Seventeen games into the 2010-11 season, little appears to have changed for the Jazz (12-5). Utah is still winning with new-school players and old-school values. And the team that is often counted out is again doing more with less. United as has been the case for the past five seasons behind Sloan and Williams.
The duo push and challenge each other. They at times trade hard looks and fiercer words. But theirs is a relationship founded upon respect and ultimately devoted to winning.
Jazz general manager Kevin O'Connor would not have it any other way. O'Connor said the same currents that drive Sloan and Williams are ones that propelled former franchise owner Larry Miller and Jazz legends Karl Malone and John Stockton.
"They have a combativeness about them which serves them well on the basketball court," O'Connor said. "And I don't care if you're in [journalism] or the marketing department upstairs or if you're selling automobiles like we do, there's always going to be times that there's disagreements. And I think the goal is to win. And it's always been that goal here."
The goal has not altered. But it is receiving new under-the-radar guidance. And multiple key Utah personnel said it has been significantly strengthened by the addition of veteran guard Raja Bell.
There is no doubt that Utah still runs through Williams and belongs to Sloan. On the surface, nothing has changed. But Bell possesses the same passion that permeates Utah's top leaders. In turn, he has quickly evolved into a trusted voice who has provided depth and stability in multiple settings.
"As a sidekick to one of those great point guards, you have to be laid back," Bell said. "Understand that sometimes there are going to be opportunities. And then, other times, you have to lay back and let them do their thing."
Illinois men's basketball coach Bruce Weber first decided to test Williams in 2003.
When the soon-to-be All-Star and Olympic guard was still finding his way as a young adult in Champaign, Ill., Weber knew he had something special. Williams was incredibly passionate and driven, supremely talented and intelligent. But he was also all win, all the time. It helped to produce victories. However, it sometimes did not aid team chemistry, bonding or long-term development.
So Weber got inventive and a little dirty. He started messing with Williams, intentionally forcing the occasionally hot-headed collegian to play with the worst players on the Illini during scrimmages and drills.
At first, Williams absolutely hated it. He fumed and lashed out, openly questioning the competency of a coach who was making him run the court with lesser-caliber athletes.
Then a funny thing began to happen the same thing that has defined the vast majority of Williams' NBA career. He started to win. Which then allowed Weber to subtly point out the obvious: Williams could play with, direct and be victorious with anyone. He just had to understand what winning was really about.
"Once he figured that out, he'd come by and talk trash to me," said Weber, who coached Williams on an Illini team that advanced to the 2005 NCAA championship game. "He'd say, 'Yeah, give me the bus driver.' "
Williams' schooling had just begun. Five years removed from his rookie season with the Jazz and his initial experience with Sloan, Williams looks back at the 2005-06 season and bristles.
Williams started just 47 games, clashed with his new coach, and balanced internal frustration with the knowledge that he was better than those above him.
Weber recalls it being even worse.
"At first it was very hard for Deron," Weber said. "He pouted to me. I still remember talking to him. He said, 'I don't like this. This is not the right thing.' I said, 'Well, Deron, you've got to realize: This is a Hall of Famer you're not going to win.' "
So the guard who refuses to lose lost. Sloan was the coach. Williams was the player. And Williams realized that the coach always wins especially in Utah.
"It's his team. We're under him," Williams said. "I try to be a leader under him and do things the way he wants them done."
Five years after Williams and Sloan first went head to head, Weber said that Sloan was the best thing that could have happened to the professional version of D-Will. Sloan made Williams earn every ounce of freedom and responsibility Utah's team captain and indisputable leader now possesses.
"It's just been a tremendous fit for him," Weber said. "The system is perfect. Jerry being hard on him is perfect."
To Williams, everything between him and Sloan currently comes down to respect. Do they always link eyes, nod approvingly and praise each other's viewpoint? No. Are there still times when they lock horns, test wills and push as far as the other is willing to go? Yes. But at the foundation of their six-year relationship is respect and understanding. And a passionate, tunnel-vision view of the one thing that has long been at the core of their basketball careers and real-world personalities: winning.
