Down the home stretch they came, limping and shaken, stumbling across the finish line.
You had to wonder: Shouldn't someone just put this horse down?
Monday night's season-ending loss to the Lakers made it official. Essentially, the Jazz were history a month ago, when they started tilting like a windy poplar. The playoffs were the final gasp of a frustrating season, raising the usual off-season question of whether they should stand still or put this roster in the paper shredder.
Fact is, they probably don't have a choice.
With nine possible free agents, something is bound to change.
But gut them?
The Jazz shouldn't get too anxious to bulldoze the house. Two years ago, they made it to the Western Conference Finals, losing to eventual champion San Antonio. This year, it was essentially the same guys — with a lot of dings and dents along the way.
Next year isn't something a normal, healthy season couldn't fix.
The Jazz waited 11 years for the Stockton-Malone group to get to the NBA Finals. This group has only been together four. Add a piece here or there — most notably an interior defender — and they'll be good to go. Hardly perfect, but the devil you know is better than the devil you don't. The Jazz figured out how to rebuild after Stockton and Malone, they should be able to figure out how a versatile, enthusiastic team of two years ago can get back into contention.
While it's obvious the Jazz had problems this year, some of them weren't their fault. They didn't ask to play more than half the season without Carlos Boozer. Even so, he accounted for fewer than a third of the player-games missed. The team wasn't expecting their owner to pass away, either. It was a lot of emotional peaks and valleys.
If it's change you want this summer, some is almost inevitable.
Nine potential free agents is a recipe for change. Still, one of the likeliest incentives for staying together is the one set forth by Ben Franklin, who emphatically declared that prices don't always have to go up. Boozer, Kyle Korver and Mehmet Okur, all of whom can opt out of their contracts this summer, could remain based solely on dollars.
Clearly, this year's team had issues. At the end, Andrei Kirilenko looks as happy as a prison guard. Remember, he was once an All-Star. Small wonder he thinks he's being under-utilized. But his status is more certain than almost anyone. That's because he has over $30 million coming in the next two years.
It's not like a lot of teams want to spend that kind of rake on a part-time player.
Deron Williams, the team's heart and soul, is locked up under contract. Okur seems to like Utah and Utah likes him. Outside shooting is always at a premium with the Jazz.
The most intriguing question is Boozer, he of the mysterious demeanor. Offensively, he played well during this year's playoffs, yet did so poorly in Game 5 on Monday that he was benched the entire fourth quarter.
But his status will largely be out of the Jazz's hands, if he opts out of his contract as he said he would last December.
The Jazz haven't entirely known what to do with him. Bench him in favor of Paul Millsap and you get nothing from Boozer off the bench. He said as much this year, when he emphatically stated he had no interest in subbing.
So much for taking one for the team.
If he goes, problem solved. If he does stay, there's the issue of finding money to sign restricted free agent Millsap. His wonderfully consistent play will drive up the cost of keeping him. It's a cost the Jazz should happily bear.
Certainly some things need to change. Millsap needs to be reassured he's more than a spot player. A multimillion dollar contract should help.
Kirilenko needs to know when to shoot from the perimeter (answer: rarely). Korver needs to defend better and get back to the shooting percentages he had in Philly. Boozer needs to convince Jazz fans — and maybe even himself — he's playing for the team, not himself.42 comments on this story
"Absolutely, I would love to be in a Jazz uniform," said Boozer on Monday. "I feel like one of those cornerstone people that brought this team back to prominence, to the playoffs, and I'd love to continue to move forward and have a chance to win a championship in the future."
That chance isn't yet out of reach.
All it will take is for Kobe Bryant to get old and the Jazz to stay patient as they wait.