Greater than sum of its parts

I find it hard to believe that the Jazz are as dominant as they have appeared in their first three games.

To confront problems of disbelief in the past, I’ve always turned to good ol’ fashioned arithmetic, so that’s what I’m going to do again-simplify the problem with numbers and, out of necessity, a few names.

The Jazz have won their first three games by a combined 72 points, their average margin of victory is 24 points per game, they’ve scored an average of 104 points per game, they’re out rebounding teams by an average of almost 10 boards a game, and their starting lineup is Keith McLeod, Gordan Giricek, Jarron Collins, Carlos Boozer and Andrei Kirilenko.

This is by far the most impressive start for a team in the NBA, and if not for Toronto’s 3-0 intro, the most surprising. Well, among the experts, anyway.

Lots of Jazz fans expected their team to return to prominence this year, despite the cautious predictions of gurus around the country. Fans became optimistic about the 2004 season as soon as Boozer and Mehmet Okur signed big money contracts, but the experts were skeptical.

They weren’t sure that Boozer deserved his six-year, $68 million deal. After all, he was a second-round pick who had only played two years in the league with a career average of 12 points and nine rebounds per game. Those that were least skeptical were calling him a poor man’s Karl Malone.

I was also skeptical about the Jazz’s marquee off-season signing. That is until he put up 27 points and pulled down 11 boards in a rout of the Lakers, then verified that performance with a similar line against the Nuggets. He’s averaging 24 points, 12 boards and three assists in three games, and his best games have come against good teams. I’m no longer worried about Boozer, and the experts won’t be far behind me if the Jazz keep up their torrid pace.

Boozer, however, is not the only player who has broken through his expert-imposed glass ceiling. McLeod and Howard Eisley have run the point to perfection, scoring when they have to, and running the fast break like clones of Jason Kidd.

McLeod is averaging nine points and eight assists in just more than 26 minutes, while Eisley is averaging seven points and five assists in 22. Although their individual numbers aren’t astounding, they’re averaging 16 points and 13 assists as a tandem. Not a bad temporary replacement for Carlos Arroyo, and not bad competition for Raul Lopez for the backup spot once Arroyo returns.

The success of McLeod and Eisley, however, isn’t a story about their personal triumph. In my opinion, it is more indicative of just how good Jazz coach Jerry Sloan is. His offense is so well-designed and his players are so well-coached that Ostertag probably could have run the point with moderate success.

Not to diminish the efforts of McLeod and Eisley, who have looked very good, but these players were rejects before Sloan resuscitated (or just plain suscitated in McLeod’s case) their careers.

Sloan is, in my opinion, the best coach in the NBA. And, as my colleague Tye Smith pointed out, “capable of beating the sh** out of any player in the NBA.” OK, maybe Shaq would give him a run, but I wouldn’t want to piss him off.

So even though Sloan doesn’t care about personal accolades, it would probably be in everyone’s best interest to give him the Coach of the Year award this year. He deserved it last year, and if the Jazz finish any higher than sixth in the West, he is a lock to win the award this year. Unless Doc Rivers leads the Celtics to the NBA Finals one season after he massacred a decent Magic squad.

But if reality is taken into consideration, Sloan wins the award easily. He’s the only coach without a lottery pick on his team, and he’s dealing with more language barriers than United Nations’ negotiators.

If you were lucky enough to watch any of the Jazz’s three season-opening wins, you saw great basketball. You saw the Jazz dismantling defenses and disabling offenses with proficiency the NBA hasn’t seen in years. Don’t forget that the performance featured third- and fourth-string point guards, a Boozer and a starting center named Jarron Collins. Reread that for emphasis.

The Jazz isn’t the most talented team in the NBA. It’s not even the most talented team in its division, but add Sloan to any equation and you get a result greater than the sum of its parts.

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