Utah Jazz move forward, but still search for identity
By Brian T. Smith
The Salt Lake TribuneFirst published May 09 2012 06:56PM
The Jazz met coach Tyrone Corbin’s expectations during the lockout-shortened 2011-12 season, but didn’t exceed them.
General Manager Kevin O’Connor was pleased with Utah’s overall performance, but walked away from a first-round playoff defeat to San Antonio knowing his team had been pushed around and outmanned.
Jazz guard Gordon Hayward saw light, but couldn’t shake the feeling he had let his team and himself down when Utah needed him most.
"I won’t feel good until [the playoffs] are over," said Hayward, who took a strong stride forward in his second season, but shot just 18.2 percent from the floor and 8.3 percent behind the 3-point line in his first postseason. "It’s always difficult after a loss, especially after the last game not even scoring. To drop a goose egg — that’s tough."
Such is the state in Jazzland, heading into what could become a pivotal offseason for a small-market team loaded with promise but filled with uncertainty.
San Antonio’s merciless 4-0 sweep highlighted the questions everyone from Corbin and O’Connor to Al Jefferson, Paul Millsap and Hayward face as Utah attempts to turn the No. 8 seed in the Western Conference playoffs into something more fulfilling.
The Jazz’s young core of Derrick Favors, Alec Burks, Enes Kanter and Hayward is more exciting than ever. Corbin found his touch after the All-Star break, saving Utah from a second consecutive second-half fallout and turning an uneven 15-18 record on Feb. 28 into a promising 36-30. The Jazz’s Big Two of Jefferson and Millsap formed one of the premier interior combinations in the NBA, with both putting up All-Star caliber numbers and each playing the best overall basketball of their careers.
But after 66 up-and-down regular-season games and an instantly forgettable playoff performance, none of the major issues surrounding Utah when the 2011 NBA lockout ended has a clear answer five months later.
The Jazz don’t have a point guard for the future, while Hayward has yet to be cemented at either shooting guard or small forward. Millsap and Jefferson are bigger than ever, but there’s no guarantee either will wear a Utah uniform after the 2012-13 season ends. The Jazz’s defense is still filled with painful holes, while the team’s inside-out offense became so predictable during the playoffs, Spurs coach Gregg Popovich filled the paint and dared Utah to shoot from outside. It couldn’t, firing blanks to the numbers of 38.2 percent from the field and an embarrassing 20 percent beyond the arc, which produced an average of 86.3 points — 13.4 off the Jazz’s regular-season mark.
"We like what we have. But you can always add and enhance and build on where you are," Corbin said. "As you get better, you can do some different things. As we get more used to each other, there’s always options off what we have. So the [offensive] sets are fine. We just have to add and be able to change some things."
Then there’s the biggest issue of all: Utah still doesn’t have an identity.
It was Corbin’s main goal during training camp and he hammered away at the idea throughout the season, forgoing a team captain in the hope all of his players would buy into the same vision. The Jazz mostly did, and a resilient team fought through injuries and low expectations to produce one of the strongest locker rooms the Jazz have had since Deron Williams was drafted.
But by the time the NBA’s first season was eclipsed, 14 teams were eliminated and the real season — the playoffs — began, Utah was exposed. The Jazz didn’t have the mental confidence or physical backbone required for a two-week fight, and Jefferson’s pre-Game 4 statement that Utah had no chance to beat San Antonio captured the weaknesses of a team whose physicality, drive and composure collapsed.
"We’re creating [an identity]. It’s still a process. We’re better and we’re closer [now] than we were at the beginning of the year," Corbin said. "We had some great lessons this year and this playoff has taught us a few more things about how much more work we have to put in to be the team we’re looking to be."
O’Connor outsmarted the lockout, stacking the Jazz’s roster three-deep at most positions and bringing in proven veterans Jamaal Tinsley and Josh Howard to help Utah navigate an unforgiving season.
The Miller family continued to prove it will spend money at the right time, allowing O’Connor to add DeMarre Carroll down the stretch.
Corbin took a roster many saw as one-dimensional and wisely played to its strengths, all while gradually working in young players such as Favors, Burks and Kanter as the season evolved.
But are the Jazz any closer to the top of the Western Conference — a peak they haven’t reached in 14 years?
Can Utah compete with ever-improving Oklahoma City in the Northwest Division without making major moves that could set the in-between Jazz backward next season?
Right now, O’Connor says, Utah must improve from within and only minor moves will be made in free agency this summer. Which means the lockout season was just one step in the Jazz’s post-Williams evolution. And the organization’s biggest challenges are still to come.
"We have to add to. I don’t think we have to blow it up and start over again," O’Connor said. "I don’t think we’re in a position of looking at it and saying, ‘We’ve got to trade some people.’ I think we’re saying, ‘We have to add to our core and go from there.’ "
And find a lasting identity.