Utah Jazz full of hope, optimism as the season gets under way in Denver
Scott G. Winterton, Deseret News
DENVER — Shortly after 7 tonight, a referee will toss an orange orb into the air at midcourt of the Pepsi Center, and athletic behemoths from Utah and Denver will begin their annual basketball ballet.
This, of course, explains why smiles and superlatives have been so abundant around the Utah Jazz lately.
This Jazz team — a refreshingly enthusiastic blend of returning talent and new contributors — can't wait for the 2010-11 NBA season to tip off.
New Jazzman Al Jefferson, who's never entered a season with a contender before, believes Utah could be taking the first steps toward accomplishing "something really special."
Same goes for Raja Bell, who's about to play his first regular-season game with the Jazz since leaving for Phoenix five years ago.
"As a team, we're all pretty excited," Bell said, "because we know that we care about each other, that we play for each other and that if we do that night in and night out and play hard, we'll have a chance to do some pretty cool things."
The outlook didn't seem nearly that bright at times since the Jazz were eliminated for the third straight postseason in a row by the Los Angeles Lakers.
As if that deja-vu disappointment weren't enough, Utah lost two-time All-Star Carlos Boozer, who helped the team win a whole lot of games the past six seasons despite injuries and some foot-in-mouth/heart-elsewhere issues.
The Jazz also saw their most dangerous outside threat, Kyle Korver, sign with the Chicago Bulls. And fiscally conscious management opted to let Portland claim Utah's discovered shooting guard gem, Wesley Matthews, for a not-so-small fortune.
Add the fact that the highly anticipated New York Knicks pick slipped to No. 9 and didn't result in the Jazz picking up a promising big man, and people inside and outside of the organization wondered how bleak the future might be.
Even Williams, the team's captain and shining star, admitted to being "frustrated" this past summer over the front office's business decisions.
That mood changed quickly, and the happiness and hope level for Jazz fans and players alike have continued to increase.
Shortly after losing Boozer and Korver, general manager Kevin O'Connor pulled of a major trade coup. In July, he swapped a couple of draft picks, Kosta Koufos and a get-out-of-NBA-jail card with Minnesota for Jefferson, a proven low-post power who made a habit of posting 20 points and 10 rebounds on bad teams.
Shortly after that, Utah countered losing Matthews to the Jazz family breaker (aka Portland) by persuading Bell, a savvy defender and reliable outside shooter, to rejoin Jerry Sloan instead of going to the Los Angeles Lakers.
Veterans Earl Watson and Francisco Elson also were picked up to bolster the bench. Rookies Gordon Hayward and Jeremy Evans, meanwhile, came in and showed they very well could contribute as first-year players.
Next thing you know, Jefferson looks like an All-Star in the making, the Jazz go 8-0 in the preseason and everybody in Utah is singing "zippity do da" heading into tonight's season-opening showdown with their Northwest Division rivals.
"I've been excited about this team since we made all of our acquisitions," Williams said. "I felt like we got tougher, which is big, (and) got better defensively.
"Those two things," he added, "definitely matter in a playoff race and in the playoffs."
It isn't just the new guys in town who have Williams and his teammates all jazzed up for the season.
Entering his sixth NBA campaign, the 23-year-old C.J. Miles has played, at times, like he's capable of having a breakout season as the Jazz's sixth man.
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