"We still bump heads because we're both stubborn," Williams said. "We both want to win. We both want the same thing."
He added: "When I first got here, [Sloan] was really stuck in his ways. The game's kind of changed; players have kind of changed they're not built the way they used to. I just try to tell to him that you can't treat everybody like John and Karl, because they're not."
But Sloan has also slightly changed. The two simplest but at times hardest things in the NBA to accomplish playing hard and the right way are still untouchable cornerstones of his coaching life. But with Williams in particular, Sloan has gradually cleaned out the lines of communication. In doing so, he has allowed the face of Utah's franchise to play an increasingly larger role in the Jazz's day-to-day operations on the court.
"It's been good," Williams said. "I can definitely come to him. I can talk to him. It means he's going to listen. But it doesn't mean he's always going to do things my way."
Right now, though, simply having an open door is enough for Williams. Veteran Jazz guard Ronnie Price said Utah is better off for it.
"I think they've always had a great relationship. I've been on teams where I've seen coaches and players go at each other's head. I haven't seen that here. I haven't seen anyone that really goes at each other's neck," Price said. "And it's good to see your two leaders get along and have the relationship that they have it makes it easier on us.
"Since I've been here, their relationship has probably helped this team in a lot of ways. If they got into it and clashed and had disagreements in front of us to where we would know about, that would be something that I would think could hurt the team. But it's never happened. It's been good."
Jazz assistant coach Phil Johnson and O'Connor see it more as natural evolution than complete change.
To Johnson, Sloan has always been a player's coach a man with common sense and a lack of ego who is willing to delegate power and offer opportunity to those who have proven they can handle it. Sloan is just as fiery as he was when he entered the profession. But if anything has been altered, it is his understanding that everyone makes mistakes even Jerry Sloan.
To O'Connor, Sloan has been and continues to be pliable. O'Connor rolls off misconceptions about Sloan like they are basketball statistics for a draft prospect: Sloan does not play rookies; he is hard to deal with; he has run the same system his entire career. All of them are worthless and without merit, O'Connor said.
"The adaptation is done quietly and is done within the framework of what we still do," O'Connor said. "People look at it and say, 'It's the same.' Well, it's not the same, or else we wouldn't have succeeded. … He just doesn't beat his chest and proclaim it."
That adaptation has flowed into Sloan's relationship with Williams. Sloan said he has a great deal of respect for what his premier player does on the court and what he has accomplished. But much like how he operated with the two legendary Jazz players he mentions more than anyone else Stockton and Malone Sloan mostly leaves Williams to his own devices.
"When I took this job, Frank [Layden] told me to do two things: Try to stay away from officials and don't overreach," Sloan said. "I'm 50 percent."
During the times that Sloan does go head to head with Williams, respect remains. Sloan also did not always completely click with Stockton and Malone. Big picture, though, the Jazz usually came out ahead.
"It's not a perfect world for either one of us for anybody in those situations," said Sloan, referring to his relationship with Williams.
He added: "I think he's been terrific to work with most of the time."
Meanwhile, Williams' college coach who not long ago had to harness and direct his star's overwhelming ambition believes that Sloan has clearly turned a first-year fiasco into a long-term winner. The simple fact that Williams respects and honors Sloan says everything about the duo's evolution.
"Sometimes [Williams] gets too emotional, and you've got to knock him down a little bit and you've got to put him in his place," Weber said. "But if he keeps his head, he's a coach on the court."
Bell, the veteran Jazz guard, has quickly provided his new team with another trusted voice on the court and in the locker room.
When Bell departed Utah in 2005, he first placed calls to O'Connor and Sloan, informing them how hard it had been to make his decision to trade the mountains of Salt Lake City for sunny Phoenix. The uncommon, honest outreach left an impression with O'Connor.
