For the first time since 2007, the upward-looking Jazz will enter the NBA offseason in a position of overall strength.
Rather than watching key players depart through free agency or knowing its hands were tied by Andrei Kirilenko's unwieldy maximum contract, a small-market organization that is annually competitive will be below the salary cap on July 1 and have money to spend.
Utah general manager Kevin O'Connor has yet to use a $10 million trade exception acquired in the Mehmet Okur deal last December, and a Jazz team in transition could add a crucial lottery pick if Golden State isn't rewarded for tanking when the balls fall May 30.
And Utah's best days should be ahead as the Jazz wait for a young core of Gordon Hayward, Derrick Favors, Enes Kanter and Alec Burks lottery selections in 2010 and 2011; talented, coachable and 22 or younger to take the next stage in their development.
"We overperformed and we proved what our potential can be," Utah president Randy Rigby said. "I'm really excited and optimistic about how this team if we continue to do the right things and work hard can progress and be a real contending team for the future."
In between • Still, the Jazz can't touch the promise of Oklahoma City. Utah isn't as strong as Memphis, as experienced and deep as San Antonio, or as flashy and dangerous as the star-laden Lakers and Clippers in Los Angeles. And everyone from Denver and Dallas to Portland and Minnesota are expected to improve during a 2012-13 season that won't be compressed by a lockout.
Jazz coach Tyrone Corbin and O'Connor are aware of the challenges their unproven team faces. But Corbin showed during the second half of Utah's 36-30 run in 2011-12 he can get a group of hard-working players to buy in and sacrifice for the greater good. And with O'Connor believing in the Jazz's second-year coach, Utah's longtime GM is asking for patience as he guides the organization into the second stage of the post-Deron Williams era.
"The next step is difficult. But before when we were in it, it was always a situation where we maybe had more veterans. We didn't have guys that maybe can get better or athletically probably as promising," O'Connor said.
He added: "Promise and potential are words that they talk about the ex-coach and the ex-GM. â¦ But what we're pleased with is, the guys as a whole understand what they've got to do to get better. And we've got good character guys, and they're willing to do it."
Crucial steps • Utah's top two players Paul Millsap and Al Jefferson proved that this season. Both turned the lockout into an advantage, rounding out their games and playing the best overall ball of their careers as they carried the Jazz to the No. 8 seed in the Western Conference.
But Utah's lackluster showing against No. 1 San Antonio was a reminder of the distance that separates the Jazz from the best in the West. A swift 4-0 sweep by the Spurs exposed the Jazz's biggest holes 3-point shooting, pick-and-roll and perimeter defense, a lack of athleticism and raised a question that still hasn't been answered after two seasons of experimentation: Can Utah ever be a premier team with the undersized Millsap and Jefferson as its interior core?
With the 20-year-old Favors pushing his way into the starting lineup for Utah's playoff elimination game, Kanter showing clear potential, and Millsap and Jefferson holding expiring contracts worth a combined $23 million next season, the Jazz are closer than ever to being forced to answer the question. O'Connor continues to publicly evade the issue, though, which becomes even more complicated when Devin Harris' expiring contract ($9 million) and Utah's lack of a young point guard to replace him are factored in.
How important are the decisions the Jazz make in the next six months to the organization's success during the next few years? As important as always, O'Connor said.
"We've got eight or nine guys that are still under contract and most of those guys played a lot of minutes," O'Connor said. "What we've got to do is add to. I don't think we've got to blow it up and start over again."
Next stage • The second-longest tenured GM in the NBA will finally have the opportunity to do so in little more than a year. Even if Utah signs Millsap to an extension he's expected to push for one starting in mid-July or keeps Jefferson in uniform, the Jazz will enter the NBA's version of the wild unknown during the summer of 2013.
The only Utah players expected to be under contract are the young core of Hayward, Favors, Kanter and Burks. As a result, the small-market Jazz could be one of the premier free spenders in the league during a summer that might see franchise-altering stars such as Chris Paul, Dwight Howard, Andrew Bynum and James Harden appear on the market.
It'll be the biggest free-agency bonanza since LeBron James made his decision. Which means every choice Utah makes between now and then will have major ramifications as the Jazz attempt to lock down the first NBA title in the franchise's often successful but ultimately unfulfilling 38-year history.
"We're committed to growing this into an NBA championship-caliber team, and we're going to do the necessary steps," Rigby said. "We have the support from the ownership and we've got a great coaching staff and Kevin's leadership is extremely valuable. With all those elements together, we're committed to building this thing."
May 30 is another important date for the Jazz's future. The NBA lottery will be held in New York, and Utah will secure Golden State's first-round pick if the Warriors are kept out of the top seven. Right now, the Jazz's only 2012 pick is the No. 47 overall selection in the second round.
A 2011-12 Jazz roster worth about $57 million was just below the NBA's $58 million salary cap. While the 2012-13 cap hasn't been set, Utah's expected to have about $5-8 million to spend in free agency this summer. Teams can officially begin talking to players July 1. Note: Salaries for 2011-12 were pro-rated due to the lockout.
Primary needs • Athleticism, young point guard, 3-point shooting, small forward
Main assets • $10 million trade exception (Mehmet Okur deal); expiring contracts of Devin Harris, Paul Millsap, Al Jefferson, Raja Bell, Earl Watson
• Josh Howard
• C.J. Miles
• Jeremy Evans
• DeMarre Carroll
• Jamaal Tinsley
Top NBA free agents
(Restricted and unrestricted)
PG • Deron Williams, Steve Nash, Chauncey Billups, Andre Miller, Jason Kidd, Goran Dragic, Aaron Brooks, Raymond Felton, Kirk Hinrich, Jameer Nelson, Jeremy Lin, Leandro Barbosa, John Lucas III, Delonte West, Nate Robinson
SG • Eric Gordon, Jason Terry, Ray Allen, O.J. Mayo, Gerald Green, Rudy Fernandez, Courtney Lee, George Hill, Jamal Crawford, Danny Green, Nick Young, Matt Barnes, Marco Belinelli, Landry Fields, Jodie Meeks, Michael Redd
SF • Michael Beasley, Ryan Anderson, Nicolas Batum, Jeff Green, Carlos Delfino, Andrei Kirilenko, Steve Novak, Sam Young, Grant Hill
PF • Kevin Garnett, Antawn Jamison, Reggie Evans, Kenyon Martin, Ersan Ilyasova, Kris Humphries, Gerald Wallace, Carl Landry, J.J. Hickson, Jason Thompson, Boris Diaw
C • Tim Duncan, Ian Mahinmi, JaVale McGee, Marcus Camby, Roy Hibbert, Jordan Hill, Marreese Speights, Brook Lopez, Chris Kaman, Spencer Hawes, Joel Przybilla