.

So all in all, that was 16 years, 1,065 games and a career average of 9.2 ppg. That's nothing to sneeze at. I'd absolutely love to have a career like that. But then again, he was traded six times and waived three times. That's a lot of bouncing around and can't be too enjoyable. After retiring in 2001, he took a couple of years off before joining the Jazz bench in 2004, where he remained for 10 years. But now that's over, and to determine why, here's a quick look at his head coaching career:

When Corbin took over in Feb. 2011, the Jazz had a 31-23 record. Corbin finished the year 8-20 and the Jazz missed the playoffs, ending a four-year streak. Of course, that's not entirely Corbin's fault. The team was in complete disarray after Sloan's abrupt departure, and Deron Williams was immediately traded after Corbin took over. It would have been quite unrealistic for anybody to succeed in a situation full of so much internal and external turmoil.

Unfortunately, the fates conspired again against Corbin to mess up his first full season as head coach with the NBA lockout. Missing training camp and playing a condensed 66-game schedule was not good for him, but he managed to guide the Jazz to a 36-30 record and sneak into the playoffs. The Jazz were promptly swept by the Spurs, losing each game by an average of 16 points. On one hand, Corbin deserves some credit for achieving that much success through all the adversity; on the other hand, I feel like he underachieved a bit with that roster. Paul Millsap and Al Jefferson could have been the best front court in the league, and Devin Harris seemed like he could have been a competent point guard to guide that team. But none of that potential was realized. That season was also highlighted by the failed Josh Howard experiment and Raja Bell getting into a fight with Corbin. A rather shaky start for our new coach, but most people were willing to give him one more year. Perhaps a full regular season would give us a good idea of what kind of a coach he was.

The 2012-13 season was just that. That playoff roster remained largely unchanged expect Harris was swapped out for Mo Williams and Howard for Marvin Williams. Yeah, Marvin is a pretty terrible player, and Mo only played in 46 games because of injuries, but I still expected more from this team. Jefferson, Millsap, Gordon Hayward, Randy Foye, Derrick Favors, Enes Kanter and Alec Burks should have been able to win more than 43 games, which in the West, kept the Jazz out of the playoffs. Jefferson had his least productive year in Utah with 17.8 ppg and 9.2 rpg, and Millsap had his worst year as a starter with 14.6 ppg and 7.1 rpg. It was a very difficult season to suffer through, but it only got worse the next year.

New general manager Dennis Lindsey made the right choice to let all the veterans from that disappointing team leave. I would have liked to have seen him get something in return for Jefferson and Millsap, but the important thing was to clear space for the talented young lottery picks to develop. And to help with the rebuilding process, Lindsey traded for all of Golden State's garbage players to fill up the salary cap. Unfortunately, Corbin took a liking to one of those garbage players, Richard Jefferson, and decided to make him a regular starter. Jefferson even openly talked about leaving the Jazz as soon as he could to join a contender, yet Corbin kept right on starting him and letting him steal minutes away from developing youngsters on the bench.

The most frustrating thing about this season was Corbin's reluctance to use a lineup of Trey Burke, Alec Burks, Gordon Hayward, Derrick Favors and Enes Kanter. He finally went to it for the last three or four games, but for the life of me, I can't figure out why it took so long. He wasn't winning in the present, so why didn't he focus completely on the future? Was it that important to help Richard Jefferson get a new contract next year? Would the Jazz really have lost more than 57 games had Enes Kanter started more? And you know what? Losing a few more games actually would have been pretty nice! When your season is a lost cause anyway, you might as well lose as much as you can to get a better draft pick. There really is nothing wrong with tanking.

And even though this was a rebuilding year for the Jazz, Corbin still could have found a way to succeed. On paper, I believe the Jazz have a better roster than the Suns. But Jeff Hornacek found a way to maximize their potential, and he almost took Phoenix to the playoffs (they would have been the third seed in the East). Another interesting thing is to look at the fates of the big three veterans that left the Jazz last year — Mo Williams, Paul Millsap and Al Jefferson. They all made the playoffs, Millsap was an All-Star, Jefferson might make the All-NBA Third Team, and Williams reinvented himself as a valuable sixth man. During Jerry Sloan's run, players that left the Jazz usually performed worse on their new teams. I'm talking about Shandon Anderson, Howard Eisley, and even Deron Williams and Carlos Boozer. Sloan was able to make players better. Under Corbin, players started to get worse, and then got better after they left.

So now I can finally breathe with Tyrone Corbin gone. This was the best move for the Jazz, and maybe the best move for Corbin. Perhaps he was only ever destined to be a good assistant coach, and there's nothing wrong with that. In the meantime, I can now hope the Jazz will get somebody good with their high draft pick, find a coach who can do for Utah what Hornacek did for Phoenix, and I can finally start rooting for my team to win again.

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