Over the summer, when the Jazz GM compiled a list highlighting everything a team that had been knocked out of the playoffs by the Los Angeles Lakers three consecutive seasons needed to add defense, toughness and perimeter shooting and Bell was the first name written down.
Now, the 11-year pro has spent less than two months back in Utah's locker room. But he has already made a major mark.
An inspired halftime speech that Bell gave to the Jazz on Nov. 9 in Miami which kicked off Utah's remarkable 4-0 road trip that made national headlines has drawn the most attention. However, Bell's greatest behind-the-scenes contribution occurred just prior to four consecutive come-from-behind victories.
Utah's rookies and veterans initially struggled to adapt to Sloan's demanding system. Even Williams pointed out that the Jazz were severely out of sync and did not know the offense following two back-to-back season-opening blowout losses. But while a frustrated Williams went public, Bell went private.
Taking Sloan aside, Bell reminded Utah's longtime coach that he and his team shared the same goal. But with so many new faces and unique additions adapting to change, the Jazz were trying to do everything they could to achieve victory. Even if that meant sometimes stretching boundaries, which included relying upon themselves and not just Utah's coaches to make between-game adjustments. Bell assured Sloan, though, that the Jazz were united and ultimately believed in him and his trusted assistants. And the same thing that has long driven Sloan and Williams winning drove Utah.
"[Bell is] basically the glue," Jazz guard C.J. Miles said. "He's the glue for a big part of this team right now. Just him being him. Even if he's not having to yell at people, he's taught by example."
Strengthening the connection is Bell's developing relationship with Williams. The two share mutual interests ranging from golf to family life. Moreover, the same overwhelming competitive passion that has dictated Williams' basketball career has long characterized Bell's. But where Williams is still learning how to fine-tune and balance his devotion to the game and obsession with victory, Bell has spent half of his existence walking the line.
"When I was younger and a lot more fiery as a leader, I think I might've spoke too much," Bell said. "It always came from a place of wanting to win and wanting to be better than we were. But it's like when you deal with kids. If you beat it and you beat it and you beat it, the horse is still dead. People start turning a deaf ear to that, when you're barking at them all the time. So I found that if you want to be heard, then you should probably talk less and only speak when it's really important."
Bell has played the role of a reliable, soft-spoken sidekick before, teaming with two-time NBA Most Valuable Player Steve Nash in Phoenix and Dallas. Thus, Bell understands that the top leaders and athletes in the game the ones who last the longest and achieve the most are the ones who eventually learn that the switch does not always have to be set full.
"The longer you play, the longer you go, you learn how to control that, and when and where it's appropriate to be that ultimate competitor," Bell said. "Really, really good competitors know how to let someone else win sometimes. When it really means something to that [other] person and maybe it doesn't mean a whole lot to you, they know how to take a step back and let somebody else win at something. That kind of stuff you learn."
Jazz at Los Angeles Clippers
P At Staples Center
Tipoff • 1:30 p.m.
TV • FSN Utah
Radio • 1320 AM, 1600 AM, 98.7 FM
Records • Jazz 12-5, Clippers 3-14
Last meeting • Jazz, 109-107, 2OT (Nov. 6)
About the Jazz • Five Utah players Deron Williams, Paul Millsap, Al Jefferson, Andrei Kirilenko and C.J. Miles are averaging at least 10.9 points per game. … The Jazz rank first out of 30 teams in opponents' field goal percentage (42.6) and 3-point percentage (28.7). … Reserve point guards Earl Watson and Ronnie Price combined for 15 points, five assists and three rebounds Friday during Utah's 102-96 home win against the Los Angeles Lakers.
About the Clippers • Rookie forward Blake Griffin is averaging 19.3 points and 11.4 rebounds. … Los Angeles ranks 24th in the league in average points allowed (104.9) and opponents' turnovers (13.7). … The Clippers have lost 10 of their past 12 games. … Guard Baron Davis (knee) is inactive.